From the atoll of Rangiroa, stalled in time but with some of the best diving on the planet, to the supreme beauty of Bora Bora, French Polynesia is a perfect fit for romance.
If love is a many splendored thing, Tahiti is Romeo and Juliet, Scarlett and Rhett and every Mills and Boon novel all wrapped in one, big, beautiful, azure package. It is love at first sight when we fly in to Rangiroa, an atoll circling the second-largest lagoon in the world. Rangi, as the locals call it, is in the Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia, and while it is just a short flight from Papeete, it feels like we have somehow gone back in time on the Tardis or on a Polynesian version of the DeLorean.
The island is actually 240 tiny motus (islets) circling the massive lagoon like an exquisite pearl necklace and separated by passes or smaller passages, call hoas, which allow the water from the lagoon to ebb in and out. Only two of the islets are inhabited: the airport and the town of Avatoru are on one, while the hamlet of Tiputa is on the next island across – which is only accessible by boat.
We are staying at the only five-star resort on the island, the Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. It’s like something out of a postcard, with beautifully designed villas sitting over the turquoise water and tucked under palm trees on the land. We are in a pool villa and love its huge outdoor space with sheltered lounges, plunge pool and private outdoor bathtub snuggled away in a corner.
While the plunge pool is lovely, it is the lagoon that is the star, and we snorkel in it, laze in it, enjoy sunset drinks in the Miki Miki Bar (which sits over it) and generally stare at it as if our brains can’t quite compute what they are seeing. The resort has a dive operator on site and it is diving that Rangiroa is best known for. In fact, the Tiputa Pass is often named as one of the top dive sites in the world, with divers and snorkellers carried through the Pass in the tidal surge between the ocean and lagoon. The amount of sea life you’ll encounter is phenomenal. We snorkel at what locals call the Aquarium – a reef not far from the lagoon-end of the Pass – and feel like Dory from Finding Nemo, trying to remember the countless colours and shapes of the fish we see.
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Other popular dive spots and tours include the magical Blue Lagoon (a lagoon within the lagoon) and Les Sables Roses (the Pink Sands), but we choose to hire a scooter and potter around this beautiful place. Heading off down the potholed strip of road, we’re never far from that mesmerising aqua of the lagoon or the darker blue of the ocean, and stop and swim whenever we feel like it. Several of the local shops also prove tempting, and as well as beautiful hand painted pareos (like sarongs) at Rangiroa Arts, we can’t resist a beautiful Tahitian pearl at Ikamasho, which has a lovely selection of jewellery, including these lustrous black gems. One of the largest black pearl farms in French Polynesia, Gauguin’s Pearl, is here on Rangiroa and offers tours showing just how these gorgeous black beauties are produced.
We scoot past local pensiones – the main form of accommodation offered here – and stop off for lunch at Snack la Roulotte, a tiny lagoon-side café with a white pebble floor and tasty fish burgers. In Avatoru, we admire a church made from coral and go bush to see the best surf break on the island, where only the fearless tackle the waves that break onto a shallow, razor-sharp reef.
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We ride back to the other end of the island, waving at the locals walking by or tourists on pushbikes, and find ourselves at Chez Lili, a lively lunch spot right on the water at the small quay. The food is fabulous and Lili tells us that afterwards, we must head back out on the scooters in order to see the dolphins in Tiputa Pass. She recommends a particular spot: Pensione de la Josephine Relais. We go in and are amazed to see a timber deck – no railing – so close to the Pass that you can feel the spray. We settle into the chairs with a local Hinano beer, and watch the dolphins dance in the tide as the sun begins its nightly journey below the horizon. All we needed were violins, but we had the sounds of Rangiroa to accompany us, the lilting French accent of the waitress taking our order, the swish of palm trees in the breeze and the rhythmic pulse of the waves on the rocks below.
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Sail away to Bora Bora
Could it be any more romantic? Sitting on the deck of a luxury catamaran with wine (and husband) in hand, sun shining, watching the green, dinosaur spine-peaks of Bora Bora rising out of a lagoon that looks like it’s been injected with a blue food dye you might only see on MasterChef.
We are on the Terehau, a 60ft luxury catamaran that we boarded in Raiatea for a four-day cruise that centres on Bora Bora. There are two other couples on board, as well as the skipper, Henri, and his partner Mihi, who is the hostess and cook. The first night is spent anchored off the Tau Tau motu near the island of Taha’a, the peaks of Bora Bora looking more like clouds on the horizon. We swim, snorkel and become attuned to our floating hotel, raising a glass to the sunset and drinking in the fragrances of French Polynesia: vanilla, frangipani and tiare, a type of gardenia that is the national flower of these islands.
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We wake to find the yacht is underway and after a lovely breakfast around the undercover dining table on the back deck, plant ourselves on the bow – a front row seat to some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. We sail past Taha’a, church spires rising up from the tree canopy and houses spreading out along the shoreline. Bora Bora takes shape and looms ever closer, and the rugged shapes of its peaks reveal themselves like a flirtatious vixen.
