After decades of dreaming, a year of planning, a week of packing and a endless night of flying through so many time zones I can only guess what day this is, I am about to land in Tahiti. Even from this bird’s eye vantage point, the mythical island looks worthy of the hype heaped upon it ever since 18th century navigators first set foot ashore. White sailboats dot the shimmering sapphire sea. The shore is lined with white sand beaches shaded by groves of palm trees, and a semi-circle of thatched overwater bungalows rising from a turquoise lagoon complete the postcard image the perfect South Seas Island.
Ia Orana Tahiti
Tahiti is the largest of 118 islands and atolls (of which more than half remain uninhabited) that make up French Polynesia. Scattered across a South Pacific area the size of Western Europe, this Overseas French Community as it is officially called, occupies a total landmass of barely 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles, approximately the size of the U.S. State of Rhode Island). Home to the capital city of Papeete and Fa’a’ā, the only international airport in French Polynesia, it is the point of entry for the majority of visitors.
Fa’a’ā is one of the most laidback airports I have ever come across. Entry formalities are expedited to the sound of a trio of enthusiastic local musicians. “Ia orana” says the official who hands me back my passport after a perfunctory glance. That’s both “good morning” and “welcome” in Tahitian, and his bright smile leaves no doubt that he means it. I emerge into the party atmosphere of the arrival hall to be lassoed with a traditional Tiare hei (necklace of fragrant white gardenia that is the symbolic flower of the island) by a cheerful greeter from the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa.
Anteroom to Paradise
The resort, a mere three kilometers (two miles) from the airport, turns out to be the idyllic stretch of coastline I had been gazing at from the plane. At the far side of the open lobby, my eyes lock onto a jaw-dropping panorama of lagoon, ocean and rolling surf against the chiseled backdrop of the sister island of Mo’orea just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. My Polynesia dream is getting real!
Despite its proximity to downtown Papeete and the airport, the InterContinental, the largest luxury resort on Tahiti with 246 guest rooms and overwater bungalows, is an oasis of tranquility nestled in 25 hectares (62 acres) of tropical gardens. My spacious lagoon view room opens onto a curved, panoramic balcony overlooking Le Lotus, one of the two fresh water infinity pools on the property. With its inviting swim up bar and shaded beach, the white sand-bottom Lotus is a quiet haven to laze away the hours while watching pirogues dart across the lagoon and the Black Noddi birds nest in the coconut palm trees. For those who prefer a livelier environment, the lake-size Te Tiare pool with its waterfall and Jacuzzis is a popular gathering spot at the heart of the public areas.
However, my absolute favorite swimming hole is the Lagoonarium, a giant natural aquarium that recreates the natural underwater environment for hundreds species of tropical sea creatures. Regularly monitored by a team of scientists, it houses a thriving reef ecosystem that supports a wide variety of fish as well as corals and shells. I spend many glorious moments snorkeling through the fragile coral formations, surrounded by a swarm of fish of all sizes, shapes and colors, my popularity doubtless enhanced by the net bag trailing from my wrist, filled with rolls purloined from the dining room’s bread basket.
Tahitian Fare and Traditions
Overlooking its pool and waterfall, Te Tiare is the main restaurant of the resort, as well as the stage for cultural performances. Open from 6:00 am on with a gargantuan buffet featuring traditional breakfast fare from Tahiti and the world over, it then offers a menu of light summer dishes as well an extensive array of local specialties throughout the day. Additionally Te Tiare features two weekly theme nights. Wednesday is Marquesas Night, when local legends are reenacted in the traditional dances of the remote Marquesas Archipelago, and a rich buffet of Polynesian and Marquesan specialties complement the show. Meanwhile, Friday night is dedicated to contemporary Polynesian dancing with a spectacular show by the perennially award-winning troupe Hei Tahiti.
For a more refined dining experience, the intimate Le Lotus restaurant proposes a creative menu of fusion cuisine based on local specialties and complemented by a selection of fine French wines. Located in a trio of thatched overwater bungalows adjoining the sand-bottom pool, it offers glorious views of the ever-changing life on the lagoon with the mountains of Mo’orea beckoning in the distance.
With its easy access to the airport and the ship terminal, its superb location and amenities, and its attentive staff, the InterContinental Tahiti is an ideal launching pad for any French Polynesia adventure.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Air France flies daily from Paris to Papeete via Los Angeles. The national carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, also connects Papeete to France, the USA, Japan and New Zealand. Some of their flights code share with Air France and Air New Zealand.
- Visiting – Papeete is mainly a connecting destination for visitors traveling on to the remote islands of French Polynesia. What little I saw of the town in my jetlag-induced daze on the short first morning drive from the airport left me with a first impression of a provincial port city, traffic-bound and a bit scruffy. A subsequent walk around the center of town confirmed it: not unpleasant but unremarkable. I also took a drive along the coastal road that circles the island, the center being dominated by three of the highest extinct volcanoes in Polynesia and quasi impassable. Other than a couple of waterfalls gushing through exuberant walls of ferns and a small botanical garden, I saw nothing much of note. However, I didn’t regret the few hours spent exploring, if only for having reassured myself that I hadn’t missed anything.
- Staying – For my pre and post-cruise time on the island of Tahiti, I stayed at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa, B.P.6014, 98702 Tahiti, French Polynesia. Contact: tel. + (689) 40 86 51 10, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.