Another way to get around the islands is by cruise ship. Indeed, Tahiti and the nearby Society Islands are ideal grounds for cruise ships, since it's barely an hour's steam from Tahiti to Moorea, half a day's voyage on to Huahine, and less than 2 hours each among Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora Bora. That means the ships spend most days and nights at anchor in lovely lagoons, allowing passengers plenty of time to explore the islands and play in the water. Bear in mind, however, that you'll see a lot more of the ship than you will of the islands.
Cruises could also be an affordable way to see the islands in style, since the prices usually include all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, soft drinks, and most onboard activities. You might even find a deal that includes airfare to and from Tahiti.
Likewise, these are wonderful islands for chartering a yacht and setting sail on your own.
Taking a Cruise
At press time, Silversea Cruises (tel. 800/722-9955; www.silversea.com) had announced plans to station its Prince Albert II in French Polynesia from April to October 2009, with the possibility of repeat visits thereafter. Once known as the World Discoverer, the 132-passenger ship has been refitted in order to cruise from Papeete to the seldom-visited Austral Islands and northern Marquesas.
Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com) often includes French Polynesia on cruises by the 118-passenger Clipper Odyssey, which specializes in out-of-the-way places. For example, its 2-week "Polynesian Paradise" cruise was scheduled to visit Bora Bora, the Tuamotu atolls, and the Marquesas Islands in October 2008, followed by a "South Seas Adventure" cruise west through the Cook Islands and Tonga to Fiji.
Adventures on the Aranui 3 -- The working cargo ship Aranui 3 (tel. 800/972-7268 in the U.S., or 42.36.21 in Papeete; fax 43.48.89; www.aranui.com) is the most interesting way to visit the out-of-the-way Marquesas Islands.
Outfitted for up to 200 passengers, this 355-foot freighter makes regular 14-day round-trips from Papeete to 6 of the 10 Marquesas Islands, with stops on the way at Fakarava and Rangiroa in the Tuamotus. While the crew loads and unloads the ship's cargo, passengers spend their days ashore experiencing the islands and islanders. Among the activities: picnicking on beaches, snorkeling, visiting villages, and exploring archaeological sites. Experts on Polynesian history and culture accompany most voyages.
Accommodations are in 10 suites, 12 deluxe cabins, 63 standard cabins, and dormitories. The suites and cabins all have private bathrooms. Suites and deluxe cabins have windows and doors opening to outside decks, and their bathrooms are equipped with bathtubs as well as showers. Standard cabins lack outside doors and have portholes instead of windows. The ship has a restaurant, bar, boutique, library, video lounge, and pool.
The ship's primary job is to haul cargo, so it does not have stabilizers and other features of a luxury liner. In other words, do not expect the same level of comfort, cuisine, and service as on the other ships cruising these waters. If you only want to sit by the pool, eat prodigious quantities of fine food, and smoke cigars, the Aranui 3 may not be your cup of tea. But for those who want to go places relatively few people visit, and learn a lot in the process, it is an excellent choice.
Fares for the complete voyage range from about US$2,079 (£1,040) for a dormitory bunk to US$5,445 (£2,723) per person for suites. All meals are included, but you have to pay your own bar bill and your airfare to and from Tahiti.
Luxury on the Paul Gauguin -- The 157m (513-ft.), 318-passenger Paul Gauguin (tel. 877/505-5370 or 904/776-6123 in the U.S., 54.51.00 in Papeete; www.rssc.com) is the most luxurious of Tahiti's cruise ships. It spends most of its year making 7-day cruises through the Society Islands, but occasionally extends to the Tuamotu and Marquesas islands, and it has even ventured as far west as Fiji. It also has environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau as guest lecturer on some cruises. All of the ship's seven suites and about half of its 152 staterooms have private verandas or balconies (the least expensive lower-deck units have windows or portholes). All are luxuriously appointed with minibars, TVs and VCRs, direct-dial phones, and marble bathrooms with full-size tubs. Most have queen-size beds, although some have two twins. Fares for the 1-week Society Islands cruises start at US$2,600 (£1,300) per person double occupancy.
