Busy business travelers looking for solace and solitude from the road may want to seek some “Mana” instead. This is the Tahitian word for the life force or spirit that connects all living things – and if that means connecting to warm clear waters in stunning shallow shoals, slow drink in hand while walking on soft sugar sands, then Mana it will be. And Tahiti has plenty of it.
Tahiti and her islands, all 118 of them scattered along the two million square miles in the Pacific that is French Polynesia, overflow with Mana infused in the scent of tiare flower and blue-hued horizons. In Tahiti, it’s impossible to give beauty a rest.
Even the ramshackle to riches capital of Papeete remains mesmerizing, whether gaping at cargo ships in the harbor or waterfalls streaming out of sudden and precipitous jungle cliffs. Here beauty teams in the gaps between perception and sensation.
Tourism in Tahiti concentrates on three primary islands – Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. Each keeps its own character, personality and reason for choosing.
True escape artists can head to The Brando. On its own island of eco-luxury in the Tetiaroa Atoll, it takes a spectacular 20-minute flight on Air Tetiaroa from Faa’a International Airport to get there. Once away from it all you can spend a good week communing with sea turtles and getting pampered, immersed in what was once a private residence for one of old Hollywood’s most golden icons.
But most Tahiti vacations start with an overnight in Papeete before taking the half-hour ferry to Moorea. A few days later, it’s a flight to Bora Bora before flying back to explore Papeete for a night with departures the next day.
Popular in Papeete
Papeete anchors the island of Tahiti and all of French Polynesia as the hub of industry, government and, yes, dining, shopping and culture. It has it all – from sailor bars and shantytowns to exquisite boutiques for black pearls.
The city itself runs about seven blocks squared along the harbor with plenty of French colonial charm to spare. A central market offers a cavernous space for fresh fruits and vegetables, raw, “catch of the day” fish, local meats, shelves of delicious noni juice, and other potions and notions.
Best to find a sidewalk bistro facing the water and order up some Poisson Cru, or “Ia Ota,” (basically raw fish marinated with lime juice and soaked in coconut milk). Or better yet, head to the roulottes around dinnertime. A fleet of food trucks – Tahiti’s answer to street food along the waterfront – offers a variety of inexpensive options, from crepes to steak frites to island-inspired fruits de mer, with plenty of picnic tables linking the waterfront.
Should art be of interest, activities on the island can wax cultural. The Paul Gauguin Museum near the Botanical Gardens offers an intriguing collection of documents, photos, reproductions, sculptures, engravings and sketches for a rare peek into the artist’s personal life. Then, there is the Pearl Museum for everything you ever wanted to know about pearls – and Tahiti’s lava-laced black pearls.
Jungle safaris into the interior here are also rich with tales. Best bets for an efficient and entertaining overview of Papeete and its people is a half- or full-day 4×4 safari with Tahiti Discovery. Your guide may take you on the local’s tour – where to find the best donuts as well as encounters with mysterious plants, hidden paths leading to secret ancient villages, mountain waterfalls pouring into jungle ponds, incredible overlooks, and the all the legendary stories that go with these spots.
Stay the night at Manava Suite Resort, with its apartment-style guest rooms and heavenly views of Moorea. Rates are reasonable for this part of the world, running around $300 per night. A full-service property with pool, bar and fine and casual dining, the Manava is a great place to hub and return to should visitors want to sample several of Tahiti’s islands.
Those with IHG rewards points to burn should book an overwater bungalow at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa in Papeete. A good spot for business and board meetings as well, this property is one of the original resorts in Tahiti, formerly the Tahiti Beachcomber. It’s celebrating what marks 50 years of the overwater bungalow in Tahiti, where the concept originated. The location, just over a mile from the international airport, makes it a favorite for night flight arrivals heading onward in the morning.
Mooring in Moorea
Moorea beckons across the waters with verdant skyward outcroppings that invoke the magic of Bali Hai. Frequent ferry service bridges the 10 nautical miles from Papeete and, unlike other destination isles in this vacation chain, Moorea offers more than just snorkeling, diving and lounging.
