French Polynesia is embracing its roots, tattoos and all, mixing traditional ways with inventive hospitality. This place knows how to enjoy itself – while totally thrilling you.
by Doug Wallace
When you can wake up, mainline a perfect espresso, pop a bonbon into your mouth left over from the night before, then plunge into a crystal-clear lagoon at your doorstep while you wait for breakfast to arrive via canoe, you know you’re in for a red-letter day. This is the essence of French Polynesia, a swath of 118 islands spread out over 2,000 kilometres in the southern Pacific Ocean.
While Marlon Brando and 1970s Hollywood culture may have made Tahiti and her islands famous, the French made it exquisite – and long before Brigitte Bardot and Jacques Brel wandered its shores. With ties reaching back to the mid-1800s, the islands are autonomous, but minded by France as a “collective.” And the mix of ancient Lapita roots and full-on French fabulousness has created a rich and fascinating culture, right down to the double-cheek kissing and the subsidized French cheese. You can also thank France for making French Polynesia one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the Pacific: Same-sex sexual activity is legal, people can get married and adopt children, and serve in the military, plus anti-discrimination laws and laws concerning gender identity are all on the books.
The deep isolation factor is one of the top selling points, something Hawaii, its neighbour to the north, doesn’t offer. Really, if you took the American-ness out of Hawaii and replaced it with French-ness, added a dash of exotic class, then took away about a billion tourists, you’d have French Polynesia.
The key to vacationing here is to adopt island-hopping as your main activity, in addition to the snorkeling, swimming with stingrays and black point sharks, cruising the lagoons and eating banana pudding by the bucket-full and just plain sitting on your rear.
No one ever stays in the capital Papeete, it’s “the city.” Everyone merely flies in, then hops on the 20-minute ferry to the neighbouring island of Moorea, a lush and unhurried nirvana encircled by a small lagoon. And once you’re settled in your over-water bungalow at the Hotel Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort, you can grab a cocktail and stare at Papeete off in the distance, twinkling in the moonlight. The famous over-water rooms are worth the money, even though they don’t look like much from the outside; sun bleached beyond recognition. Most are quite luxe inside, with aircon and all the comforts of home (if your home has an espresso machine, which it very likely does). With these bungalows, you have the best of all worlds – your room, the water, the shoreline vistas, pretty boats to watch. You can also glimpse the goings-on underneath your room via a Plexiglas window in the cabin floor.
While in Moorea, make time to walk the hiking trails, climb island peaks, discover secret rivers and ancient maraes or stone religious shrines, and trip to Belvedere Lookout for a stunning view of Secret Mountain, with Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay stretched out before you.
Back to the airport, little 20- and 30-minute flights get you from place to place relatively easy, most for less than $100 one way. You get the complete Polynesian picture this way, and will soon start recognizing fellow passengers – especially the surfers. Polynesia is an international surfing destination, something you will gather early on, as the surfboards tumble onto the baggage carousels. Start flirting right away in the airport, because chances are good you will see the tussled hair and lithe, tan bodies again at your next stop.
You would be remiss to not experience the authenticity of nearby Huahine, a two-island grouping where vacationers get a modern-day Tahitian island experience, a chance to see how real people live. Rustic and down-to-earth, this is a bit of an artist enclave as well, and home to more than a few French and American ex-pats looking for a simpler, slightly bohemian life. Huahine is also the site where archaeologists have found the oldest carbon-dated remains of pre-Polynesian civilizations, pre-dating Hawaii.
While there are many family-owned home-stays and hostels on Huahine, you’re staying at the Maitai Lapita Village, designed specifically with the region’s rich history in mind: bungalows in the style of canoe huts, architectural details that mimic traditional Tahitian artwork and motifs, and a small built-in museum full of ancient artifacts, some dating back to 1500 BC. The property is a perfect mix of past and present, with a beautiful infinity pool that looks out onto the very same view explorer Captain James Cook had in the late 1700s.
Your next destination is Bora Bora, the showpiece, one of the most romantic places in the world. A bigger lagoon here makes for more hotel choices to be sure, but try to sneak a night or two at the Four Seasons – like you need to be coaxed. On top of having the coolest private boats in the lagoon, the hotel is as teeming with opulence as the water is with tropical fish. Speaking of which, a marine biologist works on-site to explain the delicate ecosystem to guests. World-class spa treatments begin with a traditional Maeva foot ritual, which you can follow up with the signature Kahaia Haven body treatment in one of the double treatments rooms, where skin is prepped, exfoliated using natural black pearl powder, then massaged. If you don’t die and go to heaven right then and there, you can watch the sun set from the hotel’s Sunset Bar.
But don’t stop at Bora Bora: Many other experiences are ready to tempt you on the dozens of other Polynesian islands, each tantalizing different. Try to see as many as you can without selling the farm. There’s even a freighter you can hitch a ride on that will take you all the way out to the Les Marquesas island chain for some real privacy – plus all the exotic adventure you can handle.
How to Get There
Air Tahiti Nui flies to the capital city Papeete from Los Angeles up to five times a week in only eight hours. All inter-island domestic flights are operated by the very similarly named Air Tahiti, which flies to 46 islands in the five archipelagos, as well as to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Peak season is from March to October, with May and June being the driest. Avoid the rainy season, from November to January, when it can rain for three weeks straight. Visit TahitiTourism.com, AirTahitiNui.com and AirTahiti.com.
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of new travel resource TravelRight.Today.