From yoga to scuba — finding plenty to do in French Polynesia

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An overwater bungalow on a palm tree-lined lagoon at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort.

by Debi Shank, ITN

French Polynesia: the mere mention of the name conjures up images of turquoise waters, tropical breezes and long, lazy days spent adjusting a chaise lounge in an attempt to obtain the perfect tan. But is that all French Polynesia has to offer? I was invited to find out for myself on a weeklong April ’09 visit to some of the area’s resorts.

Getting there

All flights to French Polynesia go to Tahiti before continuing to the outer islands. My 8-hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui (877/824-4846) was comfortable and uncrowded, each passenger welcomed on board with a fragrant tiare flower.

Twin-engined prop planes carry passengers to outer-island destinations.

Warm air and humidity met me as I stepped off the plane in Pa­peete. Like most visitors to French Polynesia, I would spend only one night in Tahiti, and after clearing Customs and Immigration I was whisked away to the nearby and newly opened Manava Suite Resort Tahiti.

My moutain view studio (from XPF18,500, or $218, depending on season), complete with a kitchenette, was spacious and elegantly appointed. An added treat was free in-room Internet access.

Feeling a little bit hungry, I found my way to the outdoor dining area of Vaihitohi, the on-site restaurant. It was during this meal that I fell in love with raw fish. I’ve been a sushi lover for some time and have dabbled a bit in raw fish, but my memory of the way these selections were prepared still makes my mouth water.

My appetizer, the Trilogy — a mix of Japanese and Polynesian cuisine — consisted of three different preparations of tuna: tartare, seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil and served with tomato, onion and cucumber; a traditional Tahitian raw fish salad, or poisson cru, marinated in lime juice with tomato, onions and cucumber in coconut milk, and sashimi served with fresh yellow ginger. Served with white rice, all this cost XPF1,500 (about $20).

Bora Bora

The lagoon at the Bora Bora Pearl Resort.

In the morning, following a 30-minute Air Tahiti flight on a 66-passenger twin turboprop, I landed in Bora Bora and knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The open-air terminal was devoid of the security protocols to which we’ve all grown accustomed, and the baggage area was nothing more than a few slanted metal tables where passengers could claim their bags.

The airport sits on one of the many motus (islets) that form a chain around Bora Bora, and all transfers from the airport are made by boat. My destination was the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa, located on the western side of the lagoon, a 15-minute boat ride away.

Although every room at the Pearl Resort is nicely appointed, the water lover in me was ecstatic to be in one of the 50 bungalows (from XPF69,000, depending on season) that sit over the lagoon. The boardwalk to my bungalow crisscrossed over to’a nui, the coral nursery, an underwater garden I would return to often during my three days there.

Facing west, bungalow number 40 looked beyond the lagoon to open ocean. With honey-hewed wood flooring, it was furnished with a large bed, a sofa, a mini-bar, an entertainment center and a writing desk. The centerpiece was a stationary glass table with a sliding top that opened to my personal coral head eight feet below.

Sliding glass doors opened onto a large deck, a perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon, and stairs led down to another deck with a ladder, providing easy access to the water.

I was eager to unpack and get into the water, but my schedule here featured a 3-day yoga retreat, so I dashed off for my first class.

Getting to know yoga

Our yoga class met in the sanctuary located near the reception and restaurant area. Kamala Nayeli, our instructor, welcomed me and immediately made me feel at ease.

Although I was not actively familiar with yoga, I did have some experience with floor Pilates, which incorporates many of the same poses. Throughout this workshop, however, I learned that yoga is much more than practicing poses; it is a lifestyle that seeks to attain tranquility and well-being.

I also found it a wonderful way to start each day, and I continued to practice yoga for the rest of the week on the decks of my bungalows.

Classes each lasted about an hour, with mats and props provided. The workshop touched on basic yoga poses, restorative poses and techniques for relaxation and stretching. We ended the 6-session workshop with yoga on the beach overlooking the lagoon, followed by a delicious breakfast.

While workshops are not scheduled on a regular basis, a weekly yoga class is offered.

