Tahiti and French Polynesia pose no major health problem for most travelers, although it's a good idea to have your tetanus, hepatitis-A, and hepatitis-B vaccinations up-to-date.
If you have a chronic condition, you should consult your doctor before visiting the islands. For conditions like epilepsy, diabetes, or heart problems, wear a MedicAlert Identification Tag (tel. 800/825-3785; www.medicalert.org), which will immediately alert doctors to your condition and give them access to your records through MedicAlert's 24-hour hot line.
By and large, medical care is very good in Papeete. Every island also has a government clinic, and some have doctors in private practice.
Overseas health-insurance plans are not accepted here, so you will likely have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later.
Remember to pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels affixed -- otherwise, they won't make it through airport security. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, since local pharmacies primarily carry medications manufactured in France, and the brand names might be different here than in the United States.
And don't forget sunglasses and an extra pair of contact lenses or prescription glasses.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you're visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
Healthy Travels to You -- The following government websites offer up-to-date health-related travel advice:
- Australia: www.smartraveller.gov.au
- Canada: www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index_e.html
- U.K.: www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/HealthAdviceForTravellers/fs/en
- U.S.: www.cdc.gov/travel
Lather Up -- The sun in these latitudes can burn your skin in a very short period of time -- even on what seems like a cloudy day. Limit your exposure, especially during the first few days of your trip. Be particularly careful from 11am to 2pm. Use sunscreen with a high protection factor (SPF30 or more) and apply it liberally. If you're going snorkeling, wear a T-shirt to avoid overexposure on your back.
Minor illnesses on the islands include the common cold and the occasional outbreaks of influenza and conjunctivitis (pinkeye).
Cuts, scratches, and all open sores should be treated promptly in the Tropics. I always carry a tube of antibacterial ointment and a small package of adhesive bandages.
There are plenty of mosquitoes, but they do not carry deadly endemic diseases such as malaria. From time to time, the islands will experience an outbreak of dengue fever, a viral disease borne by the Adës aegypti mosquito, which lives indoors and bites only during daylight hours. Dengue seldom is fatal in adults, but you should take extra precautions to keep children from being bitten by mosquitoes if the disease is present. (Other precautions should be taken if you are traveling with children;.)
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- Living among the friendly Tahitians are some of the world's friendliest ants, roaches, geckos, crabs, and insects.
Indeed, the islands have multitudes of mosquitoes, roaches, ants, houseflies, and other insects. Ants are omnipresent here, so don't leave crumbs or dirty dishes lying around your room. A few beaches and swampy areas also have invisible sand flies -- the dreaded no-seeums or no-nos -- that bite the ankles around daybreak and dusk.
Insect repellent is widely available in most drug stores and grocery shops. The most effective contain a high percentage of "deet" (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide).
I light a mosquito coil in my non-air-conditioned rooms at dusk in order to keep the pests from flying in, then start another one at bedtime. Grocery stores throughout the islands carry these inexpensive coils. The Fish brand coils, made by the appropriately named Blood Protection Company, seem to work best.
Multitudes of Animals
Don't bother complaining about the multitude of dogs, chickens, pigs, and squawking myna birds running loose out here, even in the finest restaurants. They are as much a part of life as the islanders themselves. And don't be frightened by those little geckos (lizards) crawling around the rafters of even the most expensive bungalows. They're harmless to us humans, but lethal to insects.
The tropical sun in the islands can be brutal, even on what seems like an overcast day. Accordingly, it's important to use sunscreen whenever you're outdoors, especially at midday. This is particularly true for children.
Sexual relations before marriage -- heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual -- are more or less accepted in the islands (abstinence campaigns fall on deaf ears). Both male and female prostitution is common in Papeete. HIV is present in the islands, so if you intend to engage in sex with strangers, you should exercise at least the same caution in choosing them, and in practicing safe sex, as you would at home.
Tap water is safe to drink only in the city of Papeete on Tahiti and on Bora Bora. You can buy bottled spring water in any grocery store.
