Polynesia: the Leeward Islands in backpacker mode

“For two years in Polynesia, I slept badly with joy (…) I had awakenings to cry from drunkenness from the rising day. »Victor Segalen, letter to Henri Manceron, September 23, 1911

Who has never dreamed of going to Polynesia one day? Esthetes, artists and writers have celebrated it, from Gauguin to Matisse, from Stevenson to Moitessier, from Marlon Brando to Jacques Brel, not to mention Jack London and Victor Segalen, Herman Melville and Alain Gerbault.

Manufacturers of dreams or debunking myths, long-distance travelers, seasoned sailors or discoverers for a day ... All have been won over by the blues of the lagoons, the green of the mountains, the scents of vanilla and tiara flowers, as if carried away by this ultramarine desire that had kindled their nights.

Although far away, Polynesia has become a trip today possible in backpacker fashion, between low cost flights, cargo crossings and guesthouses ... We have tested it, here is the proof.

In Polynesia, islands between sky and water

French Polynesia has 5 archipelagos spread over an area as large as the whole of Europe: the Windward Islands, the Leeward Islands, the Tuamotu (including Gambier), Canopies and Austral. The first two were called the Society Archipelago by one of their discoverers in 1769, the British navigator-explorer and cartographer J, in honor of the Royal Society of London.

Due to their "relative" proximity, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands are quite affordable in backpacker mode, as they are regularly served by the boats which provide their supplies from Tahiti and who also accept passengers (we travel on the bridge). These islands (which are not atolls, with the exception of Tetiaroa) have, for the majority of them (with the exception of Bora-Bora), accommodation at fair prices.

Going from one island to another can take a bit of time depending on the frequency of the boats. It takes 2 rotations per week for the Hawaiki Nui (or its replacement Nukuhau), same thing for Taporo VI et VII, the small cargo ships that serve the islands from Tahiti. No reservation. We show up on the quay when leaving to see if we can board, and basta!

But you can also "sail with your own sails" or call on a skipper. It is certainly not cheap, but by bundling the bill is reduced. What is more, it is in our opinion the best way to approach the islands, in the footsteps of Jack London or Moitessier. Who said Antoine?

Tahiti, gateway to paradise

The Tahitian myth of the earthly paradise was born in the vein of its first discoverers in the second half of the 18th century, in particular with the return to the fold of Bougainville. The latter relates his encounter with a people of bewitching beauty living in harmony in a generous nature, celebrating the cult of carnal love and without tapu (hear without prohibitions, the French word "taboo" comes from there).

The Loti, Stevenson, Melville, London, Segalen, Gerbault, Gary, Simenon (yes) did not need more, not to mention Moitessier to weave, each in his own way, the weft of a personal work that is today ' Tahitian hui an almost universal ultramarine desire.

Yet it is clear that Tahiti, even the real seriously spoils the imaginary. Because, even though the island still retains some wild nature to explore, it no longer resembles the image of Épinal which has served its notoriety. Today it no longer takes on the grace attributed to it in the 19C.

Papeete, its capital, is a bottled city. The road that goes around it is an almost uninterrupted string of uninterrupted churches wedged between industrial or residential areas, given over to the salt spray and which the rains of the rainy season are ending. That, Tahiti? Victim of too rapid urbanization, the island, which brings together more than three quarters of the souls identified throughout Polynesia, is now in the grip of excess pollution in many areas.

But there are also sites like Teahupoo, one of the most beautiful surf spots in the world, with its powerful southerly swell that throws up a thick and regular reef wave that sometimes can reach 15m, generating a tube the size of a hangar! Or inland, where we discover an exuberant island, valleys and wild mountains draped in clouds and waterfalls.

But Polynesia is not just about Tahiti, which is just its gateway. Once the boat has been refueled at the central market in Papeete, head for the Leeward Islands!

Moorea, sister of Tahiti

“I find everything wonderful” - landscapes, trees, flowers and people (…) Impossible to describe everything I have felt since my arrival. These are the few lines written by Henri Matisse to his wife when he arrived on the island on March 29, 1930, after crossing the United States by rail and sailing from San Francisco. He was 60 years old.

