Island Fever

Island Fever

Set your watch to tropical time, and luxuriateá deux in French Polynesia.

By Irene Lacher 06/01/2013

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“I’m Romeo,” our snorkeling guide declared, and it was impossible to argue with him. from his brawny, tattooed shoulders to his movie-star teeth, Alex looked like a dream lover, Tahitian-style.

“And this is Juliet,” he continued. He was standing in chest-high water, holding a gray stingray by its — her? — pectoral fins and drawing the mouth on the underside of its flat body closer and closer to his own.

Okay, perhaps you had to be there, but what I wasn’t expecting when I arrived in Tahiti was the indigenous charm. French Polynesians — Tahiti is actually only one island in the archipelago that constitutes this French overseas territory — are warm, playful and onto something. Unlike some island nations that depend on tourism, there’s a notable lack of tension between the haves and the have-nots. Indeed, don’t assume the have-nots even want what you have — they know about all the stress that comes with it, and they’ve got better things to do. So explained my Moorea cab driver, Pauline, an older woman who sported that day’s crown of tiare flowers — also known as Tahitian gardenias — which she weaves for herself every morning. Fresh exotic blooms are so plentiful in that part of the South Pacific that the sinks in the otherwise modest Bora Bora Airport bathroom are festooned with spectacular sunset-colored hibiscus flowers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had arrived in Papeete — the capital of French Polynesia, in Tahiti — feeling surprisingly fresh despite the eight-hour, 20-minute nonstop flight on Air Tahiti Nui. (Unlike the carrier’s red-eye flight out of LAX, which is usually packed because it carries connecting European passengers, the 4:30 p.m. trip had several blessedly empty rows to stretch out in.) By that time it was after 10 p.m., so overnighting at the Manava Suite Resort in Papeete seemed sensible before setting off the next day for the idyllic islands of Moorea and, later, Bora Bora.

Of course, my companion and I wanted to take a look around Tahiti first. The favored mode of tourist transportation here is four-wheel-drive vehicles with very basic seating
in the open rear, topped by a fabric roof to ward off the intense tropical sun. Our Tahiti Discovery guide for that morning picked us up at the hotel for a half-day excursion. He was bare-chested (another interesting facet of Tahiti — men, not women, are the proud owners of most of the bare skin I saw flaunted there) and covered in Polynesian tribal tattoos, both on his person and his pareo, tied at the waist. Even more impressive was his wild boar–tooth necklace, a trophy of a hunt. He introduced himself as Teiva, and off we went, past Papeete’s modest commercial streets (only a teeny-tiny Ikea and McDonald’s attested to Western footprints — oh, yes, and graffiti is apparently universal). We headed up into the moist, lush volcanic mountains, where Teiva made frequent stops to pick hibiscus flowers for the women (over the left ear means you’re taken, over the right, well, you know) and point out other local plants, like the shy Mimosa pudica, also called Touch-Me-Not, because its leaves quickly shrink at your touch.

It turned out that we were quite lucky to have Teiva at the wheel, because he was a native of the area, called Papenoo. Making good use of his four-wheel-drive capability, he veered off the tourist track for bumpy unpaved roads that cut through his extended family’s plantation, where they grow practically everything they need — bananas, pineapples and much more. That’s typical of life here. French Polynesia doesn’t export its agricultural wealth or water — preferring to send off its famous black pearls — so local people don’t need much money for a simple but comfortable life.

Then it was on to Moorea, an island shaped like a heart, which, along with the zillions of honeymooners it attracts, has earned it the sobriquet “Island of Love.” It’s technically spelled Mo’orea, meaning “yellow lizard,” in Tahitian. Local lore has it that a giant golden lizard long ago splashed its tail twice to form Anohu and Pao Pao bays. The destination justly earned travel maven Arthur Frommer’s assessment as “the most beautiful island in the world.” In fact, it’s hard to believe that such an unspoiled place still exists, with beautiful coral reefs and teal waters clear nearly as far as the horizon line, thanks to pervasive eco-consciousness and limiting development largely to resorts (tourism is the main driver of the economy), which count on those crystal waters for business.

The favored rest stops in French Polynesia’s Society Islands, which include Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, are overwater bungalows, with thatched roofs and stairs off each deck, so you can practically snorkel where you sleep. They were invented in the ’70s by the Bora Bora Hotel, a favorite stomping ground for Mick Jagger and his monied ilk. That hotel was later demolished by a hurricane, but the atmospheric overwater huts have since spread to more than 90 resorts around the world, including the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Rustic and charming on the outside, yes, but fear not: They’re air-conditioned and mosquito-free on the inside.