Be Careful in the Water
Most of French Polynesia's marine creatures are harmless to humans, but there are some to avoid. Always seek local advice before snorkeling or swimming in a lagoon away from the hotel beaches. Many diving operators conduct snorkeling tours. If you don't know what you're doing, go with them.
Wash and apply a good antiseptic or antibacterial ointment to all coral cuts and scrapes as soon as possible.
Because coral cannot grow in fresh water, the flow of rivers and streams into the lagoon creates narrow channels known as passes through the reef. Currents can be very strong in the passes, so stay in the protected, shallow water of the inner lagoons.
Sharks are curious beasts that are attracted by bright objects such as watches and knives, so be careful what you wear in the water. Don't swim in areas where sewage or edible wastes are dumped, and never swim alone if you have any suspicion that sharks might be present. If you do see a shark, don't splash in the water or urinate. Calmly retreat and get out of the water as quickly as you can, without creating a disturbance.
Those round things on the rocks and reefs that look like pincushions are sea urchins, and their calcium spikes can be more painful than needles. A sea-urchin puncture can result in burning, aching, swelling, and discoloration (black or purple) around the area where the spines entered your skin. The best thing to do is to pull any protruding spines out. The body will absorb the spines within 24 hours to 3 weeks, or the remainder of the spines will work themselves out. Contrary to popular advice, do not urinate or pour vinegar on the embedded spines -- this will not help.
Jellyfish stings can hurt like the devil but are seldom life-threatening. You need to get any visible tentacles off your body right away, but not with your hands, unless you are wearing gloves. Use a stick or anything else that is handy. Then rinse the sting with saltwater or fresh water, and apply ice to prevent swelling and to help control the pain. If you can find it at an island grocery store, Adolph's Meat Tenderizer is a great antidote.
The stone fish is so named because it looks like a piece of stone or coral as it lies buried in the sand on the lagoon bottom with only its back and 13 venomous spikes sticking out. Its venom can cause paralysis and even death. You'll know by the intense pain if you're stuck. Serum is available, so get to a hospital at once. Sea snakes, cone shells, crown-of-thorns starfish, moray eels, lionfish, and demon stingers also can be painful, if not deadly. The last thing any of these creatures wants to do is to tangle with a human, so keep your hands to yourself.
What to Do If You Get Sick away from Home
The main public hospitals and two private clinics in Papeete are up to international standards. Elsewhere you can get a broken bone set and a coral scrape tended, but you may be evacuated to Tahiti for more serious ailments. Tahiti has many well-stocked drug stores (most of their products and medications are from France), and most islands have a pharmacy.
You may have to pay all medical costs upfront and be reimbursed later. Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
While international terrorism is a threat throughout the world, the islands are among the planet's safest destinations. Tight security procedures are in effect at Tahiti-Faaa International Airport, but once you're on the outer islands, you are unlikely to see a metal detector, nor is anyone likely to inspect your carry-on.
The islands have seen increasing property theft in recent years, however, including occasional break-ins at hotel rooms and resort bungalows. Although street crimes against tourists are still relatively rare, friends of mine who live here don't stroll off Papeete's busy boulevard Pomare after dark. For that matter, you should stay alert wherever you are after dusk.
Don't leave valuable items in your hotel room, in your rental car, or unattended anywhere.
Women should not wander alone on deserted beaches at any time, since some Polynesian men may consider such behavior to be an invitation for instant amorous activity.
When heading outdoors, keep in mind that injuries often occur when people fail to follow instructions. Believe the experts who tell you to stay on the established trails. Hike only in designated areas, follow the marine charts if piloting your own boat, carry rain gear, and wear a life jacket when canoeing or rafting. Mountain weather can be fickle at any time. Watch out for sudden storms that can leave you drenched and send bolts of lightning your way.
The French gendarmes will come to rescue you if you get into trouble out in the wild, but believe me, they do not appreciate tourists blundering into trouble.
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.