Half an hour by boat from Tahiti, Moorea is quite its opposite. Tahiti's “residential” district since the improvement in transport conditions, Moorea is today like “the suburb of Papeete”, with hundreds of people coming to the city for work every day.

Essentially agricultural (pineapple cultivation), Moorea is nonetheless touristy, with its white sand beaches and its lagoon suitable for anchoring sailboats. You can easily walk around it in 2 hours, as long as you don't stop every 5 minutes to take a photo, which is completely impossible by the way ...

In the center, the large belvedere embraces the entire north of the island, with on one side the Cook Bay (favorite anchorage for sailboats) and on the other the Opunohu bay (“The belly of the stonefish” in Polynesian), the largest body of water on the island, populated, among other fish, with lemon sharks and manta rays. A breathtaking panorama dominated by the lace of peaks that tumble down from mount Tohiea (1 m).

Moorea is also known to hikers. A dozen trails allow you to rub against the rough mountains, but be careful, nothing is marked, so it is best to contact a local guide.

Huahine, the quiet island

Between Tahiti and Huahine, the sea has delivered us to the fantastic bestiary of clouds. The wind. The sea. Nothing but the wind and the sea. Then Huahine appeared. Naked. Reclining woman. The soul of Jack London still hangs over this island, which the writer visited between 1907 and 1909 with his wife Charmian. He had come on the Snark, a 17m sailboat he had purposefully built to follow in the footsteps of his peers: Stevenson and Melville.

Still sheltered from tourism, the island still lives to the rhythm of the round trips of small cargo ships which provide inter-island supplies and of a few sailboats that have come to anchor in front of the municipal beach. Here, everyone knows each other, everyone is familiar with each other (as everywhere in Polynesia, for that matter) and all the cashiers in the supermarket wear a hibiscus flower in their ear.

The island is famous for its archaeological remains, its pearl oyster farm and its vanilla plantations. You can easily do a tour in a day in a rental car, possibly in two-wheelers. On the sea side, the reef is full of underwater life and the practice of drifting snorkeling is a pure moment of happiness.

 Finally, every Friday evening, at a time when the thirsty throats of the sailors claim their due, the yacht club spreads out its plastoc chairs right into the port in anticipation of the big weekend barbecue.

Then, the bands of friends who love grilled food and also some groups of rae-rae, the famous Polynesian "gentleness men", whose apparent integration is perhaps ultimately only a lure in a warrior society where manhood has always been a cardinal value.

Raiatea, the sacred island of the Maoris

Half a day's sailing west of Huahine, Raiatea is the rear base for many charter companies due to its proximity to Bora-Bora. Largely wild, it is dominated by the mount Toomaru (1 m), whose sides covered with an impenetrable jungle tumble down to the crystal clear waters of the lagoon. Within it, the Faaroa river (practicable by kayak) is the only waterway in Polynesia. Its banks are punctuated with small vegetable gardens.

But Raiatea is especially famous for being the cradle of maori culture. Indeed, it is in Raiatea that the first Polynesians (probably from Melanesia) landed more than a thousand years ago!

We still admire the Taputapuatea marae (classified as World Heritage by Unesco in 2017). It is a vast mound of volcanic stones and raised stones that once brought together the chiefs of the surrounding archipelagos to debate social issues, celebrate a god or induct a king there. Placed at the center of gravity of the Polynesian triangle, whose peaks are New Zealand, Easter Island and Hawaii, it remained active until Cook's arrival in July 1769.

In addition, Raiatea is known to harbor a rare pearl: the Tiare Apetahi, a flower that looks like cut in half and has 5 petals reminiscent of the fingers of a hand. Endemic to the island, it grows only on the high plateau of Mount Temehani (821 m).

Tahaa, vanilla and multicolored fish

We got wet in the Tapuama bay, facing a sea of ​​green from which stands out a small church with a steeple so pointed that it would skew the clouds.

