It’s Now Easier Than Ever to Visit Tahiti on a Budget

A new budget airline route provides extra incentive to visit the Islands of Tahiti, where affordable cafes, guest houses and experiences provide a viable alternative to expensive all-inclusive resorts.

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: French Bee

Photo By: French Bee

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Tahiti Tourisme

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Moorea Beach Lodge

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Hotel Kia Ora Resort and Spa

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

Photo By: Meredith Rosenberg

The Islands of Tahiti

Much confusion swirls around French Polynesia, a collection of 118 islands located in the South Pacific. While it’s often referred to as Tahiti and perhaps best known for Bora Bora, Tahiti is actually the largest island and where the international airport is based, so it’s more apt to refer to the whole as the Islands of Tahiti. And while the islands have earned a reputation for being expensive (this is where the overwater bungalow was invented, after all), a new budget airline route, along with existing guest houses and cafes, make the Islands of Tahiti more affordable than ever before.

Introducing French Bee

In May 2018, low-budget, long-haul airline French bee launched a new San Francisco to Tahiti route that starts at about $660 round-trip, but many people still haven’t heard about it. (The airline also rebranded from its former name, French blue.) The direct flight, the first from San Francisco, departs three times a week and only takes about eight hours to the capital of Papeete. This makes it both more affordable and more accessible to a new set of travelers, not just honeymooners and couples. Unlike what you may think when you hear the words low-budget and economy, French bee offers 32 inches of leg space, power outlets at each seat and free seatback entertainment — the selection of movies and TV shows isn’t extensive, but it’s enough to sustain you through the flight. Meals start at $25 if you’ve booked the basic economy fare, while a checked bag will cost $45, and extra leg room $55. But extra leg room puts you in the Cozy Cabin class, and though it’s still economy, the separate section is found just behind Premium class. Another option is the smart economy fare for about $50 more, as it includes a 50-pound checked bag and meals.

Redefining Budget

At the next level, Premium offers an upgraded economy experience if you have the budget. One-way tickets can cost more than $1,000, but you can upgrade at the airport for $260 one way if seats are available. This gets you 36 inches of leg room, while the first row even offers an elevated foot rest. Two meals and a snack are included and are surprisingly tasty, ranging from salmon and rice for dinner to a warm flaky croissant and yogurt for breakfast. Also included: Beverages, bottles of water, wine and champagne. Besides seatback entertainment, it’s also possible to borrow an iPad preloaded with magazines, although a basic amenity kit with an eye mask and headphones is provided in case you prefer to doze off. And even if you can’t afford Premium, the airline employs new Airbus A350-900s, meaning advanced cabin pressurization, temperature control (the cabin isn’t freezing), high ceilings, less noise and soft lighting.

Escape Tahiti's Crowds

Most visitors limit their time in Tahiti as they tend to hop Air Tahiti Nui flights to the other islands. But while the capital of Papeete and coastal areas are congested, hardly fulfilling the French Polynesian fantasy of overwater bungalows and empty beaches, it’s worth spending at least a day exploring the mostly empty interior. For example, different companies offer safari jeep tours of the Papenoo Valley, a lush, mountainous interior defined by gushing waterfalls and calm rivers. A sample trip from Mato-Nui Excursions journeys deep into the valley where, after a series of stops to marvel at waterfalls and make Tahitian crowns from local ferns, you’ll stop for a freshly prepared, traditional feast of poisson cru (tuna sashimi served with coconut milk), breadfruit, coconut bread, different types of sweet potatoes and fresh fruit like mango — all washed down with homemade lemonade.

