Tahiti. Paradise…the end.
Full disclosure: Other than spending a few hours a couple of times a month on Fire Island when I lived in NYC, I haven’t been to any beach since my twenties when I used to zone out in the sun all day. So why take on Tahiti Islands Travel? When they contacted me, I immediately was impressed with the GM, Merehani Parker, her passion, company ethos, marketing strategies and goals. They definitely fit with my current luxury, boutique DMC suppliers who are dedicated to creating amazing, unique experiences with an eagle-eye attention to detail and insider access. And, they all happen to also be really nice, delightful people!
In addition to beach and water sports, I think we tend to forget that French Polynesia has inspired artists like Gauguin and Matisse, writers like Melville, Maughan, Michener and explorers over the centuries. The Tahitian islands gave us tattoos, black pearls, vanilla, weaving, woodcarving, and breadfruit. There is a rich history and culture to explore.
For my 15 days in French Polynesia, or the Islands of Tahiti as the tourism board promotes, I stayed in 11 hotels on 9 different islands on two archipelagos and did 14 additional site inspections. Yes, it was a whirlwind experience but I only scratched the surface of these enchanting 118 islands and atolls, 67 of which are inhabited. Only 58 more to explore….
An easy 8 hour flight from LA that lands around 10pm, the airport is a madhouse. Tahiti Islands Travel is dedicated to personalized, concierge service so I was whisked away to the private lounge while my visa was taken care of and luggage waiting for me, then driven in a Mercedes SUV to the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti. First class all the way!
I took the local ferry over to Moorea which you can see from Tahiti. The ferry was filled with locals playing musical instruments, listening to radios, dancing, tourists…fascinating and fun people watching. Both Tahiti and Moorea have beautiful mountains and are breathtaking to behold from the deck. And the water…oh my, the stunning shades of blue and turquoise. No wonder artists and writers have been seduced and inspired by the beauty and exoticism of the Tahitian islands, and its beautiful and friendly peoples always ready with a smile.
Another disclosure: I am scared of sharks. My lagoon adventure on Moorea was stingray and shark snorkeling….ok, why not? Before starting our lagoon experience we got word there were whales so we went outside the reef barrier and saw possibly the last two whales of the season. Awesome! Our guide was not only handsome but very funny (Tahiti Islands Travel know the best guides and outfitters). The water was only chest deep so no need to snorkel while petting the stingrays and watching black tip reef sharks swim close by. Our guide instructed us to pet the stingrays, Gigi was his favorite, but do not touch the sharks. It was cool. Then we went to a small motu with a laid-back restaurant for lunch. Food was expensive.
Papeete, on the island of Tahiti and the capital of French Polynesia, is a charming little city with a lively, colorful market that everyone should visit. Filled with locals buying their vegetables, seafood, flowers and clothes, a visitor will be charmed by all the food items they don’t know and friendly vendors who try to explain. The downtown area looked like it had plenty of cool stores but I didn’t have time to meander and shop. I also took a day excursion around Tahiti and was quite surprised at the beauty and different things to see: blow-holes, multiple waterfalls, beautiful gardens, Tahiti Iti (love saying that), picturesque lookout points, the Gauguin museum (unfortunately closed) and Tahiti’s world class surfing spot, Teahupo’o, where the Men’s Championship Tour will be held Aug 21 – Sept 01, 2019. Want to take surfing lessons from a Tahitian pro? Tahiti Islands Travel can arrange that.