Underwater relaxation

While I had enjoyed my yoga instruction, I couldn’t wait to grab my mask and snorkel and explore the coral nursery. The activities hut provided snorkel equipment and kayaks for guests’ use, though I had my own snorkel gear.

A black-and-yellow striped dot-and-dash butterflyfish.

The warm, clear, calm water was calling to me and I responded by grabbing my camera and diving in. Finning over to the coral garden, I was surprised by the number of resident fish species that call this place home.

The sand-bottomed lagoon is not conducive to natural coral growth, so, in cooperation with a marine biologist, the Pearl Resort has “planted” a coral garden, creating coral heads from what once were coral seedlings.

Much in the same way a gardener would plant and transplant seedlings to larger pots until they were ready for permanent planting, marine biologist Denis Schneider has taken coral seedlings, tended to and nurtured them and permanently planted them onto a solid base where the corals will continue to grow.

Right now the garden is sparse, with coral heads staggered about five feet apart, but as they spawn and reproduce, this area of the lagoon will eventually become a full reef. It’s already home to dozens of fish, and I recognized many — butterflyfish, sergeant majors, triggerfish and angelfish, just to name a few — but one species to add to my list wasn’t a fish at all but a mollusk. Baby giant clams glistened with their iridescent blue or purple mantels exposed.

During my short stay on Bora Bora, I would spend many more hours marveling at the wonders of the reefs.

Some pampering

Ahhhh, a serene setting at the Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort.

Following my ventures in yoga and snorkeling, I thought I’d try for a relaxation trifecta, so I meandered down the path that led to the Manea Spa, tucked away under lush foliage. Each treatment room overlooked a water garden and was large enough to accommodate couples who wished to experience a massage together; the rooms also could be partitioned off for individuals.

The extensive spa menu included a variety of massages as well as facials and tattooing. I opted to indulge in something I’d never heard of, moanarumi (XPF14,000, or $165), an aquatic massage done entirely in the pool or lagoon.

Neoprene floats were fitted to each of my legs, and Kamala, who also was a massage therapist, supported my head as I floated in the water. With my eyes closed, I focused on my breathing, feeling my body rise and fall in the water with each breath.

Using the resistance of the water and massage techniques, Kamala moved my body back and forth in a gracefully choreographed dance in which I was a limp participant. By the end of the session, I was nearly asleep — and completely relaxed. And not once did my mouth touch the water.

This type of massage may not be for everyone; however, for those who, for medical reasons, cannot endure a traditional massage, this may be a pleasant alternative.

Huahine

Ready for my next adventure, I headed for my third stop in the Society Islands, Huahine, only a short flight away. Made up of two main mountainous islands and circled by a coral reef, Huahine is lush and green. A short drive from the airport took me to the main town of Fare, where I boarded a boat for the 15-minute ride to Te Tiare Beach Resort.

My overwater bungalow (from XPF60,500 depending on season), number 34, looked west over the horizon where, sitting on my deck, I could watch the sun dip into the sea. Here, too, the large deck allowed easy access to the lagoon, and on the lower deck I discovered there was a freshwater shower, where I could rinse the salt water off.

The spacious room had a tiled floor and woven-grass wallpaper enveloping its rattan-accented furnishings. A large walk-in closest provided ample room for storage. Although the room was comfortable, it wasn’t as upscale as the others in which I stayed on this trip.

The large lagoon was densely packed with coral and fish; however, time never allowed me the opportunity to explore it. Instead, I had deeper waters to discover.

Diving in

Just a few of the underwater residents I encountered: the always-graceful green sea turtle.

Through the hotel, I had arranged a 2-tank scuba dive (XPF12,400, or $145) with Mahana Dive in Fare (phone 00 689 73 07 17), so after breakfast, with my gear in tow, I boarded the boat back to town. Fortunately, the dive shop was at the dock area.

On my first dive out I saw the largest triggerfish, the titan, which grows up to 30 inches, and my first lionfish, beautiful but venomous.

The second dive would prove more exciting. We spotted two pairs of nesting clownfish (think Nemo), and I had a close encounter with a large moray eel — more my fault than his.

Our divemaster took a tuna carcass with her to leave with the fish to eat, and after she discarded it I picked it up to watch the fish feed off of it. Well, unbeknownst to me, a usually nocturnal moray eel had picked up on the scent and decided it was chow time.

