Although outdoor activities take first place in the islands, you can also spend your time learning a new craft, exploring the reefs as part of a conservation project, and whale- and dolphin-watching.
These islands are a dream for active travelers, especially those into diving, snorkeling, swimming, boating, and other watersports. You can also play golf and tennis, or hike into the jungle-clad mountainous interiors of the islands. Kayaking is popular everywhere, and all but a few hotels provide them for free. There's good biking along the many roads skirting colorful lagoons. You can engage in these activities everywhere, although some islands are better than others. I point out the best in the following chapters, but here's a brief rundown of my favorites.
On the Web, Gordon's Guide (www.gordonsguide.com) compiles adventure tours from around the world. It's a good place to search for South Pacific adventure trips in a variety of categories. Save time by searching for a specific destination.
Avid bird-watchers are likely to see terns, boobies, herons, petrols, noddies, and many other seabirds throughout the islands. French Polynesia alone has 28 species of breeding seabirds, making memorable a visit to Motu Puarua and Motu Oeone, tiny islets out in Tikihau's lagoon, where noddies and snowy white fairy terns nest.
The number and variety of land birds diminish as you go eastward. Most live in the bush away from settlements and the accompanying cats, dogs, and rats, so you will need to head into the bush for the best watching.
In French Polynesia, Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie (Ornithological Society of Polynesia; tel. 50.62.09; www.manu.pf) lists local birds on its website.
A few companies have bird-watching tours to the South Pacific, including the U.K.-based Bird Quest (tel. 44/1254 826317; www.birdquest.co.uk) and Birdwatching Breaks (tel. 44/1381 610495; www.birdwatchingbreaks.com).
The Oceanic Society (tel. 800/326-7491; www.oceanicsociety.org), an award-winning organization based in California, has natural history and ecotourism expeditions to the islands. A marine naturalist accompanies its trips, which include village visits and bird-watching excursions.
Whale and Dolphin Watching
Whale- and dolphin-watching are popular activities in the islands. Dolphins live here year-round, and humpback whales escape the cold of Antarctica and spend from July until October giving birth to their calves in the tropical South Pacific. They can be seen swimming off many islands.
The best dolphin-watching experiences are on Moorea in French Polynesia, where American marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole leads daylong excursions to visit some of the 150 spinner dolphins he has identified as regular residents. Honeymooners love to have their pictures taken while swimming with the intelligent mammals in a fenced-in area at Moorea Dolphin Center, at the InterContinental Resort & Spa Moorea.
Relatively flat roads circle most of the islands, making for easy and scenic bike riding. In fact, bicycles are one of my favorite means of getting around. It's simple and inexpensive to rent bikes on all but a few of the islands. In fact, some hotels and resorts provide bikes for their guests to use.
Diving & Snorkeling
Most of the islands have very good to great diving and snorkeling. Virtually every lagoonside resort has a dive operator on premises or nearby, and many will let snorkelers go along.
French Polynesia is famous for its bountiful sea life, from harmless tropical fish to hammerhead sharks. You'll see plenty of creatures at Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, and Raiatea-Tahaa, but the best diving and snorkeling is in the huge lagoons of Rangiroa, Tikehau, Manihi, and Fakarava in the Tuamotu Islands.
Most resorts offer dive packages to their guests, and the American-based PADI Travel Network (tel. 800/729-7234; www.padi.com) puts together packages for divers of all experience levels.
Charter boats on most islands will take you in search of marlin, swordfish, tuna, mahimahi, and other game fish.
You can also cast your line while living aboard in relative luxury. In the Tuamotu Archipelago, Haumana Cruises (www.tahiti-fly-fishing-cruises.com) uses a 17-cabin yacht.
Golf & Tennis
French Polynesia now has the Moorea Green Pearl Golf Course of Polynesia, an 18-hole set of links on Moorea, to complement the venerable Olivier Breaud International Golf Course of Atimaono, on the south coast of Tahiti.
These aren't the Rocky Mountains, nor are there blazed trails out here, but hiking in the islands is a lot of fun.
Tahiti and Moorea have several trails into the highlands, some of which run along spectacular ridges. You'll need a guide for the best hikes, but you can easily hire them on both islands.
Although I prefer sipping a cold drink, a great way to experience a South Pacific sunset is from the back of a horse while riding along a beach. You can do just that on Moorea and Huahine, where the ranches also have daytime rides into the mountains.
All but a few beachfront resorts have canoes, kayaks, small sailboats, sailboards, and other toys for their guests' amusement. Since most of these properties sit beside lagoons, using these craft is not only fun, it's relatively safe. They are most fun where you can paddle or sail across the lagoon to uninhabited islets out on the reef, such as on Moorea's northwest coast.
The region's reef-strewn waters make charter-boat sailing a precarious undertaking. A major exception is the Leeward Islands in French Polynesia, where you can rent sailboats with or without skippers. Encircled by one lagoon, Raiatea and Tahaa are the centers of sailing here. You can sail completely around Tahaa without leaving the lagoon. Three companies have bases at Raiatea, including The Moorings (tel. 800/535-7289; www.moorings.com), one of the world's leading yacht charter operations.
The islands have some world-famous surfing spots such as Teahupoo on Tahiti. All the best are reef breaks; that is, the surf crashes out on coral reefs instead of on sandy beaches. These are no places for beginners, since you could suffer serious injury by landing on a razor-sharp coral reef. (Or as one of my island friends puts it, "You'll become hamburger in a hurry.")
The surf pounds directly on beaches on Tahiti, where you can learn to surf with Ecole de Surf Tura'i Mataare (Tahiti Surf School) (tel. 41.91.37; www.tahitisurfschool.info).
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.