The islands of Tahiti offer an enchanting mix of tranquility, luxury and inspiration

“If there were ever a place to write a novel or paint a masterpiece, this is it,” I think, as I swing in a hammock slung beneath a pair of palm trees. Nearby, a manta ray traces a lazy route along the pink-sand shore.

French Polynesia

Lagoon at Intercontinental Tahiti
Photo: Michele Peterson

I’m on a remote speck of sand in French Polynesia and am not alone in my appreciation of this island archipelago. Painters Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, authors James A. Michener, W. Somerset Maugham and Robert Louis Stevenson all found inspiration in these beguiling islands in the South Pacific. While I doubt they enjoyed pool butlers or turn down service during their visits, the allure of French Polynesia’s multi-hued lagoons, starry skies and floral scented breezes has endured across centuries and made the islands of Tahiti a bucket list destination for many.

Yet, despite its legendary appeal, it remains remarkably unspoiled. While the majority of travellers head to popular Bora Bora, French Polynesia has 118 islands–less than 67 of them inhabited–strewn across its turquoise waters. By adding lesser-known islands to your itinerary, you’ll be rewarded by untouched beauty, natural splendour and laid-back luxury. Here’s where to go now in French Polynesia:

Tahiti

The ideal launching point to kick off a French Polynesian adventure is on the island of Tahiti. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, the newly updated InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa is located just 10 minutes from Faa’a International Airport but is a world away in atmosphere. It offers 245 guest rooms including a collection of overwater bungalows, a freshwater infinity pool overlooking Tahiti’s sister island of Moorea and a sprawling main pool complete with a cascading waterfall. The property’s lagoon serves as a natural aquarium where guests can practice their snorkelling skills among hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Wild Isle of Huahine

French Polynesia

Escape to the Relais Mahana on secluded Huahine
Photo: Relais Mahana

For an authentic taste of French Polynesia’s rich heritage, hop on a scenic 40-minute Air Tahiti flight to Huahine, a 75 sq. km volcanic island located northwest of Tahiti between Moorea and Bora Bora. Known as the Garden of Eden island due to its fertile soil and sacred mountain resembling a reclining pregnant woman, it’s actually two islands connected by a bridge. The most luxurious stay can be found at the Relais Mahana, on the smaller, more secluded island of Huahine Iti, where you’ll be welcomed with a lei of fragrant gardenias to your beach bungalow on the resort’s magnificent palm-fringed beach. Huahine’s pre-European settlements and marae (ancient stone temples) are among the oldest in French Polynesia, so don’t miss an excursion with Island Eco Tours to experience the island’s beauty. Other tour highlights include witnessing fishermen tending their stone fish traps set within Fa’Una Nui salt water lake, feeding gigantic sacred blue-eyed eels, visiting a vanilla plantation and exploring the open air market in the village of Fare.

Overwater Luxury at Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa

French Polynesia

Step directly from your wrap around terrace into a crystal lagoon at Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa
Photo: Michele Peterson

No luxury trip to French Polynesia would be complete without a stay in an overwater bungalow. For a one-of-a-kind escape, take a 20-minute flight from Huahine to Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa accessed via boat from the larger island of Raiatea. The draw?  A member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux collection, this luxurious hideaway is set on its own secluded islet yet features all the amenities of a five-star resort. The 57 suites and villas include thatched roof overwater bungalows perched on stilts with wrap around terraces, outdoor showers and ladders with direct access to crystalline waters full of tropical fish. It’s even possible to open the glass-bottomed floor within the bungalow and witness marine life swimming below. Guests enjoy a freeform infinity pool, three restaurants and a wealth of non-motorized watersports including snorkel gear for exploring the onsite coral garden. Other diversions include a full service spa, tennis and a Tahitian pearl shop, all built in harmony with the natural setting of graceful bamboo, palm trees and floral gardens.

French Polynesia

Indulge in gourmet dining at
Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa
Photo: Michele Peterson

French Polynesia

A freeform infinity pool at
Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa
Photo: Michele Peterson

If you’re tempted to do your fantasy island hopping by luxury catamaran rather than plane, the island of Raiatea also happens to be a port for Tahiti Yacht Charter. Their private cruises range in duration from four to seven days and itineraries include Huahine, Raiatea, Bora Bora, Mahana and more. The spacious catamarans come fully provisioned and staffed with an experienced crew, leaving you to relax and discover the secrets of Polynesia while effortlessly gliding through sapphire waters.

French Polynesia

Sail the islands with the crew of Tahiti Yacht Charter
Photo: Michele Peterson

French Polynesia

Snorkel undiscovered coves on a catamaran cruise with Tahiti Yacht Charter
Photo: Michele Peterson

Tantalizing Tikehau

Seeking absolute seclusion on your Polynesian escape? Even more remote (350 km northwest of Tahiti) yet still just a 55-minute flight away from Tahiti is the tiny coral ring of Tikehau. From there, a short boat ride whisks you to the Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, a luxury resort set on its own motu (tiny island) tucked within a wild coconut grove and surrounded by pink sand beaches. While it may be tempting to opt for one of the breezy overwater bungalows, the thatched roof beachfront suites are the top choice for those looking for a piece of Polynesia paradise just steps to the water, the infinity pool, the spa and restaurant. The lagoon surrounding this island is one of French Polynesia’s richest in marine life, so it’s an ideal location to book a dive excursion or go snorkelling among its coral gardens dotted with fluttering sea fans. Unforgettable experiences include a daytrip to picnic on a secluded island, bird-watching or simply savouring the neon sunset at the end of each day.

With daily doses of serenity, sky and sea, by the time your French Polynesian sojourn concludes, you’ll surely agree with Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick and Typee) that “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Travel Planner

Official Tahiti Tourism: www.tahiti-tourisme.com

Hotel Intercontinental: tahiti.intercontinental.com

Relais Mahana: www.relaismahana.com

Le Taha’a Resort & Spa: www.letahaa.com

Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort: www.spmhotels.com

Tahiti Yacht Charter: www.tahitiyachtcharter.com

Air Tahiti: Air Tahiti flies direct from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Faa’a International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti. The flight takes 8 hours and departs in the late evening. Air Canada and United offer direct flights from Montreal to Los Angeles, arriving in the early afternoon. www.airtahitinui.com

Hilton LAX: A great option for travellers who want to unwind during their LAX layover, is a day pass to the upscale Hilton Los Angeles Airport Hotel, near the airport. Enjoy complimentary shuttle service, a heated outdoor swimming pool, a 24-hour fitness centre, four dining options and more. Call 310 410-4000 or www.losangelesairport.hilton.com

Michele Peterson is an award-winning travel writer who specializes in food, drink and sun destinations. Her work has appeared in major magazines, guidebooks and travel anthologies. Get tips, insider info and travel inspiration on her blog at A Taste for Travel  and Twitter/Instagram @atastefortravel

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