17 May, 2017
Where Heaven Meets Earth
Heaven is closer than most would imagine and entry is attainable by all. We had an opportunity to indulge in the very best this world has to offer
As our plane descends through the wispy-cream of low lying tropical clouds, and for the first time the incandescent turquoise sea that envelopes the islands of Tahiti is revealed to the weary traveler, it is as if the stuff of dreams has been made real. There before you, spread out in a thousand miles toward the edge of forever is an ocean of a hue that is surely the color of heaven itself. In this age of disposable imagery, in which no photograph is safe from a filter meant to heighten, enhance, or render cartoon-like every moment, no matter how banal; it is reassuring to know that Tahiti is exactly as it is depicted in every prototypical tropical escape fantasy photo essay: actually, it is better. Much better. Tahiti is the very best our world, electrified: possessing the bluest of waters, the lushest of flora, the loveliest of people, the calmest of breezes and the softest of sands, traveling to this true paradise is to know temptation, written on the wind. If given the chance, all should experience Tahiti’s wonders, but know that for each day spent in her tropical embrace, returning home seems ever more impossible, improbable, impractical even. Like pearls in a crown, the islands of French Polynesia are situated over 2.2-million square miles and serve as the social, political and cultural focal point of the South Pacific. French Polynesia, which is sometimes referred to collectively as Tahiti, though this is also the name of the main island of this French Protectorate, is comprised of 118 islands spread among five archipelagos, each one strikingly different than the other. The archipelagos: Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Austral, and Marquesas, contain chains of smaller islands, each one rich in cultural and social heritage and each one alive with delights awaiting the adventurous traveler. Our journey is focused on the Windward islands of the Society archipelago—perhaps the most well known region, for it is home to Tahiti’s most beloved destination: Bora Bora. The Society archipelago is divided between two island chains: the Windward and Leeward islands. Within the Windward group are Mehetia, Moorea, Maiao, the atoll Tetiaroa, and of course, the main island of Tahiti.
The Leeward chain, located in the western end of the archipelago, is made up of nine islands and includes Huahina, Raiatea, Tahaa and the beloved island of Bora Bora. One could spend weeks exploring each island alone, let alone the entirety of the archipelago. Trips to the islands usually begin on Tahiti’s main island, also called Tahiti, and at the international airport, Fa’a’a, near the capital city Papeete. Though this point of embarkation sees its share of daily international plane traffic, and welcomes visitors from most points on the globe, the open-walled layout and traditional carved design motifs are instantly transporting. After a brief stopover at the airport’s nearby Intercontinental Hotel Tahiti, and a night of rest in preparation for the next day’s travels, it was off to the neighboring island of Moorea, visible on the horizon from this side of Tahiti. A ferry, filled with a cacophony of both locals and tourists, including what seems like a traffic-jams’ worth of cars, trucks, and motorbikes, lumbered across the bay to Moorea. As a sort of cousin to the big island of Tahiti, Moorea is primer for what is to come later as one travels farther into the Society archipelago, farther away from the bustle. Situated on the very outer edge of one of Moorea’s famous lagoons, Sofitel Moorea la Ora Beach Resort provides a lovely home base from which to explore this laid back, largely undeveloped island. A great way to experience the rough and tumble Moorea landscape is by bicycle on the Points Kilometrique system that runs all of the 62km in a ring around Moorea. Cycling from small town to town, most comprised of just a restaurant and general store, the flavor of daily life is a joy to experience. Warm greetings from locals, often en Francaise, typifies the ‘fa’ari’i’ – the Tahitian spirit of hospitality that is not a tourist cliché but very real, and always felt by visitors. From July to August Humpback whales migrate to the waters just off Moorea’s coast, and can be see breeching on the horizon. Though Moorea’s charms were a welcome buffer between Tahiti and what was awaiting; it was off to Moorea’s tiny one room airport where a lovely little Air Tahiti Nui jet whisked us toward Ra’iatea and what is most certainly one of the most special places on earth. Perhaps it is the scent that envelopes you first; it embraces you as if raining from the cloudless sky. Stepping from the plane, even before hitting the baking tarmac, the heady scent of vanilla, sweet and round, comforting above all else, is borne on the winds that sweep through Ra’iatea’s legendary vanilla plantations that ring the island. It is an otherworldly experience; deeply saturated by the tropical air, the salt-tinged breeze blowing up over the seawall and right into the open air of the tiny Ra’iatea airport. The sweet scents of this island instantly erase all that came before this moment. Temporarily gone were the memories of the life that most travelers leave behind, now far gone, and so too with them the stresses of everyday life. We were warmly greeted by a small crew from the Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, whose branded shuttle boat floated in a small canal just adjacent to the airport. After a 30-minute ride from Ra’iatea to a motu off of the smaller island of Le Taha’a, a truly five star resort revealed itself. Taking up almost the entirety of the small island, known as the ‘Vanilla Island’, and for good reason, the resort is unique in the world.
