There are two things you need to know about French Polynesia. One: it’s expensive. And two: it has, arguably, the most beautiful islands in the Pacific. I say arguably because I haven’t visited every island in the Pacific. But if there are prettier ones, pour me a Blue Lagoon and take me there.
To see the pristine white sands, the extraordinary turquoise water and to experience the exotic mix of Polynesian laid-back beauty and French sophistication is to understand why visitors have been falling in love with Tahiti for hundreds of years.
There’s a reason for Tahiti’s high prices. Income tax is low and revenue is gathered through indirect taxation on imported goods. There are also taxes on hotels and accommodation – tourism is the primary source of income for French Polynesia and its gets the most out of visitors. The one bonus of the high prices is that if you’re coming here for a romantic getaway, you’re not going to encounter the Carlton AFL Golden Oldies football team on their end of season piss-up or Charlene and her cronies on their Last Chance to Root a Beaut hens’ week.
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Most visitors to French Polynesia head to either Moorea or Bora Bora. Bora Bora’s the honeymoon island and, as I was travelling with a mate rather than my man, I headed to Moorea.
There are plenty of ferries departing regularly from Papeete or you can go by air. There doesn’t seem to be much point in flying – the ferries take just half an hour compared to the little plane’s 10 minutes.
Moorea is a gorgeous, relaxed island. The locals pride themselves on having resisted the dense development you see on Bora Bora. Oh, there are fabulous five-star resorts but they are dotted around the island and out-numbered by the locals’ cottages.
If you’re here on a budget, you’ll also find more cost-effective pensions and backpacking lodges on Moorea than elsewhere in French Polynesia.
But if you’re really pulling out all the stops, try to stay a couple of nights in one of the over-water fares at the Intercontinental. They are everything you’ve dreamed of when it comes to a tropical island paradise.
The Intercontinental also has more orthodox rooms, as well as its own beach and swimming pool. There’s also the wonderful Helene spa, where traditional Tahitian beauty rituals are combined with French spa treatments in a stunning garden setting.
At one point the massage table drops away and you are enveloped in a type of flotation duvet while the water pulses around you. It was only my guttural snore that brought me rudely back to reality. I’d gone for a weight loss and body-toning treatment – well, after being surrounded by Tahitian beauties, who wouldn’t? And though I didn’t come out of my warm-water womb experience transmogrified, I felt so utterly relaxed and blissful, it didn’t matter.
Moorea’s wonderfully easy to get around – it’s only 60km around the island, an extinct volcano. The mountains rise steeply from the beaches and there are wonderful hiking trails and archaeological sites to visit within the lush forests. If you’re feeling energetic, you can hire bikes and pedal the coastal road or if you’re feeling sloth-like, you can hire a rental car.
Tahiti is left-hand drive. Some people go like the clappers. Others pootle along at the speed of a glacier. Look out for gangs of young cyclists – and the dogs.
There’s a reason Gaugin painted dogs in practically all his Tahitian canvases – the scrawny little bitsers are everywhere.
The other hazard to watch for are the concrete bridges – for some reason, they’ve been designed to catch the hubcap of unwary cars but the lovely hotel doorman kicked mine back into shape after every road trip.
Moorea’s also a paradise for those who love their sport. The surf is so challenging only the most experienced should attempt it – even locals come a cropper from time to time.
There’s great snorkelling, waterskiing, parasailing – and one of the must-dos – feeding the stingrays. My heart was pumping as the first of the stingrays swam up and over my knees but our guide reassured us that if we stayed calm and kept our hands where he told us to, we’d be right. The skin of a stingray feels amazing – sort of like a dishcloth that hasn’t been washed in a while – and once you get up close and personal with them, you can appreciate their distinctive beauty.
Five days of paradise and it was time to head back to reality. Reluctantly.
My shoulders were relaxed, I’d cultivated a nice tan and because the booze was so expensive, I hadn’t packed on too much holiday weight. And the money I hadn’t spent on grog I could put towards a truly beautiful souvenir.
Tahiti is justifiably famous for her gorgeous girls and her beautiful pearls. They’re everywhere and it can be quite overwhelming, given the range of colours and prices – the pearls, not the girls. I waited until we got back to the mainland and headed for the Tahiti Pearl Market in Papeete.
There are three floors of pearls, starting with the $20,000 necklaces on the ground floor and finishing on the third floor with costume type jewellery. I headed for the second floor where you can find something small, perfectly formed and reasonably priced.
Each pearl has a stamp of authenticity and the resident jeweller will make up your pearls into any setting you like. The pearls were the only tangible mementos I brought back from Tahiti, but when I close my eyes, on cold, wet winter mornings, Tahiti’s right there in my mind.
The people – the culture – that water – it’s unforgettable. There’s nothing ambiguous about Tahiti’s beauty. If you’ve never been before, I suggest you go. Just to see it. And if you think all Pacific islands were created equal, you’ll find out you were wrong. French Polynesia really is first among equals.