Confession: My too-fair skin is terrorized by the sun; I think the kinds of people who happily shell out $17 for a hamburger at a hotel restaurant are only marginally less offensive than those who impose those kinds of prices; and come what may I will never, ever qualify as a honeymooner – so why on Earth should I be in the middle of the South Pacific? Because, if I’m not ready to concede that Tahiti is synonymous with paradise (my version requires just slightly more asphalt), I also won’t deny that the island is uncommonly seductive.
Ravishing, actually, is the best word to describe the lagoon-fringed islands of the Society Chain, of which Tahiti is the largest. A thousand shades of blue tinge the water and as many luscious greens coat the jagged volcanic mountaintops and ravines. White sand beaches? Take your pick, though not in Tahiti itself, where the beaches tend to be black. How about islanders in grass skirts softly singing and strumming their ukeleles after you land? You don’t have to be beautiful to accept a local girl’s offering of a tiare flower – and believe me, after a 12-hour flight from New York, no one is – but just tuck it behind your ear like the Tahitians do and see if the scent of a tropical gardenia doesn’t start to melt the jet lag away.
There are many ways to tackle Tahiti, most of which at the outset involve additional flights to smaller and less populated islands. My recommendation is to spend (not necessarily in this order) two nights in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and French Polynesia, another two in neighboring Moorea, and three in the outlying island of your choice, such as Bora Bora or Taha’a.
With its monolithic Mount Otemanu jutting up from its center and spectacular lagoon, Bora Bora is the island with the cachet – and the tourists – in these parts.
How well it preserves the South Seas spirit is up for debate, but you will find that spirit’s apotheosis in Taha’a. The isle shares its lagoon with the larger, more populated Raiatea, from which it was long ago detached by a sacred eel possessed by the spirit of a princess (or so the legend goes). Access is only by boat from its sister island, but what a ride: The lagoon is a gently undulating liquid mosaic of jade and brilliant blue, and the dolphins don’t seem to mind sharing their playground with you. Vanilla is cultivated in small plantations in and around little hibiscus-bordered villages along the coast, making this one very fragrant island in the sun.
Like most of the Polynesian high islands, Taha’a is lush with vegetation. In the interior there are green grapefruits – sweeter and tangier than any you’ve ever tasted – papayas, breadfruits, pineapples … the list goes on. By taking a half-day four-wheel drive excursion, you can truly take it all in. The best one is led by two young Tahitian cousins, Dave and Ken, who pause on the slopes of Mount Ohiri to point out interesting tropical flora such as the “sensitive plant” whose tiny leaves curl up when you touch them. They also whip up an ambrosial fruit salad from the bounty all around and serve it al fresco, and will even show you the right way to crack open a coconut. Any hotel on the island can put you in touch with them (or call 689-65-62-42 or 689-73-78-52; tours $80).
The best place to stay in Taha’a is not in Taha’a itself but across the lagoon from it on a motu, or mini-island, called Le Taha’a Private Island & Spa (689-60-84-00 or 800-735-2478,www.letahaa.com). Stay here and you will feel like you are a part of Polynesia, not apart from it looking in. Why? Perhaps it’s the private boat dock, or the way the reception area, under a huge pitched roof covered in authentic island grass thatch, is open to the sky. It and the two restaurants above it (at one I enjoyed a phenomenal grilled mahi mahi in vanilla sauce) are constructed in a manner that is totally harmonious with the natural environment; walk up the gorgeous open-air staircase and you feel as if you are climbing a tree, and quite effortlessly at that.
Most of the accommodations are in luxurious bungalows built over the lagoon, meaning you can gaze down at the fish from the foot of your bed (there are tables with heavy glass tops but no bottoms) or hop right into the water from your private terrace.The overwater suite is not exactly a rarity in Tahiti, but no place I saw does it better. Whether you look across the lagoon to the palm-studded slopes of Taha’a or over the open sea to nearby Bora Bora, the views are mesmerizing.
It can be hard to tear yourself away from a place like Le Taha’a, but the high prices ($985-$1,250 a night) almost preclude a stay of more than one or two days. Tahiti is by no means a budget destination, but things are a little more affordable over in Moorea, which is a just a short ferry ride or 10-minute flight from the island of Tahiti itself. Stay at the Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa (689-55-17-50, www.pearlresorts.com), under the meticulous stewardship of General Manager Jean-Pierre Challeau, which has overwater bungalow accommodations from $510 to $650 a night (cheaper rooms are available, albeit away from the water, starting at $270 a night). If you can bring yourself to part with chilled pineapple juice by the pool or lagoon, you will see that the interior of the island is largely unchanged from the time when Captain Cook dropped anchor in the sliver of a bay that now bears his name. Island tours are numerous and easy to join from any hotel.
Did somebody say civilization? Well, Tahiti is quite civilized, but the only place you’ll find hustle and bustle (and everyone needs a fix sometimes) is in Papeete. I have been shepherded around marketplaces the world over but Le Marche, as the public market is called here, is one of the most fun. Buy your fruits and monoi oil (coconut oil blended with tiare flower essence) on the first floor, then bargain for pareos (versatile, brightly painted cotton cloths) one flight up. There are also very attractive carved items from the far-flung Marquesas Islands (also part of French Polynesia).
Just outside the city center is a gem of a museum called La Maison de James Norman Hall (www.jamesnormanhallhome.pf; admission $6.50), the airy, restored Tahitian house where the American author of “Mutiny on the Bounty” lived from 1920 to 1951. Hall actually cowrote the book with Charles Nordhoff after reading an account of the infamous incident in an obscure volume purchased in a Paris bookshop.You can see a facsimile of it here in his library of more than 3,000 books, as well as a rough draft of “Mutiny” and memorabilia of the Iowa-born Hall’s career as a highly decorated World War I pursuit pilot. His life opens a window on Tahiti’s pre-tourism past; linger as long as you like and have a snack at Mama Lala’s tea room at the back of the house, or under the big mango tree outside.
The best place to make your base in Papeete is the Radisson (689-48-88-88, www.radisson.com/aruefp; $225-$339), which, despite the connotation of a bland corporate brand, is actually quite stylish. The hotel faces the black sand beach of Matavai Bay, more like a cove, where the malefic Captain Bligh anchored the H.M.A.V. Bounty in 1788. If the captain’s spirit lives on in unreasonably high restaurant prices ($17 for a hohum hamburger), his sense of discipline does not; indeed, one might have to crack a whip to get anyone’s attention here. The spa, featuring first-class treatments that use only local ingredients, is one happy exception.