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Overwater Bungalows and Honeymooners, Sure – but French Polynesia Packs in the Adventure Too

Views of Otemanu from the Four Seasons Bora Bora.

Where to surf, snorkel, and swim under the Tahitian sun.

Book in hand, mai tai tableside, and a bowl of fresh poisson cru delivered by outrigger canoe. Horizontal on the deck of an Eden-esque overwater bungalow – in a plumpy chaise lounge at the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, in this case – lazing the day away in the South Pacific sunshine. A stingray here, a blacktip reef shark there, plus an unimpeded view of Mount Otemanu, an extinct volcano dipped in a tinge of green rising 2,385 feet above a translucent-blue lagoon.

French Polynesia is a dream getaway: idyllic, carefree, and the epitome of barefoot luxury. Few beach destinations, if any at all, can go toe to toe with the secluded island paradise – a collection of 118 islands and atolls scattered across five archipelagoes equal in size to western Europe – where newlyweds and holidaymakers jet off to for a languid week in the sun.

But French Polynesia, often called the Islands of Tahiti, is more than a romantic hot spot: It’s chock-full of outdoor thrills on both land and at sea. Come for the overwater bungalow, stay for the tropical adventure. From mountaintop ridgelines to vibrant coral reefs, this primer on outdoor activities – and the best islands to find them on – is sure to get your adrenaline going.

Snorkel with Black Tip Sharks in Bora Bora's lagoon.

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Scuba Dive off Bora Bora 

Pick an island, any island, in French Polynesia, and a surplus of diving awaits. With hues of blue that defy the color spectrum, Bora Bora’s ever-clear lagoon – dubbed “the Pearl of the Pacific” – is one of the world’s most stunning aquatic pools for which to strap on a pair of fins and a tank. Beneath the surface: more than 800 species of fish, hawksbill turtles, and a bounty of docile reef sharks. If you’re lucky, as I was on my private dive with the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, you might even spot a manta ray or two at Anau, the island’s most popular dive site. At the tail end of our 60-foot plunge, my dreadlocked French Polynesian guide signaled to me as a graceful, winged giant – and then another – swam overhead.

No scuba certification, no worries. Discover much of the same underwater playground by outrigger canoe on one of the 115-room resort’s daily snorkeling safaris.

Moorea's Opunohu Valley has some of Tahiti's top hikes.

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Hike or ATV to Moorea’s Scenic Inland Heights 

Moorea’s lush interior is a network of peaks, valleys, and vistas that feel as if they were plucked right out of Jurassic Park. Take the Opunohu Valley, for example, home to Mou’a Puta, one of the island’s tallest mountains, which requires a demanding seven- to nine-hour out-and-back hike to reach its 2,700-foot summit. For something less strenuous, Three Pines Pass and Three Coconuts Pass can be trekked in a few hours’ time and have great views of the island’s caldera. Add some action-packed adventure by hopping on an ATV for a quad tour through the center of Moorea’s volcano, splashing through muddy creeks, cruising across pineapple fields, and scaling Belvedere Point for a bird’s-eye panorama of Opunohu and Cook’s Bay.

The world's top surfers will charge Teahupo’o during this year's Summer Olympics.

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Catch a Wave in Tahiti, the Birthplace of Surfing 

Surfing in Tahiti runs deep. Ages ago, Polynesian royalty rode waves on wooden surfboards. In April, big-wave surfers will flock to Tahiti’s southwestern coast to take on its swell at the fearsome Teahupo’o, one of the world’s heaviest waves. Next up: Tahiti will host the Paris 2024 Olympic surfing competition, due to its status as a French overseas territory.

But travelers needn’t be pros to enjoy the waves – there are beginner-friendly breaks aplenty throughout French Polynesia. Virtuoso travel advisors can work with Tahiti Nui Travel to create a custom surf excursion, whether it’s to ride your first wave or test your skills on a pumping reef, the on-site tour connection has all skill levels covered. For a different type of surfing, there’s kiteboarding as well; the lagoon at Motu Nao Nao, a 75-acre private island off Raiatea, is an ideal location to test the stout South Pacific trade winds.

Tahiti is one of the world's top spots to snorkel with humpback whales.

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Snorkel With Humpback Whales and Spy Exotic Birds on Tetiaroa

Humpback whales migrate to French Polynesia’s warm waters from July through November. Whale-watching outfitters set off from Moorea, Tahiti, and other islands daily, but there’s a twist for the adventurous: French Polynesia is one of the few places in the world where snorkelers can swim alongside the mellow behemoths. The regulated activity is a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounter – some say it’s life changing to be in the open ocean near one of the planet’s biggest mammals and, possibly, their kin. On Tetiaroa, naturalists at The Brando, a 36-villa, private-island resort, guide guests around the atoll, putting them in the best spot for a respectful, up-close meeting.

While you’re there, buzz across the atoll’s inner lagoon – nicknamed the “Billionaire’s Bathtub” – by boat with a guide to “bird island,” a white-sand motu and sanctuary for white terns, brown and blue-footed boobies, and the Pacific golden plover, which makes a confounding 2,000-mile nonstop flight to Tetiaroa from Alaska each summer.

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