Find Affordable Souvenirs

Downtown Papeete is filled with shopping, especially jewelry stores selling black pearls. If you want to cover all of your souvenir bases in one place, bi-level Le Marché de Papeete, or Municipal Market, is your best bet at reasonable prices, considering few items in French Polynesia are a true bargain. The ground floor is divided into sections where fresh produce, tropical flowers, fish and less expensive souvenirs are for sale. Look for pareos, colorful sarongs that make for ideal coverups; monoi oil, flower-scented coconut oil; shell leis; ukuleles and vanilla bean sticks. Upstairs you’ll find a mix of black pearl shops, along with higher-end stores selling quality wood carvings (tikis, sting rays, sea turtles) and gifts, plus lower-end stores selling all of the aforementioned products. Note that French Polynesia isn’t a bargaining culture, so be prepared to pay the list price for an item. If you’re hungry, there are also cheap food vendors. Get there on the earlier side, since it’s not uncommon for half of the stores and vendors to close by 3 p.m. at the latest, with the rest shutting down by 5 p.m.

Explore Moorea

Mountainous Moorea is Tahiti’s nearest neighbor, reached via a 10-minute flight for about $50, or a short ferry ride. The length and cost for the latter depends on which ferry company you use, but Aremiti is the cheapest, offering one-way fares for $15. The ride takes just 45 minutes, and you can opt to remain in air-conditioned comfort near the small café, or head to the top deck for the best views. Moorea is less congested than Tahiti, but with enough restaurants, activities and stores that you’re unlikely to be bored.

Save Money at a Guesthouse

Guesthouses or pensions are a more affordable option to hotels, and typically provide a more authentic experience anyway. You’ll find Moorea Beach Lodge along an idyllic strip of beach on the opposite end from the ferry terminal. Its thirteen bungalows start at $234, and the small property means that you’re only a few steps from said beach, where you can swim, snorkel or borrow a kayak for a lagoon paddle. Instead of a lobby, a living room common area, stylishly outfitted in browns and whites, provides a relaxing space to play games or read. Thatched-roof bungalows are modest but comfortable, equipped with air conditioning and a fan, small fridge and a deck with chairs, but don’t be surprised to be awoken by roosters crowing at the crack of dawn or the occasional torrential downpour. The al fresco breakfast overlooking the lagoon costs an additional $20, but you won’t leave hungry thanks to a large bowl of fruit salad, eggs made to order, hot flaky croissants and homemade banana bread. Fresh fruit juice and coffee are also on hand. Alternatively, a large, professional-grade kitchen is available to guests who wish to save money by making their own meals. Restaurants and shops are also within walking distance, or you can borrow one of the lodge’s bikes. Just remember the access code in order to re-enter the property.

Reserve Hotels During Low Season

If you want to splurge for part of your vacation, you can find rates at the five-star Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Resort starting in the $300 range from third-party sites. This will get you a garden bungalow during the low season (November to April), while an overwater bungalow can be snagged in the $500 range. (Compare this to Bora Bora, where the majority of overwater bungalows hover closer to $1,000 a night, even during the low season.) While there’s no need to spend one’s entire trip in an overwater bungalow (unless that’s the sole goal), it is worth experiencing it for a night or two, especially if you’re all about the snorkeling life. The lagoon is filled with coral gardens, and the turquoise water is so clear that you can spy everything from clownfish to parrotfish from your bungalow’s ladder. If an overwater bungalow isn’t in your budget, you can still experience the resort via a day pass that includes access to the beach and pool, as well as towels, snorkeling gear and lunch. Otherwise, book your stay during a Wednesday to enjoy traditional dancing during Polynesian night.

Eat for Less

Between high-end hotels and upscale restaurants, eating out in French Polynesia can quickly add up. Luckily the islands also have a variety of casual cafés with quality food. Sea You Soon is tucked away in Petit Village Shopping in Haapiti, where you can find surprisingly good pizza for about $12, paninis for $6 and the beloved local poisson cru for about $20. Oh, and the coffee is really good too.

