A Very Brief History of French Polynesia

  • It's believed that the islands now known as French Polynesia, were settled as part of the Great Polynesian Migration, which began around 1500 BC. (Austronesian peoples navigated by the sun and stars to find other islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled, were the Marquesas Islands (in about 200 BC). The more southerly Society Islands were discovered around 300 AD.
  • European encounters first began in Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago, in 1521, with Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, sighted Puka-Puka in the. The Spanish were followed by the Dutch. In 1722, Jakob Roggeveen (for the Dutch West India Company), charted six islands in the Tuamotus and two in the Society Islands; one of these was Bora Bora.
  • The first European navigator to visit Tahiti, was British explorer Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He was followed by James Cook. The first actual European settlers (but not for very long) were Spanish, followed by Protestants from the London Missionary Society and then French catholic missionaries. The island kings and their subjects were converted and France annexed the islands, gradually expanding, despite resistance form the kings and the odd skirmish with the British.
  • The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l'Océanie (Establishments in Oceania). In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia).

Facts and Factoids

  • French Polynesia is now an overseas collectivity of France (which means it is semi autonomous) and its sole overseas country - a special designation.
  • It consists of 121 islands and atolls, which stretch an astonishing 2,000 kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean. Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. The islands are divided into five groups: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands.
  • In the 1960s, the overwater bungalow (as seen below) was created on the island of Moorea
  • It is thought that the word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word tatau.
  • About 10% of the population of French Polynesia today is Chinese. The Chinese were brought to the area in the mid-1800s to work in the plantations.
  • Tahiti is home to the Pearl Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to pearls. Pearl diving was staple industry. So, French Polynesia's nickname - Pearl of Polynesia - is doubly suitable.

Flying into French Polynesia

I'm visiting the Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, starting in Papeete (and going on to Bora Bora and Moorea. The 'big island plane' from Rarotonga has 48 seats, but fewer than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.)

Papeete - Pardonnez Moi

Papeete (Water Basket) is the capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti, the most populous island (69% of the people live here). Tahiti is known for its black volcanic sand beaches. The city developed, primarily, because the French moved their French nuclear weapon test range from Algeria, (which had won independence), to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, some 930 miles to the east of Tahiti. The two detonations were both followed by rioting, on Tahiti.

And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight. And I walked straight through immigration, without even a stamp in my passport.

My hotel, for the one night, has given me a 'lagoon view' room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.

French food and sophistication and stunning tropical scenery. Sublime. Though there are local twists, of course, Poisson cru, for example, is fish marinated in coconut milk.

Next up, Bora Bora and Moorea.

Bora Bora - OMG

Another island - Bora Bora. Now I'm in the Leeward Islands, in the Society Islands. Another contender, after Aitutaki, for most beautiful lagoon in the world. It's a very close call. The views from the air are sublime. This is an extinct volcano (two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu); surrounded by a fabulous deep blue lagoon and scattered motu, with the turquoise shallows on the edge of the lagoon. The airport is on one of the motu, rather like the one in Gizo, in The Solomons. But here the motu is part of the outer reef and the boats meeting us are all tricked out speedboats. Just to spoil things a little, I've learned that the Tahitian language only has 14 letters. Apparently, ‘b’ isn’t one of them, and iconic Bora Bora is actually called ‘Pora Pora’, meaning ‘first born (of the Gods)’.

But onwards and upwards. I have joined the jet set and I have an overwater bungalow. They were invented in French Polynesia. How can you not?

A Room on the Water

OMG, possibly the most wonderful room I have have ever slept in. The volcano peak is framed in the window. I can sit in bed and look at it. Or I can sit in the bathroom and look at it. I have my own private jetty and sun deck, so I can snorkel or swim to the perfect powdery white beach. There is coral beneath my room and I have a glass coffee table that I can slide back to feed the fish below.

The same fish keep loitering there, luminous jade edged trumpet fish and angel fish. I can also watch them through the bedside table or the ledges round the bath; there is even a spotlight to illuminate my coffee table reef at night. The room is all Polynesian wood, art and weaving. And it has a TV. There are even ice machines in little thatched huts along the decking.

The Bronzed and Beautiful at Play

I sit on the restaurant terrace and watch all the guests parade into dinner. It's like Paris Fashion Week as they saunter along the catwalks in all their designer gear. There are no overweight female tourists here - though quite a lot of evidence of surgical intervention. Interestingly, quite a few of the men, even the young ones, are sporting little pot bellies. I suppose that's the affluent lifestyle. And, as usual, many of the locals are amply proportioned.

