In this latest adventure across the high seas of the South Pacific I encounter a man who wears no shoes, sleep in a bungalow above the seas and spend a little time on a luxury yacht.
I wouldn’t dream of attempting to improve John Milton’s Paradise Lost, with its 10,000 lines of blank verse, biblical storylines of Satan, Adam and Eve. But what I can do is write with confidence about my recent trip to Tahiti in French Polynesia and how it could very well be paradise on earth (not lost).
There are similarities between the Tahiti that Samuel Wallis, the first European to set foot on the island in 1767 a hundred years after Milton’s seminal work and the lustful lives of Adam and Eve post apple consumption. But it would be a mistake to not consider Tahiti one of the most restful, beautiful and pleasant islands populated by the most delightful and happy people that I have ever met on this planet.
The first thing to take into consideration is that Tahiti and its islands are a long way from Europe so it takes a while to get there. I flew with Air Tahiti Nui to Los Angeles and then on to Pepeeté, the capital. To give you an idea how wonderfully remote things are Hawaii is 2,700 miles away, almost 5,000 miles away you’ll find Chile and it’s some 3,500 miles from Australia. You don’t really arrive in Tahiti by accident these days, you seek it out and seek it out you should. Let me tell you why.
Things are small scale here. The population of Tahiti is 200,000. Only 185,000 visitors make it this far every year compared to Hawaii’s 8.5 million. Are you beginning to see what’s so attractive about this group of islands? Family, music and food are the pulse of life here. The Samoans, Mãori, Chileans and Polynesian civilisations all stem from the same ethic grouping. Pre-European arrival to the islands they were governed as separate chiefdoms. Usually by clans with blood ties and were believed to be direct descendants from Polynesian gods – in short, they had ‘mana’ or spiritual power.
When Samuel Wallis’ boat arrived in 1767 initially he was greeted with hostility but over time was accepted. Wallis was not intent on taking the island and soon he and his crew were accepted. The technological differences are hard to comprehend now. At one stage Europeans were able to exchange trees and supplies for nails, which the Tahitians promptly planted in the belief that iron would grow from the ground.
I would be coming back to the main island at the end of my trip but my first real experience was on the island of Taha’a. Flying to Raiatea then a boat ride of 40 minutes took me to Moorea Island then by water taxi to the Relais and Château’s Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa. The systems of travel here only add to the romance of the islands. This is a paradise on earth. Greeted with a singing tattooed local playing a ukulele and a garland of flowers placed around your neck is hard to beat when you get off the boat.
To give you an idea of the level of service in this resort on arrival in all the excitement I lost my lens cap down a gap on the jetty. That’s the last time I see that I thought. When I had checked into my bungalow on stilts sitting over the lagoon (with its own window in the floor to watch the rays swim by) my luggage arrived by bicycle and with it a beaming young man who proudly returned my lens cap. He explained they had taken the steps apart to find it. That’s what I can above and beyond a call of duty. And I am most grateful for their efforts.
What is there to say about a location like this? Well it is all you’d imagine, blue clear water, incredible sunsets and a sense of other worldliness that must have been in the minds of those first explorers from Europe. The lush vegetation, which incidentally contains no predators harmful to man, no snakes, no monkeys or apes just lots of pretty birds and butterflies and the odd gecko. But don’t worry, if you’re the active type you can wind surf, snorkel, scuba dive, parascend, fish or four-wheel off road drive, which I tried out (during a tropical storm)!
It must be said that when it rains in these parts it really rains. I have rarely seen such a downpour, but it clears soon enough and after all, those lush green forests have to get that colour from somewhere. An off-road drive is a cool way to explore mainland of Taha’a as I climbed up to the high point on the island you get a great view of the sea and the canopy before you. Our guide was fantastic, making a flute out of a branch (yes, he did play it and it had holes to play different notes). Showed us the ylang ylang plant or cananga tree used as an ingredient in Channel’s No.5 perfume. A pearl farm was also on the itinerary where you can see how they culture and grow. It can take up to five years to culture a pearl and even then, it might be rejected.
Lunch is always a casual thing here with fish usually on the menu. A specialty is raw tuna with limejuice and coconut milk often served with simple vegetables. Done well it is a refreshing and healthy meal. I moved out of my comfort zone after lunch and went quad biking (I said you can do pretty much anything you want here) great fun and an invigorating way to see ‘behind the jungle canopy’.
Back at Le Taha’a I enjoyed a fantastic meal of lamb cooked to order on a BBQ and a traditional show with dancers in grass skirts, coconut bikini tops and the most tattooed man in Tahiti. I couldn’t help but notice the elaborate ink on all the dancers both male and female. There are a lot of tattoos here. It is in fact the home of the tattoo, the word comes from the original way of applying the ink with a wooden rod and a needle attached to the end and being hit repeatedly with another piece of wood. The noise made was a tat, tat, tat, hence tattoo. Unlike our western versions, the markings in Tahiti all tell a story, usually folk tales and legends and are more creative and swirl around their owner’s legs and bodies.
After a massage and another fine dinner, I discovered that Le Taha’a has amongst others some of the great and good of Hollywood. Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts have stayed here but I don’t think they were together. This is a chill out zone par excellence with plenty of space to be alone or swim with the rays. My bungalow on the water even had its own landing jetty and steps down to the water.
Checking out of paradise was tough especially in brilliant sunshine. In an instant you can see exactly what this place is about. The next part of my trip was onboard a 20m long catamaran owned by Dream Yacht Tahiti. With six double en-suite berths a hostess, cook and captain to tend to our every needs and take us wherever we wanted this was very much a “Welcome to my world” moment.
