FRENCH POLYNESIA

Paul Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson were so right: these perfect islands are like the Garden of Eden in multiple versions. Paradise is right outside your window.

Text: Pilar Palma | Photos: Laurence Labat
West of the luxurious and bustling Bora Bora, you’ll find the calm, rustic island of Maupiti.

A total of 14 islands make up the Society Islands archipelago of French Polynesia. The largest and most famous is Tahiti, but I designed my trip to explore more contrasting islands, so I could get to know two very different sides of the South Pacific. On the one hand, I chose Bora Bora, with its comprehensive hotel infrastructure and abundant amenities, and on the other, I picked Maupiti, to get a taste of a simpler life. Although the two islands are less than 25 miles apart, each boasts a distinct, heavenly charm of its own, making for a trip full of fun and romance.

But first, our international flight lands in Tahiti, which at a little more than 250,000 inhabitants is the most developed and industrialized island in the archipelago. Its capital, Papeete, is a humid, verdant city with French as its official language, a perfect launching point to both sides of the Tahitian islands.

WELCOMED WITH FLOWERS
After a short flight from Papeete – I couldn’t tear myself away from the window and the dazzling landscapes below – we land at a truly special airport, where the ground is covered with shells, the waiting area is sheltered beneath palm trees, and employees clad in shorts and guayaberas welcome us with necklaces made of flowers.

Divers are treated to some truly dazzling colors.

Within minutes, an elegant boat picks us up at the airport to take us to the hotel. Once again, the scenery is simply hypnotic: heaven is right here on earth. I’m awestruck as we approach the towering volcanic massif that we first viewed from the air. Mount Ontemanu is 2,385 feet tall and surrounded by boundless vegetation, a turquoise lagoon and a ring of coral reef.

In the background, the deep-blue Pacific Ocean stretches to the horizon.

OVER THE WATER (AND UNDER)
Bora Bora’s hotel infrastructure is equipped to satisfy the most diverse tastes, with excellent private tours, sumptuous spas and fabulous restaurants. The amenities are plentiful; you just have to decide how much you want to spend per night. An important note: in Tahiti, luxury is synonymous with the quality of your surroundings, not the size of your room.

Tahitians at the Moorea market in Pao Pao.

Whichever hotel you choose, be sure to take a bungalow over the water. Don’t miss the chance to indulge in this unique experience. Most of the overwater hotels are designed for near-total privacy and constant contact with the sea. Transparent sections of floor in several areas of the cabin let you see and hear the relaxing flow of the crystalline water below.

Hanging bridges interconnect the bungalows, and the hotel staff use cute bicycles to get around. At night, the backdrop of water is softly lit. Everything has been designed with relaxation in mind, so just kick back and enjoy the silence and the scenery.

Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa.

Despite the seductive calm, you’ll still feel the urge to explore. Why not take hotel’s boat tour of the 12 square miles that make up Bora Bora? We stop for diving at various points amid coral reefs dotted hundreds of colorful fish and waters of unmatched visibility.

These underwater excursions don’t require SCUBA certification or any special skill. The waters of French Polynesia are warm, so there’s no need for a wetsuit either. If you’d rather just get some sun on the boat that’s OK, too. Everything is there for you to enjoy, and at your own pace.

HONORED GUESTS
Our next stop stands in absolute contrast to the first. Located 190 miles from Papeete, the island of Maupiti is completely removed from any sign of civilization. There are no hotels, no credit cards and no luxuries.

When I arrive at the airport, I quickly realize that I’m the only foreigner on the airplane. No one speaks English, and the same local who handed me my bag at the airport later drove the motorboat to the small town of Vaiea, which serves as the nerve center of this island of about 1,200 inhabitants.

The wood and leaves from the local Pandanus tree are used in folk art and construction.

The idea of getting to know this place was born thousands of miles away, on the Chilean beach of Totoralillo. Mrs. Irai, a Tahitian woman who lives in the town of Coquimbo, told me emphatically: “If you go to Tahiti, you have to see Maupiti. Take my advice and remember what I told you.” And she was right.

Maupiti isn’t just Mrs. Irai’s favorite island. As far as I can tell, it’s a favorite of most Polynesians, for so many reasons. For starters, it boasts some truly unique geography: the island is a coral atoll, with scattered islets, a volcano (motu), impressive waterfalls and mysterious canyons. “A treasure of the Pacific,” the guidebooks say.

Maupiti has no hotel infrastructure and, as a result, very little in the way of tourism. Visitors pretty much live like locals. And most people on the island are opposed to the construction of hotels. “They prefer fewer jobs, less development, so that the island remains protected,” explains a Polynesian who shares the boat ride with me. On Maupiti, one doctor treats everyone, there are two schools, and the generator-produced electricity only lasts until midnight.

A view from Mount Rotui in Moorea.

The lodging options here are a handful of small inns and homes belonging to French citizens who rent them out when they’re not using them. The best option is Maupiti Residence, run by Samy, a strong, dark-skinned Tahitian whose enthusiasm is contagious from the first hello.

“This is how Bora Bora was 40 years ago,” he explains, looking out over the untamed landscape. “This is a peaceful place, one that belongs to us. I hope it stays this way.”

Samy was so attentive that he even bought me food, water, beer and breakfast supplies, because by the time we arrived, the only restaurant and grocery store were closed.

We take Samy’s jeep to Maupiti Residence, which consists of just two houses standing side by side on the white-sand beach, with a view that made me drop my bags to take an immediate look. The incomparable sunset had begun.

Hotel employees get from one bungalow to the next on bicycles.

The pristine landscape is a little wild and definitely rough around the edges. There are no real luxuries save for the surroundings. This is the place to dive alongside giant manta rays, learn to catch mollusks the Tahitian way, spot dolphins and even feed sharks. Equally unforgettable is our last lunch on a nearby islet sheltered by coconut trees and surrounded by empty stretches of sand. We didn’t feel like tourists or locals but honored guests of Maupiti. in

Polinesia Francesa

The private pool at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa will please even the most demanding visitor.

Lodging

Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora
Motu Tehotu – BP 547
www.fourseasons.com/borabora

Maupiti Residence
BP 51, Maupiti
www.maupitiresidence.info

Tautiare Village
Maupiti
www.maupitiisland.com/tautiare

Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa
Motu Tevairoa, BP 169 Vaitape
www.lhw.com

Attractions

Top Dive Polinesia
With locations on six islands.
www.topdive.com

Maupiti Nautique
Maupiti
www.maupiti-nautique.com

Dining

Bloody Mary’s restaurant
Bora Bora
www.bloodymarys.com

La villa mahana
Bora Bora
www.villamahana.com

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