12 Things You Didn't Know About French Polynesia

Tetiaroa atoll, Tahiti
Tetiaroa atoll, Tahiti | © Tweith / Shutterstock

French Polynesia might seem like the promised land, with sparkling lagoons and spectacular pinnacles, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye. For example, what’s the difference between Tahiti and French Polynesia? How many islands make up this country? What kind of country is it, and what’s the connection to the French Government? Here’s what you probably don’t know.

It’s made up of 118 islands and 5 archipelagos

Although we commonly refer to the entire group of islands as Tahiti, it’s actually only one of the many islands that make up French Polynesia. Tahiti is divided into Tahiti Nui and the smaller south-eastern portion, Tahiti Iti. Home to nearly 70% of French Polynesia’s population, the island is part of a group of archipelagos referred to as the Society Islands. Famous islands, such as Bora Bora and Moorea, are part of French Polynesia, but not Tahiti.


There are 13 letters in the Tahitian alphabet

The Tahitian alphabet has all of the same vowels as the Latin alphabet—a, e, i, o and u—but only eight consonants—f, h, m, n, p, r, t and v. The Tahitian language was purely oral until the early 19th century. You might be wondering how “Bora Bora” got its name without a letter b? It’s actually pronounced “Pora Pora,” but it’s likely that early visitors misheard it, and it’s been Bora Bora ever since.

The overwater bungalow was created in French Polynesia

These islands really are home of the overwater bungalow. The first was created in the ’60s on the island of Moorea.

Overwater bungalows in Bora Bora

Tahitian letterboxes are actually for bread deliveries

Those letterboxes outside some homes? They’re not for letters—they’re for bread! There is no residential mail delivery, so residents have to go to the post office to collect their mail.

French Polynesia is home to the most photographed isle in the South Pacific

A short distance from Bora Bora lies Motu Tapu, which is said to be the most photographed isle in the South Pacific. Surrounded by pristine white sands and a turquoise lagoon, it was once a private retreat for the Polynesian Queen Pomare IV.

The word “tattoo” comes from Tahiti

The word originates from the Tahitian word tatau. It’s thought to date back as far as 1500 BC. Tattoos have been an integral part of Tahitian society and wider ancient Polynesian history and were often symbols of rank, wealth, tribe or family group.

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shows off his Tahitian tattoo

It’s home to the world’s only coral atoll vineyard

Who would have thought you could grow grapes on a coral atoll? The French, of course! Vin Du Tahiti by the Domaine Dominique Auroy Winery is on the island of Rangiroa, a coral atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. It’s French Polynesia’s only wine label.

There are no poisonous snakes

Fact: there are no poisonous snakes in French Polynesia, or poisonous insects, either. You might get a few mozzies or sand flies, but none of these creatures are out to kill you.

Red bellied black snake

There’s a strong Chinese history

French Polynesia’s Chinese population recently celebrated 150 years on the islands. About 300 Chinese arrived from Hong Kong in 1865 to work in the cotton fields and on coffee and sugar plantations. Today, about 12% of the population in French Polynesia is Chinese.

The Tiare Apetahi flower only grows on one island

This fragrant white blossom is commonly worn behind the ear by both men and women and is somewhat of a mystery. The Tiare Apetahi only grows on the island of Raiatea on Mount Temehani. No one has ever successfully replanted it anywhere else in the world.

The Tiare Apetahi flower

French Polynesia is an overseas country of France

The islands were originally their own kingdom with royalty until its annexation by France in 1880. It’s now considered a semi-autonomous territory of France, though France’s authority includes such issues as law enforcement, property and civic rights.

There’s a Catholic Church made out of coral

The island of Fakarava is a protected coral atoll and has the second largest lagoon in the Tuamotu archipelago. It’s also home to one of the oldest Catholic churches in Polynesia, Jean de la Croix. The church interior is made completely out of coral.

Fakarava Island

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