BORA BORA — If this isn’t the most beautiful island on the planet, then it must be in the running. Known as the ‘Romantic Island,’ its lagoon resembles an artist’s palette of blues and greens. It’s also one of the most expensive islands, with condos renting from $3,000 per week.
I had many highlights during my visit, but the day I spent with a group of Japanese tourists, swimming with black tip and lemon sharks and a lagoon full of playful stingrays pretty much quelled my need for further adventure. The absolute thrill of staring down a 2.5-metre shark with no barrier between us was, to say the least, exhilarating. Of course, splashing around with a bunch of stingrays got the heart pumping too. Swim, snorkel, explore the lagoon's coral garden -- you can't help but be overwhelmed by the natural wonders of this magical place.
From there, we headed to a little motu to enjoy a lunch of fried marlin and my new favourite dish, poisson cru. A long stretch of white, sandy beach and tempting blue water was enough to get me in for a dip. The rest of the afternoon was spent idling in a hammock and drinking Hinano beer. Times like this have you thinking how to find a way to stay forever, a common thought among visitors here.
I capped off the day with a short boat ride to Matira Place, where I met 34-year-old Marama Olson, a well-known, award-winning tattoo artist who not long ago won a tribal design competition in Montreal. The ancient art of tattoo originated in the French Polynesian Islands and was used as a way to distinguish tribes. Traditionally, the skin was punctured using bone, shell or shark's tooth. Today, tattoos have become increasingly popular, and it's why I'm here visiting Marama.
He cranks the music and gets his tools ready as I sit on the stool. Twenty minutes later I have what I came for, my permanent souvenir -- the tiare, Tahiti's national flower. I head back to the resort as he heads off to fish and enjoy his stress-free life.
Where to stay: Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort and Spa. My luxurious bungalow was located at the edge of the beach on a lagoon that allowed me to walk out 600 metres into the water. Each hut was designed with an enclosed garden area, a private, full-size outdoor Jacuzzi, and a wooden terrace and sundeck. The bathroom, naturally and elegantly integrated in the enclosed garden area, is half indoor and half outdoor.
Bora Bora lagoon excursion: www.boraboraisland.com/todo/islandfun.html
* * *
Raiatea and Taha'a -- Raiatea is known as 'The Sacred Island,' and has been the centre of religion in Polynesia for over 1,000 years. Neighbouring Taha'a, the 'Vanilla Island,' is less than a quarter size of Raiatea with a population under 5,000, but both are basically one island connected by a narrow channel. It's a 20-minute flight from Moorea to Raiatea, and definitely worth the visit if you want to experience more of the traditional way of life. The best way to see the sights is with Taha'a Tour Excursions. Our first stop was to Love Here Pearl Farm. Tahitian black pearls are legendary among jewelry lovers, and the best place to learn about them and purchase one is at a pearl farm. Owner Vaite Aiho demonstrated how to graft a cultured pearl and was happy to bring out her stunning array of jewelry that ranged in price from $50 to $52,000. Each pearl comes with a certificate and Vaite wants visitors to know that she is more than willing to barter.
What followed was a delicious lunch of poisson cru, a dish (marinated in limejuice and coconut milk), coconut bread, fried fish and a wonderful fruit salad. Then we were off to the vanilla plantation. Taha'a produces 80 per cent of the vanilla for the region -- incredible, since there are no insects to pollinate the flowers, meaning each one must be pollinated by hand. Nine months later the bean is picked, dried and individually massaged to remove moisture before it can be processed.
Where to stay: Le Taha'a Private Island Resort and Spa, Relais & Chateaux, is 35 minutes by boat from the Raiatea Airport. It offers the ultimate in luxury, and a helicopter pad for discreet arrivals by celebrities. My overwater bungalow had a view of a little wedding motu (islets) where traditional marriage ceremonies are performed, as well as an exquisite view of Bora Bora in the distance. Their exclusive Manea Spa offers a unique Polynesian experience and amazing services, using locally made ingredients such as monoi oil and tamanu balm.
Taha'a tour excursions: www.raiatea.com/tosee/sights.html