No less than 8 villages around Tahaa, whose depth of the lagoon allows you to go around it completely by boat. Tahaa is also the only Leeward island that does not have an airport, even though its motu are among the most beautiful in Polynesia. Tourism is therefore still relatively confidential.

In Tahaa, nature takes you and we are not without thinking of Jack London, his meeting with Ernest Darling, "the man-nature" met in Tahiti or at his tuna fishing trips with the company. of Tehei, the local fisherman with whom the author sympathized.

Because it is the power of the plant that is felt here. And it's no coincidence that 80% of Polynesian vanilla is originally from the island. Some Tahaa growers still produce this parasitic orchid in the traditional way, in the middle of the jungle, with fertilization carried out manually, early in the morning and flower by flower, which gives it a flavor unlike any other.

But a stopover in Tahaa is also synonymous with snorkeling, because it is on the reef on the west side (Bora-Bora side) that we find the most fantastic coral garden in the area. All you have to do is let yourself be carried away by the current which sweeps the few motu that surround the lagoon ... And you come face to face with a squadron of leopard rays, a crowd of reef sharks (smile guys, you are being filmed ), with the impression of flying on a carpet of myriads of coral fish.

Bora-Bora, exactly under the sun

Out of the water 7 million years ago, Bora-Bora is certainly the most mythical island in Polynesia. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was called Vavau, which means “arose from darkness”. Legend has it that its first king, Firiamato o Vavau, an invincible warrior and peerless navigator, was born from the love of a rock and a cliff.

Discovered by Cook in 1769 and attached to France in 1888, the island owes its notoriety to the laudatory comments of a long-distance sailor: Alain Gerbault, but especially to the installation in 1942 of a base of the US NAVY during the war against Japan. France, which had planned a bimonthly Paris-Saigon-Noumea-Bora-Bora link, even landed a DC4 there in March 1950. The project will remain in the cards for air safety problems.

Polar explorer Paul-Émile Victor will take a well-deserved retirement there. Today, "the Pearl of the Pacific", as it is commonly called, is the most visited island in Polynesia despite its difficult access (a single pass allows you to enter the lagoon). Dominated by the Mount Otemanu (727 m), you can easily cycle around it (the island is only 32 km in circumference), because it is flat from end to end.

But Bora-Bora is above all synonymous with heavenly beaches, with no less than 50 shades of blue in the waters of the lagoon it seems (sorry, we stopped at 7). This is also the bulk of its business. Indeed, all the archaeological sites having been sacked by the Protestant missionaries, there is not much cultural left to put in their mouths.

Still, the majority of visitors come to Bora-Bora to take it easy and make circles in the water among the fish (lovely, we have to admit). It is also necessary to have a bank account capable of absorbing the astronomical rates charged by hoteliers. The backpacker navigator will console himself by dashing towards other atolls, by persuading himself that, finally, it is by far that Bora-Bora is the most beautiful.

Maupiti, the last frontier of Polynesia

Last inhabited island, located about fifty kilometers north-west of Bora-Bora, Maupiti - the most remote of the Leeward Islands - is also the most beautiful. Difficult to access because of the strong current and the nasty swell which prevail at certain tidal times in its unique pass of Onoiau, this "Polynesian Finistère" lives to the rhythm of its watermelon growers and the rotations of Air planes. Tahiti Nui, which serve it several times a week.

Surrounded by motu surrounded by white sand beaches, its lagoon hosts colonies of manta rays to the delight of divers. But hiking enthusiasts will not be left out since a path (for once marked) allows you to get to the top from Mount Teurafaatiu. From above, the 360-degree view of the island is among the most spectacular in Polynesia.

Because, in Maupiti, the spectacle is everywhere. Going around the island by bike (or on foot, count 3 hours in this case), the small bays follow one another, revealing here and there family maraes (sacred places). The Haranae valley even harbors a few sea turtles carved in stone, while at royal marae of Vaiahu were enthroned the 9 kings of the Pacific. They are not cited because they all had names that would make seagulls laugh.

