It’s understandable that the sheer beauty of Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia have long lured visitors, from migrating Polynesians who came via outrigger canoe as early as 500 BCE to European explorers who stumbled upon this heaven on earth in the 16th century. It’s a place where Mother Nature has turned up the intensity of the colors, where the blues of ocean and lagoon and the greens of mountain and forest transform into a million vivid hues. With their focus on laid-back living, the islands slow the pulse, yet they also call to adventurers who want to voyage past the reef, below the surface, or into the lush interior. Luckily, this place of abundance provides ample opportunity for deeper experiences. After all, when you’re in the company of the descendants of ocean voyagers and those who continue their traditions, it feels natural to follow along.
A fragrant breakfast, an outrigger canoe voyage, and a peek into the past on Tahiti
The feathered dawn chorus begins even before light filters into my room, with mynas and bulbuls singing up the sun. When a soft pink glow illuminates everything around me, it’s time to get up. From my window at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, I take in the ribbons of blue that separate Tahiti from its sister island of Mo‘orea, just 11 miles across the channel. It’s a sight that would normally inspire me to ditch my plans and jump right in—as an avid diver, I’ve been to Tahiti three times before—but I’m eager to take the plunge into the resort’s Sunday brunch before hitting the water.
At first glance, the abundance of breakfast options at Te Tiare Restaurant seems overwhelming, but I muster the resolve to walk past pancakes, omelets, bacon, and a chocolate fountain in favor of a pure Polynesian plate. My final selection consists of pineapple, mango, passion fruit, coconut chunks, coconut bread, firi firi (a coconut milk–based doughnut), poisson cru (marinated raw fish), and fafaru, a dish in which crushed crab or shrimp is mixed with seawater and fermented for two days before being added to marinated fillets of fresh fish. I lift the lid, and a strong, fishy smell floats around me like a cartoon green haze. I’m determined to try it, though. The tender tuna tastes slightly tangy, almost cheesy, and the traditional accompaniment of mitihue (fermented coconut milk) balances out the flavor. I almost want to go back for more—until I remember the scent.
Fully fueled, I drive to the community of Arue, on Tahiti’s north shore, for a voyage with Moana Explorer in a sailing va‘a, a modern version of the traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe that has two beams connected to the central hull for increased stability. The ancient Polynesians sailed similar canoes more than 3,000 years ago, using the stars, sun, waves, wind, and wildlife to navigate as they migrated throughout the Pacific. My guide, Niuhiti Buillard, expertly steers past the reef and into Matavai Bay, and I proceed to paddle for a little while, but there’s not much for me to do once the red sail catches the wind with a snap.
“Everything related to the ocean interests me,” says Buillard, a stand-up paddle and canoe champion. “I like to pass my knowledge along by teaching local kids how to travel on the water like our ancestors did.” As we fly across the waves, catching a few to surf along the way, the low, sandy peninsula of Point Venus looms ahead. The windswept outcropping is where Captain James Cook observed the transit of the planet Venus in 1769, but today it’s packed with canoes and students preserving the Polynesian voyaging tradition.
Being active on the water always makes me hungry, so I’m glad it’s only a short drive to the Pape‘ete harbor and Meherio Tahitian Bistro. The ocean breeze blows past boats and coconut trees and right through the open-air restaurant as I flip through the menu. I finally decide on ravioli filled with korori (pearl oyster meat) and bathed in a white wine sauce and seaweed-infused oil, which I savor along with a Hinano beer while I watch the Mo‘orea ferry depart from the harbor.
Ready for more adventure, I meet up with Teuai Lenoir, founder of ‘Ia Ora Na Tahiti Expeditions. We hop in his modified pickup truck and drive to the Papeno‘o Valley, in the interior of Tahiti Nui (“Big Tahiti,” which is connected by an isthmus to Tahiti Iti, or “Little Tahiti”). The only valley to cut through the center of the island, Papeno‘o was formed by the collapse of the Tahiti Nui volcano, and while it’s unpopulated today, Lenoir tells me the valley was once home to up to 20,000 people. “Our people chose this place for its safety away from the growing colonial presence,” he says. “It was here they could continue to practice the ancient Polynesian way of life, at one with nature.”
