French Polynesia is the most exclusive, expensive and beautiful place I have ever been in the world. This area basically coined the term over water bungalows but my French Polynesia backpacking adventure was not all beauty.
While in the Cook Islands Emma and I spent some time spent figuring out what our future travel plans entailed and we settled on a route that included 2 months in French Polynesia, yeah 2 full months! Knowing this place was paradise we wanted to see and experience as much as we could, while waiting for the weather to warm up at our onward travel destination of Japan.
Unfortunately 2 months was way too long here, stunning as it was, attempting French Polynesia on a backpacker budget is impossible. There’s just no way to enjoy the best aspects of this country without spending some serious money. We did our best to cut costs and save money but in the end it really ate into our future travel finances.
Going into it we knew French Polynesia would be expensive. We planned on camping, hitchhiking and taking cargo boats to offset the cost. What we did not know was how expensive the day to day things would be. The cost of food, water and activities made the most relaxed days stressful. Camping turned out to be way more expensive that we thought, even though camping was under half the price of the cheapest guest house, it alone was usually more than our daily budget. Everything in French Polynesia is charged per person, although we had one tent we each had to pay the same price to stay in that tent.
Some islands were definitely better than others but in general to do any activity you must spend money. Tourism is the main income in French Polynesia and unfortunately there is no infrastructure for independent or budget tourism. Hitchhiking is difficult, islands are sparsely populated, and there is no public bus system. Doing any activity on your own is frowned on and heavily dissuaded. Most of the islands are large in size and to actually get anywhere you need to rent a scooter or car. Renting a vehicle for a day in French Polynesia is not like other travel destinations, even compared to Europe or the USA, prices are high. Everything is geared towards upscale travel, meaning, renting a scooter for the day is more expensive than most travelers daily budget.
We came into French Polynesia with the idea of relaxing on beautiful beaches, snorkeling stunning reefs, hiking waterfalls and exploring jungles. Our mindset was based off our experience in the Cook Islands, where everything was accessible and easy to do on our own. French Polynesia is not like that. The remoteness, lack of information and size of most of the islands makes doing anything on your own nearly impossible.
In general hiking is not allowed without a hired guide. If you do find information about a trail head, you probably need a permit to hike the trail and almost always you will need a mode of transportation to get to the the trail head. The same goes for beaches, yes there are decent beaches on most of the islands but in order to enjoy the best and most stunning you need to hire a boat to get to the motus. Snorkeling is more of the same, each island varies, but once again you need to take a tour out to the motu to get to the best spots.
French Polynesia was beautiful, we just had the wrong expectation and committed too much time here. I found that less time and fewer islands would be better suited for backpacking French Polynesia. By visiting fewer islands for a shorter amount of time we could have increased our daily spending limit and been able to truly experience what each island had to offer. Staying for a shorter time would have allowed us to do more activities, instead of counting costs on our many idle days.
Backpacking French Polynesia was definitely different than backpacking anywhere else in the world and to learn more about how to backpack French Polynesia visit the Destination French Polynesia page.
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