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French Polynesia sprawls over an area of 5.2 million sq. km (2 million sq. miles) in the eastern South Pacific. That's about the size of Europe, excluding the former Soviet Union countries, or about two-thirds the size of the continental United States. The 130 main islands, however, consist of only 3,885 sq. km (1,500 sq. miles), an area smaller than the smallest American state of Rhode Island. Only about 260,000 souls inhabit these small specks.

The territory's five major island groups differ in terrain, climate, and, to a certain extent, people. With the exception of the Tuamotu Archipelago, an enormous chain of low coral atolls northeast of Tahiti, all but a few are "high" islands; that is, they are the mountainous tops of ancient volcanoes eroded into jagged peaks, deep bays, and fertile valleys. All have fringing, or barrier coral reefs, and blue lagoons worthy of postcards.

The Society Islands

The most strikingly beautiful and most frequently visited destinations in the South Pacific are the Society Islands, so named by Capt. James Cook, the great English explorer, in 1769 because they lie relatively close together. These include Tahiti and its nearby companion Moorea, which are also known as the Windward Islands because they sit to the east, the direction of the prevailing trade wind.

Tahiti is the most developed island in French Polynesia. Don't be surprised when you take the freeway from the airport into the noisy, bustling capital of Papeete. Chic bistros and high-rise shopping centers long ago replaced the city's stage-set wooden Chinese stores, and the glass and steel of luxury resorts out in the suburbs have supplanted its cheap waterfront hotels. If you're into cities, Papeete will be right up your alley. Even if you're not, Tahiti is well worth seeing, especially its fine museums devoted to the painter Paul Gauguin, the writer James Norman Hall, and the islanders themselves.

Most modern visitors bypass these jewels and quickly head to Moorea, just 20km (12 miles) west of Tahiti. The short journey is like being transported to another world. Moorea's mountain peaks and fingerlike bays are world-renowned for their awesome beauty. Even though parts of Moorea are beginning to seem like Papeete suburbs, the island still retains more of old Polynesia than does Tahiti. It also has numerous white-sand beaches, which are in short supply on Tahiti, where most sand is of the black volcanic variety.

To the northwest lie Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Maupiti, and several smaller islands. Because they are downwind of Tahiti, they are also called the Leeward Islands.

One of the world's top honeymoon destinations, Bora Bora is French Polynesia's tourism dynamo, with more resorts than any other island. Huahine is almost as beautiful as Moorea and Bora Bora, but with only a handful of hotels, it retains much of its old Polynesian charm. The administrative center of the Leeward Islands, Raiatea lacks beaches, but the deep lagoon it shares with Tahaa makes it the sailing capital of French Polynesia. Tahaa has only recently opened to tourism, with one of French Polynesia's top resorts now sitting out on a small reef islet. Virtually unscathed by tourism, but a favorite retreat of French residents of Tahiti, Maupiti has a few locally owned pensions. It can be visited on a day trip from Bora Bora.

The Tuamotu Archipelago

Across the approaches to Tahiti from the east, the 69 low-lying atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago run for 1,159km (720 miles) on a line from northwest to southeast. The early European sailors called them the Dangerous Archipelago because of their tricky currents and because they virtually cannot be seen until a ship is almost on top of them. Even today, they are a wrecking ground for yachts and interisland trading boats. Two of them, Moruroa and Fangataufa, were used by France to test its nuclear weapons between 1966 and 1996. Others provide the bulk of Tahiti's well-known black pearls. Rangiroa, the world's second-largest atoll and the territory's best scuba-diving destination, is the most frequently visited. Neighboring Tikehau, with a much smaller and shallower lagoon, also has a modern resort hotel, as does Manihi, the territory's major producer of black pearls. To the south, the reef at Fakarava encircles the world's third-largest lagoon.

Out here you'll find marvelous snorkeling and diving in massive lagoons stocked with a vast array of sea life. The atolls may seem anticlimactic after you've seen the high islands, so I suggest visiting them before exploring the Society Islands.

The Marquesas Islands

Made famous in 2002 by the Survivor television series, the Marquesas are a group of 10 mountainous islands some 1,208km (750 miles) northeast of Tahiti. They are younger than the Society Islands, and because a cool equatorial current washes their shores, protective coral reefs have not enclosed them. As a result, the surf pounds on their shores, there are no encircling coastal plains, and the people live in a series of deep valleys that radiate out from central mountain peaks. The Marquesas have lost their once-large populations to 19th-century diseases and the 20th-century economic lure of Papeete; today, their sparsely populated, cloud-enshrouded valleys have an almost haunting air about them. Archaeological sites with their ancient tikis are prime attractions in the Marquesas.

Of the six inhabited islands, only Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa have international standard hotels, and only they and Ua Huka and the incredibly beautiful Ua Pou have airports.

The Marquesas are best visited via Aranui 3 cruises, which visit all the inhabited islands including Fatu Hiva, another dramatic beauty.

The Austral & Gambier Islands

With no hotels or resorts, the Austral Islands, south of Tahiti, are seldom visited. They are part of a chain of high islands that continue westward into the Cook Islands. The people of the more temperate Australs, which include Rurutu, Raivavae, and Tubuai, once produced some of the best art objects in the South Pacific, but these skills have passed into time.

Far on the southern end of the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands are the top of a semisubmerged, middle-aged high island similar to Bora Bora. The hilly remnants of the old volcano are scattered in a huge lagoon, which is partially enclosed by a barrier reef marking the original outline of the island before it began to sink. The largest of these remnant islands is Mangareva.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.