The stunning islands of French Polynesia aren’t easy to get to, but they’re the closest thing to paradise you’re likely to find.
If I’m ever shipwrecked and wash ashore on a desert island, please let it be Tikihau.
It’s my favorite of the Tahitian Islands and that’s really saying something, because few places in the world can compete with the islands of French Polynesia for sheer, jaw-dropping beauty. At every turn, cascading waterfalls compete for attention with lush tropical blooms, sugary white beaches and stunning people. No island is less than exquisite and yet, Tikihau gets my vote for Most Beautiful. Given the warm welcome she extends, I might also award her Miss Congeniality.
Like the desert island of your winter-weariest fantasies, Tikihau is all about turquoise water, soft sand beaches, picture-perfect palm trees and the thatch-roofed cottages locals charmingly call “bangalows” in their beautiful Tahitian-French accents. I stayed at the Pearl Hotel, the perfect island getaway with a sapphire-hued swimming pool, and an open, airy dining room where talented chefs grilled local fish and the barmen concocted delectable fruity cocktails. No casino tried to lure me to spend my money and no floorshow interrupted the peace of the tropical night.
Each morning, I woke to the sun started the day with a swim off my private dock. Breakfast was delivered in an outrigger canoe, paddled by what looked like a Tahitian warrior god and served by his warrior goddess companion. As I sat on my balcony, nibbling my bacon and watching them paddle away, I felt like French Polynesian royalty.
But Tikihau, gorgeous though she is, is just one of the bevy of beauties that make up the islands of Tahiti and you really need to see a few of them for the full experience.
Though the others fight her for this distinction, Bora Bora holds claim to being the romance capital of French Polynesia. The name ‘Pora Pora’, corrupted by the Europeans (the letter ‘B’ doesn’t exist in the Tahitian language) means – ‘Romantic Island’ and it is. Dotted with elegant hotels catering to starry-eyed couples, it’s not a place for singles, as I learned on my first trip there. Reading happily at my solitary dinner table, I was approached by a curious woman. “You have to settle a bet,” she said. “No one comes to Bora Bora alone. My husband thinks you’re waiting for your lover, but I think you’ve divorced your husband and you’re spending the bastard’s money.” (I hated telling her the truth – just a journalist doing her research!)
On my second visit there, I settled into the leafy, luxurious bliss of the Pearl Resort Bora Bora where I alternated between sipping tall fruity concoctions at the bar, learning the delicate art of flower weaving, and feasting on freshly caught fish, sweet pineapple and coconut plucked from the tree in front of us. My room was a confection of soft woods draped in gauzy white, with fresh blooms tucked into every corner, but the high point was the bathroom where an outdoor shower attracted tiny colorful birds each morning. I almost expected them to flutter over holding my clothes, Cinderella-style!
Birds weren’t the only wildlife. Bora Bora also offered the added excitement of up-close-and-personal shark and stingray encounters. Our guide – an unusually gifted man who could steer a boat with his feet while playing a ukulele and doing Elvis Presley imitations – drove to a shoal where a velvety hoard of stingrays waited. Pulling me into the water, and handing me a small, slippery dead fish, our guide said: “Hold it right here,” “at the base of your throat.”
In seconds, a large, silky-smooth stingray covered me like a wet velvet blanket, sliding toward my face - and his snack. One sudden slurp, the fish disappeared, and the fickle stingray was gone, in search of his next fish-holding tourist.
Still in sea-encounter mode, our guide took us to a nearby shoal where he attached a rope was attached to the back of the boat. As we held onto it, outfitted in masks and flippers, he belted out “Don’t Be Cruel” and tossed chunks of fish into the water. Suddenly, we were surrounded by lemon sharks, chowing down they swam between and around us, fins rubbing aour legs and snouts brushing our sides and faces. We’d been told that they wouldn’t eat us – the fish bits being so much more conveniently sized – and happily, they were right.
Moorea – which means ‘yellow lizard’ – was our next island, and it was home to more pineapples than I’ve ever seen in one place. One of the Society Islands, Moorea rivals Bora Bora as a honeymoon choice and seems to strike the perfect balance between slightly-urban-with-a-bit-of-shopping and blissfully-beachy, but what really sets it apart from its sister islands is its love of sea turtles.
At a visitor-friendly kiosk on the grounds of the spectacular InterContinental Hotel, marine-life lovers can learn about Te Mana o te Moana, a group dedicated to saving the sea turtle from extinction. The problem is this: because sea turtle eggs and hatchlings are eaten by so many natural predators, the odds of reaching reproductive maturity are one in one thousand. To make matters worse, for generations, local people ate turtles and their eggs for celebratory meals – as we would eat turkeys. Things had to change.
The fascinating clinic at the InterContinental shows visitors how injured turtles are nursed back to health, and how small turtles are fostered to better their chances of survival. Best of all, they’ll tell you how Tahitian children are brought to the clinic, taught to love the baby turtles and then enlisted to convince their parents to choose something else for the big dinner! Of the more than 400 sea turtles rescued since 2004, 150 have already returned to the ocean. It’s an unusual way to spend a day on Moorea but well worth an eco-educational visit. When you feel that you’ve broadened your sea-turtle-saving mindset, celebrate by sipping something cool at the Motu Oné or Moto Iti swim-up bars or treat yourself to a romantic dinner of freshly caught fish served Polynesian style at the Shell, a fine dining restaurant on the nearby Sister Island.
The most densely populated of the five large archipelagos and 118 islands covering more than two million square miles that is French Polynesia, Tahiti is a must-see that offers all the duty-free shopping and fancy French cuisine a sophisticated traveler could want. Because French citizens are able to work on the Tahitian islands without a passport, many top chefs spend time enjoying a tropical escape – much to the delight of the locals and the tourists alike. Paris would be hard-pressed to compete with the culinary offerings on Tahiti.
Luckily, not all of Tahiti has been tamed. In fact, large tracts of land in the center of the island remain wild and undeveloped, thanks to the colonizing French who took over in 1880 but allowed the native Tahitians to retain ownership of their land. Accessible only by a jeep tour available when and if the land owner is interested, this central area is a stunning strip of lush green jungle that belongs to a man named named Teiva and his family. Living much as his ancestors did centuries ago, tall, handsome Teiva wears only a pareo and a necklace made of teeth from a boar he hunted. He’s proud of his land and completely uninterested in selling it to the clamoring hordes of developers who want to cover it with hotels. He can fish, hunt and gather fruit on his own land, he explains. What else does he need? In this world of beautiful, Eden-like islands where the weather is almost as gentle and welcoming as the people, what else does anyone need?
Though I love Canada in all her four-season splendor, I confess I’m tempted. Might there might be a little bangalow somewhere…perhaps on Tikihau…where I could drop out of the world…just until next summer?
If you go
Boasting a climate that’s perfect year round, Tahiti and her islands are a paradise that’s just remote enough to keep the tourists from taking over. In fact, fewer visitors holiday there in a year than Hawaii sees in just ten days. Scattered in the South Pacific Ocean like a handful of the black pearls for which they’re so famous, Tahiti and her islands are 7.5 hours from Los Angeles and 10.5 hours from NYC and Air Tahiti Nui is the way to fly. Book into the Pearl hotels on Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea and Tikehau for a total immersion in French Polynesian bliss. The journey may be long but the peace you’ll find there is well worth the trip.