The mere mention of the names Polynesia and Micronesia conjures up images of exotic, far-flung islands dotted in a long chain across the Pacific, stretching from Asia to South America. While they’re almost all characterised by their sandy beaches and swaying palm trees, for many travellers, their true allure lies in their ancient cultures and untouched hinterlands.
The Polynesian Migration
While it varies significantly from island to island, their shared Polynesian cultural roots form an unbroken link to a long-forgotten past, when the first Polynesian settlers left their ancestral homes in what is now Taiwan over 4,000 years ago, and started island-hopping their way across the Pacific.
Polynesian Triangle Today the islands of “Polynesia” – one of the 3 main regions of the Pacific along with Micronesia and Melanesia – are geographically defined by the Polynesian Triangle, a core area covering millions of square kilometres across the Pacific, stretching between Hawaii (settled circa 500AD), New Zealand (circa 1,000AD), and Rapa Nui (circa 700AD). In the cultural sense, Polynesia also includes a number of distinct “outlier” islands, located outside the core in parts of Fuji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Early Polynesians sailed ever eastward for centuries, in search of new lands
to settle, in the process leaving their mark on hundreds of islands across the Pacific – seen in everything from their languages (which often share common words for the wind, sky and sun; all critical to early seafarers), to their religions (which share myths about their ancestral homeland, Havaiki), right down to the very outrigger canoes still in use to this day. That commonality is due to the speed early Polynesians settled in almost the entire Triangle (in less than 500 years); this meant that each successive island’s culture had less time to evolve.
A byword for exotic and remote, French Polynesia was made famous by 19th century luminaries like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Settled by ancient Polynesians around 300AD, the islands remained largely unknown until being “discovered” by European navigators like Magellan and Captain James Cook between the 16th-18th centuries. France eventually made the islands an overseas territory, and today they are one of the most far-flung parts of France – second only to New Caledonia, another French territory, lying nearer to Australia in the west. French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands, divided into 5 groups – the best-known being the Society Islands, which include famous destinations like Bora-Bora and Tahiti, followed by the relatively lesser-known Austral, Marquesas and Tuamotu-Gambier groups.
Together they cover 4.7 million sq.km. of ocean, an area larger than the entire EU, making them some of the most remote islands in the world.
While French Polynesia is best known for its luxury resorts, it also boasts legendary surfing, pristine dive sites, and a number of iconic climbs in its rugged hinterlands.
French Polynesia’s surfing is legendary, with the best breaks found year-round on Tahiti and neighbouring Mo’orea. Known world-wide for big waves, the islands boast everything from beginner breaks, to massive barrels depending on the season; waves from the north (Oct-Mar) tend to be less heavy, and generate hollow barrels, making them good for all levels of surfers; while winter waves from Antarctica (May- Aug) are some of the biggest, and most challenging in the world.
There are dozens of surf spots on the islands, with one of the most legendary being Teahupo’o on Tahiti’s southwest coast. Its infamous waves are some of the biggest in the world, making it an ideal place to watch the pros, and a fixture on the World Tour circuit. One of the best beginner waves, and Tahiti’s only beach break, is at Papara (on the south coast); it’s got a sandy bottom (unlike most of the island’s reef breaks) with swells from 1-3m, making it ideal for most riders. Haapiti on neighbouring Mo’orea boasts one of the best breaks around, with a long left-hander (and occasional barrel), ranging from 1-3m depending on swells.
Dotted with dozens of atolls and lagoons, some of the best and easiest
dive sites are located near Tahiti.
Diving in Mo’orea
Located just 15km from Tahiti, nearby Mo’orea boast some of French Polynesia’s best dive sites, especially when it comes to pelagics like sharks, and the occasional ray or whale. Two of the most famous sites, both on the north coast, are Tiki Point (18-25m) and Sharks Dining Room (15-30m). While they are hand-baited (for better or worse), you can swim with big lemon sharks, along with dozens of blacktips, grey reef sharks, and white-tips all competing for a bite. Moray eels and Napoleon wrasses are also abundant.
