Cycling in French Polynesia
Although French Polynesia is not a prime cycling destination, a bicycle will add considerably to a visit, at least in the case of the Society Islands. The pleasures include the tropical environment, palm-fringed beaches, snorkelling and diving on the reefs, jungle-covered extinct volcanoes, and a strongly French-influenced but still relaxed culture. Everyone speaks French, but Tahitian and other Polynesian dialects are widely spoken. French Polynesia is made up of five archipelagos of islands, the Society Islands, Tuamotus, Marquesas (Marquises), Australs, and Gambiers, spread over an enormous area of the Pacific. The Society Islands are divided into two groups, the Îles du Vent (principally Tahiti and Moorea) and Îles-sous-le-Vent (principally Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora). The capital and international airport is at Papeete on Tahiti. The high islands, such as the Society islands, are mountainous extinct volcanoes with habitation confined to the coast. The atolls, such as the Tuamotus, are a thin strip of reef surrounding a lagoon. The Society Islands are large enough to merit exploring by bicycle, and provide a key advantage given the scarcity/absence of public transport. Outside the Society Islands, only a couple of the Marquesas and one of the Australs have enough road to give any point to taking a bike. These notes are based on 18 days spent in the Society Islands in 1998.
Most roads in the Society Islands are paved, and the pavement is being extended. Most roads keep to the coast and are pretty flat, but when they go inland they can be very steep. The principal circuits are signed with kilometre stones, and locations are defined according to their pointe kilométrique (PK) from the main town. Unpaved coral soup roads are pretty good, though there are some muddy ATB challenges when you get into the interiors. The other archipelagos do not have paved roads. On atolls expect sand.
Special Tropical Cycling Precautions
In a warm humid climate, old patches lift and new ones wont stick. Rubber softens, and blunt edges inside your rims are redefined as knives slicing up your tubes. To mend a puncture, ideally do it in an air-conditioned room, and do not use the tube for a few days so the patch gets a chance to really stick on. The salty humid climate will quickly rust your bike. Regrease your seat-pillar and handlebar stem, and check them regularly or they will never move again...
Acclimatisation to tropical conditions should be taken as seriously as altitude acclimatisation. Heat stroke is as dangerous as altitude sickness. When you first arrive, do not spend all day doing active things until you have acclimatised. Do not expect to be able to get very far, even on flat paved roads, until you have got used to the climate. Acclimatisation can take one to three weeks, depending on what you are used to. You will not acclimatise properly if you spend extended periods (eg, sleep) in air-conditioning. If you make a conscious decision to avoid aircon, you soon wont need it.
Climate and Daylight
Most of French Polynesia has an equatorial climate, humid and hot. May to October is the dry season and the best time to go, though obviously July/August is busy. The average maximum is 28°C, downpours rarely exceed 20 minutes, and there is plenty of sun. In the wet season, average maximum is 32°C and extended downpours and overcast conditions are common. There is often a welcome breeze. French Polynesia is 10 hours behind GMT, which puts sun overhead at an annoyingly early 11.45 on Tahiti, and absurdly early times if you head a long way east. Daylight hours vary little around the year. Do as the locals, get up at dawn and go to bed early.
Maps and Guides
IGN produce a good map of the Society Islands at 1:100,000. Elsewhere you will have to rely on a guidebook, but there isnt much geography to most of the remote islands. To get detailed topographical maps from the military you need a Local Sponsor and a Good Reason. Lonely Planet publish a detailed guidebook, but there is more choice if you read French.
There is no shortage of five star hotels, but budget accommodation is thin on the ground. So thin that the tourist board defines économique as less than 5,000 FP (US$50). Dorm accommodation is usually 1,200 FP to 1,500 FP, but youll need to camp some places if that is the limit of your budget. Cheap places let you cook for yourself.
Camp-sites usually charge 800 to 1,000 FP. There isnt necessarily a camp-site at obvious tourist destinations. It is sometimes possible to wild-camp, though the density of habitation means you have to be a bit inventive. Dont camp under coconut palms.
Camp-sites provide cooking facilities, so unless you are wild-camping a great deal your own stove is a bit of a luxury. You can get what you need in Papeete. White gas is called Essence C, and is available from one of the DIY sheds in the port area.
There are well-stocked supermarkets full of imported goods on all the Society Islands. Shops open early. On Sundays, a few shops open 0600 to 1000, and then everything is closed. A serious annoyance is that most people have private supplies of local products, so you cannot get them cheaply or easily in shops. Around Papeete, there are road-side fruit, veg and fish stalls, especially in Faaa, but not much on other islands.
Papeete has a couple of fully equipped bicycle shops on Ave Georges Clemenceau.
Things to Take
You can get everything you need, but at a price. To minimise expense, bring toiletries, pharmaceuticals and tea.
The tropical sun is serious. Wear sunblock even on overcast days. Dont stay in the sun for long until you have hardened off. Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Replace sunblock you have sweated off. Dont go swimming in the middle of the day. Mosquitoes are a serious nuisance, use mosquito coils. There is no malaria. There is dengue, but it wont kill you and there is nothing you can do about it. Another common nuisance is the sandfly or nono. It can carry Something Nasty, but only on the Marquesas. On mountainous islands, the water is potable, except, according to the local inspectorate, in rural parts of Tahiti. But I drank it and came to no harm. Exercising common sense as to where you take it from, you can drink stream water its the same as the tap-water. On atolls, take local advice.
