French Polynesia offers couples more off-the-beaten track romantic options than perhaps anywhere else on Earth… Maurice the coconut farmer knocks back the coffee on offer with a flick of his hand.
“Too much stress,” he explains to the pourer, and looks ruefully across at the tiny island in the huge blue lagoon with its blinding ring of white sand that could now belong to movie star Kurt Russell. “In Bora Bora there are many movie stars,” Maurice says. “But Mr Kurt Russell left Bora Bora and came to Taha’a and he wanted to buy this island you see. We get excited, now movie stars come to Tahaa. Then no sale, so no Mr Kurt Russell in Taha’a, no movie stars, still just farmers.”
It’s almost impossible to believe that Bora Bora – the world’s most romantic destination – lies less than 50 kilometres across the sea to our north-west. From here on Taha’a’s dreamy north coast, it feels as if we share the same lagoon as Bora Bora’s. It’s just as iridescent – like a ridiculously pretty chemical spill. Nothing natural could look so perfect, could it? And it’s deep enough to offer a temporary home for passing whales in winter.
But here, to this gloriously sleepy island of Taha’a, few visitors venture; despite Taha’a – and the other lesser-known islands of French Polynesia’s famed Society Islands located close by – being the absolute epitome of the south seas paradise every travel agent on Earth wants to sell you.
For those looking for romance, there is no better place on Earth to find it: just think, huge volcanic, green mountains tumbling into wide, still, blue lagoons, fringed by empty silica-sand beaches and quiet Polynesian villages. Sound good? It is, nowhere is better.
About 80 percent of travellers who visit French Polynesia each year will go to Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti (and visitor numbers still only total less than 200, 000 per year meaning nowhere is ever crowded). French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands, of which Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora receive all but a few thousand visitors a year – yep, all but a few thousand. Sixty five of these islands are inhabited, and aren’t as expensive to access as you might imagine, and once you’re here, it’s quite possible to feel like the last people on Earth – and what could be more romantic than that?
Taha’a, Raiatea and Huahine in the Society Island group are just a 40 minute flight from Tahiti’s capital, Papeete, and yet on my flight in (which is Bora Bora bound) I’m the only westerner getting off the plane. There are five-star properties on these islands, complete with that most famous of all French Polynesian inventions, the over-water bungalow, but they’re far less known (with the possible exception of Le Taha’a Resort & Spa, a five-star resort located on a tiny island off Taha’a’s north-west coastline that feels like an entirely secret destination). But I love that it’s possible to discover a world’s-best beach to yourself on these islands. We ride around the island’s quiet roads by scooter, scaling the lofty heights, using look-outs by the side of the road to plot our day’s itinerary.
Often we stumble across a beach as beautiful as any I’ve seen in the Pacific, and find the only company to be local fishermen casting out to feed their families. Life is endearingly simple on these islands, time seems to stand still, roosters and pigs the only things moving fast as we narrowly avoid them on slender roads that meander through tiny villages where tiny children giggle and wave at us as we pass. When the road hits the coastline, it takes us hours to pass with obligatory swims at every heavenly bay of white sands and turquoise lagoons.
But oddly, there still seems plenty to do on these islands; like trying world-class diving and snorkelling, or 4WD adventure tours through the wild hinterland, or taking horse rides along forgotten beaches… and there are enough sleepy cafes, restaurants and lagoon-side bars (with views to die for) to satisfy those who prefer some vestiges of modernity with their isolation.
Bora Bora itself will always be an irresistible magnet for any traveller who ever dared dream of romance in the South Pacific. In five prior visits to French Polynesia, I’d overlooked the honeymoon mecca in favour of lesser known islands; but this time I’m determined to see for myself what makes this island the place of fables. I arrive on a skippered catamaran, between the remnants of an extinct volcano which rises to two massive peaks above the most strikingly blue-coloured body of water I’ve ever seen. In a lifetime of island travel – including being born and raised not far from here – I’ve never seen water quite so colourful.
In the evenings, when the sun loses all its sting and sets against the backdrop of the majestic Mt Otemanu, the water turns the colour of burnt toffee, and a full moon reflects so perfectly off it that after a few cocktails it’s hard to tell which way’s up or down. The lagoon’s so blue that guests constantly ask staff if anything has been added to the water.