As the inhabitants have always been opposed to the development of their small island, there is no hotel in Maupiti, just guesthouses. When it comes to good food, Maupiti is famous for its varo (squilles or mantis shrimp in French). This crustacean, "dressed" like a convict, relegates, once on the plate, the flavor of lobster to that of a vulgar surimi.


Consult our French Polynesia online guide

When to go?

Seasonally, not really the choice. The dry season lasts from May to September, while the cyclonic period goes from January to March (except the El Nino years, where the risk of cyclone is present from October to April).

How to leave?

Since the price of flights has (relatively) democratized with the arrival of low cost companies like French Bee and the promotions of the American company United Airlines on certain dates, Polynesia seems more accessible than ever. As long as we know how to juggle dates and agree to deprive ourselves of a good meal, a series of entertainment and that we limit our luggage to 3 times nothing, we can hope to reach Tahiti from Paris (and back) for less than 900 euros!

What's more, given that the trip is not done in one go (stopover in the United States compulsory, remember to ask for an Esta), it is quite possible to make a stopover, even if only for a few hours, in San Francisco (case of a flight with Frenchbee or United Airlines) or in Los Angeles.

However, since we have not yet started to dig the tunnel to put Polynesia in a straight line with Europe, the trip is frankly long (count at least 21:40 p.m.), because the stopover in the United States cannot be less than 2 hours (remember this when booking your ticket online). Tahiti is therefore not the next door!

Finally, Air Tahiti Nui serves Papeete by Boeing Dreamliner 787-9 from Paris CDG, as well as other French airports and Brussels (TGV Air and Air France agreement), up to 7 times a week in high season with a stopover in Los Angeles (2h), from € 1 round trip.

Good addresses 

- in Moorea : camping at Nelson Domaine de Tiahura (northwestern tip of the island). Phone: 689-40-56-15-18. Bungalows on the beach, small cabins and dormitories but also the only campsite on the island. Shared kitchen. Count 15 € / person when camping; € 47 for 2 in a double room.

- in Huahine : Pension chez Guynette, on the port of Fare. Phone: 689-40-68-83-75. 7 bedrooms with mosquito nets and ventilators, private bathrooms, hot water. You can also have a snack there if you reserve. Count 17 € / pers in a dormitory; 50 € for 2 in a double room. Minimum 2 nights required.

- in Raiatea : Pension Les 3 Cascades, 6 km south of Uturoa. Phone: 689-40-66-10-90. Bungalows and small cabins. Catering and excursions. Count 59 € for 2 in a double, family room for up to 5 people at 75 €.

- in Bora-Bora : Pension at Nono's, Matira point. Phone: 689-40-67-71-38. 2 villas and 2 bungalows right on the beach. Count 113 € for 2 in a double, family room for up to 4 people at 149 €.

- in Tahaa : At Phil du Temps, on the west coast, facing Bora-Bora. Phone: 689-40-65-64-19. 2 bungalows and one bedroom. Table d'hôtes. Count 115 € for 2.

Sail from island to island

The less in a hurry (or the most broke) will opt for the connections operated by the small cargo ships that serve the islands. But as much to say that it is rather random insofar as nobody takes reservations. You just have to stand on the quay a little before the departure of the boat. More information on this page.

Those with more funds (or those in a hurry) will fly from one island to another by plane with Air Tahiti, and those who can afford it will opt for a pass.

But the best way to discover Polynesia is to approach the islands by boat, which allows you to combine the means of transport with accommodation. Catamaran or monohull, the price varies depending on the season, the size of the ship and the age of the captain ...

In comfort mode: Dream Yacht Charter and Sun Sail. Rental of monohulls or catamarans with skipper. Ideal, it must be admitted, but as much to group together, because the prices are frankly not given, especially in high season (May-September).

At the "roots": Matarii Sailing. Contact: + 689-873-591-91. Email:

A qualified skipper, Hugo offers circuits in the Leeward Islands aboard his 11 m monohull. Ideal for holidays for 2 or 3, even 4. Rates studied according to your expectations.

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