Jumping off your own yacht into clear warm water with beautiful fish to look at through your snorkel equipment is just one of the ways to pass time on a craft such at this, reading, chatting and drinking from the extensive bar and eating are others. It’s hard not to relax in such an environment. In fact, if you become ‘too’ relaxed you might forget to apply sun screen and get a little burnt as I did. Not advisable.
You can hire these boats either with or without crew (if you have the requisite experience) for as long as you like. Many try it for a week to ten days moving from island to island and lagoon to lagoon. Meals are communal around a large table with local fare and not surprisingly a lot of fish. For me I think the best part of this type of trip is to just sit around taking in the views (the sky changes all the time) and reading with the occasional dip in the water to cool down.
Another day another island and I fly the short distance from Raiatea airport to Huahine Island. This is the Garden of Eden. A beautiful, lush, manicured island. Staying at the Relais Mahana, a rustic beachside hotel where I have my own chalet. The restaurant and bar are perfectly placed to view the stunning sunset that greats me on my first evening there.
The island is one of the most authentic in the group and also one of the most exclusive. With only three hotels, which only have 100 beds between them it is never going to get crowded. A tour with Island Eco Tours and I learnt that it has only been populated the last 1200 years. There are some historic sights such as temples but most come for the beauty of the island itself. It’s laid back with one ‘big’ store where you can get everything including some excellent wines thanks to the French influence in this part of the world.
There are ancient ways of doing things here such as fish traps in the river, which offer the unsuspecting fish a kind of maze that after the tide is low they cannot escape from. I also saw some rather startling blue-eyed eels.
The island has notoriety or fame depending on your point of view, as it was the home to the mutineers from the Bounty. Christian Fletcher and his cohort spent a few happy years here before justice caught up with them.
The beaches are yellow sand with overhanging boughs providing some shade. Huahine is completely undeveloped most of the island belongs to families who pass it down through the generations. At the hotel, you can snorkel from the jetty and see clown fish, you might even find Nemo! Surfing is popular here as well with a couple of renowned breaks that offer something special. Nighttime offers a window to the stars. As there is no light pollution it is possible to see all sorts of wonders in the southern hemisphere.
An outrigger trip is the best way to circumnavigate the island and squeeze in a picnic on the beach for good measure. Covered by shade the boat zipped along at a good rate and stopped for people to snorkel or swim. Lunch was great with a demonstration of how to open a coconut and use the juice for preparing the tuna. The captain of our outrigger also had a ukulele with him and entertained us with local folk songs. Afterwards we were taken to where you can jump in and swim with black tip sharks if you’re brave enough! So called because of their coloured dorsal fin they look quite menacing and can move extremely quickly. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to!
My trip was coming to an end as I flew back to Tahiti for my last night. In the morning I had a final tour of the island (the largest by some way). My guide Teuai was a native Tahitian speaker and lived as they have done for centuries, he had a loincloth, lots of tattoos and no shoes. Some modern comforts have become normal though, he had a very new 4×4 vehicle. His knowledge and energy was impressive. He took me to a holy sight where he summoned the gods to praise the centipede god, shinned up a very tall coconut tree to harvest something to drink and demonstrated how the conch and hollowed out braches were used for communication.
A splendid lunch at The Intercontinental Hotel and back to the Tahiti Pearl Beach Hotel for a quick massage and then off to the airport for the long journey home. As I contemplated my time on these exquisite islands during my massage I came to the conclusion that I don’t think I’ve ever been to such an enchanting place. Yes, there are things to do here but if you just want to relax without distractions then it’s hard to beat.
There is a certain liberty in Tahiti, it’s not wild or unruly more an autonomy that they know makes them happy and that’s what they do, as Milton prophetically wrote in Paradise Lost all those years ago “For so I created them free and free they must remain.”
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers and contributing editor.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass
Tahiti Tourisme – For more information on The Islands of Tahiti, tour operator package deals and special offers, visit: https://tahititourisme.uk/en-gb/
Relais Mahana – Rooms start at GBP 190 per night per room (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book, please visit: www.relaismahana.com or call: (+689) 40 60 60 40 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Intercontinental Tahiti Resort – Rooms start from GBP 250 per night per room (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book, please visit: www.tahiti.intercontinental.com or call: + (689) 40 86 51 10
Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa – Rooms start at GBP 759 per night per room with American breakfast included for 2 persons (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book, please visit: www.letahaa.com or call: 00 689 40 507 601
Air Tahiti Nui – Air Tahiti Nui is the national carrier to French Polynesia with departures from Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Auckland to Tahiti with connecting flights available from London with Virgin Atlantic. An economy class return fare with Air Tahiti Nui from London to Papeete, Tahiti via LAX starts from £1,500 including taxes. For further information and reservations, contact: +44(0) 844 482 1675 / email: email@example.com, or visit: www.airtahitinui.co.uk
Air Tahiti – Air Tahiti serves 47 islands in French Polynesia and operates flights to Rarotonga (Cook Islands) as well, according to a flight schedule displayed on www.airtahiti.com
Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort – Rooms start at GBP 125 per night per room (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book, please visit: www.tahitipearlbeach.pf or call: +(689) 40 48 88 00
Dream Yacht Charter Tahiti – Room rates start at GBP 625 per person (including meals, services and crew, excluding taxes), dependent on season, availability and cruise. To book, please visit the website: www.dreamyachtcharter.co.uk or call: 02380 455 527 / firstname.lastname@example.org