Paths across the Pacific vary, but almost everyone goes to French Polynesia. Based on our experience, here’s what to expect in FP. Generally speaking, what’s available varies by island group.
As the first landfall after weeks at sea, it’s impossible to resist the lure of fresh produce. Like everything in FP, though, it will cost you! For the first (and hopefully last) time in my life, I spent $12 on a single smallish melon. It was juicy, delicious, and honey-sweet, but I hope I never pay that much for a single piece of fruit again!
Yes, this is a grocery store. Small shops, known as magazins, are the typical source for groceries
The fruit in the Marquesas is beyond glorious, and I probably didn’t need to satisfy my fresh-fruit craving at such a price- laden trees seem to be everywhere. Mangoes, pamplemousse, bananas, and more. It all belongs to someone, and it’s important to ask permission before helping yourself… but it’s almost always permitted with a broad smile. For the first time, we experienced the nectar that is a tree ripened pamplemousse. It was beyond spectacular. We’ve had them since, but never quite as sweet as the beauties from the Marquesas.
These dry atolls grow precious little of their own produce; almost everything is flown in from Tahiti. Goods are expensive to start with in Tahiti, and don’t get any cheaper being put in short hop flights to these islands. The only “deals” were subsidized goods, but other than the $.50 baguettes, they were not a bargain. On the other hand, bring as much fruit as you can carry from the Marquesas. The kids we met in the Tuamotus thought our fresh papaya was a huge treat- as it probably was.
Tahiti / Society Islands:
Anything you could want, from middle eastern dates to French lentils, can be had (for a price) in Tahiti. This was the only stop in the south Pacific where supermarkets resembled their US counterparts. Frankly, it was kind of weird reverse culture shock and took some adjusting: I hadn’t been in an aisle dedicated to cold cereal in a VERY long time! Stock up at the Carrefour in Tahiti, supplement with produce from the marche municipal (public market) in downtown Papeete, and try to get out with a few francs.
There are a common denominators between islands, too:
Bless the french, for they have brought baguettes to the far corners of the world. One of the cheapest things you can buy (around $.50 for a meter-long loaf) and available almost everywhere there are people in French Polynesia.
Lunch at anchor in Huahine: fresh baguettes smeared with brie. I personally gained about 10 pounds of fresh baguettes smeared with brie during our 3-month stay.
In addition to baguettes, a variety of staple foods are subsidized in FP. Subsidized prices are still almost always more (sometimes two or three times more) than prices in Mexico, but a bargain compared to everything but gifted or foraged fruit and fish. We discovered the trick for identifying the lower cost goods was the color of the price tag. It seemed to vary somewhat by location, but red or day-glo orange generally denoted a subsidized product. Scanning an aisle, you can hone in on the color to speed up shopping.
Subsidized items include powdered milk, flour, sugar, cooking oil, canned butter, chicken, lamb necks (?!), pork & beans, and canned beef.
Variety canned vegetables.
We bought a lot of canned or tetra pack vegetables to get us through the stretches between opportunities to buy vegetables in the islands. Yeah, it sounds pretty gross, but it’s better than no veggies when you can’t find fresh! They’ve been helpful meal fillers, although surely not very nutritious. The problem for provisioning was that the variety in Mexico was very, very limited. Once again, I think we can thank the French: there was a interesting selection of relatively palatable canned veggies available: beets, caponata, and endive.
Canned spinach, Brussels sprouts, and beets on the shelf in French Polynesia.
Things to buy in FP:
Canned butter was readily available in French Polynesia, but difficult to find everywhere else (until New Caledonia, where it cost 30% more). I. Love. Butter. Having canned butter, instead of butter that has to be kept refrigerated- or turned into ghee- is reeeeaaaallly handy on a cruising boat in the tropics.
We also found that Tahiti had best selection of cured meat in the Pacific. We had dry salamis purchased here that were with us until New Caledonia, four months later. Don’t forget quarantine in your ports of call, though: most ports in the Cook Islands were confiscating all non-New Zealand meat products in 2010. In Suwarrow, we were merely encouraged to destroy the meat by burning it… slowly, over a barbecue, among friends.