A Lot of Company on Princess Cruises -- Princess Cruises (tel. 800/774-6237 or 904/527-6660; www.princesscruises.com) will be operating the 700-passenger Tahitian Princess on 7- and 10-night cruises in French Polynesia until late 2009, after which it will be renamed the Ocean Princess and redeployed to Asia. Its identical sister ship, the Pacific Princess, may cruise in French Polynesia thereafter (check the line's website for more information). They are the largest ships operating in French Polynesia, so you won't have the same intimacy as on the other vessels. Princess Cruises are also the least expensive, with prices starting as low as US$1,150 (£575) per person double occupancy for an interior stateroom, depending on time of year and length of voyage. Specials including airfare may be offered during the slow seasons. Passengers can make use of a sun deck, swimming pool, fitness center, casino, cabaret lounge, two bars, and four restaurants. Shore excursions are offered, but unlike the Paul Gauguin and the Star Flyer, they do not have a stern platform to support onboard watersports activities. Almost 70% of the 280 staterooms and 62 suites open to private terraces.
Dining in the Lagoon with Bora Bora Cruises -- Bora Bora Cruises, P.O. Box 40186, Papeete (tel. 54.45.05; fax 45.10.65; www.boraboracruises.com) uses two sleek, luxurious yachts, the Tu Moana and the Tia Moana, which measure in at 69m (226-ft.) and can carry up to 60 passengers in 30 staterooms spread over three decks. They make 1-week "Nomade" cruises from Bora Bora to Huahine, Raiatea, and Tahaa. The boats are small enough to anchor closer to shore than the other ships here. Consequently, passengers enjoy extras such as breakfast served in the lagoon (that's right, you actually sit at tables in the water) and movies and spa treatments on a beach. Fares are US$8,990 (£4,495) per person double occupancy.
Under Sail on the Star Flyer -- As I write, the 170-passenger, 300-foot-long tall ship Star Flyer has just begun making 7-, 10-, and 11-day cruises from Papeete through the Society and Tuamotu islands. One of the Monaco-based Star Clippers fleet (tel. 800/442-0552; www.starclippers.com), it resembles an old-time clipper ship, including an Edwardian-style library with a Belle Epoque fireplace, but is loaded with modern amenities and luxuries. Fares start at US$1,845 (£923) per person double occupancy for an interior cabin.
Fly-Fishing from the Haumana -- Avid fishermen can cast lines from the Haumana (tel. 50.06.74; fax 50.06.72; www.tahiti-haumana-cruises.com). This 34m (110-ft.), 42-passenger catamaran specializes in 3-, 4-, and 7-night cruises on the calm, shallow lagoons of Rangiroa and Tikehau in the Tuamotus. Fishing is not the primary focus of the cruises (diving, surfing, and other activities are possible), but this is one of the few vessels to carry rods, reels, and other gear. It's also a much more pleasant way to visit Rangiroa's Pink Sands and Blue Lagoon than riding a speedboat an hour each way. Although the Haumana is smaller than other ships here, its 21 air-conditioned cabins all have large windows or portholes, queen-size beds, sofas or settees, minibars, TVs, VCRs, phones, and shower-only bathrooms with hair dryers. Rates range from US$2,665 to US$5,275 (£1,333-£2,638) per person, double occupancy, including all meals, drinks, fishing, and kayak excursions.
Chartering a Yacht
If you are an experienced sailor, you can charter a yacht -- with or without skipper and crew -- and knock around some of the French Polynesian islands as the wind and your own desires dictate. The best place to start is Raiatea, which shares a lagoon with Tahaa, the only French Polynesian island that can be circumnavigated entirely within a protective reef. Depending on the wind, Bora Bora and Huahine are relatively easy blue-water trips away.
The Moorings, a respected yacht charter company based in Florida (tel. 800/535-7289 or 727/535-1446; www.moorings.com), operates a fleet of monohull and catamaran sailboats based at Apooti Marina on Raiatea's northern coast (tel. 66.35.93; fax 66.20.94; email@example.com). That's a few minutes' sail to Tahaa. Depending on the size of the boat -- they range from 11 to 15m (36-49 ft.) in length -- and the season, bareboat rates (that is, without skipper or crew) run about US$450 to US$1,700 (£225-£850) per vessel per day. Provisions are extra. The agency will check to make sure you and your party can handle sailboats of these sizes; otherwise, you pay extra for a skipper.
Also at Apooti Marina, Sunsail Yacht Charters (tel. 800/327-2276 in the U.S., 60.04.85 on Raiatea; www.sunsail.com) has a fleet of 11-to-15m (36-49 ft.) yachts. Check its arcane website for bareboat rates.
The French-owned Tahiti Yacht Charter (tel. 45.04.00; fax 45.76.00; www.tahitiyachtcharter.com) has 11-to-14m (36-45 ft.) yachts based at Papeete and Raiatea. It designs cruises throughout the territory, including lengthy voyages to the Tuamotus and Marquesas. Similar services are offered by Archipel Croisiers on Moorea (tel. 56.36.39; fax 56.35.87; www.archipels.com).
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.