The Society Islands was our first destination in French Polynesia. Our month can easily be summed up with beauty, travel mistakes and some disappointment. There were fun parts backpacking the Society Islands but traveling here was definitely a learning experience compared to normal backpacker destinations.
In the Society Islands backpacking amenities either do not exist or they are priced overwhelmingly high due to the resort mentality and remoteness. Each island varied but for the most part this is not a place for an extended backpacking adventure. If you are truly dying to see French Polynesia, and rightfully so, it is beyond beautiful, make sure you research ahead of time and strictly plan what you want to see and do. And after you plan, shorten your time frame because your budget strings will get taut here. With that said there are some ways to save money but some costs cannot be avoided.
Coming to French Polynesia I was not in the best travel mood. I was upset by my new injury from the Cook Islands. I wanted to keep traveling but I was afraid of it’s severity and how it would affect our trip. I secretly hoped that my mind was overreacting and that I was going to be fine in a few weeks but by the time I admitted how badly I was hurt Emma and I were sitting in one of the most remote places on Earth. My arm and ribs ended up plaguing me throughout our whole time in French Polynesia and long after.
Emma and I arrived to French Polynesia from the internet-less Cook Islands. Without internet we did not get to properly research French Polynesia beforehand, besides our Lonely Planet guide, so the first few days in Tahiti we were scrambling to make a plan. We had a general idea of what we wanted to see and where to stay, but unfortunately almost every guesthouse or campground we contacted was either fully booked or completely closed.
During those initial days we quickly decide which islands we wanted to see, so we went around asking for cargo boat schedules and planned our eventual island flight route. Flying was very spur of the moment and it seemed like our best option for the amount we wanted to see and that I could not really carry anything. Over our 2 months in French Polynesia we found out that almost none of the advice in the Lonely Planet guidebook, with the most recent edition, was accurate at all. We found campgrounds that had been closed for over 10 years, non-existent bus routes, untruths for cargo boats, hiking discrepancies along with other various inaccuracies.
Normally when backpacking I play each country by ear, planing one or two cities in advance but mostly traveling on the fly, making my way through that country. In French Polynesia you can’t do that because of its very limited infrastructure and cost. If you show up on an island and the campground is close or the only budget guesthouse is full, the next accommodation could easily set you back a hundred dollars a night, per person.
Our first flight in the Society Islands took us to an island called Maupiti, which is unofficially described as Bora Bora of 30 years ago. It’s the new hip destination and chain resorts are trying to sneak their way in. As of now they are not allowed on the island and the only place to stay is through local home stays. Prices are high because of its exclusivity and traditional reputation. It’s good that tourism money goes straight to the local population but bad that you are solely reliant on your host. With it’s proximity to Bora Bora the island population in general had a, hey rich tourist just give us your money, attitude.
We had an unpleasant home stay for two main reasons, one we stayed way too long and two our host did not care much about the guests. Maupiti is constantly full so no matter how little of care they provide they will still be booked up. Maupiti is also very underdeveloped which puts you at the complete mercy of where you are staying, think food, water and transportation. All of your meals are provided by the home stay. If we wanted a snack, the two small stands on the island were an hour walk away.
We picked our homestay because it was one of the two that replied back to us on such a short notice and the only one that would let us camp in their yard, at a slight discount. During our week long stay we noticed the owners constantly pushing their expensive boat tours towards all of the guests, to an uncomfortable degree. Otherwise the hosts were not around at all for the guests. The food was not cared for, guests seemed to be an inconvenience to them. Breakfast was a few ant filled baguettes with jam left out overnight for the next morning. And dinner, the only other meal provided, was somewhat nice if a new group of people arrived, other than that it was nothing. Staying with them was definitely just a money con. We tried to make the best of our time here but it was hard with our uncaring hosts.
The water around Maupiti is beautiful, we spent most of our time away from the guesthouse on a small beach. With my various injuries from Turkey and the Cook Islands I could not explore far and was struggling to walk more than a hour a day. I did fight through the pain to hike Mt. Teurafaatiu, which is still one of the best things we did in French Polynesia. The hike was fantastic and the views were out of this world. Being on top the island I understood the value of this island’s exclusivity and remoteness.
On our last day we finally caved in to our hosts, were pity talked into doing their expensive lagoon tour. They gave us the whole, “oh if you don’t go we won’t have anyone at all to take” speech, which turned out to be a lie as they picked up other groups of people on the island.
The actual tour itself was mostly rushed so the owners could get to the motu for an island party to start drinking with their friends. Our hosts only told us the cost of the lagoon tour once we were already on our way to the boat. They quoted us some high random price, higher than what their website said and the next day as we were checking out they tried to charge us an even more for the tour. Capping off our horrible week with another negative about them. I am a bit sour with Maupiti because of our host’s attitude, unfortunately they were not far off from the general vibe of how many of our hosts were going to be.
Only a 20 minute flight away, Raiatea was our next destination and one that I was happy to get to after our Maupiti experience. Even though the flight was only 20 minutes it was an out-of-this-world 20 minutes as we flew over Bora Bora, Tahaa and smaller private islands.
Immediately Raiatea was a breath of fresh air. Our campground host picked us and our new German friend up with a huge smile on his face. He took us to the local grocery store to get supplies and told us more about his life on the island. Our camp area was apart of a giant motel and bungalow complex. We had our own kitchen, bathrooms, shower, fire pit, chairs, snorkels and kayaks. The whole place was well kept and the owner cared about his guests, a complete 180 from Maupiti.
