From the coastal road ringing around the island of Mo’orea, you can glance down at the lagoon and take in postcard-perfect views of floating, traditional thatched-roof bungalows. This is the money shot; the reason why Tahiti’s 118 islands are narrowed down by many to just two: Mo’orea and Bora Bora. This year marks the 50th anniversary of these iconic overwater bungalows, first built in Raiatea’s lagoon by three Californians known as the Bali Hai Boys. Now the concept has spread to 884 bungalows across seven of Tahiti’s islands. But you don’t need to stay in an overwater suite at the Four Seasons or The St. Regis—which can easily cost upwards of $2,000 per night—to get the full bungalow experience. Locals are transforming their lagoons into low-key versions of these lavish lodgings to give travelers an authentic Tahitian stay that’s just as scenic as the large resorts—at a fraction of the price.
Known as pensions, or guesthouses, these Tahitian bed-and-breakfasts stemmed from locals welcoming travelers into their homes gratis when their traditional lodgings fell through. Travelers loved the homestay concept so much that Tahitians started slowly forming their own version of Airbnb, renting out rooms or entire bungalows everywhere from islands and atolls to surf breaks near one of the best swells in the world. Now the archipelago is home to over 300 pensions with private bungalows ranging from $100 to $300 per night.
From Tahiti, hop on one of Aremiti’s high-speed ferries to Mo’orea, which take around 35 minutes and cost 2,320 XPF (or $23 USD) for a round-trip ticket. At Fare d’Hôte Tehuarupe, Elda transformed her children’s rooms into standalone bungalows, with four air-conditioned spots overlooking her stretch of private lagoon. Rates hover around $113 per night and include use of paddleboards, kayaks, and bikes, as well as a simple French breakfast spread (think baguette and fruit) served on the terrace.
Just down the road, Taoahere Beach House is one step up and typically booked out months in advance. Its four bungalows sit directly on the beach, where you can head right out on the crystal-clear water snorkeling or with stand-up paddleboards. This spot operates more in the style of a hotel (with rates starting at $265 per night in high season) and features one of the island’s liveliest beach bars, only open Friday and Saturday evenings. Even if you can’t stay here, it’s worth swinging by on the weekend to check out live music while dining on upscale beach bistro fare centered around the catch of the day. Tip: You can’t go wrong ordering Tahiti’s national dish, poisson cru, or raw fish marinated in coconut milk and lime juice.
If you’re looking for a locale that’s really isolated, Reva Teahupo’o is your place. Located in the Teahupo’o village on Tahiti’s southeast coast, the easiest way to reach the guesthouse is the same way surfers reach the nearby waves—by boat. The legendary surf break draws surfers each August for the Billabong Pro competition, and many of the surfers and fans pitch tents along the pension’s grassy grounds. While you can arrive to the dock in your own boat, Reva Teahupo’o’s owner, Marc, is happy to pick guests up for the 30-minute ride, where you may catch glimpses of humpback whales and their newborn babies along the way. Marc and his team, who hail from the nearby village, act as everything from chefs to boat captains and guides, leading hikes along the rocky Jurassic Park-inspired Te Pari cliffs and into the Vaipoiri cave. Freshly caught fish are brought in each morning and served raw or grilled alongside vegetables grown in the onsite garden for a family style meal shared amongst guests staying in the 12 solar-powered bungalows (which start at $101 per night). While they’re comfortable, accommodations are pretty bare bones since the highlight here is more the surrounding scenery and location than the ecolodge itself.
While this seems about as off-the-grid as you can get (WiFi and cell signal are practically non-existent), another spot even more secluded lies on the coral Ahe atoll (population 377), home to only two guesthouses and not a hotel in sight. The arrival here is just as much of an experience as the stay itself. Air Tahiti offers one weekly flight from Papeete, which takes around an hour and 15 minutes. Once you land, a boat waiting in the lagoon across from the airport is the only option when it comes to reaching your guesthouse. Cocoperle Lodge includes the 20-minute airport transfer in its rates, which start at $119 per night for a beachfront bungalow with shared bathroom. The six thatched-roof bungalows are built with local materials and run entirely off solar power, but the breeze and overhead fans ensure you’ll be cool even on the hottest of nights. Franck, the owner whose impressive resume includes stints working as a French pastry chef, is married to a Tahitian and has called French Polynesia home for quite some time now, purchasing this stretch of land 12 years ago. Now Franck and his wife, Janine, manage everything from tours of the lagoon and its pearl farms (the source of Tahiti’s black pearls) to their open-air restaurant and bar, where they weave French touches into traditional Tahitian cuisine. While the lodge has a bit of a remote Robinson Crusoe feel, the 24-hour bar is stocked with everything you’d find back in France (rosé included).
When you’re ready to return back to mainland Tahiti, take part in another culinary favorite: the roulottes, or Tahitian version of food trucks. Head to Papeete’s waterfront Place Vai’ete, where you can choose from dozens of stalls whipping up everything from Chinese food to French-style crêpes and, of course, poisson cru, for a very local (and budget-friendly) way to end your stay in French Polynesia.