Finding Your Paradise in French Polynesia

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May 01, 2018

by LAUREN QUAINTANCE, Writer

Dotted with dreamy islands such as Bora Bora and Tahiti, French Polynesia is the Pacific’s answer to the Maldives, says Lauren Quaintance.

French Polynesia has lured paradise seekers – including Paul Gauguin and Marlon Brando – for centuries and little wonder. With its dazzling cobalt-blue seas, lush tropical vegetation and jagged volcanic peaks, the 118 islands and atolls that make up the destination commonly referred to as Tahiti showcase nature at its best. Thanks to its popularity with American travellers, some of the world’s great hotels are here yet French Polynesia is so much more than just a place to flop in a sunlounge. Indeed, the archipelago’s French heritage and potent local culture make for an intoxicating mix. With accommodation to satisfy every whim, all that’s left to do is decide which resort is right for you.

Best for luxury

The Brando 

Film buffs will know that in the early 1960s, Marlon Brando visited French Polynesia to star in Mutiny on the Bounty. The brooding actor became enamoured not only of his 19-year-old co-star, Tarita Teriipaia (who became his third wife), but also of the languorous pace of Polynesian life. Much of his time in the archipelago was spent on an atoll, called Tetiaroa, about 50 kilometres north of Tahiti. Brando first visited while scouting for locations and later negotiated to buy the group of 12 low-lying islets for a mere $US270,000. (One story goes that a previous owner, a dentist, had been given the atoll as a reward for curing the king’s toothache.) The actor spent his days on Tetiaroa living a real-life deserted-island fantasy, talking on his ham radio and propping up the bar. Before he died in 2004, Brando discussed building a hotel but he was adamant that it would be done with as little impact on the environment as possible.

So it was when The Brando opened in mid-2014. There are no overwater bungalows, the 35 villas instead hunkering down in sand dunes. This has the dual effect of protecting the privacy of the hotel’s privileged guests (Barack Obama spent a month here in 2017 writing his memoir) as well as ensuring that, from the water, the island looks the same as it did 100 years ago.

The hotel kayaks are even fitted with GPS devices because guests have become disorientated while paddling in the lagoon and struggled to find the resort.

Enormous efforts have been made to reduce the hotel’s impact on the environment, including the establishment of the Tetiaroa Society to fund scientific research.

The 78-hectare resort is made for social media – honeymooning couples ride bikes, luxuriate in private plunge pools and order cocktails at the thatched-roof Bob’s Bar that’s a replica of the one Brando built. The two restaurants are overseen by French chef Guy Martin of the two-Michelin-starred Le Grand Véfour in Paris. Each one-, two- and three-bedroom villa is more like a self-contained holiday home with its own media room and outdoor bath or plunge pool. You’ll most likely have the white-sand beach to yourself, with the only sound being the low rumble of waves breaking on the distant reef.

Best for families

Intercontinental Tahiti resort & spa

Most travellers to French Polynesia arrive in the capital, Papeete, on the biggest and most populous island, Tahiti. Just a few kilometres from the airport, the InterContinental Tahiti is a great option for those travelling en familie who want all the facilities of a big resort but none of the hassle of an extra flight. The township of Papeete, with its French stores and traffic jams, is just a short taxi ride away but the view from the hotel across a vast, shimmering expanse of water is as good as any on the outer islands, especially at sunset.

While French Polynesia is famous for its honeymoon-friendly overwater bungalows, most of the 246 rooms here are on land, which better suits those with younger children. There are interconnecting rooms for families with older kids and two pools set within the lush grounds. Feast on superbly fresh raw fish marinated in coconut milk at the Tahitian poolside eatery Te Tiare. At Le Lotus, an upmarket restaurant in an overwater bungalow, listen to kids squeal as fish swarm around lights in the water.

Jump in a cab and ask the driver to take you into town to find the popular roulottes (food trucks) that line the waterfront at Place Vaiete. You’ll be able to choose from French salted galettes or the Tahitian version of Chinese chow mein. For a fun excursion, board a ferry bound for Moorea (about a 35-minute trip), where you can hire a scooter to explore the 16-kilometre-wide island and stop to feed stingrays in one of its sheltered lagoons.

