The mere mention of the South Pacific in general and French Polynesia in particular conjures up well-deserved notions of an Eden-like paradise with warm turquoise waters, resplendent marine life and hospitable francophone Polynesians.
With 118 islands and atolls comprising French Polynesia — the Society, Tuamotu, Austral, Gambier and Marquesas Islands — choices abound. For travelers willing to go slightly off the beaten path, Rangiroa, Huahine and Tetiaroa offer profound beauty wedded to an indelible Polynesian spirit coupled with incomparable diving, snorkeling and cultural experiences.
Fortunately, Bay Area residents now have a superb option when flying over the Pacific. Long-haul, low-cost carrier French bee flies thrice-weekly nonstop from SFO to Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital. With shiny new ultramodern extra wide-body Airbus A350-900s and fantastic Polynesian service, holidays begin at boarding. Toll free: (833) 376-7158, https://us.frenchbee.com/en
The planet’s second largest atoll has underwater life replete with rich coral gardens amid 240 islets that span 110 miles around a deep lagoon. Pink sand beaches grace its southeast atolls while blue and green lagoons on its western atolls house stunning underwater life. Though I was sidelined from diving due to an ear issue, it didn’t matter — phenomenal snorkeling was abundant.
I hung my hat at Les relais de Joséphine, a family-run bed-and-breakfast on the banks of Tiputa Pass. The Tiputa and Avatoru Passes are on either side of a banana-shaped atoll running six miles west to east in the Tuamoto Archipelago. Here the majority of Rangiroa’s 3,600 inhabitants reside.
Just in front of Josephine’s, pods of dolphins — perpetually smiling pacific ambassadors — ballet dance impromptu at sunset to gazers’ delight. Traditional Polynesian bungalows have rustic French provincial furnishings and incredibly comfortable bedding. Delicious French meals made by Josephine’s charming daughter Séverine are served family-style overlooking the lovely Pass. http://relais-josephine-rangiroa.com/en/
With Pa’ati Excursions, I headed to the Blue Lagoon, a natural swimming pool about 20 miles southwest. Anchoring near massive, ethereal coral rock formations that dotted incredible vistas in at least 50 shades of blue, we jumped into bathtub-warm, crystalline waters, then walked in waist-deep water between atolls.
Later, Capt. Leon and his crew made a delicious, traditional barbecue fish lunch. Heading back into the water just a foot from the shore, at least three dozen black top sharks of every size swarmed in this natural nursery. While the music of “Jaws” clamored unceremoniously in my head, these sharks were calm, dare I say content, and most importantly, didn’t desire my limbs as lunch.
Near Tiputa, we snorkeled in waters so crowded with colorful fish, it seemed like a Friday afternoon traffic jam en route to a pescatarian party. Several fish schools swam directly into my mask while one nearly found its way into my bikini.
Before sunset, Leon brought out guitars, ukuleles and Hinano beers. Gorgeous voices serenaded us on the water ending a magical day.
Another day I joined Johann at Top Dive, the island’s premier dive operation. As others suited up to scuba, we took out a pair of zippy Yamaha 115-horsepower jet skis and rode out to a snorkeling spot. Crowds of clown, parrot, needle and flute fish surrounded us while 10 feet away, a 6-foot lemon shark, entirely bored by our presence, slowly swam by. https://topdive.com
Flying to Huahine over Raiatea was mind-bogglingly picturesque, with verdant valleys and 50 more shades of blue hugging stunningly dramatic coastlines.
About 110 miles northwest of Tahiti, Huahine comprises two islands: Huahine Nui, the northern and larger island containing four villages where two-thirds of the 6,400 inhabitants reside, and the smaller southern Huahine Iki, with another four villages. The two islands are separated by French Polynesia’s longest bridge of 240 feet.