We spent the first few days on Raiatea sitting on the dock, swimming and catching up with some WiFi. When Monday came we hitchhiked into town to try and get a hiking permit and more groceries. On the way there a nurse picked us up and informed us that it was a holiday, the government offices were not open and the grocery store would be closing soon. We did a quick walk around town and got groceries before hitchhiking back to the campground.
Emma and I booked a rental car as a splurge for my birthday with the intention of hiking (Raiatea was supposedly the best island to hike and after how stunning Maupiti’s hike was I wanted to push through the pain for this once in a lifetime opportunity), exploring a UNESCO historic site and to see more of the island. Unfortunately that night the campsite got robbed, which turns out to be a common occurrence. It happened on the only day we did not keep our valuables in the office’s locked storage.
The next morning came early and with little sleep. We had a big day planned with the rental car but non it worked out as planned. Our first stop was town to visit the Ministry of Agriculture to get a hiking permit. This turned out to be a waste of time and full of miss information. The Agriculture office was not where the Lonely Planet said, after unsuccessfully trying to find it, we asked the tourism office and they informed us that it moved but no-one is there and they actually do not give out hiking permits. If we wanted to hike here is the name of the best guide and he only charges $80 USD per person. After that I did not want to waste anymore of our car day by trying to find the trail head on our own so we left town to go explore the island, which is when the rain started.
The whole day was a downpour. We skipped our picnic lunch, the beach and snorkeling but we did do a quick walk through of the new UNESCO historic site of Taputapuatea. We continued our wet drive around the island, glad that we opted for car over scooter and made it back to the campsite before dinner time. With our infrequent stops driving around Raiatea only took us 4.5 hours.
Other than the robbery, rain and inability to hike our time on Raiatea was relaxing. There is not a lot to do on the island without transportation. So once again we spent quite a few days just hanging out.
Huahine is actually two islands. We initially planned on staying on the north island for a day at a guesthouse and then moving to the campground on the south island. Unfortunately we met a couple that just came from the campground with horror stories. They did not recommend going down to the campground. Not knowing what to do, we were enjoying a private room instead of the tent, and the price would be about the same if we included the cost of transportation to get to the campground, Emma and I ended up staying put.
Staying put is an apt way to word our experience on Huahine. It rained almost every day. I basically stayed in the room and read. I was frustrated with my injuries, I realized actually how long we were planning to be in French Polynesia, the cost of everything and the lack of ability to explore on our own weighed down on me.
Air strikes almost kept us longer than planned on Huahine. Halfway into our stay on the island the airport firefighters across all of French Polynesia went on strike, this basically grounded every flight in the country. The airport office and the streets of Fare were now overflowing with tourists, all scrambling to find a boat or some other way off of the island. Luckily for us we had a few more days here and had no real place to be besides another island, unlike some people who were trying to head back home. One group staying in our guesthouse, had a flight out of the country back to Europe that they were about to miss and another group was missing an expensive chartered cruise.
Every morning and afternoon during the strike we were told to visit the Air Tahiti office to ask if the flights were back on. Fortunately the day before we were supposed to leave Huahine the airline sorted out a boat transportation from Huahine to Raiatea where the strike had ended and we could catch a flight to our next destination.
Bora Bora was the best time I had in the Society Islands. Due to the air strike we actually arrived a day early. By arriving early our guest house was full but the owner said he could put us somewhere different for the night and then we could move into our original room. That night’s accommodation put all of our past lodging to shame. We got to stay in the stunning hillside art villa of Garrick Yrondi, way beyond our meager budget.
Bora Bora was planned to be our splurge island but by not camping on Huahine, getting swindled on a tour in Maupiti and the general cost of French Polynesia we were worried about the prices on arguably the world’s best honeymoon destination. Turns out Bora Bora can be done cheap-ish, for French Polynesia standards, due to the fact that the main island is home to mostly locals not tourism. The resorts work tirelessly to keep their guest off of the main island, giving us a more natural Polynesian experience.
We had a blast on Bora Bora, it was so much fun. Unlike the past few islands the main island of Bora Bora is small enough that we were able to cycle around it. We spent a full day biking the island and enjoyed time on the beach.
On our last full day Emma and I decided to do a lagoon tour and it was incredible. Up until now I thought I had seen some beautiful sights in the world but Bora Bora took the cake. I can’t describe how crisp and clear the water was. The color contrast between the various shades of blue was stunning. We boated around the island and past the motus, we swam in the open ocean and snorkeled in the lagoon.
Bora Bora is one of the most spectacular destinations in the world. I had never seen water as beautiful as it is here. The snorkeling was fantastic and I was in awe as we cruised by the over water bungalows just lazing in the sunlight.
The Society Islands were mostly an expensive failure. We spent way too long on the wrong places and missed out on some of the best parts. But that is how travel goes. I would love to go back to the Society Islands, I would see different islands and come in with a shorter schedule. Oh and also with more money, so if you know anyone has extra to spare and would love to send it my way, that would be fantastic.
There is so much to write covering French Polynesia, so make sure to check out the Destination French Polynesia page to read about my whole experience and learn great backpacking tips for this remote area!
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