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Beyond the Over Water Bungalows

Article & Photography by Susan Campbell

Ever since I saw my first photo of the enchanting overwater bungalows of Tahiti, staying in one and visiting the South Pacific islands has been high on my bucket list. Last December I finally had the opportunity, and the timing was ideal as 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of Tahiti’s invention of the iconic abodes on stilts, and also the Moana movie had just hit the big screen- a Disney animated tale based on the region which was also making history as the first motion picture ever to be translated into the Tahitian language. But rather than head straight to Bora Bora, the most famous of the chain of 118 islands that make up Tahiti, we decided to island hop around the Society Islands that were more off-radar and remote. We book-ended our travels with short stays on Pape’ete, near the airport due to the schedule of arrival and departure of Air Tahiti Nui, which we flew from LAX. Our first stop was an overnight at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa so close to the runway that you could see the planes take off from their main pool.

A surprising urban oasis…

I am a snorkeling fanatic and a big marine life fan; in fact, I brought my own full-face snorkel mask to ensure I was always ready to dive in at a moment’s notice. But I didn’t figure that this downtown hotel right next door to Fa’a’ā International Airport would be a prime spot. I was wrong.

Once checked into my inviting tropical style abode- the hotel does have overwater bungalows but our stay was so short we opted for lower priced rooms- I went exploring to find two gorgeous infinity pools and water circuits snaking around the lush property and some Jacuzzi tubs and waterfalls too. But the most exciting find was their manmade lagoon chock full of snorkeling guests. I couldn’t grab my mask fast enough! Soon I was thoroughly enjoying an underwater tour of healthy coral and hundreds of colorful fish. What a great start to our trip! We enjoyed dinner on their pier later that night and I noted the lights underneath were attracting lots of big fish, especially sharks! That was my first realization that sharks would indeed be a big part of my experience there as the South Pacific waters are full of them! They are also “kapu” sacred and protected as legend has it that Tahiti was once ruled by “shark gods”. Sharks are as Tahitian as grass skirts, tattoos and going barefoot. You have to get used to them.

Huahine-island of women, nature and ancient history

After a short hop flight with regional carrier Air Tahiti (which we used the entire trip and absolutely adored,) we alighted upon Huanine. En route to our next resort-across the bridge that joins the big and small part of the island- our driver told us that the island’s name meant: “woman’s sex.” It sounds strange, but it’s due to the fact that their main mountain resembles a woman giving birth. “We revere women here,” he said. We liked that!

This island is an Eden -very wild and undeveloped. It reminds me of lush and lovely Kauai -the garden island- and the vibe is also similar, very laid back and easy going. Our resort was Relais Mahana, and not at all what we expected. No overwater bungalows, but we were very happy with our stand–alone little thatched cottages with decks only a few feet from the water. The sea there is very calm and full of sea cucumbers. A long pier juts out from the only restaurant and bar, and the food and their special tiki drinks were great. Behind the resort is a small store with locally made art, but beyond that, it’s very remote. However, the excellent cultural show they presented on the beach that night was very entertaining. Primal drumbeats and swishing grass skirts and lovely lilting songs… it was a shining showcase of their ancient traditions. But my favorite thing there were the coral gardens right off the pier. It is a snorkeler’s dreamland, and I never encountered a shark either! Though I did meet a huge stingray. He glided right up to me almost to the sand on the beach and we went for a stroll together along the water’s edge for the longest time. He seemed to be as curious about me as I was about him. It was a magical few minutes that will stay with me forever. And the sunsets there were surreal.

Ancient temples, vanilla and sacred eels… 

Off property we took an eco tour around the island; it’s famous for its vanilla production, so we visited a vanilla farm and banana grove up in the mountains. We also visited the ruins of many ancient temples and went to the canal where 7-foot-long sacred eels live among the locals. It’s definitely worth a drive around the island to see the coconut plantations, breadfruit trees, watermelon fields and bright tropical blooms everywhere.

My bucket list bungalow…

Our next short flight was to Raiatea, thought to be the original birthplace of Tahiti, though we didn’t stay long as we were off by water taxi to neighboring atoll for our over-water bungalow experience at Taha’a. Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa is a stunning resort on its own island, surrounded by blindingly white sand beaches and flanked by one of the best coral gardens for snorkeling in the region. It is a very luxurious stay- a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux collection, with a choice of beachfront and garden cottages and villas or two long stretches of overwater bungalows. I was over-the-moon with mine, situated at the far end of one pier looking out to the other islands, I could even see Bora Bora in the far distance. The interior was beautifully appointed and I especially liked the glass shelf at the bottom of the bed for looking down at the fish, and the huge sunken tub also had glass panels for fish spotting around it. It also had a huge deck and of course, stairs down into the sea. And the water was so clear I could see the big rays coming from far away so I could scoot down my stairs in time to join them. And sharks? Yep. There were a LOT of black tipped sharks-from babies to juveniles to full grown- this was definitely their playground. But speaking with the staff I learned that in 15 years of operation they’ve never had an incident, you do your thing and they will do theirs they say, however, never swim in the dark. Sharks are blind at night and that is feeding time, so anything that moves is fair game. I took that advice to heart!