There’s plenty to do on Bora Bora – from diving, surfing, snorkelling, deep sea fishing, 4WD and kite-surfing to swimming with sting rays, reef sharks and even humpback whales – but the best thing on Bora Bora is to do little but spend your entire holiday trying to remember every little detail of the surrounding beauty because when you’re home, not one bit of it will seem real (trust me on that).
Any traveller willing to go the extra miles for the sense of romance only true isolation can bring will enjoy the challenges French Polynesia throws up. Spread across a piece of the Pacific the size of Europe (that’s Europe – Western and Eastern), there are four separate island groups, including the world’s most isolated island archipelago, the Marquesas. Planes fly here daily – 1500 kilometres from Papeete – and there are far-flung romantic resorts here to suit any couples, but a 14-day journey by supply ship is one of the most romantic boat trips left on Earth. This is truly Spielberg’s Lost World, where kilometres-high mountains jut out of forgotten seas, and people live from the land, covered head to toe in warrior tattoos.
Further south, when I visited the Gambier Islands I was one of the first Australian travellers to arrive, yet the romantic delights on these islands set in one of the world’s biggest – and most beautiful – lagoons, are plentiful. I slept in a room just beside the lagoon and lived amongst people completely unaffected by the outside world. When I climbed the highest mountain in the group, Mt Duff, I watched humpback whales swim in the lagoon and felt a glorious sense of being completely lost and forgotten. Beyond the horizon I knew the nearest landfall was over 6000 kilometres (to South America).
There are also romantic holiday options in the Australs – world-famous for the abundance of whale visits each winter, while the Tuamotus form the largest chain of atolls on Earth spread across an ocean the size of Western Europe. Rangiroa, the best known of all the Tuamotus, is one of French Polynesia’s best hidden secrets, boasting some of the best diving and snorkelling on the planet (expect to see more dolphins, eagle and manta rays than perhaps anywhere else) while its high-end accommodation options allow couples to sleep above one of the Pacific’s prettiest lagoons.
But it’s also quite possible to feel as if you’ve discovered a secret outer French Polynesian island without even leaving Tahiti. Less than an hour’s drive from French Polynesia’s busy capital, Papeete (and the airport you flew in to) is the kind of rare, entirely unspoilt paradise we all dream of, on Tahiti’s smaller island – Tahiti Iti – connected to Tahiti’s main island, Tahiti Nui, by a bridge.
Travellers rarely visit here, perhaps because its charms have never really been publicised en masse, overlooked instead by the wonders of Bora Bora and Moorea. The road actually ends halfway across Tahiti Iti but the treasures that lay in wait are those of the Tahiti of our collective imaginations – clear lagoons, green-covered mountains and swaying coconut trees. Thankfully, progress missed this region entirely, leaving it more or less the same as the paradise glimpsed by Tahiti’s first discoverers, bewitching men prepared to risk all to sail here, including the first Frenchman to visit, Louis de Bougainville, who noted in his journal that he’d been “transported into the Garden Of Eden” in 1768.
There are incredibly romantic pensions here that straddle a huge, blue lagoon. Horses and pigs wander through properties at will, waterfalls can be found just behind your room and some of the world’s most famous big waves break across the razor-sharp reef. Framing the lagoon, gigantic triangular mountains drop a kilometre and more straight down creating numerous shadowy, hidden valleys. The landscape is covered in a rich and thick pool table-green carpet of vegetation. I take a boat ride to access the best parts, jetting across the lagoon while pods of dolphins surf our bow waves.
Beyond where the road ends, there are just 40 or so houses amongst the wilderness, where waterfalls crash hundreds of metres right into the sea. There are mountains here a kilometre-and-a-half high, and ancient caves with underground lakes which warriors used to launch stealth raids a millenia ago. The lagoons are deep here and almost as blue as Bora Bora’s – I sometimes spend entire days in them till I’m burnt the colour of the locals.
At night, when the air smells of tiare, frangipani and backyard burn-offs and the stars shoot across clear black skies, I like to look across the lagoon to the lights of Tahiti Nui and imagine tourists sipping cocktails in their resort… and feel so far removed in my very own private Tahiti.