The Society Islands - French Polynesia
Tahiti, the Society Islands of French Polynesia have been synonymous with paradise on earth - a combination of gorgeous beaches, friendly locals and peaceful idyllic lifestyles. This impression was enhanced by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, who lived on Tahiti in the 1890s, and it still rings true today. The 15 or so islands in the group are dominated by Tahiti. Most trade and industry happens here, and many people think it is a country in its own right. However although it has many attractions - in particular, its rugged and mountainous interior - for a classic white beach and clear turquoise water speckled with deserted matus (coral atolls), you should head for other islands in the group. Iconic Bora Bora is among the best known, but therefore one of the most visited, so for a completely different experience try nearby Moorea and Huahine.
Just a short ferry ride from Tahiti, Moorea is a clutch of eight mountains that plunge into a lagoon of iridescent turquoise, fringed on one side by tall palm trees and on the other with breaking waves from the Pacific Ocean. On its placid waters you can sometimes see the crews of outrigger canoes training for races. The lagoon is sprinkled with motus and it is worth taking a boat out to explore them - and feed the rays that will swim straight up to the beach when you arrive. They are so used to being fed that if you sit in the shallow water they will 'monster' you for attention, The motus are tropical paradises and leaving them at the end of a day of ultimate relaxation is difficult.
Huahine is also fringed by a turquoise lagoon. Smaller and much less developed than Moorea, it has a truly local feel. There are a number of bars and restaurants in the small settlement of Fare where the island's thriving community congregates after sunset. Food stalls are set up in the smatt car park and impromptu singing sometimes breaks out. Stunning as Huahine is above the water, the undersea world is equally spectacular. The snorkelling in the lagoon is breathtaking and there are fantastic dives around the reefs at its edge. A local organization attracts black-tipped reef sharks by feeding them; they are relatively harmless, so you will be able to swim with these sleek yet powertut animats - a thrilling experience.
Other fish also enjoy the free meal and dart around in great, brightly coloured shoals.
The many archaeological sites on Huahine give an idea of the complex ancestry of the people who live on the island. Most of the ruins ring the coast, but the largest and best preserved are the sacred marae, on the shores of lake Fauna Nui, and at the foot of Mount Mouatapu. Maeva Marae was the seat of Huahine royalty and most important of over two hundred stone structures and marae of the island.
Predictably, as part of French Polynesia - formerly an “oversees territory” of France and now designated an “overseas country”- the Society Islands have a distinctly French feel and a French legal system; they are effectively part of France and depend on it for economic support. Their main revenue comes from the export of the black pearls that are farmed throughout the islands – beautiful souvenirs of a visit to a tropical paradise.