First things first, a disclaimer: I have never been to the Maldives, only to French Polynesia (Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea), so my opinion will be biased. However, I have done lots of research on both places and know just enough about the Maldives to be dangerous … Here are some thoughts.
In terms of accommodation and cost, you have a wider range of choices – not to mention more choices overall – in the Maldives than French Polynesia (at least, Bora Bora and Moorea, which I visited). You can stay at hotels for $50 a night, or luxury overwater bungalows for $900 and above a night. In Bora Bora and Moorea, you should expect to shell out at least a couple hundred a night, and with fewer options and types of accommodations to choose from.
In terms of location, resorts in the Maldives are more isolated – essentially, many hotels and resorts own their own private island, so you’re basically captive on that island unless, like brittnamrogo mentioned, you venture out on a seaplane or speedboat …
In terms of scenery, French Polynesia has high islands (like Bora Bora and Moorea, with mountains) as well as flat, low-lying atolls, whereas the Maldives is formed of atolls. I personally think the verticality of mountains affords more visual interest to the landscape, but that’s just me …
In terms of things to do, you definitely have a greater variety of activities at your disposal on bigger islands like Bora Bora and Moorea, such as hikes, ATV rides, pineapple-plantation visits, and a smattering of historical sites. In the Maldives, it seems you’re mostly limited to water activities – which is fine if you’re a water baby!
And in terms of water, well, the bath-warm, crystal-clear turquoise waters at either of these places are hard to beat! Bora Bora’s lagoon is truly spectacular, though – on a sunny day, it looks like a turquoise mirror, with streaks of indigo and Klein blue.
In terms of snorkeling/diving, Bora Bora and Moorea have lovely coral reefs – and I hear the Maldives is spectacular. I can’t begin to imagine what that must look like as I really enjoyed snorkeling in French Polynesia. We saw some fantastically colorful coral and fish, as well as blacktip reef sharks, lemon sharks, manta rays, and eagle rays. If you’re a hardcore snorkeler/diver, the Maldives would probably win out in this arena – but not being so discerning, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed the snorkeling in both Bora Bora and Moorea.
In terms of culture, obviously, the Maldives is in Asia, just off India and Sri Lanka. Islam is the state religion, and locals are not permitted to drink alcohol – but that shouldn’t affect you as a tourist, as hotels are allowed to sell alcohol. The culture of the Maldives has been influenced by Indian, Sri Lankan, Arab, and North African traders down the centuries. French Polynesia has a similarly interesting mix of cultures, mostly French, Polynesian, and Asian. Thousands of years ago, aboriginals from Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia sailed in outrigger canoes using sophisticated, but sadly lost, navigational methods, settling in French Polynesia and other islands in the South Pacific. (They were probably seduced by the balmy breezes, swaying coconut palms, and sparkling turquoise waters like so many tourists are today!)
In terms of food, the Maldives offers more Asian cuisines (Indian, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, along with Western), whereas French Polynesia is mostly Polynesian, French, American, and some Chinese. Food in the Maldives, similarly to accommodations, ranges from cheap to expensive, whereas in French Polynesia, food was almost unanimously costly – most produce and meat is shipped from overseas. I heard quite a bit of criticism about the food in French Polynesia, but I personally enjoyed it – lots of rice and fresh lagoon fish topped with vanilla sauce, and you’ll encounter plantains, sweet potatoes, taro, and other starchy root vegetables. A lot of poisson cru (which is like poke or sashimi, raw tuna marinated with crunchy vegetables, lime juice, and coconut milk).
In terms of service, honestly, I have to say, having been to places like Korea and Japan, where customers are treated like gold, service in French Polynesia was lacking to disappointing. I hear that service in Maldives is great. If that’s important to you, this is also something to think about. But most people, even busy New Yorkers, quickly convert to island time once you get there …
In terms of timing and weather, when would you be going? Maldives has dry, sunny weather in our winter (so December-February), whereas French Polynesia has relatively drier, sunnier weather in our summer (May-September).
Hopefully, this post isn’t too late (or long lol) to be useful … Would love to hear insights from anyone who has visited the Maldives!