With a total of around 130 islands and atolls, French Polynesia has an island for just about every occasion – and these are no ordinary islands.
According to the standards by which these things are measured – warmth, scenery, the colours of their reefs, the way their green hills leap straight from the sea to the clouds – the islands of French Polynesia are about as close to paradise as you might reasonably expect to come on this earth.
The core of French Polynesia is the Society Islands, a group that includes Tahiti and its gorgeous neighbour, Moorea, but the outright winner in any beauty contest is Bora Bora, arguably the most glorious tropical island on earth. Centrepiece of the island is a sharp green peak that is encircled by a necklace of motus – low, sandy coral atolls covered with coconut palms.
The Marquesas, the most remote of all the island groups, are in a class all of their own. What you find when you finally arrive at the end of a three hour flight from Papeete is a sprinkling of spiney, volcanic islands tangled with orchids, breadfruit, pistachio and mango trees, banana palms and coconut plantations. Waterfalls spurt from the hillsides and the island’s villages lie within the crumbling cones of extinct volcanoes. Beaches are few. For the most part the Pacific surf crashes against green cliffs that rise sheer from the sea.
The Marquesas are tropical paradise in its original state, and not for everyone, but even on a brief excursion through the islands, you will experience heart-touching moments of pure innocence. Such experiences have a powerful effect on the artistic imagination. Herman Melville wrote Typee based on his experiences in the Marquesas, and Paul Gauguin spent the final 21 months of his life here.
Tahiti has spawned a unique marine species, the overwater bungalow, which thrives in the shallow, sheltered waters of the island’s lagoon like nowhere else. Those at Le Taha’a – sprawl across the lagoon, each a small enclave of stylish good living wrapped in woven palm and thatch, with big doors that open to the breeze and the sounds of the sea. The marine life is abundant. Strap on a face mask, plunge off the front of your deck and you can expect to see turtles, eels, rays and the usual tropical marine plethora of clownfish, angel fish, wrasses and corals.
According to legend, the islands of Tahaa and Raiatea, part of Society Islands, were one until they were severed by a sacred needle belonging to the spirit of a princess. When you see these two islands, set in an azure lagoon, you just know that the place is magical. Tahaa, also known as ‘Vanilla Island’ on account of the vanilla plantations which scent the entire place, is made up of a majestic massif, clad in emerald-coloured vegetation, divided by three valleys. Raiatea, the other half, is steeped in mysticism and the sacred. Local beliefs have it that this was the very first island inhabited by humankind and that the first king was the son of the god which created it. The island has a landscape of waterfalls, bays and fertile valleys with the highest point being Mount Temehani
Things to do :-
The Ti’a Moana Cruise with Bora Bora Cruises (www.boraboracruises.com) lasts a week, visiting Bora Bora and the three other islands of the Society Group: Taha’a, Raitea, and Huahine. The price includes all meals; daily t’ai sessions; kayaking and snorkelling excursions.
MAEVA MARAE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
Once the seat of royal power in the Society Islands, this site, an easy drive from the airport, has been beautifully restored. A jungle walk takes you to a magnificent overgrown hilltop ruin.
Swimming or feeding reef sharks is a popular activity. Huahine Nautique (00 689 606775; www.huahine-nautique.com) also organises jet-ski hire, island tours, shark-feeding and a picnic lunch on a small, off-shore motu.
Many islanders are employed in market gardening. Vanilla production is an important and fascinating industry – ask your guide to arrange a visit.
HIKING FROM VAIARE TO PAOPAO
Rise early and tackle this beautiful walk through the dense, tropical forests of the interior. Take plenty of drinking water. There are also shorter walks to the island’s archaeological sites.
JUS DE FRUITS DE MOOREA
This is an excellent small distillery serving delicious liqueurs, fruit punches and other highly intoxicating drinks. Sample for free, or buy as a souvenir.
SWIMMING WITH ELECTRIC RAYS
For the snorkeller who has already splashed around with dolphins and reef sharks. Your hotel or pension can arrange an excursion. Hand-feeding the rays is another option.
Another big draw. Dolphins are numerous and playful – you may even see mothers with their young. A number of operators run dolphin-watching and snorkelling tours.
Diving is the main activity on the atoll. Drift snorkelling through the Tiputa Pass is a great adventure. The incoming tide sweeps divers (as well as sharks and dolphins) into the lagoon.