Where to Put Your Head Down in French Polynesia

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French Polynesia, best known for its most prominent island, Tahiti, is located in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between California and Australia.

(Air Tahiti Nui offers an eight-hour direct flight from LA.) Once you’re there, the relaxed luxury of Tahiti and its sister islands await you, with the over-water bungalow resorts worthy of screen-saver stock photos. Below, some suggestions on where to stay…

Tahiti bears a striking resemblance to the Hawaii of 50 years ago: There’s no traffic, the air is pure, the culture i intact, there are few high-rise buildings, no major freeways and no McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner. Instead, there are pristine beaches, luxurious over-the-water bungalows, ideal scuba-diving conditions, emerald mountains, untouched coral reefs and schools of marine life.

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Plus, gays are well accepted in French Polynesian culture. Certain LGBT people, referred to as mahu, were once regarded as gifted for possessing the qualities of both the male and female genders. I came across these trans people (now referred to as Rae rae) working at hotels, in restaurants, in dance performances and for airlines. Although there is no dramatic influx of gay tourists in Tahiti like in Mykonos or Sitges, the Tahiti Tourism’s official website offers comprehensive resources for LGBT travelers.

Known as the “Magical Island,” Moorea is just a few minutes from the island of Tahiti by plane or 30 minutes by high-peed catamaran. I recommend the catamaran; it’s a beautiful ride, and I was welcomed by my hotel’s shuttle service at the port.

I stayed at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa set against a beautiful mountain backdrop and nestled between two bays. My stylish over-water bungalow offered beautiful views of the beach and gardens from a private terrace. The concierge offered to schedule activities like horseback riding, safari tours and snorkeling trips. I opted to snorkel — Moorea’s cove boasts some of the best coral in the islands.

At Arii Vahine restaurant, I sampled French Polynesian favorites served al fresco while taking in spectacular views of the South Pacific. I even ran into American guests from Texas, California and Oregon. At night, I ordered iced tea from Toatea Bar by the shore and listened to Tahitian music, followed by a romantic meal on the beachfront as the sun set. Later, my fellow guests and I gathered to watch the sharks swim past the island paradise.

From Moorea, I took a short flight to tiny Raiatea Airport (which seemed to be about the size of my house). There, I as greeted by the staff of Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, a five-star property located on a motu (islet), a 35-minute boat ride from the airport. The resort staff took my luggage and walked me to a private shuttle boat (just a few steps away from the airport) before the commute. Upon arrival at the port of Le Taha’a, I was welcomed by the friendly staff with tropical juice and more leis. Upon checking in, a golf cart drove me to my over-water bungalow where my luggage awaited. Now that’s what I call service!

If you are a reality-show fan, you may have seen Le Taha’a when it was featured on the sixth season of The Bachelorette. And when Mike Fisher wanted to surprise Carrie Underwood with a honeymoon destination, he chose the resort for their romantic getaway. It only has 57 rooms, so even at full capacity, the place never feels crowded — making it ideal for couples in search of privacy. Its spa is also out of this world. The massage rooms are built over a lagoon and look out onto lush vegetation. Le Taha’a also provides an excellent culinary experience: The hotel alone offers three restaurants on-site, and special arrangements for romantic dinners and private picnics can be made upon request.

One of the most unique aspects of Le Taha’a is the great job it has done of keeping its Polynesian feel. The hotel makes a conscious effort to hire locals from neighboring islands; most of them have been working at the hotel since it opened. Plus, there are unique touches I’d never seen anywhere else in the world. For example, there was glass at the foot of my bed so that I could watch the fish at night. After dinner, I would take extra bread to my room to feed them.

Bora Bora is one of the most beautiful islands in the world, but while the experience is breathtaking, the prices re, too. However, if you are looking to splurge, this island will not disappoint.

The island’s humble airport is located on a small, palm-fringed islet (or motu). Just outside its doors was a small port where a boat took me to my hotel. I stayed at the Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, a large five-star resort on a motu on the outside reef surrounding the lagoon that is known for having the best views of Mt. Otemanu.

The rooms feel as large as a house and are filled with some of the world’s finest amenities: 800-thread-count sheets, Philippe Starck bathroom fixtures, Italian fabrics and glassware. Each has a full living room with a coffee table made of glass (so you can see the ocean floor and lift the lid to feed the fish). The bedroom area also has a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking a view of either the lagoon or the mountain. During my stay, I visited the resort’s Deep Ocean Spa twice. Some of its treatment rooms are on glass-floored over-water bungalows; so you can admire the marine life during your sessions. There are also relaxation areas with ocean views, outdoor jacuzzi, steam baths, a fitness room, a tea lounge and a boutique. It’s a haven of harmony not to be missed.

Enjoy new highlights of travel photographer Edwin Santiago’s journeys each Tuesday and Thursday.

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Last modified: August 16, 2019