The 4×4 is useful on the dirt road, which winds between emerald cliff faces beribboned with waterfalls. Along the way, Lenoir stops frequently, showing me how elements of nature figure into Tahitian life: A behemoth ‘ape leaf serves as an umbrella, with one side used to shelter from rain and the other as shade from the sun’s rays. The walnut-like ti‘airi of the candlenut tree can be lit like a candle, and its soot, mixed with coconut oil, has been used as tattoo ink. We climb steps to a platform of stones in a clearing—one of about 750 ancient marae (traditional temples) and other structures that have been found here. “Even today, people make offerings of shells, fruit, and seawater to give respect to those who have been here before us,” Lenoir observes.
It’s hard to leave the valley, but I’ve got a plane to catch. I fetch my bag from the hotel and head to Faa‘a Airport for a 40-minute hop to Huahine. There are 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia, which means there are endless options for creating your own perfect island-hopping adventure. Huahine is known for its tranquil pace, and I’m eager to slow down a bit. Soon I’m driving along the unnamed coastal road that winds from the
airport through the untamed landscape of Huahine Nui, past small villages, across a bridge, and all the way to the southernmost point of Huahine Iti. With every mile, my breathing slows. So far, so good.
My bungalow at Hôtel Le Mahana Huahine looks out on the neon-blue water of Avea Bay, and I arrive just in time to watch the sunset from my deck. Once the vivid citrus sky has given way to twilight, I walk barefoot along the beach to the hotel’s restaurant and pick an outdoor table amid the gentle breeze. I enjoy a strong mai tai in a glass shaped like a pineapple and a dish of poisson cru while listening to three musicians perform traditional Polynesian songs. I try to pick out some words, but I’m really only able to capture the feeling: peace.
Wading with rays, sampling local liqueurs, and feeling the mana of Huahine
I wake so early that it feels as if the beach is mine alone, and I walk along the soft sand for a moment of quiet before the day begins. The gentle sound of a stingray’s fins slapping the surface of the water distracts me from the view across the reef to the not-so-distant islands of Ra‘iatea and Taha‘a, where I’m going later today. I wade into the water and watch the ray swim past me in search of breakfast. Its path through the bay is more crowded than mine on the beach; a school of juvenile squaretail mullet (called nape here) follows in its wake.
There’s no time for a leisurely breakfast for me today; I grab some Tahitian ipo (coconut bread) and passion fruit at a market stall before heading off to explore the island with Matairea Lagoon Tour. As we drive the road that rings Huahine, my guide, Teraitua Holman, pauses often to describe how archaeological excavations here have revealed some of the earliest traces of settlement in the Society Islands (the archipelago that includes Tahiti, Mo‘orea, and Bora Bora). “The high concentration of ancient marae here has caused some to believe that they were inhabited only by nobility,” he says.
We park along the side of the road near the village of Maeva, and Holman grabs his portable speaker so he can play some upbeat Tahitian ukulele music as we climb a series of steps up Matairea Hill. The stairs give way to a path that continues up, threading through the forest before emerging at the flat black stones of Marae Paepae Ofata. I’m hesitant to walk on the sacred site, but my guide motions me forward. “The mana of this island is reflected in its people,” he says, referring to the life energy that Polynesians say flows through all things. The site is elemental: Bright green fern fronds peek out between the stones, and looking out over the treetops I can see the ever-changing blues of the water beyond.
Before getting back in the truck, we walk across a bridge that spans the lagoon to look at V-shaped stone fish weir traps that have existed here for centuries, some of which are still in use today. The Vs point toward the ocean, and as fish follow along with the ebbing tide they get caught at the interior point of the trap—making them easier to catch by net or spear and eliminating the need to chase after them in the open water.
