Je t’aime TahitiBy: Donna Heiderstadt
Extravagant travel abounds in French Polynesia.
I KNOW THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO CALL THIS ISLAND “BORING BORING,” and that makes me mad. As I dive off the deck of my stylish and sexy Otemanu Overwater Bungalow at the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, I can’t imagine how a lagoon this unapologetically blue—set amidst a jagged green mountain that, like some sci-fi creation, seems to shape-shift every time you look at it—could ever be anything but mesmerizing. It’s my fifth time exploring the islands of Tahiti—and it won’t be my last. The reason? It’s by far the most sensual and visually captivating place on Earth.
Everyone comes here to see why British sailors mutinied, a French painter was seduced, and American honeymooners routinely swoon. I remember my virgin visit in 1996 like it was just this morning, and on every trip since I’ve enjoyed watching new arrivals’ mouths go agape as they get their first Technicolor eyeful. Each and every boat transfer has been pure magic: a fragrant tiare blossom lei around my neck, a glass of bubbly in my hand, Mount Otemanu filling my camera lens, and a kaleidoscope of azure hues swirling in my wake. I don’t know about you, but it sure beats the view from my office window.
Bora Bora’s lagoon is like a mirror into Mother Nature’s soul. Paddling a kayak or paddleboard, circling it on a Jet Ski, motoring across it to a private motu picnic with enigmatic Marona Atiu and to a secluded snorkel spot with eco-savvy Laurent Graziana of DiveEasy. I’ve also eyed its soothing ripples through a glass panel while being massaged with sweet monoi oil at the overwater Deep Ocean Spa at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa. I’ve been serenaded by the gentle lap of its waves as I’ve dined on addictive rice cracker-crusted tuna at Lagoon by Jean-Georges at The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort. And I’ve watched its glassy surface reflect a million and one stars during a midnight plunge pool soak, here at the Four Seasons, where I sit writing this.
Whether I’m with someone or alone—and yes, I’ve been solo here twice—I have come to appreciate this island’s timeless allure. The world is complicated. Bora Bora is simple. You put on a pareo and pick up a good book, put away your iPhone and strike up a conversation about life with a Tahitian waiter or bartender. If you’re bored, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
The Scent of Vanilla & the Sheen of Black Pearls
A private island resort is in and of itself a very special place. But as my helicopter lands on the palm-lined motu that’s home to Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, I begin to realize that this kind of privacy comes with some rather exceptional extras: a Relais & Chateaux-approved culinary team, an intimate Tahitian-inspired spa and some of the islands’ most amazing Polynesian fire dancers. Oh, and there’s a dreamy view of Bora Bora, too.
I can see it from my Overwater Suite, built a decade ago but meticulously maintained. Its interior, with its walls of woven pandanus leaves and furniture of hand-carved exotic wood, has an authentic sense of place. There’s scented monoi oil in the bathroom for soothing my sun-baked hair and skin and a glass-top table for spying on loitering sea creatures. It’s all five-star and yet refreshingly laid-back.
My afternoon unfolds effortlessly—a snorkel amid schools of vibrant fish in the crystal-clear lagoon, a volcanic stone massage in The Spa by Le Taha’a, and a flavorful dinner in the tree-house-like La Vanille restaurant. There are other nights to indulge in the multi-course, French-Polynesian gastronomy at The Ohiri restaurant and the exciting flavors of Tuesday’s Polynesian Evening (freshly made poisson cru, addictive coconut bread) enlivened by soul-stirring drum beats and the elaborately tattooed torso of Tavita, a local fire dance legend whose thrusting legs and twirling arms propel blazing batons into the endless night sky.
Mornings are a treat for the senses, too. The resort takes its name from the neighboring island of Taha’a, famed for both its fragrant vanilla and its lustrous black pearls. And while I could certainly manage to enjoy another massage with vanilla-scented oil or to linger longingly over that radiant strand of black pearls in the gift-shop for a few more days, it’s time to venture even farther afield.
A Sandbar with Style
From the air, the tiny coral atoll known as Tikehau looks like a palm-tree-studded sandbar—and that’s pretty much what it is. Yet since I’m craving a bit of Robinson Crusoe barefoot adventure (albeit with fine linens and a good wine list), I can’t wait to feel that sand between my toes. The airport here is an afterthought, the VIP transfer to Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is by a wind-in-your-hair speedboat (the only way to arrive) and my Overwater Villa is a spacious haven, so serene it’s like Tahiti’s version of an anti-anxiety pill.
It’s my first time in the Tuamotu Atolls, the necklace of miniature atolls that’s a favored spot of scuba divers. I don’t dive, but I enjoy my own up-close encounter as I sip a glass of chilled Sancerre while a pair of juvenile black-tipped reef sharks and a small stingray swim by in the pale aquamarine lagoon just feet below my villa’s deck. A green sea turtle follows, his curious head bobbing in the current like an errant cork. I finish my wine, recline my chaise and feel the final tethers of lingering tension slip from my brain like a stray helium balloon from the fingers of a careless child. When I open my eyes, a surreal sunset is illuminating the sky in mauve and crimson and I am hungry.