Hikes here are spectacular, or you can circle the island by bus or jeep. In any case you will no doubt scope the panorama from the Belvedere Lookout at 3,960 feet. From here it is easy to imagine such personalities as Charles Darwin and Capt. James Cook exploring the thick jungles of hidden villages and stone temples, and then conjure exciting film clips in your head of the classic 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty filmed in Cook’s Bay, with Marlon Brando leading the charge in this true historical event which took place in 1759.
Other Moorea “to-dos:” Shark watching, stingray feeding, dolphin swimming, waterfall hiking and plenty of swimming and snorkeling in quiet lagoons.
If you can only pick one island to visit, Moorea should be it. Situated just northwest of Tahiti in the Society Island group of French Polynesia, it is near enough to Papeete and complete in itself. At just the right size, it’s an explorable island with local restaurants, local villages, and local culture making it easy to have a variety of experiences for time spent.
There is choice when it comes to resorts in Moorea: Hilton has one here, as do InterContinental, Sofitel and Pearl Resorts. Also find an ample selection of charming local hotels and B&Bs. Most of the larger resorts have overwater bungalows available.
Upping the Bar in Bora Bora
If your next stop is Bora Bora, prepare to have the bar raised. The 45-minute flight from both Papeete and Moorea makes Bora Bora a bit more remote, and getting to your hotel will likely require a 10- or 15-minute speedboat ride from the air strip.
Tahiti’s top resort picks can be found amid these islets and beaches. Perhaps most famous would be St. Regis Bora Bora, which took headlines in 2006 when Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban made the Royal Suite their honeymoon lair. The resort is large and stunning, with views of Mt. Otemanu and what are billed as the largest rooms in French Polynesia. Starwood Preferred points make a stay here all the sweeter, but will require suite bookings.
Four Seasons Bora Bora has an ample share of overwater bungalows as well, mostly with large decks from which to leap right into the lagoon. Several suites come with their own pools, and guests will pay well over $1000 a night for a standard guest room here without benefit of loyalty points. But the views of the famed profile of Bora Bora, the quiet lagoons, the spa, and the dining all measure up as a good choice for those who want to luxuriously hole up in Tahiti.
A more purse-friendly option would be the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort. Overwater bungalows reach far over the shallow waters for easy swimming off the terrace and a Zen-style spa takes out all the kinks and worries between dips. White sand beaches, pool bars, fine and fun dining do the rest.
On site is a special coral reef project that is experimenting with creating state of the art re-growth to save the seas. Tours from the docks can be arranged for any type of snorkeling, diving, ray chasing or reef-viewing adventure. Nightly stays run around $600, not including meals.
The Beaches Beyond
Or you can head to the far reaches of these islands and take some true time out amid the pink sand Palliser Islands on the coral atoll of Tikehau. The Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is a 55-minute flight from Papeete. Find only 24 suites and overwater bungalows there and not much else. All is quiet and slow. There is WiFi, such as it is, but it may be more interesting to listen to fish leaping out of the lagoon in the moon light or to go snorkeling in the shallows amid angels and puffers.
Visit Bird Island, a boat ride just across the waters, to see how rare boobies, noddies and terns nest; have a picnic and a swim on a neighboring island; ride a bicycle around the footpaths of the central isle that features a village – only 400 local inhabitants reside here. Quiet and decompression mark the days. Nightly rates hover around $600, not including meals and taxes.
Paradise At a Price
Tahiti delivers when it comes to warm, clear waters and soft Trade Wind fantasies. And it is just beyond Hawaii in distance, around eight hours from the US West Coast.
However, Tahiti is expensive. French in nationality, the food and wine culture can be outstanding here – but not inexpensive. Tahiti grows little of her own food stuff and imports almost everything that hits the tables or the markets. If these items do not come from France, they likely come from the US, New Zealand or Australia.
Still, time away in a perfected South Pacific paradise can be priceless, as Gauguin and Brando discovered.
Accessible information and resources for traveling through French Polynesia can be found at Tahiti-Tourisme.com
By Lark Gould