I remembered the day my parents returned from their holiday; one of their first without me or my sister, absolutely enchanted. It was twenty years ago and even though they were very well travelled before they left for their trip, they came back as though they’ve just returned from another planet entirely. Like them, I’ve seen exotic islands before. Could this place really be that different? I thought about this on my short Air Tahiti Iti flight between Papeete and Bora Bora, as excited as I’ve ever been about touching down anywhere.
Upon landing on the off-shore strip, we were promptly greeted by our hotel representative and shown to our water taxi that would whisk us away to the resort’s motu, or islet.
The entire room smelled like an early summer garden and it was hard to believe it all came from two small wreaths of tiare resting on our bed. A salty ocean breeze snuck in through the wooden window shutters and swayed the thin white sheets of the mosquito net above the bed. If we tried, we could hear the ocean breaking on the lagoon’s reef in the distance. A ray of afternoon sun found its way inside and warmed the long-board shaped coffee table, reflecting a rich caramel tone. I fell backwards on the bed and stared up at the thatched ceiling and briefly closed my eyes. A sole cry from a sea-bird and the movement of fan-chased air is all I heard now.
If I was to spend my entire holiday in this one room, I’d be a happy man.
I made my way across the hardwood and looked around the corner and into the bathroom. Thick forest branches cradled his and hers vanity mirrors, floating over deep, matching wash basins. A corner of the seductive tub was detailed with a purple orchid and beside it, a walk-out to a liberating outdoor shower. The room lived in perfect harmony with its surroundings, built and appointed with local woods with classic, black and white photos of the island and other local original art.
Outside, the wrap-around deck looked directly out at the mainland and the surreal green of towering Mount Otemanu, its pinnacle hidden behind a lonely, passing, whimsical cloud. A small wicker table and a pair of comfy lounge chairs dressed the deck along with a small ladder leading down to the shallow lagoon below. I made my way down the ladder and plunged into the soup-warm baby blue.
I was instantly swarmed by a school of chartreuse-yellow reef fish, as fascinated by me as I was by them. I circled our over-water bungalow and rolled over onto my back. The sky was immense, almost never-ending. The lagoon was entirely mine. Swimming out a little further, I noticed a faint, large moving shape straight ahead of me and I quickly made my way towards it with excitement.
Could it be?
Wow. It is!
I now wished I wasn’t alone as before I knew it, I was shoulder to flipper with a massive green sea turtle as he gracefully combed the lagoon floor for an afternoon snack. I surfaced for a breath and to thank my lucky stars then dove back down to gawk some more. I followed the gentle beast for a few more minutes before making my way back to the bungalow with my story.
I was already telling my tale as I climbed up the ladder where a welcome bottle of sparkling white wine was being opened by a lumbering, tattooed Polynesian man dressed in a colourful pareo, a tiare flower behind his ear, accentuating his broad, warm smile. He watched me beam with excitement as I explained my encounter, carefully waiting until I was finished to blow my mind.
“Tomorrow”, he said, “you should go check-out our sea turtle sanctuary. If you enjoyed today, you’ll love it. You were probably swimming with one of our own.”
I dried off under the setting sun as my friend and I sipped our bubbly drinks and mused over Tahitian facts that fascinated us, working up our appetites for dinner.
“Did you know that French Polynesia is the only country to operate a winery on a coral atoll?”
“Did you know that Tahitians don’t have a word for ‘stress’? And that their alphabet has only 13 letters?”
“Did you know that Tahitians also use eye language? And that raising one’s eyebrows means ‘yes’ or ‘hello’?”
“Actually, even the way they wear flowers in their hair tells a story. Worn behind the right ear means you are single and available. Worn behind the left, you are married or taken. Worn behind both ears, you are married but available. Wear it backwards and you are available immediately.”
We walked the fire-lit boardwalk to the resort’s French restaurant and were seated at a quiet table beside the lily pond, bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes surrounding us. The a la carte menu was in French, Japanese and English as were most signs on the island. My skate with pink peppercorns and caper berries was outstanding; as thick as a Texas steak and the meatiest piece of fish I’ve ever eaten. The steak frites across from me looked just as tantalizing and we ate in what seemed like slow motion, savouring every morsel, chasing it down lovingly with a well rounded Cotes du Rhone red.
As just about every ingredient is shipped in, French Polynesia is easily the most expensive place I had ever been to. An earlier stroll through a supermarket in Papeete surprised us with entire aisles devoted to fois gras, various mustards and brie and camembert cheeses that would only be found in fine specialty shops elsewhere. The quality of everything on the island is French top-shelf and priced accordingly, along with a steep import fee but satisfies the discerning tastes of the predominantly French and Japanese clientele.
Dessert was an easy choice. The neighbouring island of Taha’a is one of the world’s main growers and exporters of vanilla beans. French vanilla ice cream takes on a new meaning here and tours of vanilla plantations on the island are as popular an activity for visitors as are the black pearl farms and boutiques. Unapologetically, French Polynesia screams opulence.
As we dined, our bungalow was cleaned, spruced up with fresh flowers and smartly lit in soft orange light. A bread-filled wooden bowl rested on the coffee table which was lit from below, its top removed, exposing the lagoon beneath. We sat down around the space in the floor and slowly broke up the bread to feed to the waiting fish. Like a fireplace, nature’s television, we joked.
Our next few days were filled with snorkeling and kayaking our lagoon, shark and stingray feedings, eating like kings and relaxing on unimaginably beautiful beaches we had all to ourselves. It was clear why this is where the rich and famous go. Why Marlon Brando married a Tahitian actress and bought an entire island to live on. Why Paul Gauguin moved here to paint until his death. I better understood Mutiny on the Bounty.
Tahiti and her islands receive less tourists in an entire year than Hawaii gets in one day. The isolation, privacy, the exclusive quality of everything here is simply unmatched and I realized I had answered my initial question of “Could this place really be that different?”
Yes, it most certainly is.