Bye-bye Bora Bora – 15 other islands in French Polynesia

Story highlights

French Polynesia has 118 islands and atolls to vacation on

Rangiroa has tiger and hammerhead sharks, dolphins, green turtles and eagle rays

Moorea rivals Bora Bora as a honeymoon location

Nuku Hiva has adventurous jungle hiking and horseback riding across the island

CNN  — 

Indulgent resorts.

Beautiful everything.

Bora Bora is called paradise for a reason.

And visitors return home with the exact photos of the island’s towering Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, the thatched roofs of over-water bungalows and a magenta sunset over the sparkling ocean.

Don’t do it!

There’s a lot more to French Polynesia.

The country is made up of 118 islands and atolls covering a stretch of ocean roughly the size of Europe.

The culture extends far beyond seashell necklaces, tiki souvenirs and Monoi oil suntans.

After flying into Tahiti’s main airport, there’s a network of islands reachable by plane or boat.

This is where some of the best of French Polynesia’s ocean adventures, cultural exploration, and, yes, romance, begins.

More: 10 islands for every type of traveler

1. Taha’a

Part of the Society Islands, the island of Taha’a is the premier place for Polynesian exports, including perfect black pearls and vanilla, grown on lush plantations.

Chefs at top restaurants around the world specifically order Taha’a’s fragrant vanilla beans.

In Taha’a, it’s worth going five-star.

Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa has restaurants and lounges built into trees, as well as 48 over-water bungalows atop a translucent lagoon.

With a knowledgeable staff, you get resort-quality service without pretense.

Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, Taha’a; +689 507601; from $708 for couples

2. Rangiroa

Part of the Society Islands, Rangiroa is called the “infinite lagoon.”

It’s one of the largest atolls in the world.

Divers around Rangiroa can spot tiger and hammerhead sharks, as well as dolphins, green turtles and eagle rays beyond the reef.

Rangiroa is the hub of French Polynesia’s wine industry. Vines grow along the lagoon next to coconut groves and grapes are brought to the local winery by boat.

Raira Lagon, Avatoru, Rangiroa; +689 931230; from $165 per person

3. Fatu Hiva

The word tattoo originated in Polynesia, and its best artists come from Fatu Hiva.

The word tattoo originated in Polynesia, and the region’s best artists come from Fatu Hiva.

Captain James Cook brought the Polynesian art form to the West after he and other explorers were influenced by the tattoos they saw in the Marquesas, a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia and one of the five administrative divisions in the archipelago.

You can still see local tribes with head-to-toe tattoos on Fatu Hiva.

The art form, which tells the mythology of the South Pacific islands, is experiencing a resurgence there today.

Fatu Hiva also offers gorgeous wilderness typical of the Marquesas.

Trekking through the lush but hot jungles of the islands and narrow valleys isn’t for the inexperienced, but it’s worth the journey.

Pension Chez Lionel serves a tasty local meal of plantains, goat meat and poe (fruit pudding).

Chez Lionel, Fatu Hiva; +689 928184; from $48 a night

More: Belize: 7 of its most stunning islands

4. Moorea

In recent years Moorea has been gaining on Bora Bora as the area’s best honeymoon location.

Many argue it rivals Bora Bora for natural splendor.

It has low mountains rising above wide meadows of grass and ferns, fields growing coffee, pineapple and sugarcane, and villages encircled by gardens of bright hibiscus.

It’s a 30-minute catamaran ride from Tahiti.

The Intercontinental Moorea has its own dolphin center for an up-close swimming experience, as well as singular amenities like room service by canoe and a spa flower bath experience.

Intercontinental Resort and Spa Moorea, Moorea; +689 551919; from $262

5. Rurutu

Better known as the Island of Whales, Rurutu is encircled by tall cliffs of ancient coral.

This ring attracts mating humpback whales every year from July to August.

Rurutu is worth visiting year round for the unique coral snorkeling experience, white sand beaches and incredible biking on the nearly car-free island.

Manotel, Moeral, Rurutu; +689 930225; from $66

6. Hiva Oa

The Marquesas remain mostly untouched by modern tourism.

The Marquesas bring an authentic Polynesian experience to the island experience, as opposed to say, a honeymoon resort so big you need a golf cart to get around.

This mysterious set of islands remains mostly untouched by modern tourism, with raw beauty that influenced Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Singer Jacques Brel and painter Paul Gauguin spent their last days on the island of Hiva Oa, famous for its untamed landscapes, as well as archaeological wonders like giant stone tiki dotting the island, in addition to a proud local culture welcoming of visitors.

The Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre pays tribute to his philosophy of “escaping to reach art,” and features a replica of his own Maison du Jounir (House of Pleasure).

The Paul Gauguin Cultural Centre, Atuona, Hiva Oa; +689 927897

7. Nuku Hiva

Nuku Hiva is best suited for adventurous types who’d rather forgo the sun lounger and spend their vacation hiking through jungles or horseback riding across the island’s desolate roads.

Nuku Hiva is filled with natural wonders from volcanic cliffs to thousand-foot waterfalls, with water that evaporates before it touches the ground.

The island is a key spot for archaeological sites, with Taipivai Valley housing several temples and large tiki, and the village of Hatiheu offering walking tours of petroglyphs and ruins.