Diving in Tahiti
Rangiroa on Tahiti is the world’s second-largest atoll; twice per day, its massive lagoon empties and fills with the tides via two narrow passes –
Avatoru and Tiputa – creating a huge exodus or influx of marine life in
one of two narrow chutes. Varying in depth, depending on the tide and direction, divers swim amongst a huge array of species including black
tips, barracuda, silvertips, turtles, whitetips, and the occasional hammer-
Climbing Bora Bora
Best known for its luxury scene, Bora-Bora is also home to some of
the Pacific’s most iconic climbs – the triumvirate of Mt. Otemanu, Mt. Pahia
and Mt. Ohue. The distinctive silhouette of Mt. Otemanu (772m) dominates almost any view of Bora Bora. The island’s tallest peak, it’s only possible to climb up to the shoulder below the final, vertical tower; it’s never been fully-scaled on foot as the sheer upper rock face is too soft for pins/clamps.
Mt. Pahia (661m) and Mt. Ohue (620m) make for a strenuous, but stunning
6-hour climb, starting on the jungle-clad slopes above Vaitape and Faanui, with the summits connected via a vertiginous knife-edge, and offering complete, 360 degree view of Bora Bora and its entire
Tahiti (aka Tahiti Nui) is the largest island of French Polynesia, and home to the capital, Pape’ete. It’s also the hub for travel into and around the country, by sea (to nearby islands like Mo’orea) or air. Air Tahiti services over 50 airports throughout the islands, and international destinations including Auckland, Paris and Tokyo.
Officially a country in a “free association” with neighbouring New Zealand (3,200km to its west), the Cook Islands cover just 240sq.km. of landmass. Its
15 islands are spread across more than 1 million sq.km. of ocean; its largest island, Rarotonga (67sq.km), is home to more than 70% of the country’s 15,000 residents. Other islands include Aitutaki (pop. 1,700) with its turquoise lagoon, and the tiny coral atoll of Pukapuka (pop. 450), measuring just 1sq.km.
Rarotonga is the starting point for journeys in the Cooks. The island’s surrounded by a fringing coral reef and calm lagoon, while inland it rises steeply in a series of extinct volcanic peaks, culminating in Te Manga (652m) – itself the summit of the massive underwater volcano that forms the entire island. Given its rugged interior, almost all of Rarotonga’s population live in coastal villages, with only a handful of unsealed
roads extending inland.
With no roads in the interior, the only way across the island is via the hiking trail, Cross-Island Track, with a steep ascent up Te Rua Manga – aka “The Needle”. While it’s not the highest peak on the island, iconic Te Rua Manga (409m) rises straight up from the forest and is visible from miles around. The route starts in the north at Avatiu Harbour, heading inland via the Avatiu Valley before hitting the lower slopes of The Needle, a steep 1.5-hour climb around the middle of the peak (it’s not possible to summit FIT, given the danger of rock falls, and sheer drops).
The route then follows Papua Stream towards Wigmore’s Waterfall (the sole
waterfall in the Cooks), from where hikers can walk to the coastal road. The
trail can be completed in about 4 hours.
There are around 40 sites dotted around the coast, including reefs, walls and wrecks. The seabed drops off sharply beyond Rarotonga’s fringing reef, with notable sites including the Arorangi Dropoff (10-40m) in the west
that’s home to Eagle rays, triggerfish, Whitetips and Trevally; Queens Reef
(10-40m+), in the south with rays, Grey reef sharks and Whitetips; and Matavera Wall (12-35m) in the east, with its numerous species of sharks and turtles.
Mataora Wreck (12-20m)
Situated off the northeast coast, former freighter MV Mataora is the best of
Rarotonga’s 3 wreck dives. Scuttled in 1990, it’s accessible to all levels of
divers, with the uppermost sections starting at just 8m with good visibility
and little to no currents.
Over the years, successive cyclones have broken it into numerous parts,
creating extensive hiding places for species including gobies, Morays, soldier fish and target fish, darting among its hard and soft corals.
SS Maitai (3-12m)
Another easily-reached wreck on Rarotonga’s north coast is the SS
Maitai. Dating back over a century, it’s substantially overgrown with coral
and barnacles, but visible parts of the boiler and rudder remain, with resident species including Lionfish, octopus, Napoleon wrasse and Scorpionfish.