If you genuinely want to get away from it all, French Polynesia might just be the most perfect destination on the planet. Sunny, remote, and quite glamorous, you’ll see why these famous islands surrounding Tahiti beckon for a Jet-Set trip of a lifetime, according to our intrepid globe-hopper, Lance Avery Morgan.
If this isn’t paradise, then paradise really may not exist after all. Welcome to the land in which James Michener wrote Tales of the South Pacific and subject for the captivating images painted by Gauguin and Matisse that shocked the world. Yes, French Polynesia is an extraordinary land…a mythical place with mythical inhabitants that offers what some might consider a once-in-a-lifetime experience south of the equator.
Think of French Polynesia as the Hawaii of the 1950s before statehood–unspoiled, underdeveloped, and well, just a little untamed. With exotic island names like Bora Bora, Manihi, Tikehau, Moreea, and many more, each experience can be distinctive and always five-star. You encounter an authentic experience here, which is the islands’ specialty. Maybe that’s why the rich and famous love to escape their red carpet lives if just for a couple of weeks, to arrive at a sense of tranquility in such a secluded paradise.
The region’s laissez-faire attitude, topped with a chic French accent, creates a unique and spectacular environment to satisfy any desire. Want to curl up in the lap of luxury and eat fresh fruit with a side of Poisson cru (raw fish marinated in fresh coconut milk)? That’s easily arranged. Enjoy endless spa treatments? That can happen. Think you’re up for an athletic vacation where you can snorkel, dive, kayak, surf, and do just about any other water sport? This is the place. Need some downtime away from your electronic device and spreadsheets to complete that unfinished screenplay, polish off that Great American Novel, or just paint watercolor masterpieces? Come here to do it and recharge your creative batteries. Think of it as, well, nature’s Botox.
JUST ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE
Once you land, relaxation sets in immediately. And getting there is a snap. Hop on a plane to Los Angeles, and then the easy part is flying directly from Los Angeles to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, the cornerstone of what is known as French Polynesia. Air Tahiti Nui gets you there in a quick eight hours–just a little more than what it takes to get to Honolulu (I learned this when my direct flight was canceled at the last minute and I hopped on another that took me to Honolulu first). You’ll feel rested upon arrival in the evening thanks to the airline’s luxurious amenities. There are even plenty of non-stop flights from Manhattan. Since you arrive at night, you can stay at the Sheraton Hotel Tahiti or Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti before moving on to one of the luxurious resort islands the next day. Visitors usually don’t dawdle in Papette since it is reputed to have a high crime rate. Once at your resort destination, you’ll be greeted with a fresh lei of fragrant Tiare (similar to a gardenia), a custom that’s implemented on every island you visit. And paradise will beckon you from every swaying palm.
To know the islands, you first have to be acquainted with their land and people. The extensive island chain of French Polynesia is home to only 250,000 inhabitants, 70% of which live in Tahiti. There are about 120 islands and atolls that comprise the area, much more than Hawaii’s eight islands, lending a feeling of tremendously remote tranquility when you get there. It’s hardly Gilligan’s Island, or even, Lost for that matter.
Polynesia has a dynamic and diverse culture. They are people who seek adventure. Because they are survivors avidly concerned with the environment, they love to have a good time and make visitors feel welcome. Although the French are not usually known for their over-friendliness, as many who have been to Paris will recount, they are known for creating an environment that’s above reproach. That is what they’ve done here since it became a French protectorate in 1842 before becoming an overseas territory in 1946.
Le Bora Bora is the ultimate Jet-Set lagoon destination. Over-water, thatched bungalows are the most common accommodations on the islands. From land, as you walk to the middle of the lagoon to your rooms at the Pearl Beach Resort as I did, you’ll see the marine life at your feet. Literally. Inside your teak wood suite of plush linens and original islander artist renderings, you’ll encounter what I call a Tahitian television: a glass floor coffee table where you can see all the exotic marine life swimming beneath you. These built-on-stilts suites are the perfect way to end either a sport-filled or relaxing day. Either way, you will know and quickly get used to the fact that you’re in paradise.
The sporting life on the islands is mainly inspired by the turquoise blue water and entices you to embrace your inner Indiana Jones. A French Polynesian devotee told me, “I was snorkeling one day and swam right by a blacktip reef shark. Within five feet. What an experience. There are so many water sports to encounter in this tropical paradise.”