Situated on a motu, or islet, just off the larger island of Taha’a, the resort is comprised of 57 suites and villas, 45 of which are overwater villas. The islet has no cars, and no visible roads. Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa is the very epitome of these lands: buildings made of lacquered local and palm woods find their design inspiration in the traditional outrigger-style canoes that are still in use today. It isn’t an uncommon site to see locals utilizing these canoes to commute to the motu from Taha’a across the channel that separates the two islands. The arching, tree house-like main structure houses the reception area and two of the hotel’s three restaurant options; the building’s foliage-dense, open-air, multistory design is something straight from childhood tree house fantasies, and only adds to the sense of escape. From the overwater bungalow that serves as home base, there lies the perch from which to stare, awestruck at the grandeur. With luxurious appointments, including a glass hatch at the foot of the king sized bed that opens directly to the sea below, the bungalows are perfect. That achingly beautiful, bathtub warm ocean, calm as can be due to the protective position of the reef, sounds a siren’s call, either to sit and stare at it for exceedingly long periods of time, marveling at its riot of blues, or jumping from the deck of the bungalow into its embrace. It is recommended that one do both, all day. The food, as it is at many of the better resorts throughout French Polynesia, is a tantalizing mix of traditional fare and French cuisine. Think Poisson Cru; coconut scented and delightful, barbequed and grilled meats of all sorts and of course, and a spectrum of fish found only in this area. Le Taha’a breakfasts, one must add, are not to be missed as the pyramids of freshly baked breads, just-plucked fruits with that morning’s dew still dripping off them, and all manner of international fare are fuel enough to drive guests through a day spent lounging or slipping headlong into the ocean—or both. Before leaving this tiny slice of private paradise, all guests at the resort must experience what is known locally the ‘coral garden’, situated just off the beach to the west of the resort in an inlet between two motus. Donning mask and snorkel gear, and sliding into the crystal warmth of the protected sea, an absolute wonder awaits. Due to the unique position of this 500m body of water, a current immediately picks you up and whisks you along the length of the garden. This allows for an amusement park ride through schools of darting fish in a spectrum of colors that runs in frequencies from neon to xenon, with every hue present.
Being careful not to allow limbs to drag too far below the surface as the orange and blue coral in which the fish safe haven is as sharp as a razor, you feel as if the separation between land and sea, between nature and man, is temporarily blurred. Gliding over this untouched pocket of perfection, in this tiny section of ocean on a remote islet, one is reminded that our earth, in all its seeming chaos, is such a magnificent and magnificently varied, place. As it is with all good things, a stay here had to come to a close, however another, slightly better known, paradise awaited just across the roiling Pacific from this jewel; the island of Bora Bora. A short flight and one emerges from the jetway into the prototypical island terminal; open-aired, and covered in walls of glass that provided my first glimpse of the iconic, double peaked Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia that serve as the center, both literal and spiritual, of Bora Bora. These mountain peaks, visible from most of the overwater bungalows in resorts located on the atolls that ring the main island, after just a day or so, becomes a talisman of sorts. A daily reminder of the dual nature of Bora Bora’s beauty: light and dark, ancient and timeless, sometimes ringed in clouds and covered in rain, sometimes a glowing emerald. And like these mountain peaks, the island’s allure is intangible, though symbolically represented in the heightened beauty that is the very nature of this place. There is an impossibility to French Polynesia. It is impossibly beautiful, impossibly serene, impossibly relaxing—and yet entirely accessible. Flights are relatively short, and travel between islands, motus and atolls is straightforward and simple. And though the world seems to be in a state of flux, where our news is rife with stories of chaos and strife, the mere existence of French Polynesia, the very embodiment of tropical beauty, is evidence enough that ours is a world of polarities, balanced between dark and light, order and chaos: heaven and earth.