By Donna Heiderstadt
OVER;WATER BUNGALOWS are to Tahiti
what gondolas are to Venice: an irresistible
lure that makes you want to hop on a plane
and experience the magic yourself. But French
Polynesia—the South Pacific island nation
that’s home to Tahiti and 117 other lush isles
and coral atolls—does more than just tease
visitors with its postcard-perfect bungalows.
Its pure, natural landscape and passionate
Polynesian soul combine to create an unforgettable romantic getaway or family vacation.
And then there’s this: Though they are
only an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles,
the islands of Tahiti receive as many visitors in
an entire year as Hawaii gets in a single week.
I’ve been one of those lucky visitors. And
as I was greeted with a welcoming “Ia Orana”
(“hello”) fragrant lei, I was awestruck by
palm-lined beaches straight from a Gauguin
painting and aquamarine lagoons that are the
definition of paradise. “Tahiti’s physical
beauty never disappoints,” agrees Jonathan
Reap, president and managing director of
Tahiti Tourisme North America. “It’s all
breathtaking, natural and unspoiled.”
But I was spoiled, by the serene apricot-
mauve sunsets, the hypnotic songs and
dances, and the flavorful French-Polynesian
cuisine. My first Tahitian spa treatment was
like a date with an exotic botanist as I chose
from an array of oils scented with frangipani,
orchid and vanilla. And when I snorkeled
into a blizzard of Technicolor fish I knew it
would be hard to top—until I watched my
lagoon guide feed stingrays and blacktip reef
sharks a few hours later.
There’s more to these islands, however,
than snorkel excursions, heavenly massages
and over-water bungalows (although you can
stay in one on eight different islands). This is
a destination salted with adventure and peppered with Polynesian history. Here’s a look at
several easily accessible options.
The big three
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to
see the big three: Tahiti, Moorea and Bora
Bora. The best known of the Society Islands,
they are incredibly beautiful and boast some
of the region’s top resorts. Reap likens this
popular combo to “Tahiti 101.”
Tahiti. This gateway island, home to the
capital, Papeete, buzzes with French-accented
energy. Like almost every visitor, I arrived
anxious to get to a beach. And yet I was also
curious about the vibrant public market, Le
Marché, and the roulottes (food trucks) that
gather near the port each evening.
About half of the country’s population
lives here, but don’t expect luxury high-rises.
This island’s colonial-tropics roots endure.
You don’t have to drive far to stroll a black-
sand beach, such as Lafayette or Point Venus,
or hike to a trio of waterfalls. If you want to go
off the beaten path, Reap suggests the lush
peninsula of Tahiti Iti—it’s like a lost world.
Moorea. This immense and immaculate
island is a mere 30-minute catamaran ride
from Tahiti. Heart-shaped and crowned with
dramatic green spires, Moorea has as much to
offer on land as it does on and under the water.
I loved exploring its photogenic valleys
and pineapple fields (which produce fruit
that’s small and exceptionally sweet) during
4x4 excursions and invigorating hikes. The
panorama of Cook’s and Opunohu bays from
the Belvedere lookout is not to be missed. Nor
is a guided aquatic encounter on the lagoon
with energetic spinner dolphins, curious
stingrays or migrating humpback whales.
Bora Bora. The most famous island in
the South Pacific is blessed with an enigmatic
volcanic peak, Mount Otemanu, and the
world’s most seductive lagoon. “It has 42 hues
of blue,” Reap boasts. I admit I’ve tried to
count them as I jetted across its liquid mosaic
surface or contemplated its beauty while pic-
nicking on one of the tiny white-sand motus
(islets) that ring it. I’ve spent a fair amount of
time sleeping in over-water bungalows here.
Bora Bora and beyond