French Polynesia Part I: Taha’a
Words by Chelsea Yamase, Photos by Travis Burke
I had the great pleasure of flying Air TahitiNui‘s Poerava business class on the 8 hour direct flight from LAX to Papeete, Tahiti for my birthday trip to explore French Polynesia. After a hot towel and light dinner of seared ahi salad I fell soundly asleep in my flat lay seat (heaven!).
We arrived in Tahiti under the cover of darkness during a rain squall. Lightning and heavy gray clouds hang in the distance. Hesitant glances at the weather report reveal things like “90% chance of showers” and our shoulders under already wet clothing seem to slump a little bit lower.
“This isn’t really what I expected,” someone in our group says as thunder rumbles intermittently in the humid night air.
And we were right…just not in quite the way we expected either. My favorite places are like that. Full of surprises and laughter, better than any photo. This is the story of our week.
Part I: Indulgent Splendor, Welcome to Taha’a
Dec. 2nd: After overnighting in Papeete, we catch a sunrise flight to Raiatea. The air sits sultry and heavy this morning, the remainders of a storm passing through the night before. As our plane descends even the light sprinkling of rain cannot dull the effervescent blue waters surrounding the two small islands encased by a single fringing barrier reef. The larger and more mountainous of the two – Raiatea – is where we land, but the island next door – Taha’a – is our destination. With no airport, the only way to get to Taha’a is via a 25 minute boat ride across their shared lagoon waters. Known for its vanilla plantations and relaxed pace, Taha’a is a gem for those seeking a more secluded island experience.
The staff of Le Taha’a Resort greet us warmly on the beautiful thatched roof dock with leis of tiare (white tuberose) apologizing for the weather. Even as the wind whips around us, tugging on hats and clothing, the fragrance of these delicate white flowers is unmistakable. It’s similar to the smell of a gardenia, but with a distinct sweetness that always makes me think of the islands. Us girls receive flower crowns hand woven from coconut fronds and studded with pink paper-thin blossoms.
I run across the raised wooden pathway to my room, one of about 20 over water suites arching out into the lagoon. The rain has moved on and in its wake a sense of absolute dreamy calm has taken over. The water below me is sheet glass smooth, the only ripples coming from the occasional schools of fish and eagle rays.
Crossing my private deck and entering I am immediately in awe of this room. Spacious yet decidedly intimate, I hesitate to even call it a room. A space encased in glass floating in the middle of an ocean seems more accurate. Sliding glass doors and a wall-sized window make up three sides of the bungalow. Wooden panels intricately etched with scenes of fish and Polynesian sailing canoes partition off the soaking tub and stone tiled shower. The open floor plan seems designed to tempt the outdoors in, and those indoors – out. The deck wraps around to a series of wooden steps with a ladder leading down to the water a few feet below my bare feet.
Breakfast is a lavish buffet. My plate is a colorful collage of fresh fruit: sweet mango, pineapple, delicate starfruit, tart local apple bananas, and strawberries piled beside homemade french toast drizzled with creamy coconut milk squeezed fresh this morning. It is the best french toast I’ve had in my entire life. I gaze longingly at French pastries, fresh yogurt with a drizzle of honey made one island over, and Tahitian specialties all meticulously prepared in house. The options are endless and unfortunately my appetite is not. The next morning we do a lighter fare of fresh fruits and rolls delivered right to our back porch by canoe.
After breakfast we meet our guides from Poe-rani Tours who will be taking us to a vanilla plantation and to a private island for snorkeling and lunch. On the farm, we learn Taha’a grows approximately 80% of French Polynesia’s vanilla and that the process of making high quality vanilla beans is time intensive. Each flower is hand pollinated (Tahiti lacks the bees necessary to do this), which then produces a bean that takes another 9 months to mature. After picking, each bean is dried for an hour a day in then sun and lightly massaged for another two months before it will be ready for sale. The heady smell of vanilla emanates from the air in their small gift shop. For so much care, the vanilla is reasonably priced (between $15-$35 for a bundle) and I pick up several vacuum sealed packets for friends at home.
For lunch we head by boat to our own private motu (island). As we get closer to its sandy white shores the deep blue indigo water gradually changes to a blindingly vibrant aqua. We pass small coral heads and groups of sting rays, the crystalline ocean giving us a clear view into the underwater world.
Before we reach land I can’t help my self and, mask in hand, I dive off the side into my version of picture perfect. There is not another soul around. We are giddy as children playing in the shallow lagoon waters until the smells of lunch being served call us back to the boat.
Under the brilliant blue sky, palm trees swaying, belly full, surrounded by friends I want to laugh out loud at the splendor of it all. I feel completely spoiled and utterly grateful. I close my eyes, mentally storing this moment, this place of absolute relaxation and contentment.
Read Part II here