Want to go snorkeling? I hopped down the steps of my over-water bungalow and swam over to a coral nursery where I found fish of every imaginable color and size. Need to catch your own meal? Do as I did and go deep-sea fishing on a small craft to catch a grouper, then have a picnic on a remote motu with a group of both friends and islanders. Ready for dessert? There’s a coconut tree right over there. It’s the kind where I learned to climb to obtain fresh coconut: all you do is shuck it with your teeth, or simply crack it open with a sharp object to taste its nectar. Anything seems possible in the South Pacific, even for the most ardent city dweller.
It’s said the blue water is so rich in coloration that it’s not duplicated in any other part of the world. Even from an airplane window, it stunningly beckons each visitor. The fact that it is pristinely clear is a given. The fact that it’s home to some of the best coral reefs in the world is an added bonus. If you want to experience the best diving the world has to offer, this is the ocean for it. Marine life is healthy, abundant, and well protected. Take a champagne sunset boat cruise to find out about the sea and its inhabitants. Michael Chopard, the boat’s captain, told me, “This area is a gift from God. I’ve lived here since the 1970s, and to me, the lagoons are the most special. I fell in love with all of this the moment I landed back then.”
Part of that specialness is the pearls found dotting both tourists and natives. The pearl farms that cultivate those precious balls of marine perfection are sprinkled among the islands. Elizabeth Schneider, a Tahitian pearl expert, revealed, “About one in 10,000 pearls are naturally perfect, so most are cultured, like this one I’m holding. Even cultured pearls of high quality take about five years to create. We created one that was a jawbreaker size valued at over $20,000.”
So, pearls are big business, especially the black ones that are actually shades of charcoal grey. If you are a diver and want to try your luck at obtaining perfect pearls, dive in. It can be done. Diving is serious business and has an amazing following here. The Pearl is the only luxury hotel chain for dive enthusiasts of all levels, to marry quality resorts with professionally run PADI dive centers at six of their resorts. My goal of diving for black pearls, which could be made into cufflinks and a stud set, was achieved, so anything is truly possible.
The island’s guests appreciate the unique combination of being able to play at Robinson Crusoe with water and beach activities yet enjoy all the creature comforts of a luxury resort. Dining at Le Bora Bora is memorable for its subtle mix of the best of French and Polynesian cuisine, often accompanied by exciting Tahitian dance entertainment. Three restaurants at the resort satisfy any appetite: Miki Miki, Otemanu, and Poerava. Miki Miki is a quick dash from the pool or beach for a delicious lunch or a light dinner later in the day. Poerava serves gourmet cuisine in a romantic and cozy setting. Situated at the highest elevation point at the resort, breakfast is usually served as a buffet, and dinner offers peaceful views of the lagoon and Mount Otemanou, where, every Monday, is a live Polynesian show. In fact, I was that guy they pulled on stage to learn the native Polynesian dance in front of the entire dining audience. Bongo drums and all. It was worth it because the cuisine on the islands is unmatched. I danced for my supper. Most of the food is shipped in since vegetation is rare on the islands due to space and logistics. Yet, the fish is fresh and often local. Fresh papaya juice and the best hot chocolate outside of Paris is de riguer for breakfast. A light salad for lunch is the perfect energizer in between sports activities or sunning. The vegetables, the fruit, and even the beef seemed to taste better on the islands.
Want to be pampered? There’s an island secret called monoi, a liquid blend of the essences of hundreds of flowers, oil, and indigenous coconuts used in most spa treatments. The resorts offer a range of traditional Polynesian and other massage techniques and treatments using the purest natural oils and essences. During treatments, you’ll be ensconced by a new line of Manea Spa products made exclusively for the Pearl resorts in Tahiti. A formula that retains the intrinsic natural properties of flowers and plants. The Bora Bora, Tikehau, and Manihi Pearl Beach Resorts (all a Member of Leading Small Hotels of the World) and the Four Seasons Bora Bora offer treatments, scrubs, and massages to soothe both the soul and the senses. And all are traveled between by either boat or a quick plane ride. A favorite of honeymooners, you’ll see the resorts loaded with lovers. That’s the island way.
Islander folklore has that the French Polynesians honor dreams that occur here. They feel that dreams are planted and fed and not tossed away. They think dreams and love never die in Tahiti. Upon departure, I am given my last strand of shells around my neck, signifying the hope of safe travels and a beckon to return. The shells and trip symbolize the holiday of a lifetime, and I make a silent promise to myself to return one day…with much more sunscreen.