The divemaster quickly grabbed the tuna from my hand, tossing it aside as the eel passed by and seized the tuna with his powerful jaws. That could have turned ugly.

Polynesian flavor

Back at the hotel, I made my way down to Te Tiare’s open-air restaurant for the Polynesian buffet and show (XPF4,000, or $47). I enjoyed several more raw fish dishes as well as main dishes of chicken and baked fish and two kinds of delicious fruit poi (mango and banana) before the show started.

In traditional Polynesian costume, women dancers captivated the audience with their graceful moves, while the dances performed by the men were boisterous and energetic. Highly entertaining!

Tikehau

Dressed in traditional costume, Polynesian dancers gracefully performed during a lively dinner show.

The next stop on my adventure was a coral atoll about an hour away from Papeete: Tikehau, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago. As we approached it by air, I couldn’t fathom that there could be an airstrip on one of the atoll’s little motus, but as we got closer the airfield came into view. The thatch-roofed “terminal” was equally unassuming.

A 5-minute drive took us to the main village and pier for our 15-minute trip to Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, across the 16-mile-wide lagoon.

Being the lone resort on a remote atoll, the Tikehau Pearl Beach doesn’t have to work hard to beat out the competition, but, boy, after my spending the entire day traveling, having had to fly back to Tahiti before continuing out to the atoll, did it impress this weary traveler! In the distance I could see stilted bungalows hovering over the water (from XPF49,000, depending on season), and by the time we arrived to the sound of a trumpeting conch shell being blown I was enchanted.

The shallow lagoon nearly met the open ocean on the narrow motu’s opposite edge, where I could hear the waves crashing against the shore. The lagoon was teeming with life, and I couldn’t wait to meet my new neighbors.

In this isolated locale one could certainly contemplate one’s navel while taking in assorted Zs, but for the more active there are kayaks and canoes, tennis and volleyball courts or deep-sea fishing and diving excursions. I, of course, chose the diving.

My 2-tank dive with the on-site Tikehau Blue Nui Diving Center cost XPF14,500 ($170) including tanks and weights. Both dives were excellent, and I added another species to my list: the very large, thick-lipped Napoleon, or humphead, wrasse.

Dining pleasures

Every meal I had in French Polynesia was excellent (with the exception of a poached chicken dish from the Bora Bora Pearl’s spa menu, which I found bland) but pricey.

This was especially true at the remote Tikehau resort, where everything but the local fish must be flown in. For lunch I had the tuna sashimi with Tahitian relish, which cost XPF1,550 ($18), and a meager mozzarella, tomato and basil salad with olive oil, which went for XPF1,300.

For dinner I enjoyed an entrée of mahi mahi with madras rice and vanilla sauce (XPF2,650). Dessert was the delectable Pearl Beach chocolate cake with melting heart and Tahitian vanilla ice cream (XPF1,450).

To save money on bottled water ($3 per liter) as well as preserve the environment, I continuously filled my wide mouth Nalgene bottle with ice from each resort’s ice machine, providing me with cold water all the time.

Leaving paradise

While “French Polynesia” still conjures up images of turquoise waters, tropical breezes and long, lazy days, I can now add to that my memories of delicious fresh fish and hours of snorkeling, exploring the shallow lagoons and coral reefs.

From the air, you can clearly see the coral reef that surrounds Huahine.

I also did a lot of walking on this trip, as my bungalows were located some distance from the central buildings (though there are closer units). In addition, participating in the described activities required good mobility, so I recommend that guests be able to get around without assistance.

For those needing to be “in touch” with the world, Internet service was available only at the resorts in Bora Bora (30 minutes, $12) and Huahine.

South Pacific Management (Papeete, Tahiti; phone 888/205-3315, e-mail res@spmhotels.com) owns and operates the resorts at which I stayed as well as others throughout French Polynesia. Each traveler’s visit is customized based on individual preferences and the islands chosen.

