I could get used to this — the most beautiful islands in the world.
I’m on the deck of a boat — no, no, as I have been corrected gently but repeatedly by the staff, it’s a yacht — with a cool cocktail in my hand, my gaze fixed on the expanse of spectacularly clear water in a painterly palette of blues that reaches to the horizon. This is paradise now.
A fellow passenger on the Ti’a Moana, joins me in appreciation of the opalescent lagoon.
“The earth loves itself here,” she says.
The cruise is my second experience of Tahiti on this trip; my first was in an overwater bungalow, the kind you see in glossy travel magazines favored by honeymooners and celebrities. Posh Orient-Express has teemed up with equally posh Bora Bora Cruises to offer guests the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime land and water experience of French Polynesia.
Am I dreaming? Is this paradise on earth?
After overnighting in Tahiti’s capital, Papeete, I take a quick flight to Bora Bora. At the airport, (I am one of the few solo travelers, another being the British dive master moving to the island for work) I am greeted by hotel representatives who place a creamy lei of fragrant tiare blooms on my neck. Two sweet-faced, plump local men wearing green floral pareos, the wraps worn by both men and women, strum a ukulele. The small airport was open to the aquamarine lagoon.
Five couples and I are whisked by small boat to Bora Bora Lagoon Resort (BBLR, for short); we seem to have too much luggage for paradise. As we approach a private island called Motu Toopua, everyone falls silent. Jaws actually drop. Thatched roof bungalows perched enticingly over the crystalline waters of the lagoon come into focus.
Tahiti’s 118 islands are spread over two million square miles in the South Pacific — an area larger than Europe. Bora Bora’s famed lagoon is actually three times larger than the land mass; Captain Cook dubbed it the “pearl of the Pacific.” The water is as smooth as glass. The striations in color delight the eyes: from cobalt where it is deepest, to turquoise at its most shallow. Bright schools of fish dart around the coral. It’s like the world’s largest infinity pool.
I divide my time between a secluded garden suite and a traditional overwater bungalow. I love the plunge pool and outdoor shower of my suite, the welcoming gesture of a scarlet hibiscus festooning my bed. Likewise, I love the sound of water lapping under the balcony in my bungalow and I love slipping on a snorkel and fins and gliding into the warm, shallow water from the platform.
The rhythm is seductive here; there’s a quiet decorum and the service is top-drawer, but it’s not formal or stiff. The Tahitians are shy but friendly; the ex-pats are enchanted to be working here. A certain torpor sets in after breakfast (delivered by boat butler if you are in a bungalow). I move from the lagoon waters to the pool with its beautiful landscaping. One day, I join Top Dive and plunge into the nearby waters to mingle with lemon and black tip sharks, eagle rays and a parrotfish with a buck tooth.
Another day, I check out BBLR’s Maru Spa; two of its six rooms are built right into the spreading branches of a rubber tree. I book the couples suite and the Honeymoon Bliss treatment, two and a half hours of sumptuous pampering that starts with a soothing cup of vanilla-scented tea and pineapple slices, then moves to a pineapple, a foot washing with hibiscus blooms, a lychee and brown sugar scrub and a massage with monoi oil. It ends with a coconut milk and flower bath in a candle-lit tub floating with more petals as the sky tints lavender and day cedes to night.
One night, I sample the poolside seafood buffet, a lavish weekly presentation that includes sushi, lobster stir-fried to order, and raw oysters. A Polynesian show is food for the eyes and ears. On other nights, I dine al fresco on poisson cru, a local ceviche-like specialty of raw fish in coconut milk, or in the formal dining room, on such exquisite and French-influenced fare as risotto with foie gras and prawns. By 9:30 the moon — nearly full — rises over sky-piercing Mount Otemanui, illuminating the lagoon. Its still, dark waters shimmer.
It’s a toss-up as to whether day or night is more entrancing.
The High (Seas) Life
After lolling about for four days at BBLR, I join Bora Bora Cruises for four days of “nomadic yachting.” The three-year-old luxury vessel was built in Australia, furnished in Sweden and staffed in Monaco with solicitous personnel from all over the world. Owned by a chic Tahitian woman, it is the epitome of sophistication, with elegant artwork, gleaming woods, mother-of-pearl tiles and blue-green glass accents and well-appointed rooms. Its 30 cabins are sheltered from rough seas as the Ti’a Moana gently plies the leeward Society Islands, including Bora, Taha’a, Raiatea and Huahine.
We want for nothing, this international and well-traveled assemblage of guests from England, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, France, Mexico and the United States. There is no forced frivolity, and though our ages range from 20something to 70something, an easy camaraderie emerges amidst the unaffected indulgence. We are, to a person, appreciative.
Sometimes we sail at night, other days we sail by day. Excursions include a visit to a pearl farm, shark feeding, kayaking, a nature hike, snorkeling, even cinema under the stars. Onboard, there is yoga and tai chi, massages and fishing off the back of the yacht. A wild-haired local tattoo artist joins us one evening, creating elaborate designs on tanned limbs with water-soluble ink. The cuisine is exceptional, with multiple courses at lunch and dinner.
My favorite activities are the elaborate meals staged in the lagoon — yes, in the lagoon. Perhaps a midday tea/cocktail hour where we wade out to a long table draped in a colorful cloth or a sumptuous breakfast with made-to-order omelets. Or my favorite, a beach barbecue, with a roasted pig cooked in the earth under a cover of banana leaves, and tables set up under coconut trees, sunshine glinting off the polished silverware. Traditional batik blankets held in place with coconuts are placed on the palm-fringed beach for sunbathing; a staffer mixes and applies a treatment of coconut milk, jasmine flowers and lime to the women’s hair, the heat intensifying the restorative effect.
On my last night, I lean over the rails; the sea stretches out in all directions, uninterrupted save for a far-off isle of velvety green. I toast Tahiti with a lightly spiked guava and mango drink. I am lost in reverie as the sunset sky dissolves in the same colors. No question, Tahiti worked its magic on me.
If you go:
Check out the official website of Tahiti Tourism North America for general information on the area.
Air Tahiti Nui’s gracious service will deliver you from Los Angeles to Papeete in eight hours. Several packages allow you to combine both land and sea experiences.
For reservations, log onto the website of Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, or telephone 800-860-4095.
For more information on Bora Bora Cruises, visit the website by clicking on the preceding link.
To understand why Tahiti has become synonymous with a paradise-like life and a magnet for artists, visit the Wikipedia webpage on Tahiti and the Metropolitan Museum of Arts' online article on Tahitian art.
“Aren't you one of the seven wonders of the Paradise of painters?” — Henri Matisse, referring to the lagoons of Tahiti
© Article and photographs copyright of Suzanne Wright