My favorite experience was the lagoon tour on Bora Bora. It was quite different from the Moorea experience and I’m not sure I would have been comfortable without doing Moorea first. Divers or someone more fluent in snorkeling will have no issues. This excursion was in 3 different stops – the first being snorkeling with stingrays in water too deep for me to stand so snorkeling was called for. We petted another stingray named Gigi whom the guide joked followed me from Moorea. Then we got back in our outrigger boat and anchored at the coral garden which was surreal, filled with colorful fish and splotches of purple coral. Our guide dove down and pointed out an eel hiding in the reef. Then we went beyond the coral reef out into the ocean for our shark adventure. Water was about 35’- 40’ deep and while navy blue, you could still see the bottom. Yeah, I slipped in the middle of these black tip reef sharks! It was otherworldly – all is quiet, you’re floating in the water watching these graceful sharks and other fish darting about. It was so peaceful and mesmerizing until the 3 much larger lemon sharks showed up…initially startling, but they were uninterested in us…no nibbles. I was quite annoyed I hadn’t purchased an underwater GoPro camera – next trip for sure. Additional side notes – our guide wore a thong, played the ukulele for us, and then we went to their private motu for a lunch buffet. Lovely day!
I also went to pearl and vanilla farms on both islands of Huanine and Taha’a which were quite different experiences. I have to say I learned more on Taha’a and if you wonder why black pearls and vanilla are so expensive, both have to be hand manipulated. Who knew each vanilla flower had to be delicately hand pollinated? On Taha’a there was a black pearl – 18cm, B grade that was priced at $15,000 USD. Pretty incredible to see that! On an interesting note, oyster shells from Mississippi are shipped to Japan for stamping into different sizes then shipped to Tahiti for insertion into oyster shells at the many pearl farms. For some reason, Tahitian oysters reject shells at a higher percentage from their sister oysters?
One of my other favorite experiences was my afternoon on the luxury catamaran, Diva. The Tahiti Yacht Charter company has a number of well appointed catamarans that sleep different numbers of guests in en-suite rooms. They come with a skipper, private chef, crew and plenty of water toys, including paddle boards, floats, kayaks, snorkeling gear and fishing equipment. I would have loved to sail overnight but was grateful for my play day and incredible lunch of baba ganoush and guacamole with freshly baked taro chips and tofu carpaccio; the owner and GM had tuna carpaccio.
My other favorite experience was my day on a private motu – please read under Rangiroa site inspections.
The Islands of Tahiti:
Islands have mountains. Atolls are flat land areas. Both are surrounded by coral reefs with at least one outlet to the ocean. Inside the coral reef is considered a lagoon; outside is the ocean. Both islands and atolls can have a motu, or several, that are small reef islets that “belong” to that island or atoll. Motus are always inside the coral reefs.
Tahiti will be your first island as that is where international flights land. With beautiful mountains, stunning lagoons and stretches of the island with crashing waves, black sand beaches, waterfalls, hiking trails, you’ll find plenty to do here. See my experiences above. Stayed:
Intercontinental Hotel which is lovely of course. Stayed in a spacious garden room; they also have gorgeous overwater bungalows, beautiful grounds and good food. If you’re lucky, this gentlemen from the Marquesas islands will show up to assist with your luggage!
Tahiti la Ora Beach Resort by Sofitel was recently taken over by Sofitel. Quick overnight, lovely room, friendly service, but little things overlooked in the room.
Manava Suite Resort has a spectacular, very large outdoor area but the rooms aren’t as cool as the outdoor space.
Ocean View is another luxury yacht that was docked at the main marina with en-suite rooms, lounge areas, private chef, skipper, etc.
Tahiti Nui Hotel is a downtown hotel that reminded me of an NYC SoHo hotel if you have clients who want a more urban experience.
Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort (day room) was 15 minutes on the other side of Papeete with black sand beaches and waves as there was no reef. Lovely restaurant overlooking beach, good food, nice rooms, all with great ocean views.
Tetiaroa is an atoll not quite a 15-minute flight from Papeete. This is where The Brando is. I spent the day at this stunning, very eco-friendly property doing a site inspection, having a delicious lunch and a lagoon experience swimming in the Queen’s Bath before the afternoon flight home. Please note, you can not do day trips here.
Moorea is an island accessible by local ferry or quick flight from Tahiti. It’s quite beautiful with mountains. One can hike, do land or water excursions here. (See under experiences)
Sofitel Moorea la Ora Resort has lovely service, nice veggie burger, great spa and massage, beautiful overwater bungalows. Didn’t care for the garden rooms as they had no private pools or privacy. Again, small things overlooked in rooms – maybe most people wouldn’t notice but you know we, in the trade, do.