We’re back on the road for just a few minutes before stopping again, this time at the family-run LM Huahine Vanille, where I walk through greenhouses packed with vanilla orchids. Outside, I dig my hands through a warm sea of vanilla pods drying on a table in the sun and inhale the sweet scent before buying some of my own to take home. Next, we pop into Distillerie Huahine Passion, where I taste liqueurs and eaux-de-vie made from dried banana, coconut, and vanilla. After a few extra sips to ensure the perfect choice, I purchase a bottle of liqueur made with a combination of pineapple, mango, and passion fruit.
Holman drops me off in the main village of Fare, where I snag a waterfront picnic table at the casual Huahine Yacht Club. From here, there’s a perfect silhouette of the rolling green contours of Mount Tavaiura, which are said to resemble the form of a pregnant woman. I watch people come and go—by boat and by foot—as I munch on shrimp curry and take slow sips of a midday mai tai that’s probably the best one I’ve had so far.
Just when I’m starting to feel settled, it’s time to jet. My 20-minute flight to Ra‘iatea takes less time than drinking that last cocktail, and as I descend the steps of the plane I spy my ride to neighboring Taha‘a—a boat shuttle that includes a resort staff member playing ukulele and a passenger singing along. The water taxi is a welcome change, and we coast across the lagoon that encircles both islands, heading to the western shore of Taha‘a. The orchid-shaped island is the center of French Polynesian vanilla production, with more than 70 percent of all the country’s vanilla coming from the farms that drape its low, graceful hills.
Our boat veers away from the island and toward a string of sandy, coconut tree–studded motus that ring the lagoon. I’m just able to spy my hotel, Le Taha‘a by Pearl Resorts, whose overwater bungalows are arranged like slightly curved fingers beckoning me forward. After disembarking, I’m taken across the lush grounds to my accommodations. I enter an outdoor courtyard and find a deck with plenty of seating for shaded or sunny lounging, but my favorite element of the space is the staircase into the lagoon. I don’t waste a second, slipping on my swimsuit and jumping straight into the pale turquoise water, thankful for the little bit of time I have to myself before dinner.
Sunset comes quickly, though, and after a shower I head to Hawaiki Nui, the property’s charming restaurant, where my table is perched high up in the trees, like a nest. I feast on sea scallops with vanilla mashed potatoes, asparagus, and porcini mushrooms, washing it all down with a glass of rosé. Here, in the land of vanilla, I can’t resist an additional taste of the best of Taha‘a and dig into a crème brûlée for dessert. I’m full and exhausted as I navigate my way back to my bungalow in the dark, but the moon’s bright light on the water seems to follow me, guaranteeing my safe passage.
Diving with sharks, exploring ancient marae, and sailing a catamaran on Ra‘iatea
After a quick dip in the lagoon, I walk slowly along the pier and look down into the shallow water, where I spy a school of butterflyfish swarming below me. I lose track of time watching them, until a blacktip reef shark causes them to scatter beyond my view. The treetop perch at Hawaiki Nui looks different in the morning light, and at the breakfast buffet I fill my plate with fresh local fruit and a tiny, perfectly flaky pain au chocolat. It’s more than enough fuel for a morning dive adventure.
I check out of the hotel and hop in a boat to Ra‘iatea and the Hemisphere Sub diving center, where dive master Farid Sedira ensures that I have all the equipment I need before we head out to the reef. The conditions are nearly perfect to dive at Miri-Miri, where I can see straight through the clear water to the coral below. “We’ll get in here, and the swell will carry us in that direction,” Sedira says. “The boat will pick us up when we’re done drifting.” Blacktip reef sharks swim around the boat as we gather our gear and jump in. The reef stretches out before us, and our shark escorts accompany us for a while, eventually veering away in search of other excitement—perhaps a second breakfast.
Sedira and I take turns pointing at fish as we drift along the reef wall: gigantic Napoleon wrasse, Picasso triggerfish (which I know by their Hawaiian name, humuhumunuku- nukuāpua‘a), Moorish idol, peacock grouper, and emperor angelfish. I see something big near the wall and hover in place until I can view it more clearly.
The dark stripes on its side tell me it’s a tiger shark. It looks about eight feet long, which is certainly bigger than me but not quite the species’s maximum size. Still, I turn and watch it—both in awe and to stay aware of its location—as it swims away.