Best for culture

Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa 

Taha’a might be harder to get to than the ever-popular Bora Bora but therein lies its charm. Its isolation means that, aside from your fellow guests, you’ll encounter few other tourists and, as locals will tell you, it is more authentique. The island is largely undeveloped, except for vanilla farms and coconut plantations, with simple houses painted pink, yellow and green dotting the foreshore. Driving around the coast you’ll see roadside pineapple stands, rusted-out cars parked on front lawns and women walking along the road carrying baguettes and bananas. 

The resort is on its own private motu (islet), a few minutes’ boat ride across the dramatically green lagoon from Taha’a proper. Built 16 years ago, it has 57 rooms, the majority of them overwater bungalows decorated in traditional style. Uniquely, each overwater room has a glass-topped cabinet at the end of the bed that opens up so you can handfeed the fish that congregate in the water beneath your bungalow.

Book a tour of the family-owned Iaorana Pearl Farm on Taha’a and learn about the process of making the coveted black pearl. Peer inside a shed on the wharf to see the “graft men” seated at small wooden tables carefully inserting the special nucleus into palm-sized oyster shells to accelerate the growth of a pearl. Before you leave, pop into the tiny shop to buy silver-grey “black” pearl earrings or necklaces or, better still, dive and find your own oyster with a pearl inside.

Next, visit a fragrant vanilla plantation to glean an insight into the in-demand Tahitian vanilla industry. And, finally, sample some aromatic, mouth-searing Taha’a rum – made from pure sugar cane that is crushed to extract its juice – at the Pari Pari distillery. 

Best for romance

St. Regis Bora Bora

With its dreamy beaches, translucent water and dramatic volcanic mountains, Bora Bora is made for lovers. And there’s quite possibly no better place to get starry-eyed with your beloved than the St. Regis. From the moment the hotel’s speedboat (with onboard wi-fi) collects you from the islet that doubles as the airport, you can expect to be pampered.

Bora Bora is the spiritual home of the overwater villa so it’s no surprise that most of the 89 rooms here jut out over the water and have their own private plunge pool or whirlpool, with a personal butler for every guest. After watching the sun set behind the jagged peak of Mount Otemanu, you’ll be tempted to slip off the balcony into the bath-like water below. The resort also has two pools: one with a swim-up bar set beside a perfect private lagoon; another with five curtained cabanas that afford canoodling couples some privacy.

With four eateries, including the acclaimed Lagoon by Jean- Georges restaurant, you can expect topnotch French, Italian and Japanese fare. Some might find the lagoonside restaurant with reef sharks swirling under the glass floor a little gimmicky, however, the food is anything but – the rice cracker-crusted ahi tuna is superb.

On its own island with manicured lawns, in the middle of a secluded turquoise lagoon, the resort’s Miri Miri Spa is the stuff of dreams. Retreat here for the Polynesian or Clarins treatments before whiling away an afternoon on a sunlounge. Or muster the energy to go swimming with manta rays and reef sharks on a memorable excursion around the lagoon.

Best of the rest

Best for privacy

The newly revamped Conrad Bora Bora Nui is located on a private cove on Motu To’opua, which also has the longest stretch of white-sand beach on Bora Bora. 

Best for going off the beaten track

Dubbed the “island of the endless lagoon”, the 240-islet Rangiroa has much to offer the intrepid traveller. Stay at the Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa in the traditional Polynesian style.

Best for turtles

You don’t have to go far to find sea turtles at Le Méridien Bora Bora, as the hotel has a sanctuary in its private lagoon. 

Best for the eco-conscious

At the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa the air conditioning uses cold deep-sea water, which means you can rest easy about your impact on the environment.

Best for groups

If you’re travelling with a larger group, you could book your own villa with Tahiti Homes, which has sites in many locations.

SEE ALSO: Which Pacific Island Is for You?