Intercontinental Resort Moorea is as you would expect an Intercontinental to be. All rooms booked so toured the grounds which are beautiful.
Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort is another lovely resort with overwater bungalows, and garden rooms with private plunge pools. Nice restaurant, good food overlooking the lagoon.
Huahine is the least tourist visited island and only has 3 hotels. If you’re looking for laid back with fewer visitors, this quite beautiful island is for you. The hotels would be considered 3*, more rustic but could be a nice change of pace if your clients want a more local experience. One of the larger stone temples, or marae, is on this island.
Le Mahana nice room with cool shower, lovely staff. Didn’t love the vegetarian meal and overheard the next table voice the same sentiment. Their seafood is supposed to be very good. Gorgeous sunsets at the pier.
Maitai Lapita has rooms with spacious river views and lovely restaurant at the beach. One of the best salads on the trip with friendly wait staff.
Taha’a is a sister island to Raiatea which is where the airport is. Transfers are by boat to Taha’a where I liked the land excursion, pearl and vanilla farms best. (see experiences) Taha’a and Raiatea are sister islands inside the same lagoon, which is unusual.
Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa which is a Relais Chateaux property on its own motu. This was my first overwater bungalow which was utterly charming! This is a beautiful property with excellent service and the best chocolate truffles! With pool, tennis courts, spa, coral garden, there is plenty to do here in addition to snorkeling.
Vahine Island, on a small motu, for some reason reminded me of a Key West vibe as the first structure at the dock is the bar. Beautiful motu, quiet, quirky bungalows.
Bora Bora – what to say about French Polynesia’s most famous island? This is where you will find the most luxurious hotels and of course is the most visited of the islands. The stunning Mt. Otemanu dominates the island. Most people don’t know that most of the 5* luxury properties are on motus with the desired view of Otemanu. Read my lagoon experience above but there’s much more to do here including hiking or driving around the island, fishing, kayaking, jet skis, paddle boarding, kite surfing, paragliding, snorkeling, etc. Stayed:
Conrad is a beautiful, fairly modern property on its own motu with overwater bungalows, overwater villas with private pools (stunning!), garden units, multiple pools, putt-putt course, tennis, gym, bikes, spa and more. I dined at the Upa Upa Lounge Bar with glass floor – the chef prepared several vegetarian rolls including their special tofu and shiitake mushroom roll…yum! Conrad has the best breakfast buffet in all of Tahiti – it’s quite spectacular. They also have the best chocolate chip cookies, which I have to admit I had for breakfast. I stayed in one of the overwater bungalows and found it quite spacious with a huge bathroom. The bed looks out the glass sliding doors over the private balcony into the blue lagoon. Just like I do in safari tents, I leave the curtains open so the rising sun gently wakes me in the morning to blissful views. Service was very attentive – the staff member who drove me in the golf cart to my bungalow and showed me how everything works had extra water delivered within minutes after I mentioned I drank alot of water.
Le Méridien on a separate motu with Otemanu views was delightful and their overwater bungalows have the largest glass floors of any of the properties. They have a large beach, all the water toys, spa and fitness center. The bungalows are lovely with large terrace, large bathrooms and lovely restaurants. I was pleased with my tofu dinner option and had several vegetarian choices. They even had a vegan menu.
St. Regis, also on its own motu, was over the top luxury with large overwater bungalow suites with living room and huge bathrooms. The decor was more Tahitian with the bed looking out over the terrace and lagoon. The bathroom had a sliding mirror you could open, stand at one of the double vanities and look at the blue lagoon while brushing your teeth. Why not? Like all the luxury resorts, there’s a spa, fitness center, coral garden, pools, beach front, views of Otemanu and butler service for all room categories including the private beach villas with pools. I dined at the Jean-Georges’ Lagoon Restaurant which of course is spectacular with a vegetarian/vegan menu and glass floor with swimming sharks. Truly a delicious and incredible experience. Site Inspections:
Four Seasons – had a delicious and healthy lunch at their beach restaurant while viewing the beautiful overwater bungalows, spa, fitness center, tennis courts, infinity pool with cabanas, great views of Otemanu. Try their vanilla infused sea salt in olive oil on freshly baked bread – a treat for sure.
Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort – lovely property with overwater bungalows, garden villas with plunge pools, large pool, spa, tennis. Within the year, they will start on a large refurbishment with larger bungalow terraces and new decor.
Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort and Thalasso Spa – another charming 5* property with multiple overwater bungalows, pools, restaurants and possibly the most interesting spa of all the resorts.
Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Tetiaroa, Bora Bora, Raiatea, Taha’a and Maupiti (which I did not visit) are all in the Society Archipelago.
Tikehau is an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. In fact, this entire archipelago consists mostly of atolls with motus. You’ll find Tikehau one of the best diving areas in the Tahiti islands and is much quieter and laid back. The flight over from Bora Bora is stunning and may or may not stop in Rangiroa first.
Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort – lovely, smaller resort on a motu with great beaches and incredible multi blue-hued water. Be sure and request one of the overwater bungalows with air-conditioning. Lovely management and restaurant, water toys, snorkeling equipment, a few garden bungalows, and a family villa with private pool.
Ninamu Resort which is small and quirky with all bungalows slightly different. I had issues from the beginning as they picked us up in a boat with no shade cover and it’s simply too hot without cover. In fact, we had to sit in the boat while the van went back to the airport for another group….no where to hide from the unrelenting sun. All resorts except this one picked everyone up in nicer boats with a roof for shade.
Rangiroa is another large atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago. From the air it looks like an incredibly long, skinny, snake-like land mass surrounded by so many different shades of turquoise and is simply breath-taking from your window seat. They claim to have the best diving!
Kia Ora Resort – loved this resort as instead of an overwater bungalow I was given a spacious garden bungalow with private pool, and outdoor tub which I loved! Please remember to recommend this option in conjunction with overwater bungalows for your guests. Most of the properties with garden rooms have private plunge pools or pools that are more private than overwater bungalows. This property has overwater bungalows, as well as beach bungalows with small infinity pools. It has a beautiful pool and the food was quite nice with vegetarian options. This is one of the few resorts I stayed in that was actually on the island/atoll and didn’t have to take a boat to the property from the airport. I had my first vichy massage – I was unfamiliar with this until my introduction in Tahiti, but this was the first opportunity I had to experience this rub-down under an overhead, horizontal shower with multiple water jets!
Leaving from Kia Ora’s dock by speed boat for an hour and 15 minutes, still inside the lagoon of Rangiroa, is Motu Teta. This private islet has a beautiful house and bungalow with 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, and plenty of water toys, deep sea fishing, coral gardens, village visits, etc. This is strictly private – 2 people can book the entire island or 3 couples traveling together would be comfortable. All food and drinks are planned in advance and Meho, your private chef and host, will take great care of you. She whipped up an incredibly delicious salad for me and offered an array of wines which I declined in the hot sun. There’s a staff of 3 and the guide in charge of all water sports took me to the coral garden. We kayaked out and he graciously held my hand in the rocky surf while we walked to the coral reef. He picked up a large, stunning starfish which I got to hold before he gently returned it the the sea. This is the perfect de-stress, off-the-grid experience as there is no wifi! Who hasn’t wanted to stay on her own private island with gorgeous beaches and turquoise waters while contemplating the meaning of life? Again, this is not available as a day trip – I’d plan to stay a minimum of 3 nights.
As you can see, my exploration of the islands of Tahiti was quite busy and complicated with flights, water taxis, boat transfers, site inspections, lunch here, dinner there, and excursions. Tahiti Islands Travel had every minute detail perfectly planned with not one late pick-up or meet + greet. They’re experts and take great pride in their craft.
kiki paris / november, 2018