Debi Shank was the guest of South Pacific Management, who provided accommodations, daily breakfasts and one meal at each resort along with international and interisland airfare. Also included were the massage treatments and yoga classes.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
An overwater bungalow on a palm tree-lined lagoon at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort.

by Debi Shank, ITN

French Polynesia: the mere mention of the name conjures up images of turquoise waters, tropical breezes and long, lazy days spent adjusting a chaise lounge in an attempt to obtain the perfect tan. But is that all French Polynesia has to offer? I was invited to find out for myself on a weeklong April ’09 visit to some of the area’s resorts.

Getting there

All flights to French Polynesia go to Tahiti before continuing to the outer islands. My 8-hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui (877/824-4846) was comfortable and uncrowded, each passenger welcomed on board with a fragrant tiare flower.

Twin-engined prop planes carry passengers to outer-island destinations.

Warm air and humidity met me as I stepped off the plane in Pa­peete. Like most visitors to French Polynesia, I would spend only one night in Tahiti, and after clearing Customs and Immigration I was whisked away to the nearby and newly opened Manava Suite Resort Tahiti.

My moutain view studio (from XPF18,500, or $218, depending on season), complete with a kitchenette, was spacious and elegantly appointed. An added treat was free in-room Internet access.

Feeling a little bit hungry, I found my way to the outdoor dining area of Vaihitohi, the on-site restaurant. It was during this meal that I fell in love with raw fish. I’ve been a sushi lover for some time and have dabbled a bit in raw fish, but my memory of the way these selections were prepared still makes my mouth water.

My appetizer, the Trilogy — a mix of Japanese and Polynesian cuisine — consisted of three different preparations of tuna: tartare, seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil and served with tomato, onion and cucumber; a traditional Tahitian raw fish salad, or poisson cru, marinated in lime juice with tomato, onions and cucumber in coconut milk, and sashimi served with fresh yellow ginger. Served with white rice, all this cost XPF1,500 (about $20).

Bora Bora

The lagoon at the Bora Bora Pearl Resort.

In the morning, following a 30-minute Air Tahiti flight on a 66-passenger twin turboprop, I landed in Bora Bora and knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The open-air terminal was devoid of the security protocols to which we’ve all grown accustomed, and the baggage area was nothing more than a few slanted metal tables where passengers could claim their bags.

The airport sits on one of the many motus (islets) that form a chain around Bora Bora, and all transfers from the airport are made by boat. My destination was the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort & Spa, located on the western side of the lagoon, a 15-minute boat ride away.

Although every room at the Pearl Resort is nicely appointed, the water lover in me was ecstatic to be in one of the 50 bungalows (from XPF69,000, depending on season) that sit over the lagoon. The boardwalk to my bungalow crisscrossed over to’a nui, the coral nursery, an underwater garden I would return to often during my three days there.

Facing west, bungalow number 40 looked beyond the lagoon to open ocean. With honey-hewed wood flooring, it was furnished with a large bed, a sofa, a mini-bar, an entertainment center and a writing desk. The centerpiece was a stationary glass table with a sliding top that opened to my personal coral head eight feet below.

Sliding glass doors opened onto a large deck, a perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon, and stairs led down to another deck with a ladder, providing easy access to the water.

I was eager to unpack and get into the water, but my schedule here featured a 3-day yoga retreat, so I dashed off for my first class.

Getting to know yoga

Our yoga class met in the sanctuary located near the reception and restaurant area. Kamala Nayeli, our instructor, welcomed me and immediately made me feel at ease.

Although I was not actively familiar with yoga, I did have some experience with floor Pilates, which incorporates many of the same poses. Throughout this workshop, however, I learned that yoga is much more than practicing poses; it is a lifestyle that seeks to attain tranquility and well-being.

I also found it a wonderful way to start each day, and I continued to practice yoga for the rest of the week on the decks of my bungalows.

Classes each lasted about an hour, with mats and props provided. The workshop touched on basic yoga poses, restorative poses and techniques for relaxation and stretching. We ended the 6-session workshop with yoga on the beach overlooking the lagoon, followed by a delicious breakfast.

While workshops are not scheduled on a regular basis, a weekly yoga class is offered.

Underwater relaxation

While I had enjoyed my yoga instruction, I couldn’t wait to grab my mask and snorkel and explore the coral nursery. The activities hut provided snorkel equipment and kayaks for guests’ use, though I had my own snorkel gear.

