No, there's no need to remortgage the house to visit Tahiti and French Polynesia. Despite a reputation for opulence and exclusivity, it's perfectly possible to visit these dreamy islands on a limited budget -- if you make the right decisions.
Glossy brochures focus on ultra-swish resorts, but French Polynesia actually has a pretty wide range of accommodation options. You can keep lodging costs down by staying in small guesthouses and pensions (homestays) that are sprinkled around the islands. They're nothing glam or ostentatious, just modest operations that blend perfectly into the tropical surroundings. At the cheaper end of the scale (around US$80 a double), they consist of simple, local-style bungalows with cold showers and thin walls. Upmarket versions (plan on US$100-120) have lots of amenities and are more comfortable.
These options are generally excellent value, and they offer good opportunities for cultural immersion; they're mostly family-run operations (which ensures your money goes straight into local pockets) and provide much more personal, idiosyncratic experiences than hotels -- the perfect island experience.
Most pensions are in scenic locations, tucked away in greenery-cloaked hills or near the ocean. In the Tuamotu archipelago, they feature a fab lagoon frontage -- at US$90 a double, how does a bungalow facing the turquoise waters of the lagoon sound?
Good news, too, for those who want to spend their holiday under canvas: French Polynesia has a smattering of camping options. Don't expect full-blown camp sites, though; generally it's a matter of guesthouses having areas where you can pitch your tent and have use of the facilities. The price? Around US$15 per person.
Choosing the best-value islands
As much as Paris doesn't represent France, Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea (the beloved islands of tour operators), don't sum up French Polynesia. There are about 30 islands (scattered in five archipelagoes) that have tourist facilities, which means that you've got plenty of choice. Tip: skip the heavily-publicized islands, such as Bora Bora, which are very expensive, and consider lesser-known, off-the-radar islands, which offer greater value for money. A few suggestions: Maupiti (Bora Bora's little sister), Raiatea, Tahaa (in the Society islands), Mataiva, Tikehau (in the Tuamotus), Nuku Hiva, Ua Huka, Ua Pou (in the Marquesas), Raivavae, and Rurutu (in the Australs).
How to eat cheaply
It's possible to eat reasonably cheaply by patronizing snack stands and getting takeaway meals like sandwiches, salads, grilled fish and meat or fish burgers. Most pensions offer half board (bed, breakfast and one other meal) at around US$20 to US$30 per person (set menu) if you reserve in advance (usually the day before). This is a fantastic way to meet locals and sample the local cuisine at economical prices.
Self-catering can also save you a lot of money; many pensions have well-equipped kitchens. Fresh fish, fruits and vegetables are easily found at roadside stalls found on most major islands.
Budget-friendly ways to get around
Air Tahiti, the domestic airline, has six island-hopping air passes offering inclusive fares to a number of islands. Thus, you'll save about 30% on regular flights. If you're looking for adventure and have plenty of time on your hands, boat travel is even cheaper. Cargo vessels serve most islands on a regular basis, especially within the Society group and the Tuamotus.
Hiring a car is expensive but it's possible to get around by bike on many islands; distances are rarely great, the traffic is rarely heavy and the roads are rarely hilly. Bikes can be rented for less than US$15 per day.
Picking the right season
It helps to travel off-season: prices are generally discounted and there's more chance of being able to bargain. Flights are full to bursting in July and August and prices skyrocket accordingly. The Christmas to New Year period is also particularly busy. The best deals can be found during the shoulder seasons -- April to June and September to November.