The best place to stay with a gorgeous secluded beach is Iki’s Le Mahana Hotel. It has remodeled bungalows and a beachfront restaurant serving delicious Polynesian and western specialties. http://www.lemahanahotel.com
Hotel Maitai Lapita in Fare town also has a lovely beachfront while its lobby contains a terrific archeological mini-museum. http://www.huahine.hotelmaitai.com
Several gorgeous motus — small islands — some habited, dot Huahine’s eastern coast. Dubbed the garden island for its agricultural richness, Huahine grows bananas, mangoes and breadfruit. It’s also shrouded in spiritual mystery as the densest archeological site in all of French Polynesia. Here around 70 marae — temple ruins — mostly in Nui’s eastern town of Maeva – include several petroglyph-bearing stones.
The late Yosihiko Sinoto, a U.S. and Japan-trained Polynesian archeologist, restored much of Huahine marae during visits spanning 40 years. Also in Maeva, the Fare Pote’e Museum houses marae exhibits, old photographs and work by local artists.
My guide Paul, an American archeologist and long-term resident of Huahine, next took me to 500-year-old-stone fish traps that had fallen into disrepair but were also restored by Sinoto and again in use.
Stopping at a fresh water river nearby, eels slithered by seeking sustenance. Unlike Moray eels, they’re marginally friendlier with duller teeth.
Fare is also home to LM Vanilla Plantation, Huahine’s largest. Arriving in 1846 from the Philippines, French Polynesian vanilla is now considered the worlds’ finest. As there are no hummingbirds here to pollinate this orchid family member, pollination must be done by hand — think floral insemination via a longish toothpick. www.islandecotours.net
As daylight faded into the coming night, an epic orange-hued sunset brought another perfect day to a close.
Twelve atolls comprise the utter eye candy that is Tetiaroa, while only one, Onetahi, is habited. From a private airport lounge in Papeete, guests arrive on Air Tetiaroa on either an Islander BN or Twin Otter.
Once owned and deeply loved by Marlon Brando, Tetiaroa now hosts The Brando that opened July 1, 2014, exactly 10 years following Brando’s passing.
Thirty-five enormous, impeccably furnished beachfront bungalows all with private plunge pools possess every possible comfort. A maximum of 130 guests assures privacy and 170 superbly trained, hospitable staff means guests experience a rare level of service. No small wonder President Obama came here for a month after his White House tenure to write his memoirs. A more peacefully perfect place on earth can’t even be imagined.
In addition to an excellent spa in a Robinson Crusoe-like setting, fitness center, tennis court, three restaurants including Guy Martin’s Les Mutinés, two bars, 24-hour room service, cultural activities and perfect white sand beaches with great snorkeling, there are several daytime excursions: lagoon snorkeling, viewing temple remains and visiting nearby Tahuna Iti, an island bird sanctuary with 10 seabird species and four migrating species, including curlews from Alaska!
Of the several excursions I took, most impressive was the “green tour” where guests see the “back of the house” and bear witness to The Brando’s commitment to sustainability and carbon neutrality. It has SWAC — seawater air conditioning — a $12 million investment saving 90 percent of air-conditioning energy consumption costs. It also has 4,600 solar panels (the largest field in French Polynesia and provides 100-percent of the property’s energy needs ), a recycling center that includes a mechanical composter and glass crusher, a sewage plant and a reverse-osmosis desalination plant so large its internal filters are nearly 18 feet. There’s also a vegetable garden and 64 beehives monthly producing over 600 pounds of honey.
Staying at The Brando results in three visceral perspectives: Marlon’s love of the islands is immediately understood, awe that his eco-sustainability vision was realized, and finally, if one behaves extremely well while living, maybe just maybe, heaven will be half as lovely as Tetiaroa in all of its French Polynesian glory. https://thebrando.com
Tahiti if you go: Travelers generally need to stay a night or two in Papeete to make onward connections. The Intercontinental Resort Tahiti is five minutes from Faa’a airport, has comfortable rooms, excellent service and a lovely lagoon pool with swim-up bar, spa and Polynesian dinner shows. (877) 424-2449, www.ihg.com
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning travel memoir “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
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