A black-and-yellow striped dot-and-dash butterflyfish.

The warm, clear, calm water was calling to me and I responded by grabbing my camera and diving in. Finning over to the coral garden, I was surprised by the number of resident fish species that call this place home.

The sand-bottomed lagoon is not conducive to natural coral growth, so, in cooperation with a marine biologist, the Pearl Resort has “planted” a coral garden, creating coral heads from what once were coral seedlings.

Much in the same way a gardener would plant and transplant seedlings to larger pots until they were ready for permanent planting, marine biologist Denis Schneider has taken coral seedlings, tended to and nurtured them and permanently planted them onto a solid base where the corals will continue to grow.

Right now the garden is sparse, with coral heads staggered about five feet apart, but as they spawn and reproduce, this area of the lagoon will eventually become a full reef. It’s already home to dozens of fish, and I recognized many — butterflyfish, sergeant majors, triggerfish and angelfish, just to name a few — but one species to add to my list wasn’t a fish at all but a mollusk. Baby giant clams glistened with their iridescent blue or purple mantels exposed.

During my short stay on Bora Bora, I would spend many more hours marveling at the wonders of the reefs.

Some pampering

Ahhhh, a serene setting at the Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort.

Following my ventures in yoga and snorkeling, I thought I’d try for a relaxation trifecta, so I meandered down the path that led to the Manea Spa, tucked away under lush foliage. Each treatment room overlooked a water garden and was large enough to accommodate couples who wished to experience a massage together; the rooms also could be partitioned off for individuals.

The extensive spa menu included a variety of massages as well as facials and tattooing. I opted to indulge in something I’d never heard of, moanarumi (XPF14,000, or $165), an aquatic massage done entirely in the pool or lagoon.

Neoprene floats were fitted to each of my legs, and Kamala, who also was a massage therapist, supported my head as I floated in the water. With my eyes closed, I focused on my breathing, feeling my body rise and fall in the water with each breath.

Using the resistance of the water and massage techniques, Kamala moved my body back and forth in a gracefully choreographed dance in which I was a limp participant. By the end of the session, I was nearly asleep — and completely relaxed. And not once did my mouth touch the water.

This type of massage may not be for everyone; however, for those who, for medical reasons, cannot endure a traditional massage, this may be a pleasant alternative.

Huahine

Ready for my next adventure, I headed for my third stop in the Society Islands, Huahine, only a short flight away. Made up of two main mountainous islands and circled by a coral reef, Huahine is lush and green. A short drive from the airport took me to the main town of Fare, where I boarded a boat for the 15-minute ride to Te Tiare Beach Resort.

My overwater bungalow (from XPF60,500 depending on season), number 34, looked west over the horizon where, sitting on my deck, I could watch the sun dip into the sea. Here, too, the large deck allowed easy access to the lagoon, and on the lower deck I discovered there was a freshwater shower, where I could rinse the salt water off.

The spacious room had a tiled floor and woven-grass wallpaper enveloping its rattan-accented furnishings. A large walk-in closest provided ample room for storage. Although the room was comfortable, it wasn’t as upscale as the others in which I stayed on this trip.

The large lagoon was densely packed with coral and fish; however, time never allowed me the opportunity to explore it. Instead, I had deeper waters to discover.

Diving in

Just a few of the underwater residents I encountered: the always-graceful green sea turtle.

Through the hotel, I had arranged a 2-tank scuba dive (XPF12,400, or $145) with Mahana Dive in Fare (phone 00 689 73 07 17), so after breakfast, with my gear in tow, I boarded the boat back to town. Fortunately, the dive shop was at the dock area.

On my first dive out I saw the largest triggerfish, the titan, which grows up to 30 inches, and my first lionfish, beautiful but venomous.

The second dive would prove more exciting. We spotted two pairs of nesting clownfish (think Nemo), and I had a close encounter with a large moray eel — more my fault than his.

Our divemaster took a tuna carcass with her to leave with the fish to eat, and after she discarded it I picked it up to watch the fish feed off of it. Well, unbeknownst to me, a usually nocturnal moray eel had picked up on the scent and decided it was chow time.

