Surrounded by the jewel-tone waters of the South Pacific, the five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia have inspired the works of authors and artists for decades. Today, the islandsÂ’ rustic yet pristine beaches, centuries-old traditions, and hospitable inhabitants draw travelers from around the world in search of their own storybook stay.
With a surface area larger than that of Europe, TahitiÂ’s 118 islands scattered over the Pacific Ocean are a bastion of majesty, mystery, and beauty. The Tahitian Islands are made up of five diverse archipelagos, known collectively as French Polynesia, and teem with verdant panoramas, shallow atolls, blue lagoons, and fascinating subcultures. They have provided fodder for literary dreams and realities since the dawn of the 19th century, when tales of magical islands surfacing out of the blue reached.
However, it was the novels of Pulitzer-Prize winner James Michener, perfectly timed with a global rise in luxury tourism circa early 1970s, that put TahitiÂ’s islands on the map. MichenerÂ’s descriptions of an unmatched natural splendor were read around the world; it was just a matter of time until hoteliers would choose nearby Bora Bora as the poster child of tropical luxury tourism.
Flash forward to 2012: The treasured island of TahitiÂ’s easternmost archipelago, Bora Bora is often considered an earthly paradise.Â Over the past 40 years, high-end resorts have risen over Bora BoraÂ’s lush pockets of land and crystalline lagoons, striving to create hotels that match the beauty of MichenerÂ’s prose. Here, overwater bungalows revolutionized the travel market with the romance of private suites straddling the ocean floor, and their mystique spread to other islands like Moorea, Tahaa, and even Manihi in the Tuamoto archipelago.
Bejeweled Bora Bora The PacificÂ’s most renowned island, Bora Bora, lives up to its reputation as the global mainstay of exclusivity and romance. The luxury experience begins upon arrival at the quaint Bora Bora airport, where glamorous hotel boats float at the ready, eager to whisk visitors to their world-class resorts.
At the center of the island, iconic Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia tower over the surrounding lagoon and small sandy islets, or motus, that enclose the lagoon. Bora BoraÂ’s eastern motus house the majority of French PolynesiaÂ’s luxe newcomers, like the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort, the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, and the reinvented Le Meridien Bora Bora. Each of these show-stopping resorts flaunts a unique version of barefoot luxury, doling out superlative views of the islandÂ’s colossal mountains from the ensuite plunge pools, hammocks, and terraces of overwater bungalows. Beyond the honeymoon and destination wedding markets, these newcomers also showcase a wealth of intergenerational offerings for the affluent family, with the full gamut of water sports, kidsÂ’ clubs, family pools, and special additions, like Le MeridienÂ’s Turtle Sanctuary.
West of the main island on palm-fringed Motu Toopua, the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa ranges over land and sea with hillside villas and an assortment of overwater sanctuaries. Though Mount Otemanu does not stand in direct view of the property, the HiltonÂ’s isolated motu, distanced from other hotels and Bora BoraÂ’s populated interiors, is a blessing for those seeking a true Robinson Crusoe experience.
The hillside villas are equally marvelous. Forgoing the ultra-modern motif, these tiered villas showcase craftsmanship and tradition, adorned with old tapas (pieces of decorated barkcloth) from the Marquesa Islands, symbolic carvings on furnishings and door handles, and mother of pearl chandeliers. High on the hilltops, the azure panoramas change with the rise and fall of the sun, like a natural work of art. The spa is located up in these hilltops, with several outdoor treatment rooms, including the trademark Â“one million dollar viewÂ” massage spot.
ItÂ’s the excitement and appeal of the overwater suite that, for most, fuels the long journey to Bora Bora. This is true more so for none other than the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & SpaÂ’s two double-story presidential villas, which are three-bedroom, two-bath thatched-roof mansions with glass floors. There is nothing modest about the entry-level overwater bungalow at the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa. Aligned as three separate clusters, the resortÂ’s suites are spaced to maintain privacy and the integrity of the ocean views.
If cabin fever strikes after days of sunbathing, relaxing, and snorkeling, the complimentary boat shuttle to the islandÂ’s interior leaves several times daily. Better yet, HiltonÂ’s even more secluded private motu is available for a picnic or a day of adventure, where you can take the Robinson Crusoe fantasy to an entirely new dimension.
Magnificent Moorea A vast mountain chain engulfed by crystal-clear waters teeming with marine life, Moorea recalls HawaiiÂ’s most dramatic landscapes. Still relatively untainted by tourism, Moorea remains an island where grocery stores and modern facilities exist, but most islanders still feast on the daily catch and the ripest fruits from their backyards.
Moorea is easily explored by car and bus, allowing visitors to access the mountains for jaw-dropping panoramas of the land, sea, and sky, as well as more clandestine island treasures, like juice stands selling fresh squeezed papaya and pineapple juices and simple roadside fish markets. Though accommodations are not quite as over the top as those on Bora Bora, the understated luxury of the Hilton Moorea Lagoon and Spa impresses even the most finicky high-end travelers.
The 106-room Hilton Moorea Lagoon and Spa boasts garden suites and guestrooms, and overwater bungalows, recently renovated to reflect a modern French Polynesian design.Â The redesigned suites feature handcrafted dark wood furnishings, glass floor panels that peek out over the lagoon reef, contemporary technological necessities like iPod docking stations, and regal bathrooms. All of the resortÂ’s overwater bungalows offer the same sensational layout, though they feature different views.
Though the resort offers a principal swimming pool and garden suites are equipped with their own plunge pools, the HiltonÂ’s surrounding lagoon also serves as a private swimming pool for guests. Those residing in the overwater bungalows can directly jump from their balconies into the crystalline waters for a refreshing dip or for some fabulous snorkeling along the biodiverse reef.
When hunger calls, three restaurants are located within the resort, including the crepe station, which doubles as the sunset bar. Come early evening, the black tip reef sharks congregate near this area, providing an eyeful for the curious. The breakfast buffet in the main dining room is an idyllic opportunity to sample local delicacies like poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime), fresh fruit breads, and diverse homemade preserves blended with coconut and pineapple compotes. Try to coordinate your stay so that it falls on a Tuesday, when the staff combines a dinner feast with an all-out authentic Polynesian extravaganza of fire-twirling, booty-shaking, and coconut-pounding fun.
This Way to Polynesian Paradise Los Angeles and Honolulu serve as the United StatesÂ’ major gateways to French Polynesia. HereÂ’s everything else you need to know to get you on your way.
All international flights land at Tahiti FaaÂ’a International Airport near Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, on the island of Tahiti. The two U.S. gateways to French Polynesia are Los Angeles (on Air Tahiti Nui) and Honolulu (on Hawaiian Airlines). Once in Tahiti, Air Tahiti offers a wealth of regularly scheduled connecting services to its more renowned or more remote islands. Most travel agents and online ticketing websites can book tickets through to your final destination. Those connecting to Moorea can easily take a 30-minute ferry on the Aremiti V from Tahiti instead of a connecting flight.
As French PolynesiaÂ’s big-city equivalent, Tahiti has fallen victim to unfortunate realities like traffic, crime, and pollution. Unless time is no object, most visitors bypass Tahiti proper en route to the more attractive islands. That said, upscale hotels options do exist for those whose flight schedules mandate an overnight stay or for those looking to penetrate the modern-day incarnation of Tahitian culture. Your best bets include: Le Meridien Tahiti, nestled over one of the islandÂ’s few white-sand beaches, and the Manava Suites Resort, boasting the islandÂ’s largest infinity pool.