Time underwater always zips by, and before long we’re back at the surface and motoring toward the dive shop at the Apooiti Marina. I quickly change clothes and drive over to the most important marae in French Polynesia—Taputapuātea. Spread over more than 6,000 acres, it was the center of a cultural alliance that brought together widespread regions encompassing most of Polynesia. Chiefs, warriors, and priests from other islands traveled by outrigger canoe for regular gatherings, wayfinding without instruments across the vast ocean.
My guide, Heinui (Giovani) Teahui, points at a map-like illustration of Te Fe‘e Nui that shows a mythical giant octopus with its head represented as Havai‘i (the ancient name for Ra‘iatea) and its eight arms radiating out across the Polynesian Triangle to indicate routes to Hawai‘i, New Zealand, Rapa Nui, and other archipelagos, joining all the islands together. “Marae constructed on other islands had to incorporate a stone from Taputapuātea,” Teahui says. “Those who voyaged from Ra‘iatea would use it as a foundation stone for the new marae, conferring greater importance because it came directly from Taputapuātea.”
Wandering through the marae complex is a sensory experience set to a soundtrack of birdsong and waves. The cool smell of leaves adds a gentle note to the sharp, salty scent of the ocean. I feel more than the sun’s warm rays emanating from the black stones; the mana of this cradle of Polynesia seems almost tangible. The tourists at the site all keep their voices hushed, so that each of us can experience our own personal relationship with Taputapuātea.
Back near the marina at Snack Tonoï, a casual garden lunch spot where each table is sheltered by a thatched sunshade, I relax with a meal of poisson cru and a Hinano. I have a little while before my next adventure, so I take a cue from the patrons at surrounding tables who pause occasionally to stand on the low wall at the edge of the lagoon. Time stands still, despite any afternoon plans.
I’m eager to return to the water, where I always feel at home, and I’ve planned an incredible end to my trip: a stay aboard Fenua II, a 46-foot Lagoon catamaran. Among the fleet of sailing catamarans available from Tahiti Yacht Charter, my new home comes with a crew of two: host Angelique Tapi and captain Terehau Doudoute. As we sail along the Ra‘iatea coastline, we spy a sea turtle, which Doudoute assures me is a good omen. Before long, we stop near Motu Miri-Miri, not far from my morning dive site. I snorkel in a shallow coral garden teeming with tiny, vibrant reef fish while two black chickens strut along the soft beach beneath coconut trees. Floating in the water, I can see the distant outline of Bora Bora; behind me, Ra‘iatea looks nearly close enough to touch. When I look out across the ocean, though, the line between water and sky fades into a seamless transition.
A quick trip in the catamaran’s dinghy brings me to the dock of Fish & Blue, a Ra‘iatea beachfront restaurant positioned perfectly for sunset cocktails. While I’ll have plenty of time on board the yacht, it’s nice to have a last moment on land with the locals. Tables are strewn along the dock, and the beach and inside open-air dining rooms are adorned with beachy-chic coral, shells, and Buddha heads. Choosing my seat may be the hardest decision I’ve had to make all day, but I finally settle at a table on the beach with perfect sightlines and quick access to the bar. Ditching my flip-flops, I dig my toes in the sand and wrap my fingers around the stem of a tall glass of passion fruit rum punch. The sun, when it finally descends below the horizon, sets just off Motu Miri-Miri. Another good omen, I decide.
Back aboard Fenua II, Angelique has dinner ready: grilled tuna steak with taro and breadfruit. It feels good to stop moving, to look back at Ra‘iatea from the watery path of ancient Polynesian wayfinders. The air smells sweet—a mix of salt, earth, and vegetation—and the moon still looks full. I grab a Hinano from the refrigerator and make my way to the foredeck, settling on a cushion. Of the visible stars, I know some well, but not well enough to navigate among the islands. When the sun rises, we’ll set sail somewhere new, off to more adventure.
Escape to Paradise: Nonstop flights to Tahiti are available five times weekly from San Francisco, with one-stop access to this island paradise from even more U.S. cities.