Henri drops anchor outside the fringing reef, and tells us all to get ready for a snorkelling adventure. We tumble nervously into the inflatable boat and motor a short distance to where small tour boats are tied to some moorings, and a group of visitors is treading water furiously, squealing with delight. We fall into the blue depths and instantly realise why they’re squealing: we are surrounded by more than 30 blacktip reef sharks! They flash silver as they glide around, and our heads spin in every direction at once, Exorcist-like, in case one of the finned friends breaks ranks and comes closer.
But it’s not from the sides that the sharks come; it’s from the sea floor where two much-larger lemon sharks skulk upwards. I practically climb onto my husband’s back (or is it the other way around?) and we both leave fingernail marks on the boat to which we are clinging. The sharks move ever so slowly, and the leader’s jutted jaw and steely eyes are looking straight at us as they move in. It’s about now that we discover that you can scream and swear while wearing a snorkel. The lemon sharks drop down and scrape their backs under our fins – it appears they just wanted a tickle – then slowly swim back to the bottom.
More relaxed now, we notice all the fish swimming about – angel fish, rainbow fish, parrot fish, garfish, clown fish, butterfly fish, damselfish and a host of others we can’t recognise. We laugh when we realise we have almost forgotten that there are sharks everywhere around us. Henri jokes that the blacktips haven’t done any damage to his passengers yet.
We board the Terehau and enter the distinctive and well-marked channel to get into the lagoon from the ocean – it’s exactly like a freeway off-ramp, but instead of accessing a suburb, it takes you to waters of such vibrant colours your eyes almost hurt. It’s not just turquoise, but a rainbow of blues – almost as if Pro Hart has swiped his paintbrush, dipped in multiple different shades, across a giant canvas. We stop again and bound into the dinghy like eager puppies going out for a walk. Henri announces that we are going to be swimming with stingrays and nonchalantly points out a couple of large grey shapes just up ahead. We cautiously stand on the soft sandy seabed and the stingrays come ghosting in, brushing velvety wings against our legs. Henri is popular amongst the rays, his hand softly running along their skin and his fingers almost touching their tiny mouths. We become braver, and grin stupidly at each other as we pat and touch these incredibly elegant creatures.
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Some settle near our feet and we are careful not to tread on them. We say “wow” countless times, rendered almost speechless by this special experience. No one is speechless later, as we recount our shark and stingray tales around the table over a beautiful dinner and good French wine. The food is excellent on board, and we can raid the biccy tin when we need sustenance after yet another refreshing dip or snorkelling session. We see eagle rays speeding through the water like Star Wars fighters, huge black mantas and more reef sharks and fish.
One afternoon is spent on a perfect beach, with a lovely lunch served under a palm frond canopy. Afterwards, we doze off in a deckchair, our vista including the misty peaks of Mount Pahia and Mounta Otemanu (the highest point on Bora Bora), the blue lagoon and, in the foreground, our beautiful on-water chariot, the Terehau. We sail around Bora Bora’s lagoon, past countless resorts with over-water bungalows, waving at happy holidaymakers who paddle past on kayaks, zoom by on jet skis or stroke by on stand up paddle boards. We feel like we have an advantage to those staying on shore, as we share the same view, but are somehow more a part of it.
After bidding farewell to our shipmates, we’re off to spend a few nights at the Sofitel Private Island, an intimate resort accessed by boat from the Sofitel Marara Resort. Welcomed by a seashell call and a Polynesian song, our hearts are indeed singing as we’re taken to our overwater villa and see our balcony with stairs down to the lagoon. On the boat we have become used to swimming at will, and are thrilled that we can continue that tradition. Inside the villa we love the glass window in the floor that lets us see what’s swimming underneath, and the monstrous, super-comfortable MyBed that Sofitel does so well.
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There are 31 bungalows, many on stilts over the water and some set higher among the trees. The gardens are spectacular – a mixture of perfectly manicured and naturally wild – and the restaurant sits high up overlooking the point, giving 180-degree views over Bora Bora and her peaks. Standing in the bar area, having a cocktail before dinner, we see a certificate on the wall proclaiming that the resort was named the best Luxury Honeymoon Hotel at the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2014, and it’s easy to see why.
The resort is quite small, but it’s not crowded in the slightest. Couples can choose to have a romantic breakfast delivered to their balcony by canoe; massages on the sand; a beautiful dinner on the beach serenaded by local singers, musician and dancers; and even a traditional Polynesian wedding. We swim around to the beautiful coral garden – one of the best in Bora Bora – and see a moray eel enticed out of its hiding spot by a tour guide holding a tasty morsel. Afterwards, we walk up to the top of the island to soak up the sheer beauty of this place and watch the sunset with a glass of champagne in hand. Life doesn’t get much better.
Neet to know
Air Tahiti Nui offers three weekly flights from Australia to Papeete via Auckland every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, code sharing with Emirates. Air Tahiti has an excellent interisland service on new aircraft.
Papeete: InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa
Rangiroa: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa
Bora Bora: Sofitel Bora Bora Private Island
Catamaran: Dream Yacht Charter
Eat and drink
Te Rairoa @ Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa
Chez Lili: +689 87 32 42 50
Latitude 16 @ Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort
Le Lotus @ InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa
See and do
Diving in Rangiroa: Top Dive has two bases, including one at Kia Ora Resort & Spa