The currency is the Pacific Franc, written FP, FCP or CFP, also used in other French Pacific territories. It is fixed at 18 to the French Franc, which conveniently worked out at 100 to the US$ in 1998. There are cash machines, etc, just as in France. The culture may be French but the prices are Scandinavian. A small pile of bananas is 120 FP to 200 FP. The only bargain is bread at 40 FP a flute. A beginners 5-day diving course starts at about 30,000 FP. You need to take out a mortgage to make an international telephone call or use the internet. To eat out cheaply, go to roulottes, surprisingly sophisticated fast food vans, where you can get an excellent meal for under 1,000 FP.
Public land transport is provided by converted trucks called «trucks». Outside the immediate area of Papeete they vary from infrequent to non-existent, I suggest cycling. There are several boats a day from Papeete to Moorea, taking 30 to 60 minutes and bikes go free. The Îles-sous-le-Vent are served by a fast catamaran from Papeete three times a week. The single fare to Huahine, the nearest, is about 5,000 FP, which takes four hours. Your bike goes for 1,200 FP to/from Papeete, but 600 FP for short hops. The timetable is subject to disruption by the weather. There are also a couple of freighters you can travel on, Vaena and Taporo, which run three times a week. They are considerably cheaper, take over twice as long, are subject to mechanical failure, and on the deck means precisely that.
To get your bike to the other archipelagos, long journeys on infrequent freighters are your only option, though you could fly yourself and send the bike by sea if you get the timing right. Internal air travel is expensive its cheaper to fly from Papeete to Paris than to the Marquesas. With only 10kg of baggage allowance, and a requirement to pre-book excess baggage at high rates, I doubt you can even take your bike.
Many people go to French Polynesia because it is a free stop-over on a Round The World ticket. Papeete is the Pacific hub. The main long-haul connections are Paris, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Auckland, Sydney, Tokyo, Easter Island and Santiago (Chile). Many Pacific Island destinations are served, such as Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Tonga. French Polynesia is so expensive it is worth thinking about using it as a gateway to somewhere a bit cheaper, less visited, and with a less modified culture. If you are flying with Air New Zealand, you can probably get a free stopover at Fiji and/or the Cook Islands (Rarotonga).
Arriving at Papeete
Faaa airport is 6km from Papeete. (If you think these places have too many vowels, try Vaiaau.) On arrival, unless you are French you have to show a ticket to leave. For Papeete centre, go left signed Faaa centre, because Papeete direct puts you on the motorway. For Punaauia and Paea go right. You will probably arrive in the middle of the night (any time after 9pm by local tradition) so try to book accommodation before you get there. Otherwise you can sleep on the floor by the domestic departure gates a mosquito coil is recommended.
Captain Cook found the Polynesians light-fingered, and it hasnt changed much. The unemployed youths in the suburbs of Papeete look rather threatening. So keep an eye on your stuff and stay out of dodgy areas at night.
With half the population of five archipelagos concentrated on the coastal strip of one island, much of Tahiti is continuous suburbia. It is 115km round the main part of the island, Tahiti Nui. From Faaa, you can ride a steep climb to a 1,400m peak. (Climb up through the gate to the municipal tip, then take the second left. After a steep rough bit it becomes paved again. Go very early, as it is always in the mist in the afternoon.) For lovers of mud, sweat and tears, there is a 30km cross-island mountain-bike route from Papenoo to Ofiaroa, col at 884m. There are two coastal dead-ends and an inland circuit into the Tahiti Iti peninsular. The north coast and Tahiti Iti are less populated, and I wild-camped a couple of times. There are no organised campsites any more, nor any budget accommodation remote from Papeete. Pick of the cheapies is Te Miti near PK18.5 in Paea, from 1,500 FP (1998). In central Papeete, cheapest is Tahiti Budget Lodge on Frère Alain, 1,950 FP (1998) for unsalubrious dorm accommodation and cockroaches like monsters from outer space.
Described as the most beautiful island in the Pacific, but today a tourist trap heavily developed with five star hotels. It is 60km round with an inland detour possible. There are a couple of campsites and dorm places by a nice beach at Hauru 30km from the ferry. Supermarket near the ferry quay, many small shops at Hauru.
A small double island, but a relatively complicated geography and fewer tourists allow some interesting touring. Some roads are still unpaved. No services outside Fare. Several budget/camping options. Best beaches on Huahine Iti.
Raiatea and Tahaa
Least visited of the Society Islands, two islands in the same lagoon, neither having many beaches. 98km round Raiatea, about half paved, plus a small pass. Few services outside Uturoa. Budget accommodation (Marie-France) and camping (Peters Place at PK6.5 east side), plus wild-camping possibilities. Tahaa has 70km of road, mostly unpaved, and no budget accommodation or campsite. You could do it as a day trip, but the shuttle boat is expensive.
Described as the most beautiful island in the Pacific, but today a tourist trap heavily developed with five star hotels. Did I read that somewhere before? Only 32km round, no campsite, and budget accommodation starts at about 2,500 FP. One of those places that is really a spelling mistake, as there is no letter B in Tahitian.
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