There are plenty of watersports – kayaking, paddle boarding etc. and a seaside pool with hammocks also add to the appeal. And dining in their rainforest tree house was out of this world and I do believe their very creative and well-prepared fusion cuisine was the best fare we had during this trip.

A luxury yacht sail day…

Much as we were enjoying our unique abodes, we had also booked a private luxury sail day with Tahiti Yacht Charters, so off we went to the pier early next morning as our ship had come in. Literally. We were only two, so we had the entire ship all to ourselves, though it can easily sleep 20 with 10 full bedrooms replete with individual showers. On deck is a full kitchen, a lounge and an outside dining table, and up top is an upper lounge as well. We had a crew of three- a private chef, our captain and a first mate- and it was glorious being treated like royalty for a day. We stopped for a snorkel tour at one of the private islands that Paul Gauguin cruises also stops at- in fact they were sailing right behind us! Then we had an amazing lunch on board, and later stopped by a black pearl farm for an enlightening tour and demonstration about the industry. This region is famous for its black cultured pearls. I highly recommend a sail with this outfit, and they also do full week charter explorations that stop by many of the islands.

Tikehau Pearl – A Hidden Gem

Our next flight took us by air to remote Tikehau about 200 miles from main island of Tahiti. It’s a collection of small islands in the Tuamotu Atolls. Tikehau, means “peaceful landing,” and it certainly lived up to its name. We reached our Tikehau Pearl Resort by water taxi and it is simply stunning. Though we were disappointed that overwater bungalows were not available since one wing was under construction for upgrades, disappointment quickly gave way to elation when we entered the beach villas that were to be our new homes. They are spectacular and steps from the sea. An outside bathroom and shower garden (walled-in), a luxe bed with a mosquito net, rich mahogany interiors and a fabulous deck and a big hammock swinging from the palms all beckoned. I could have lived there full time. And of course there was the sea. A surreal kaleidoscope of cerulean hues stretched out toward forever, and I could tell excellent snorkelling was awaiting and I was right! I had many great encounters with big rays and colourful creatures, and I also made friends with a big Titan Triggerfish that followed me daily at every turn with a big toothy grin. We enjoyed poolside dinners at their one restaurant and bar, and enjoyed more spectacular sunsets over the water. Tahiti really knows how to do sunsets right.

Take a shark to lunch day…

The resort has an intriguing outing we opted to try- a homemade grilled local lunch on a private island with your own private chef. Twenty minutes away by boat we landed offshore and our crew of two set everything up. There is a large covered picnic table for groups, a big grill, and little else but white sand, swaying palms and heartbreaking gorgeous aqua seas. But they never mentioned the sharks!

Since we were only two, they set us up a tiny table replete with a cheery yellow umbrella so we could dine with feet right in the water. It didn’t take long to see that we were smack in the middle of a shark infested channel- lots of big, small and tiny sharks who knew that this was lunch time for them, as well! I guess they were used to scrounging scraps and they also were in charge of cleaning the grill! The chef threw it in the water until it was picked clean, then grilled some red snapper, and chicken while he also prepared his special recipe ceviche. It was delicious, and unique as far as having lunch goes, but also unnerving as our underwater friends began circling closer to the table. The babies were already cleaning our toes, and the bigger ones were getting impatient, so we ate fairly quickly. After our feast we threw them some leftovers and witnessed first-hand what a shark feeding frenzy looks like. I’m certain we were never in any real danger or they wouldn’t have exposed us to that experience, and actually it was a pretty cool adventure.

To infinity and beyond sunsets…

The next day we flew back to Pape’ete, and since we had a long wait for our night flight we booked a day pass at nearby Manava Suite Resort. Having our last tropical drinks while sitting on the underwater stools of their pool bar we were treated to the most spectacular sunset of all. And the design of their infinity pool is so seamless we felt like we were one with the sea. It was the perfect farewell to our bucket list journey, and we vowed to return to explore more of French Polynesia one day.


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