The divemaster quickly grabbed the tuna from my hand, tossing it aside as the eel passed by and seized the tuna with his powerful jaws. That could have turned ugly.

Polynesian flavor

Back at the hotel, I made my way down to Te Tiare’s open-air restaurant for the Polynesian buffet and show (XPF4,000, or $47). I enjoyed several more raw fish dishes as well as main dishes of chicken and baked fish and two kinds of delicious fruit poi (mango and banana) before the show started.

In traditional Polynesian costume, women dancers captivated the audience with their graceful moves, while the dances performed by the men were boisterous and energetic. Highly entertaining!

Tikehau

Dressed in traditional costume, Polynesian dancers gracefully performed during a lively dinner show.

The next stop on my adventure was a coral atoll about an hour away from Papeete: Tikehau, part of the Tuamotu Archipelago. As we approached it by air, I couldn’t fathom that there could be an airstrip on one of the atoll’s little motus, but as we got closer the airfield came into view. The thatch-roofed “terminal” was equally unassuming.

A 5-minute drive took us to the main village and pier for our 15-minute trip to Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, across the 16-mile-wide lagoon.

Being the lone resort on a remote atoll, the Tikehau Pearl Beach doesn’t have to work hard to beat out the competition, but, boy, after my spending the entire day traveling, having had to fly back to Tahiti before continuing out to the atoll, did it impress this weary traveler! In the distance I could see stilted bungalows hovering over the water (from XPF49,000, depending on season), and by the time we arrived to the sound of a trumpeting conch shell being blown I was enchanted.

The shallow lagoon nearly met the open ocean on the narrow motu’s opposite edge, where I could hear the waves crashing against the shore. The lagoon was teeming with life, and I couldn’t wait to meet my new neighbors.

In this isolated locale one could certainly contemplate one’s navel while taking in assorted Zs, but for the more active there are kayaks and canoes, tennis and volleyball courts or deep-sea fishing and diving excursions. I, of course, chose the diving.

My 2-tank dive with the on-site Tikehau Blue Nui Diving Center cost XPF14,500 ($170) including tanks and weights. Both dives were excellent, and I added another species to my list: the very large, thick-lipped Napoleon, or humphead, wrasse.

Dining pleasures

Every meal I had in French Polynesia was excellent (with the exception of a poached chicken dish from the Bora Bora Pearl’s spa menu, which I found bland) but pricey.

This was especially true at the remote Tikehau resort, where everything but the local fish must be flown in. For lunch I had the tuna sashimi with Tahitian relish, which cost XPF1,550 ($18), and a meager mozzarella, tomato and basil salad with olive oil, which went for XPF1,300.

For dinner I enjoyed an entrée of mahi mahi with madras rice and vanilla sauce (XPF2,650). Dessert was the delectable Pearl Beach chocolate cake with melting heart and Tahitian vanilla ice cream (XPF1,450).

To save money on bottled water ($3 per liter) as well as preserve the environment, I continuously filled my wide mouth Nalgene bottle with ice from each resort’s ice machine, providing me with cold water all the time.

Leaving paradise

While “French Polynesia” still conjures up images of turquoise waters, tropical breezes and long, lazy days, I can now add to that my memories of delicious fresh fish and hours of snorkeling, exploring the shallow lagoons and coral reefs.

From the air, you can clearly see the coral reef that surrounds Huahine.

I also did a lot of walking on this trip, as my bungalows were located some distance from the central buildings (though there are closer units). In addition, participating in the described activities required good mobility, so I recommend that guests be able to get around without assistance.

For those needing to be “in touch” with the world, Internet service was available only at the resorts in Bora Bora (30 minutes, $12) and Huahine.

South Pacific Management (Papeete, Tahiti; phone 888/205-3315, e-mail res@spmhotels.com) owns and operates the resorts at which I stayed as well as others throughout French Polynesia. Each traveler’s visit is customized based on individual preferences and the islands chosen.

Debi Shank was the guest of South Pacific Management, who provided accommodations, daily breakfasts and one meal at each resort along with international and interisland airfare. Also included were the massage treatments and yoga classes.