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POLYNESIAN PARADISE
 
(2024 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: ILONA KAUREMSZKY



In a scene akin to the popular HBO streamer The White Lotus, my personal concierge at this luxury outpost, famously known for overwater bungalows in only the bluest waters on Earth, is calling me on WhatsApp.

“We have the Royal Pool Overwater Villa available and wish to invite you and Stephen.”

Welcome to the Conrad Bora Bora Nui where surprises await even for the discerning traveller.

Surrounded by a blue lagoon, rife with the most abundant living aquarium, life’s simple pleasures—as this Tahiti first- timer discovered—are easy to encounter when you’re in French Polynesia. The day before, the resort’s resident marine biologist had brought to life her manta ray conservation passion on a private catamaran tour that had us up close and personal with them.

The Islands of Tahiti, a necklace of five archipelagos each linked by an ancient Polynesian civilization, are home to 118 fantasy islands and atolls that have intrigued early settlers for millennia, from ancestors of today’s Polynesians through European explorers and scientists to modern times when the Technicolor saga, Mutiny on the Bounty, was filmed there in the ’60s.

Now fast forward to find a new generation of locals introducing travellers to a vast curated collection of experiences. From culinary and wellness to heritage and conservation, these encounters share a deep Polynesian principle of Mana—the idea that a spiritual life force of energy permeates the universe. No wonder this French protectorate has caught the attention of today’s new travel trend setter, the culturally curious traveller. I couldn’t ask for more.

Papeete: City and Garden

Heimata Hall looks like a TV star and you wouldn’t be mistaken. The trained chef, founder of Tahiti Food Tours, who once landed a role dry-running the challenges to Survivor: Samoa (2009), leads street food tours for curious foodies. I’m in the capital on his Papeete pursuits. It helps that my arrival aboard a nearly 9-hour long-haul from San Francisco a day earlier with French Bee put me front and centre on the Island of Tahiti to start the week’s quest in search of Tahiti’s ultra-authentic.

“I started this tour for real experiences. Our gastronomy is fuelled by the best seafood, tied in with incredible ingredients mixed in with French, Chinese, Japanese and Polynesian culture,” he says over lunch at Kozy Restaurant, an upscale eatery housed in a two-story house. Hours earlier, we stopped for a morning ritual of coconut-infused coffee and Firi Firi donuts at Café Rôti, hung out at the oldest Asian-owned diner in the city, Snack Lucky Luke, and careened through the stalls at the 155-year-old Marché de Papeete, the city’s heart for eats and locally made crafts.

Unabashedly, with a TV swagger, Heimata adds, “Our culinary traditions ought to be Michelin-starred.” In an ironic twist, the prestigious French culinary bible, unlike the throngs of arriving French tourists, has yet to discover Tahitian dégustation.

Polynesian chefs, meanwhile, forage premium goods (there are numerous flora and fish species) to combine cooking traditions with nouveau healthy eating. There’s no better place than a garden by the sea to source the bounty.

On terra firma cultivated by the hands of one man, a sensory explosion is erupting on French Polynesia’s largest volcanic island. Enter Mato (Hervé) Maraetaata fanning a branch from the sacred noni plant in a greeting ceremony somewhere outside Papeete in the rocky eastern hillsides.

“Welcome,” smiles the larger-than-life greeter, holistic shaman of sorts, and a partner with Nani Travels, an NGO with several missions in sustainable tourism and environmental conservation. Hervé, a descendant from the Marquesas Islands, leads me across an ankle-deep river to his home, an off-grid, rustic island sanctuary. The kitted-out hideaway has a gable-roofed hut, an alfresco temple for spiritual cleansing, an ocean rescue dog named Lion he saved, chickens and yes, a Garden of Eden blooming and ripe that is nestled on a former dumpsite he willed into this paradise.

By hanging endemic vines and shrubs of butterfly pea flowers, I dine on the prescribed national dish, Poisson Cru. Served in a coconut bowl, raw tuna chunks marinated in lime juice and bathed in fresh coconut milk with carrot slivers are prepped by his wife Ura. The soundtrack of the sea as his metronome, Hervé leans in sharing a harrowing ocean odyssey. In 2010, the veteran mariner with a six-man crew sailed in a single-hulled Polynesian outrigger canoe called O Tahiti Nui Freedom from Tahiti to Shanghai in a gruelling 123-day saga, on a route inspired by his ancestors. They lived traditional ways while battling the raging sea. He survived.

You can’t get more local than that, I thought. Until I flew to Huahine.

Huahine: Mana in the Garden of Eden

In 20 minutes, I island hopped on board Air Tahiti (no fixed seating and a complimentary drink and snack) leaving behind the romantic getaway of Bora Bora where we spun around the luxe eco-responsible resort on complimentary bikes, rested on our ultra-secluded deck and yes, indulged in pure heaven. It’s true what the brochures say by the way.

Now here we were. Another world away. No traffic lights. One road with only the darting roosters disrupting the drive as the Mother of Massages took us to her tropical lair.

On this palm-fringed island with a relaxed vibe, I signed up for a couple’s massage. We were in the hands of Marie Christine. Rare exotic orchids hanging from the beams, strings of seashells and a living green wall envelope the wellness sanctuary—its centrepiece: a solid rock soaker tub built for two. The idea was simple. Soak dépouillé (bare). Drink organic rosemary-infused distilled water prepared that morning and slather on thermal mud imported from Rotorua, New Zealand, home of the world-famous geothermal mud baths.

Only available here (Marie Christine Auloy, creator of Huahine Massage & Spa, is Tahiti’s first importer of the supercharged mineral-rich mud healing detoxifier), Stephen and I soon realized we were not getting a couple’s massage at a usual spa. Wrapped in a hand-painted paréo, the rustic setting brought back the simple basics in living. “Whenever you can—swim in the ocean,” the Lyon expat shared during my magic passion-fruit-monoi-oil massage.

In the glow of the late afternoon sun, we returned to our beachfront hotel, Le Mahana Huahine. The soft sand spilling into the sea, the surf sounds casting a siren call, Marie Christine’s words of wisdom returned.

Floating in the cradle of the South Pacific’s embrace, the magic of Tahiti’s creative souls had worked. Mana forever.

Island Stayovers

In Huahine the sustainably responsible Hotel Le Mahana Huahine, which overlooks a turquoise lagoon and a coral garden, offers complimentary use of kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and snorkelling gear. Book an eye-opening wild island tour with anthropologist Paul Atallah, founder of Island Eco Tours, whose prolific knowledge of ancient Polynesian civilization has caught the attention of a U.S. president and celebrities. Barack and Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey among other celebs are past clients. lemahanahotel.com; islandecotours.net

In Papeete, take your pick of fabulous properties. The new Hilton Hotel Tahiti, with all the luxury brand’s acclaimed amenities, is also ideally situated for long-haul passengers preparing for the flight home, close to the international airport. The Kon Tiki Tahiti, an eco-friendly trendy boutique hotel with rooftop panoramic views of the capital, is the ultimate place for glam relaxing. Located opposite the ferry terminal, it’s perfect for island hoppers. hilton.com/en/hotels/ppthihh-hilton-hotel-tahiti/; kontikitahiti.com/en

Travel Planner

For travel information about The Islands of Tahiti see tahititourisme.ca/en-ca/

 
 
 
 
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