This may be a middle-of-nowhere atoll but the kitchen team at the open-air restaurant knows how to work it, using an abundance of Tahitian flavors (mango, pineapple, coconut, vanilla) to coax the best out of freshly caught fish and accent it with tasty imports such as foie gras and duck breast. Night here is so startlingly quiet and the sky is so star-filled that the effect is almost dizzying. On the walk back to my bungalow, I realize that I’m stranded on the best kind of desert isle there is—one with good wine, a deep-soaking tub and an alarm clock only if I so choose.
An Understudy Steps up
Moorea is the first Tahitian island I saw, fresh off an international flight and straight onto a ferry, and like your first love it’s hard to forget. What I have come to realize over my four return visits is that this heart-shaped island crowned with dramatic rock spires should not be overlooked. Bora Bora may be the star, but Moorea is a patient understudy with her own impressive resume: some of French Polynesia’s most verdant valleys, its juiciest and most flavorful pineapples, and pods of carefree spinner dolphins and migrating humpback whales.
While five-star bungalows have proved elusive here, the opening of Legends Resort Moorea created a luxury experience of a novel variety. After sleeping in thatched-roof overwater bungalows for a week, winding my way up a hillside in a golf cart feels totally refreshing. And the view of Moorea’s vivid turquoise lagoon from my two-bedroom villa with its state-of-the-art kitchen makes not being anywhere near it hardly a sacrifice at all. I can cool off with a dip in my private Jacuzzi, head to the main infinity pool for a swim, a snack and some socializing or hop the shuttle boat to the resort’s private motu for a picnic or a snorkel.
If I were any kind of cook at all, I could have had my fridge stocked before my arrival and given Polynesian cuisine a go. But why should I? I am more than content to have my palate pleased by the epicurean talents of Legend’s extraordinary dining venue, La Villa des Sens. Eating here, as its name suggests, is a sensory treat, from menu items such as carpaccio of bluefin tuna with scents of truffle oil to the striking and well-stocked wine cellar and vibrant and larger-than-life artwork. Island residents flock here, too, and I wisely follow them up to the poolside Lounge Bar for live music and camaraderie as tiki torches flicker at resorts below and the moon rises over Moorea’s luxury ingenue.
Overwater all the Time
High heels and silky sundress on, glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, I step out onto my balcony as the island of Taha’a slips from view and enigmatic Bora Bora inches closer on the dusky horizon. The interisland transfer is effortless, just another splendid evening onboard m/s Paul Gauguin. As I am discovering, the only cruise ship dedicated to sailing Tahiti year-round is a great way to sample a variety of islands—five on a one-week cruise, seven on a 10-day itinerary—while experiencing exceptional service and stellar cuisine throughout.
Fresh from a multi-million-dollar renovation, the 332-passenger ship’s decor is a blend of traditional meets contemporary with a color palette of mostly soothing taupe and serene pale blue. My queen-sized bed is ultra-comfortable and the marble bathroom has a deep soaking tub—the perfect spot to relax after a day of active kayaking from the Watersports Platform. My destination at the moment is La Veranda, a lovely all-day restaurant that come dinnertime offers one of the most impressive menus at sea: a multicourse tasting menu created by Jean-Pierre Vigato, whose Paris restaurant Apicius has two Michelin stars. I am at the captain’s table and Captain Toni Mircovic, who is from Croatia but has helmed the Paul Gauguin for more than a decade, suggests I try the tuna in three preparations from the Apicius menu. Aye aye captain; I do, and it’s phenomenal.
The next day Paul Gauguin, anchored overnight in Bora Bora, has been transformed by Polynesian Night. My senses are elated by the lilting harmony of the onboard Tahitian performers known as Les Gauguines and the sweet aroma of tiare and frangipani blossoms as local women sit on the floor surrounded by hundreds of colorful petals they are stringing into leis and heis (flower crowns). Every passenger is wearing one and the mood onboard is one of exotic giddiness. A few first-time visitors have opted to stay overnight in a chic Overwater Bungalow at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa (the Romantic Escapade package is $1,850 per couple and includes welcome amenities, a candlelit dinner and a canoe-delivered breakfast), but since I’ve already done that, I simply relax and soak in the vibrant South Seas ambience. It has me wanting more and I start thinking about my sixth visit. I’d love to see the wild and undeveloped Marquesas Islands. Paul Gauguin sails there several times a year, so it sounds like a plan.
On the Horizon: The Brando
The most-anticipated luxury resort in Tahiti in half a decade, The Brando, named for actor Marlon Brando upon whose private island, Tetiaroa, it is being built, is slated to open in late 2013. Inspired by the late actor’s original vision to welcome visitors in a sustainable way, The Brando will feature 35 spacious and modern private villas (each with a plunge pool) as well as two restaurants, two bars, a spa, a two-level infinity pool and fitness facilities. Developed by Richard Bailey, whose Pacific Beachcomber operates four InterContinental resorts in French Polynesia and the m/s Paul Gauguin cruise ship, The Brando is designed to LEED Platinum specifications to operate solely via renewable, non-fossil energy sources drawn from the sea, the sun and even coconuts. Access will be solely by air, via 20-minute flights from Tahiti to Tetiaroa’s private airstrip.