French Polynesia: Enchanted Islands
Photo: Tikehau atoll © Alexander Shalamov | Dreamstime.com
A trip to French Polynesia will cure what ails you. Just ask Marlon Brando. He called Tetiaroa — the island that stole his heart — “the tincture of the South Seas.”
Sometimes simply referred to as “Tahiti” for its largest island, French Polynesia — a five-archipelago, 118-island, semi-autonomous French territory — mottles the South Pacific like so many strewn pearls. Overall, it stretches across an area the size of Western Europe. Each coral-rimmed islet, big or small, boasts the sort of eye-popping scenery and variety that can barely be imagined.
Abundant with lagoons, the water ripples with a palette of overlapping shades of blue: cornflower, cobalt, indigo and turquoise. Spun-sugar, sandy crescents beg for barefoot chic (some black-sand beaches can be found, too). Verdant forests offer meandering hiking trails, rocky cliffs and plunging waterfalls. Fairy tale-like, jade-hued volcanoes dominate landscapes, their ridges casting otherworldly shadows on thatched-roof villas and overwater bungalows. Profuse hammocks beckon to indicate idle mode, a panoply of rainbow fish flit around healthy reefs, and the seductive perfume of tiare flowers and vanilla bean waft alluringly through the air.
But beauty isn’t everything. As Brando and many other visitors noted, French Polynesia possesses an enchanted quality that goes beneath the surface to move the mind, body and spirit at once. Sometimes called mana by the Tahitian people, this intangible energy, like a conjured magic spell, stirs something in all visitors. It is the sum product of startling nature, generous-spirited people, breathtaking vistas, crystalline waters and an air of soothing tranquility that cannot be found anywhere else. Add in a distinctly French layer of sophistication and gourmet culture, a dedicated Gallic commitment to the art of romance and a laid-back lifestyle that is the antithesis of frenzied urbanity, and the destination begins to feel a bit like palpable poetry. Indeed, luxury exists here, but Tahiti offers so much more.
Tetiaroa was once the summer retreat for Tahitian kings. Located in the Society Islands archipelago, it comprises a dozen idyllic, Lilliputian islets, the sort the Tahitian people call motus. Together they encircle a lagoon. The legendary spot where kings hid their treasures, the privately owned island hasn’t changed much since Brando “discovered” it while scouting locations for Mutiny on the Bounty. Once known as Brando’s private island, most visitors to French Polynesia only glimpsed it when passing by on a ship. Today The Brando, an upscale eco-resort, makes it possible for anyone to experience the French Polynesia that changed Brando’s life. Paying homage to carefree opulence and pared-down luxury, the intimate resort hopes guests will unplug here and do nothing at all. To slow down to a sluggardly pace, the speed Brando extolled, signals success on Tetiaroa, though the resort’s all-inclusive agenda does include water activities, meals, spa treatments, bicycles and the shade from the pandanus and coconut trees.
Another far-flung island, Tikehau, awakens that long-slumbering Robinson Crusoe inside you with its fringes of pink sand showcasing a strikingly azure sea. Textured with swept-up chunks of craggy coral and scatterings of coconut palms, Tikehau garnered praise from Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who declared it the richest atoll on Earth for its abundance of fish and unspoiled waters. One minute on the island and you’ll understand the lullaby factor, which its name in translation exudes. Meaning “peaceful landing,” Tikehau de-stresses at first sight: Its undeveloped acres, authentic denizens, bumpy dirt roads and low-key (few) hotels offer a sight for sore, overworked, overstimulated travelers’ eyes.
Moorea is the island for landlubber travelers to French Polynesia. Those who dare to get out of the water will find dramatic coastlines, pineapple plantations, skyscraper-sized waterfalls and plentiful fern-carpeted valleys. Make Moorea a first stop after landing on Tahiti. Take the public ferry to Moorea for the ultimate aha moment (“Yes. I am really in Tahiti,” you will exclaim.), which comes when an exotic green land mass suddenly rises from the sea, a vision of paradise that presages what will come. After a dip in the water, perhaps a gambol on your hotel’s perfect length of sand, put on your hiking boots and ascend Mount Rotui. Zigzag up a trail marked by narrow ridges and soaring cliffs. According to local myth, an archer’s arrows impaling the rocks formed the terrain here. Your prize for your efforts? The view from the summit.
An hour away by plane, the quintessential honeymoon getaway, Bora Bora, won’t seem real when you first arrive at the tiny airport, ensconced on its own motu, where boats wait to whisk you to your resort. No wonder the ancients explained Bora Bora’s existence as the act of a supreme god who rolled a giant stone from the heavens into the sea to create a set of floating motus with the purpose of linking the sky to the earth. Mana shows up here as shadows, sunsets, mind-blowing hues of blue and ethereal light. Centered around the stately volcano, Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora features myriad hotels set on various isles, transparent waters and ocean activities galore. Many visit to marry here (or have a celebratory, symbolic ceremony). Plan a party on the beach and arrive from your bungalow by outrigger canoe. Expect fire dancers, a gauze-draped couch, sunsets and love potion-worthy cocktails. Otherwise, while away the hours in an overwater villa propped on stilts above the limpid lagoon. Rather than snorkeling, gaze at the clear panel in the floor, placed to feature sea life. In the morning, order breakfast by room service, which staff deliver by boat.
Assorted and extraordinary, French Polynesia embodies every manner of landscape. But its appeal goes beyond the terrain to embrace its culture, legends, language, traditional poisson crude (a ceviche-like dish), its French-infused undercurrents and its affable populace. Not just another place to snorkel, Tahiti awakens something inside — mana, the energy which Tahitians believed helped adjust the universe. Do a kindness, their credo said, and the world becomes full of light. In a global time of disharmony, the Tahitian way seems like a curative solution, that tincture Brando spoke about, a healing destination that awaits you with open arms.
French Polynesia Info to Go
Fly Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles (LAX) to Papeete (PPT) on the island of Tahiti, about an eight-hour flight. From there you can continue to islands by plane, linger on French Polynesia’s largest island or take the ferry to nearby Moorea.
Where to Stay in French Polynesia
The Brando Enjoy all-inclusive, opulent simplicity in villas that cradle individual beaches and include plunge pools, private outdoor tubs and secret gardens. Arrange activities from sailing to diving, but pristine nature is the point here. Tetiaroa $$$$$
Four Seasons Bora Bora This ultimate paradise features 100 suites on stilts above its indisputably blue lagoon, plus more villas wedged into haven-like gardens. Don’t miss the amphibious waiter who delivers your cocktail mid-pool. BP 547, Motu Tehotu, Bora Bora $$$$$
Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort With pink sands, Tikehau’s lagoon looks as blue as sapphires. The super-relaxed resort features thatched-roof garden suites and overwater rooms on piers. A stay feels like visiting family in a long-lost world. Motu Tiano $$$$
Restaurants in French Polynesia
Bloody Mary’s Most visitors to Bora Bora leave their resort at least once for dinner and sunset views at this iconic local haven of Polynesian food. Often filled with visiting celebrities. Bora Bora $$$
Le Coco’s Restaurant Gastronomique A nouvelle cuisine wunderkind, Le Coco’s occupies a lagoon edge with views of Moorea. Sit on the lawn or beneath a thatched roof. PK 13,200, Puna’auia, Tahiti $$$$
Restaurant le Mayflower A romantic, roadside restaurant popular with locals for celebrations, Le Mayflower dabbles in tropicalstyle, lighter French cuisine. Try the lobster ravioli. PK 27, Haapiti, Moorea $$$$