Swim With Stingrays

Obviously boat tours are the best way to experience French Polynesia, and Temoana Tours, run by husband-wife team Joanna and Teva, won’t disappoint. They offer 10 different tours, with the Fabulous Tour being its most popular. For $121 and limited to six people, this five-and-a-half hour excursion departs from the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Resort (transfers from other hotels can be arranged) and sets off around the island, pointing out whenever there’s a sea turtle to be found or pod of wild dolphins racing alongside the pontoon. The boat anchors at a popular snorkeling spot that’s loaded with stingrays, and while they do have barbs, it’s safe to swim among them. In fact, they’re so friendly that they’ll routinely brush against your body, though it can take time to get used to their soft, slimy touch. Harmless black-tipped reef sharks also favor the warm, shallow lagoon. While it’s hard to beat this experience, this is followed by a generous helping of grilled prawns and breadfruit while seated at an umbrella-topped table in shallow water, just steps from a private motu, or islet. (Don’t be surprised if friendly stingrays circle your table seeking seafood.) During the lunch break, coral gardening is among the brand-new offerings from Temona Tours, allowing guests the opportunity to help restore damaged coral by transplanting it to a healthy reef in the lagoon while learning more about ongoing restoration efforts. Also new from the company is the Cineymoon Tour for two, allowing couples to watch a movie of their choice on the beach as the sun sets. Coming soon will be a Reef Riders tour, incorporating sea scooters to facilitate underwater exploration.

Ride an ATV

If you need a break from waters activities, Moorea Activities Center offers ATV tours lasting between two- and three-and-a-half hours. Since the company uses quad bikes, the tour is best for those who already have some experience riding them, as Moorea’s off-roading terrain can be steep, curvy, muddy and bumpy. Those who feel less comfortable behind the wheel can sit behind the driver instead. For $207 a person, the longer tour wends through the lush Opunohu Valley and across shallow rivers, then onward through pineapple plantations before reaching Belvedere Lookout, providing unobstructed views of Opunohu and Cook's Bays. The tour also stops for sample tastings at Manutea Tahiti, a juice factory/store that produces pineapple, guava and noni juices, along with fruit wines, flavored alcohol (pineapple rum) and jams. The finale is a windy ascent up Magic Mountain, where an additional short hike brings you to the peak, providing the best views of Moorea.

Zipline Through the Jungle

Tucked away in the Opunohu Valley, Tiki Parc Moorea is a mid-size zipline/ropes course that offers four different levels, from beginner to hard. After a brief introduction by a guide on how to clip yourself onto a line followed by a practice run, you’re left to your own devices to navigate the course of your choosing. Like the ATV, it’s best to have some experience going in, since the course is unsupervised. Those attempting the hardest course can expect to encounter ziplines, giant swings, a Tarzan jump and more — making it the perfect training ground for "American Ninja Warrior" hopefuls. Just note that while safety harnesses are provided, helmets and gloves are not, and that the swarms of mosquitoes that live in the lush interior appear undeterred by DEET repellant. Prices vary, but start at $30 for ages 3-7, and $35 for adults and kids older than 8 who choose two courses. It’ll set you back $55 to do all four courses.

Live Your Deserted Island Dreams on Rangiroa

To truly escape, catch an hour flight north from Tahiti to Rangiroa, a tiny atoll that’s home to about 2,700 people. Flights on Air Tahiti Nui start at about $320. The one-room airport lists all of the island’s businesses: about 20 eateries and the same number of lodging options. The latter are mostly guest houses, but there are two hotels. Diving and snorkeling are the main draws, as Rangiroa is essentially a giant lagoon surrounded by 240 coral islets, making it the world’s second largest atoll. Your first taste of this is on the flight over, as your propeller flight is the best way to appreciate the large patches of turquoise surrounded by deeper shades of blue. Speaking of taste, be sure to try the local Rangiroa honey.

