The Five Senses of French Polynesia

Looking for the ultimate in island R&R? Take a journey to the islands of the South Pacific with us and encounter heavenly hospitality at every turn.

The email message with the subject line “Tahiti” could not have arrived in my inbox at a more appropriate time. Ankle deep in slushy Manhattan snow for a winter that seemed to drag on for an eternity, I was already counting down the days until I could return to California sun.

Then came the invitation for a week’s sojourn to the aforementioned paradise. Tahiti? Though pretty sharp with geography, I have to admit I didn’t know exactly where to pinpoint it on a map. It seemed so remote, exotic, and precisely what I needed in that very moment. Needless to say, I responded to the email with a simple “Yes, please.” And while I had to wait another long couple of months to make my journey to the South Pacific (I finally found it on the map), I can attest that it is as remote, exotic and necessary as previously imagined…and so much more.

Le passeport, s’il vous plait

First, a clarification: Tahiti is an island, only one island. Though a hub of activity and home to the international airport, Tahiti should not be confused with the collection of islands that make up French Polynesia, which includes other famous islands like Moorea and Bora Bora, and less traveled destinations like the Marquesas. Located below the equator, the islands are due south of Hawaii, about an eight-hour plane ride from LAX. Getting to the capital of Tahiti, Papeete, is actually quite easy as both Air France and Air Tahiti Nui offer direct flights. An overseas territory of France since 1946, the islands exchange their own currency, the CFP Franc. If your high school French is a bit rusty, never fear: the resorts cater to a large English-speaking crowd from Australians to Americans.

Though a bustling center of activity and tourism, the island of Tahiti may not be the enchanted paradise you envision from the postcards. I found it a bit commercial and overdeveloped for my liking. Not that the “big” island doesn’t offer some standout attractions, most notably the incredible surf. Art lovers should also flock to the Paul Gauguin Museum near the Botanical Gardens and view the life’s work of one of French Polynesia’s most famous residents.

Bora Bora

Where the Sun Meets the Sea

Sitting in front of the infinity pool at Manava Suite Resort Tahiti, I watched the sun set behind a volcanic-looking island directly across the marina. Someone seated next to me noted that this island, Moorea, was possibly the inspiration for Bali Ha’i, that charmed locale immortalized in the James A. Michener novel Tales of the South Pacific and subsequent Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I cannot deny it was some enchanted evening watching the brilliant colors envelope this strange, shadowy island in front of me. How happy I was to learn that this was our next destination.

A quick, 15-minute plane ride on an Air Tahiti island hopper, and we had arrived. During our transport from the airport to the resort, I got my first real glimpse of the topography of the islands. Lush and green, speckled with colorful tropical blooms and exotic fruits, the forested hills descended into brilliant coastal waters.

At the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa, I was introduced to a legendary accommodation that I’d only known to be honeymoon folklore, the overwater bungalow. If you haven’t yet experienced one of these floating retreats, may I passionately suggest you add a visit to your bucket list? Imagine falling asleep in total tranquility and awaking to the ocean at your doorstep in the early morning hours. I don’t think I’ve had a better night’s rest in my life, and may never again. And, yes, the glass coffee table tops do open up so you can feed the schools of colorful fish swimming just below your bungalow. It’s that cool.

Overwater Bungalows, Moorea

An Ear for Romance

When you arrive at a new island you are given a white tiare flower to place behind your ear. If you place it on the left, you are taken; place it on the right, and you are seeking someone. From the number of dreamy-eyed pairs I observed strolling hand-in-hand through shallow waters, I would bet the left ear couplings hold the majority here. Perhaps no other island in French Polynesia echoes the call of love better than Bora Bora.

Canoe Breakfast, Bora Bora

Simply stated, it’s beautiful. The main island reaches up to the sky with a stunning verdant peak surrounded by dense palms and a lagoon that changes between several shades of blue and green. Nothing beat dipping my toes in those waters while feasting on a private beach lunch set up by the folks at the Hilton, while fish swam beneath our table. A local mentioned Bora Bora was the inspiration for Bali Ha’i. Wait, wasn’t that Moorea? Oh well, you see how things are here.

The Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort and Spa hosts a coral nursery cared for by marine biologist Denis Schneider. Snorkel gear in tow, I toured the coral preservation and discovered the colorful populations of fish gathered around these beds. According to Schneider, the islands are rapidly losing their coral to development, global warming and neglect. As he explained to us, no coral means no fish. With this life-size experiment, Schneider and his team are able to safeguard endangered coral and conserve this unique and complex eco-system for generations to come.

Manea Spa, Bora Bora

One of my favorite memories of Bora Bora was a trip to the Manea Spa. If you’ve already caught on that French Polynesia is all about relaxing, then this world-class spa turns up the repose a notch. From the elegantly appointed facility, fully integrated into its natural setting, to the fragrant oils and strong, capable hands, my massage left me totally blissed out for the rest of the day. Note to self: kayak first, then spa after.

A Matter of Taste

To get to the island of Taha’a you must first take a plane to Raiatea followed by a boat transfer. On a quiet motu (coral reef) just across from the main island, you’ll find one resort, the Relais & Chateaux Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa. This ended up being my favorite place of the entire trip.

There was something effortless about my experience at Taha’a, a destination to which I will always refer friends making the journey to French Polynesia. Maybe it was the exceptional hospitality or the divinely un-humid weather we encountered during our brief stay there. Nothing can compare to the serenity I felt walking back each evening along the bridge to my bungalow with a canopy of stars above me.

The food stands out in my mind when I think of Taha’a, particularly a signature Tahitian flavoring, vanilla. Taha’a is home to some of the largest vanilla plantations in the region, the beans harvested, dried and sold to gourmet destinations abroad. The particular batch I picked up received the 2008 Paris Médaille d’Or for excellence. The restaurant at the resort, appropriately named Vanille, offers a variety of dishes flavored with the sweet beans, including a lobster course we enjoyed under the night sky. Other regional delicacies include pois-son cru, a delicious raw tuna dish made with coconut milk and served in shell, and some of the sweetest pineapples and guavas I’ve ever tasted.

Another Taha’a export of note is the exquisite black pearl. Our group had the pleasure of visiting the pearl farm of Monique Champon and learned the delicate process of cultivating from her oysters the perfect, unblemished pearl. The fruits of her labor are evident in the collection of beautiful jewelry pieces she has assembled for sale, from single pearl rings to elaborate stringed necklaces.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and after a full week of island hopping and overindulging my thoroughly stimulated five senses, it was time to make the overnight flight back to Los Angeles. I’m still not sure which of those islands was the mysterious Bali Ha’i, but even thousands of miles away, amid the bustle of home, I still can hear them calling me, “Come away, come away.”

Coral Nursery, Bora Bora

Recommended Reading for French Polynesia

Noa Noa – A Tahitian Journal
by Paul Gauguin
An intellectual, visual and spiritual tour of the islands by one of its most famous residents.

In the South Seas
by Robert Louis Stevenson
The author recounts a journey made to the South Pacific with his wife. A fascinating description of the islands and inhabitants.

Tales of the South Pacific
by James A. Michener
You’ve seen the musical and watched the movie…now read the book about the islands during the days of WWII.