What Should I Know About French Polynesia?

Sheri Cyprus

French Polynesia consists of a stretch of 118 islands in the eastern South Pacific Ocean. These islands include the Gambier, Austral, Society, Marquesas and Tuamotus groups. The Tuamotus are atolls, which are sunken islands.

French Polynesia contains many atolls.
French Polynesia contains many atolls.

Spanish explorers reached the Marquesas in 1595, but European contact was not made until the English Protestant and Catholic missionaries came to Tahiti in 1767. Britain and France struggled for ownership of Tahiti and France had the territorial rights in 1944. The name French Polynesia became the official name for the islands in 1957. Yet, French Polynesia has struggled for independence and has become mostly autonomous from France, except for sharing its defense and currency systems.

Pearl farming is one of many French Polynesian industries.
Pearl farming is one of many French Polynesian industries.

French is the official language of French Polynesia. However, Tahitian is still spoken widely here and languages using combinations of both Tahitian and French are also spoken on the islands. About 70% of the population of French Polynesia is Polynesian and the rest are of Polynesian and European heritage, French, Chinese and Chinese Polynesian.

Bora Bora is an island in the Leeward Society Islands near Tahiti. Bora Bora is one of French Polynesia's prized vacation destinations. It's known for its beauty, warm water and white sand beaches. Sailing and snorkelling are popular tourist activities here as is just relaxing on the beach. The first hotels were built in Bora Bora in 1961 and although many resorts keep being added, the area is still said to have unspoiled charm.

Papeete is Tahiti's capital as well as its main port. It is home to the French government and features a botanical garden and cathedral as well as an airport. Papeete is an exporter of vanilla and mother-of-pearl.

Industries in French Polynesia in general include tourism, commercial deep-sea fishing, pearl farming and some agriculture-related manufacturing. Products such as coconuts, vanilla, coffee and beef are processed here. The military was a big industry in French Polynesia up until the 1990s. It declined rapidly when France conducted controversial nuclear testing here in the 1990s.

Both French and Tahitian are spoken in many parts of French Polynesia.
Both French and Tahitian are spoken in many parts of French Polynesia.

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Discussion Comments


@Pippinwhite -- Can I go with you? I know a little French. Not much, but enough to get by. Sort of. I'll learn more.

I'll take anywhere in French Polynesia. Every place sounds fine to me. I know "Mutiny on the Bounty" idealized the place, but I've wanted to go to Tahiti ever since I read it. The movie "Donovan's Reef" just intensified my longing for a quiet beach, a little bungalow, palm trees and the surf lapping on the sand!

Heck, I'd pitch a tent on the beach! It doesn't get cold, so that's not a problem. I'd just love to get out of the rat race and find a little peace and quiet. I know people who have been there, and they said the locals are very warm and it's not as expensive on the smaller, less touristy islands.


I'd like to go to Bora Bora and discover whether it still has an "unspoiled charm" for myself. Actually, I've said for years I want to retire to Tahiti, or Bora Bora, or somewhere else in French Polynesia. I'd like to become an American ex-pat who lives on the beach and sells pareos to tourists!

I'd have electricity, but no TV and a phone that only took local calls. I'd go into town to use the Internet occasionally, but for the most part, I believe I'd let the world pass me by! I think I could stand it for a year or two, at least.

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