Pension Koku’u, Taiohae, Nuku Hiva; +689 920774; from $57 a night for bed and breakfast

More: Go barefoot or go home: 15 best islands you’ve never heard of

8. Huahine

Huahine is good for exploration by canoe or glass-bottom boat.

The island’s crisp waves attract surfers year round.

Huahine also features the world’s longest and largest open-ocean canoe race.

The island’s lush vegetation includes giant bananas and melons. Lively bike tours will take you straight through fragrant vanilla plantations.

Lakeside villas atop lily pads and palm trees at the Maitai Lapita Village provide a serene alternative to the typical ocean bungalow.

Maitai Lapita Village Huahine, Huahine; +689 688080; bungalows from $268

9. Manihi

Manihi, another large coral atoll, offers a true castaway vacation, where few tourists venture.

Another large coral atoll, Manihi offers a true castaway vacation, where few tourists venture.

If you don’t mind the occasional power outage and lack of imported food, you’ll love this place.

The airport is a simple straw hut, with an airstrip that doubles as the site of the best stargazing in the area.

Manihi’s salty waters provide the perfect environment for growing pearls. French Polynesia’s first pearl farm was started here in 1968.

But pearls are best bought back to Tahiti. The pearl farm prices are surprisingly inflated.

Nanihi Paradise, Manihi; +689 933040; rates start at $121

10. Maupiti

At the far west of the Society Islands, Maupiti is a small volcanic island surrounded by a coral atoll.

With its own high peaks, Maupiti is like a mini Bora Bora, without all the glitz.

Its five islets seem created for boat rides and beach-side picnics.

Mount Teurufaaitu is the highest point on the island, with incredible views of Raiatea, Bora Bora and Taha’a.

As the oldest of the Society Islands, Maupiti is covered with archeological remains dating to 850 AD. Incredible turtle petroglyphs tell the story of the island’s birth.

You’ll only find bed and breakfasts here, as locals actively campaign to keep away big resorts.

Le Kuriri, Maupiti; +689 678223; from $138 per person

11. Tetiaroa

After scouting locations for his film “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1960, Marlon Brando fell in love with the French Polynesian lifestyle, a paradise he described as “chiffon in the wind.”

He bought the island of Tetiaroa, a previous vacation spot for Tahitian royalty.

After years of planning, the Brando Resort is finally opening in July 2014, to be powered by renewable resources such as coconut fuel, solar power and deep-ocean water cooling.

Focusing on private luxury, each of the 35 villas on the island offers its own plunge pool, terrace and coconut tree grove, all next to a private beach.

Guests can cruise the lagoons by paddle boarding, book a traditional beauty ritual at the Queen’s Spa or learn about Tetiaroa’s royal history at the Culture Lounge.

The Brando, Tetiaroa Private Island;; reservations open in early 2014

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12. Mangareva

Not many visitors make it out to Mangareva, guaranteeing a quiet getaway.

At the center of the Gambier Islands, the islands at the end of the world, more than a thousand miles southeast of Tahiti, sits Mangareva.

A hub of Catholic missionaries in the 19th century, its village of Rikitea is home to the neo-Gothic 1848 St. Michael’s Cathedral, constructed of fired limestone and inlaid with mother of pearl.

The village center is filled with eerie stone ruins from the era, including watchtowers, a triumphal arch and a former prison.

The hike up Mount Duff through high grass and pine forest offers the best panoramic views of the island. Not many tourists make it out to Mangareva – Air Tahiti operates flights only once a week, guaranteeing a quiet getaway.

The island is serviced by a handful of modest and hospitable pensions.

Pension Bianca & Benoit, Rikitea, Mangareva; +690 978376; from $95 a night per couple with breakfast

13. Fakarava

With an enormously fun name, Fakarava is known for its diverse ecosystem, marked by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve to preserve rare species.

With only about 400 people living on the island, its atolls are virtually untouched, making it great for diving.

Over-water bungalows are banned to protect the delicate coral in the area.

While other pearl farms in Tahiti are often tourist traps, Fakarava offers a genuine exploration of the pearl trade.

Motu Aito Paradise, Tuamotu, Fakarava; +689 41 29 00; from $165 per person for full board

14. Raiatea

Ancient legends are still a daily part of Raiatea, Tahiti’s religious and cultural capital a thousand years ago.

This sacred island is home to Taputapuatea, French Polynesia’s best-preserved historical site, full of religious artifacts and shrines. Here you can learn about how South Pacific civilization took shape.

Today, Raiatea’s vast harbor serves as the starting point for private boat tours of the surrounding islands or deep-sea fishing tours.

Opoa Beach Hotel, Taputapuatea, Raiatea; +689 600510; from $265 per couple

15. Tikehau

The best beaches in French Polynesia.

Tikehau, an oval-shaped island covered in pink sand and surrounded by rich waters, has the best beaches in French Polynesia.

Jacques Cousteau’s research group declared it the most fish-abundant atoll in Polynesia, which makes for incredible snorkeling just a few feet into the water.

There are typical over-water bungalows or, for something different, Tikehau Ninamu Resort, a one of a kind property set in a forest of bamboo containing birds of paradise. Featuring just six bungalows, each house is crafted from local materials such as shells, palm leaves and coral.

The Honeymoon suite treehouse feels like its own private paradise. And yet, it’s the only place on the island with working Wi-Fi.

Ninamu, Tikehau; +689 737810; $400 a night per person, all inclusive

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