The staff are all togged out in their floral dresses. Both the men and women have long hair (often wound into a bun) and flowers behind their ears. I've discovered  that putting a taire (the national flower of Tahiti) behind your ear  is used as a symbol of your relationship status; if it’s behind your left ear you’re taken, behind your right and you’re single!

The flip side to this paradise? OMG (again) is it expensive. My buffet meal last night (with Polynesian dancing) cost £70 flat rate. Time to start that diet I think. There are plagues of flies that descend instantly if you attempt to eat outside. Water bungalows are pretty noisy at night, with the wind and the sea, not to mention the clattering of suitcases being rolled across the wooden walkways. The only English TV Channel is CNN and I can only stand five minutes depression. I also have another dodgy stomach.

Bora Bora - Le Tour Propre

Nevertheless, another Cycle Tour beckons. The road round the main island is exactly 20 miles long, just like Rarotonga. And this is France, so it's only appropriate.

I am well prepared this time. Sunscreen, water, map, shorts. I even work out which way the wind is blowing and head off into it so that I shall have the easiest leg to finish. Except that it doesn't work out like that. The wind is over 30kph and coming from the west. (It's been buffeting my bungalow all night). The island is long and thin and north orientated. The upshot is that the wind seems to be against me for most of the journey.

The road is mostly flat, as I circumnavigate the volcano, but there a couple of hills. So I push up them and resume my journey at the top, reaching for the brakes as I career down. Except that there aren't any. Not supplied on this bike. Terrifying. I discover that the only way to stop is to leap off the saddle, trying to avoid getting my calves bashed by the pedals in the process. I nearly end up in the water a few times. The car drivers come pretty close and almost force me into the deep drainage ditch the other side too. It takes a huge effort of will to finish this one. So I award myself the King of the Mountains green jersey. This is especially appropriate, as I spend most of the journey trying to cycle past one or other of the peaks.

Life on the Island

The Bora Bora scenery is lush and dramatic. Some gorgeous white beaches. Out in the lagoon I can see the bungalow dots of the various motu resorts. Inland, the locals live a less luxurious lifestyle. The major settlement, Vaitape, is on the western side of this island, opposite the main channel leading into the lagoon. Most dwellings have corrugated tin roofs and the people surround their houses with colourful pot plants. And, deja vu, the odd cockerel running around. Washing lines are laden with bright tie dye and floral patterned clothes. There are numerous old cars around, some piled up alongside the houses. There are also family graves with headstones in front of some of the dwellings.

The small schools are just for primary aged children. The secondary school is on another island and the state pays for the students to board. They get to come home every five weeks or so. The islanders survive on fish and coconuts. Some of the men are bringing in today's catch, gutting the fish on the edge of the lagoon. They use little boats that are hoisted up on double wheeled winches, keeping them out of the water unless they are needed.

OMG Bora Bora Part 2

OMG, lagoon cruises here are amazing too. The coral is mainly soft pinks and purples, very Rennie Macintosh. There don't seem to be huge numbers of small fish, but I have been snorkelling with rays and sharks this morning. The sharks are reef sharks and lemon sharks; the reef sharks are dainty with dark pointy fins, while the lemon sharks are larger and keep their distance. There are small sting rays named Julie and Samantha (for some reason) who come to be fed; they are soft and velvety. However, the truly incredible experience is swimming with the manta rays. They are huge and so graceful.

Adieu to Bora Bora -Heartbreak

Some joker has set the alarm in my room to go off at 6 a.m. every day. And all my efforts to turn it off, including disconnecting the power, have failed. But at least I'm up to see the sunrise over the mountains and have a last sun bathe on my deck. It's breaking my heart to leave my beautiful room on the water. All in all a great deal to see and much character in evidence,

But I can't declare Bora Bora the lagoon winner; it really is ridiculously expensive. As I said, this is France, but it's not in the EEC, so the currency is the pacific franc. They'll accept euros as well then? No, but they'll take American dollars. For twenty dollars, in the supermarché, I purchase three cans of coke, a small tin of cashews and two bottles of local mineral water. The roughly 70 pence change is just enough to buy me a plastic carrier bag to put it all in.

On the plane trip nearly all the passengers sit on the right hand side of the plane to get their last glimpses of Bora Bora. I am so concerned that the plane will flip over I almost say something to the stewardess. And I sit on the left, resolutely denying myself the view. But there was no accident, obviously. Moorea next.

(Read more about French Polynesia here.)

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