Moorea is just a quick, breezy 12-mile ferry ride from Tahiti. After we landed, a shuttle bus dropped us off at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, where we were greeted with a tropical cocktail and invited to sit while we checked in. Then we were led down a wooden pier to our overwater bungalow. Ours was one of 62 at the hotel, yet they’re designed to feel surprisingly private. The highlight was the glass coffee table over a glass-covered floor opening, through which we could gaze at various tropical fish darting beneath us while sipping duty-free vodka we’d scored at LAX.

That evening, we took in a buffet dinner and show of French Polynesian dancers and fire-eaters, who pulled diners to their feet (the dancers, not the fire-eaters) to join their merry throng. The show was actually delightful, overcoming my expectations of hokeyness. But for those who’d prefer romance served with their meal, the hotel will set up a table on the beach, where waiters bring a gourmet meal of roasted red snapper or Texas beef strip loin, amid torches and high-backed rattan peacock chairs that shield couples from prying eyes.

The next day, we took another four-wheel-drive excursion into Moorea’s interior, which was deeper and lusher than Tahiti, if that was possible. That route was more heavily traveled by tourists, but not disturbingly so. Our Moorea Transport guide was a footloose Italian named Mario, who took us to promontories with views that seemed to encompass the world. But I was most intrigued by the archaeological remains of a stone marae (temple) in an Opunohu Valley forest, a low wall of boulders, where polytheistic A-listers were separated from the hoi poloi (the original “velvet rope”?). Before Christianity was introduced to the islands, human sacrifices would take place there.

To get to Bora Bora from Moorea, you fly roughly an hour and a half (depending on how many other island stops you make along the way) on the domestic carrier, Air Tahiti. We were picked up by boat — the Bora Bora Airport has a dock — by our hotel, the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa. The Pearl also has a village of overwater bungalows, but the architecture generally favors more of an Indonesian style — the open-lobby roof points up at each end. And the glass coffee tables in the Pearl’s overwater bungalows open up so that you can toss down fish food sold at the hotel shop. As for people food, you must sample the Pearl’s version of poisson cru, the country’s signature dish, raw fish quickly marinated in coconut milk and lime juice. Superbe. The Pearl’s Manea Spa, built atop a purple lily pond, also offers massages for one or two — the latter performed in a spacious room with a private whirlpool — with fragrant monoi oil derived from tiare flowers.

Our next stop was the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, a larger property with 122 rooms and suites over the water and on land. The Hilton is the only resort in French Polynesia with two overwater villas that are two stories high, called the Presidential Suites and, as luck would have it, the resort was between movie stars during our visit, so we were upgraded. The 3,230-square-foot suite with endless water views from every room has a private swimming pool, sundeck, daybed, bar area and whirlpool; inside are two bedrooms and three baths (also making this an ideal family destination), a sauna, massage table and stereo system in addition to the usual amenities. Aspiring spouses could hold a small wedding there — either Western-style or Tahitian, but I say, go tribal, baby — or plan a large gathering at the well-shaded Motu Tapu, the resort’s private islet which also offers guests a lunch of seafood and champagne at a table set in the shallow water, right off the white-sand beach.

I would have been very happy to stay inside our suite for the rest of our Bora Bora leg, but another excursion beckoned. That’s how we met the aforementioned Alex of Lagoon Services, who turned out to be a guide of many talents. After picking us up at our hotel, we stopped at another resort to pick up couples from France and Spain; then he steered the boat to his own motu to pick up his 8-year-old son before sailing to three locations for snorkeling or stingray petting. The highlight for me was lunch at Lagoon Services’ private motu, where Alex demonstrated how to make plates from banana leaves and coconut milk from scratch — starting with the coconut tree — for his version of cru poisson. Then as we sailed home, Alex whipped out his ukulele and entertained us while steering the boat with his feet.

If that doesn’t sound like your usual tour, neither was the Hilton Bora Bora’s “One-Million- Dollar View” couples massage your everyday spa treatment. It’s done in an open-air massage pavilion on a black-lava outcropping a few steps above the hilltop spa, where a private whirlpool awaits. No New Age music tapes here — just the melodic strains of doves. On our last night, we dined at the resort’s Iriatai (“above the surface of the water”) Restaurant , where we savored truffle pappardelle as we looked out at the night-black waters, strategizing our return.

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