Islands, Lagoons & Atolls of Polynesia

Whether it’s from the colorful paintings of Paul Gauguin or from a glossy magazine advertising luxury holidays, the image most people have of French Polynesia is one of an earthly paradise. However, few are those who truly know this remote place. So what is Polynesia?

A cluster of lush green islands basked in the sweet fragrance of frangipane and tiaré flowers?

A collection of coconut clad beaches lapped by warm waters?

Lagoons of every imaginable shade of turquoise protected by multicolored fish filled coral reefs?

Mysterious jungles in which are hidden the secrets of an old civilisation?

A culture cherished and kept alive by the descendants of the navigators who first set foot in Polynesia, hundreds of years ago?

It is all of these things and more.

French Polynesia is, in fact, made of 118 islands and atolls dispersed over five million square kilometers, far from everything, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The territory is huge – bigger than India or equal to half of Canada! – but when put together, the small islands account for just over four thousand square kilometers (i.e. half of Corsica). Five archipelagos are found on this vast territory: the Marquesas (Îles des Marquises), the Society Islands (Îles de la Société), the Gambiers, the Tuamotus, and the Austral Islands. Each has its own culture, its own spirit.

A fact that I find particularly interesting about these islands is that they are all volcanic. Born from cooled lava, each of the Polynesian islands can be classified into one of the three following categories: islands, barrier reef islands and atolls. I’ll save you the trouble of googling what an atoll is and explain everything below.

1. Islands

No explanation necessary here: everyone knows what an island is. I’ll just say that the Marquesas – the northernmost archipelago of the five that make up French Polynesia – are a stunning example of these extinct volcanoes.

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We have more photos and interesting stories about the Marquesas here.

2. Barrier Reef Islands

This is where things get interesting. Barrier reef islands are islands that, over time, have slowly started to sink back into the ocean and where the coral reef that had initially formed around the islands’ shores has continued to grow upward in order to stay at a depth where the water temperature and the sunlight are ideal for its survival. The exquisitely warm and tranquil water separated from the ocean by the protective reef is called a lagoon (or a miracle of nature, if you ask me). In fact, lagoons are essential to the development of very unique underwater ecosystems. Among the most famous barrier reef island we visited are Tahiti, Bora Bora, Huahine, Moorea, and Raiatea.

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3. Atolls

A barrier reef island graduates to the status of “atoll” once the volcanic island entirely disappears beneath the water, leaving only the reef and lagoon behind. Seen from above, these spectacular formations resemble sparkling aquamarine jewels strewn across an expanse of lapis lazuli.

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Genuine lakes in the Pacific Ocean, they are a sight so unusual, so surreal, that it brought tears to my eyes to see one for the first time, as we were flying over the Tuamotus on our way to the Marquesas.

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The islands’ formation, although fascinating, isn’t the only attraction here. On the nine islands that we visited, we hiked through dense jungles in search of tikis and hidden waterfalls, ate fresh tuna cooked in lime juice and coconut milk, met the most amazing people, got tattooed and visited farms of all kinds – pearls, vanilla and pineapple…

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The Manta Ray

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The fragrant frangipane flower

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Fun fact about Polynesian pearls: they come in all colors (chocolate, champagne, silver, etc), not just black! It’s part of what makes them so special.

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… but the main attraction, in our opinion anyway, was under water.

Have you ever swum next to a manta ray? A shark? Fifty sharks? A whale!?

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Yes, we really were that close!

I can now blissfully say that I have done all those things and, believe me, snorkeling alongside a whale is much scarier than scuba diving with a gang of sharks.

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Before I embarked on this adventure, French Polynesia was, for me, a vague and distant place. I had seen images so breathtakingly beautiful that my only conclusion was that Photoshop had been shamelessly used. Oh, how wrong I was!

Six weeks after our arrival, it’s with heavy hearts and wearing flower necklaces that we made our way back to the airport. After visiting nine islands within three different archipelagoes, we knew we had only barely skimmed the surface of what there is to experience in this wonderful place. French Polynesia, with its natural beauty, its extraordinary submarine world and its fascinating culture, is a place where one can fully appreciate just how sweet life is.

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