Splurge Beyond Bora Bora

Accommodations can be found for as low as $100 a night at Rangiroa’s guest houses. The next level would be Les Relais de Josephine, a small but stylish French pension with romantic mosquito-netted beds covered with Tahitian quilts that runs about $200 a night. The main draw is its prime location on Tiputa Pass, where you can often spot dolphins playing in the waves around sunset. The outdoor restaurant overlooking the water is another draw, even if you’re not staying on site. The restaurant serves a mix of French and local fare accompanied by Tahitian wine. (Three courses with wine are a splurge at $50, but the food doesn’t disappoint.) Admittedly not budget, Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa is Rangiroa’s only four-star hotel, and rooms can be found in the $300 range during low season. While it’s possible to stay in an overwater bungalow, beach bungalows are actually the cheapest, although the pool villas are a happy medium as they provide the most space, along with a private plunge pool and outdoor soaking tub. But the main advantage for staying here is the on-site dive center offering lessons for a range of skill levels. Guests can also borrow snorkeling gear, bikes and Twizy cars, which are two-seater electric cars that are perfect for exploring Rangiroa’s traffic-free, two lane road.

Escape to the Blue Lagoon

This lagoon-within-a-lagoon setting could easily be the setting for the eponymous 1980 movie starring Brooke Shields, even though it was filmed in Fiji. But this version, about an hour boat ride from Rangiroa, consists of a series of deserted motus in water so shallow that you can walk between them while accompanied by sharks and stingrays. (Tip: Wear water shoes to prevent cutting your feet on sharp coral, but don’t fret if you accidentally step on one of the endless sea cucumbers.) Perhaps even more so than other parts of French Polynesia, the water here is some of the clearest, and there are few places in the world where you’ll find water in as many shades of turquoise-blue, as here. A full-day outing with a company like Oviri Excursions only costs $127 a person and includes three snorkeling stops, one of which involves swimming with black-tipped reef sharks and the occasional larger lemon shark. (Yes, actually swimming with sharks.) It also includes a traditional motu picnic on a deserted atoll, save for an open-air cabin in which to enjoy a picnic of grilled chicken, white fish, pasta salad, fresh coconut and pineapple. Afterward, there’s downtime to digest on the beach while listening to the captain strum a ukulele, catching glimpses of shark fins and pondering how to make this a permanent reality.

Visit a Pearl Farm

French Polynesia is famous for its Tahitian pearls, which come from pearl farms dotted across the islands. Gauguin’s Pearl is the only one on Rangiroa, and the small operation consists of a boutique and outdoor area where you can watch employees undertake the painstaking process of inserting a faux pearl into shells, with the hopes that a real pearl will form around it in two years. (Based on this, you won’t always get to witness pearls being harvested.) A guide explains the pearl-making process, which starts with choosing black-lipped shells for creating black pearls. The same shell can’t be used more than three times to create a pearl, and usually the first pearl produced is the best. A guide also explains the pearl grading process, from A to D, with A exemplifying ones with no imperfections, the roundest shape and most luster. D-graded pearls are generally tattooed to cover the amount of imperfections. Free tours to learn about this and more are given three times a day, and the pearl farm will even provide free shuttle transportation from your lodging. While prices here are reasonable compared to other islands, there’s no obligation to buy anything. And those buying loose pearls can have them strung on a necklace or mounted on earring posts for no extra cost.

Drink Tahitian Wine

Vin de Tahiti claims to be the only coral winery in world, meaning that its vineyards grow in coral, not soil, on a motu off Rangiroa that can only be accessed by boat. Its vineyards only date back to 1997, and winemaker Sébastien Thépénier, who trained in France, oversees two harvests a year that consist of Muscat and Grenache grapes. The vineyard currently sells three whites and one rosé, mainly in French Polynesia and France, with prices starting at about $30. Reserved tours are offered three days a week at 5 p.m. for $19, and involve watching a subtitled movie about the company’s winemaking history and process while tasting wines, before getting a look at the small production facility. In another first for French Polynesia, the company is also producing Rum Mana’o for $70, a strong sugarcane rum that’s distilled on the island of Taha’a.

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