Rana Good is the founder of Naïra NYC. A writer for publications such as Forbes, Travel + Leisure, Coveteur, Mens Journal and others, she created her own platform celebrating women of color.
The Maldives and French Polynesia are both dream destinations and as a travel writer, I’ve been fortunate to have visited both. The first thing I want to tell you is that everything you imagine about these destinations is true — the water is impossibly blue; the sand feels like powdered sugar and the opportunities for adventure are endless. Since both island regions are far-flung and typically a special occasion trip (a honeymoon, anniversary or bucket list vacation), I get a lot of questions about how they are different and which one is better. I’m by no means an expert but here are some of the similarities and differences I observed which you may want to know about when you’re planning your trip to either country. Here’s how to choose between the Maldives or Bora Bora?
What’s the same?
Both Are Far: Neither the Maldives nor French Polynesia (Bora Bora being one of the most popular islands in the archipelago) is particularly easy to get to. The Maldives are more accessible to tourists from Europe and Africa while French Polynesia is easier to get to for people living in the United States (in particular the west coast), Australia and South America. If you’re traveling to French Polynesia you will land in Tahiti and if you want to travel to Bora Bora from there you will need to take another flight. In the Maldives, you will land in the capital Malé and most likely take another flight to an island atoll.
More Airlines Fly to the Maldives: The way to get to Bora Bora is through Tahiti and the only airlines that fly there are United, Air New Zealand, Air Tahiti Nui, Air France, Hawaiian Airlines, French Bee, and LAN. Dozens of airlines fly to the Maldives and if you like to travel luxuriously you’ll have more options in terms of business and first class with airlines like Etihad, Emirates, and Singapore. I flew there with Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong in business class and it was an outstanding experience as I enjoyed a lay flat bed and great food en route. The total travel time was 21 hours (excluding layover time) but with that level of comfort, it was more of a treat than a chore.
What’s the same?
All About Overwater: The number one thing people associate with both the Maldives and French Polynesia are overwater bungalows and suites. Staying in an overwater villa is an unforgettable experience and in both French Polynesia and the Maldives, there are plenty of hotel options to choose from. When I visited Bora Bora I stayed at the St. Regis in a spacious overwater villa with views of Mount Otemanu. I could swim right off of my bungalow which as a relatively novice travel writer was an incredible experience. When I visited the Maldives I stayed at two Four Seasons properties — Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giravaru. The suites at Kuda Huraa had just been renovated and my room came with an infinity pool, netting to lay in over the water and easy ocean access. My room at Landaa Giravaru didn’t have an individual pool but an incredible reef to snorkel right off of my room. I saw mantas and parrot fish just a short swim away from my suite. This was a few years after visiting Bora Bora but let me tell you, this overwater thing does not get old — at all.
Very expensive: As I mentioned overwater rooms in French Polynesia and the Maldives are very expensive but not just that, you’ll have to spend a pretty penny on food, drinks, and activities so keep that in mind when you book. Frequently your resort will be the only spot nearby and going to another restaurant is not an option so all of your meals will be eaten there.
There are a lot more hotels in the Maldives: Interestingly French Polynesia is ten times the size of the Maldives (1,609 mi² versus 115 sq mi² respectively) but the Maldives receive significantly more tourism. In 2018 it had 1.5 million visitors whereas French Polynesia only had around 160,000 visitors. Accordingly, there are significantly more hotels in the Maldives and outposts of a lot of luxury names you might recognize such as Como, Six Senses, Anantara, Conrad, Soneva, St. Regis, and Jumeirah.
If you have the time and the funds you could probably spend a year in the Maldives checking out new properties. This summer there’s a food festival that spans three weeks in just one atoll – the Baa Atoll. Visit the Baa Atoll Summer Festival to enjoy a variety of food events on multiple islands checking out properties such as Amilla Fushi, The Westin Maldives, Vakkaru Maldives and Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu along the way.
What’s the same?
Fine Dining: Many hotels in both French Polynesia and the Maldives fall into the luxury category and with it so do your dining options. Keep in mind that a lot of the food is imported which also brings up the price. That being said the food while pricey also happens to be really good. Some of my favorite meals in Bora Bora were Poisson Cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice), lobster with a cream sauce with a touch of vanilla, and incredible sushi on the beach at the St. Regis. In the Maldives, there’s also an abundance of seafood dishes and I also really enjoyed the Indian restaurant on site at Kuda Huraa. You can also go on a very exclusive dinner here right in the middle of the ocean, truly taking fine dining to the next level.
Cultural Influences: Since Bora Bora is a French territory it has more French influences, think great pastries and other baked goods. There’s also a lot of Japanese influence so you’ll see sashimi quite regularly while you’re there. The cuisine in the Maldives is influenced by nearby countries India and Sri Lanka with spicy curries, chapati, and rice dishes frequently on the menu. I really loved their breakfast, Mas Huni, which is made with tuna, chili, coconut, and onion which are blended and served with chapati. It’s a little bit spicy and delicious.
What’s the same?
Crystal Clear Water: Both the Maldives and French Polynesia are all about water sports and any activity that overlooks the surrounding turquoise water. Here you can go snorkeling, jetskiing or jetpacking in the warm, welcoming waters. Both French Polynesia and the Maldives are at risk due to rising seawater levels and both destinations have notable conservation programs including coral restoration and animal wildlife rehabilitation.
Scuba versus wildlife experiences: If you’re a scuba diver the Maldives offer incredibly many sites and some of the best coral reefs in the world. That’s not to say scuba diving in French Polynesia isn’t great but the Maldives offers more variety. However, French Polynesia also offers other great aquatic experiences such as swimming with blacktip sharks or stingrays.
French Polynesia: The islands are famous for their pearls, vanilla, and monoï oil, and you should bring back at least one of these items. There’s nothing better than applying some nourishing monoï oil in the dead of winter to make your skin glisten and also give you island vibes. The vanilla here is considered the best in the world — one whiff and you’ll understand why.
Maldives: Like French Polynesia, the Maldives also have great coconut products, so grab a bottle of unrefined coconut oil to take home. Also, the islands’ abundance of shells and stones make for nice jewelry pieces to wear or gift to friends.