When a trio of American hoteliers envisioned Raiatea’s first overwater bungalow in the 1970s, they did more than create blissful accommodations. By mounting traditional Polynesian grass huts onto stilts in aquamarine lagoons, the “Bali Hai Boys” established a Tahitian icon.
An overseas territory of France, Tahiti is a tapestry of 118 atolls and islands in five archipelagos spanning across more than two million sq. miles. The fact that the largest island is actually named Tahiti spurs an identity issue of sorts—one that Tahiti Tourisme continues to clarify through branding.
“For North America, we refer to the destination as ‘The Islands of Tahiti,’” says Jonathan Reap, North America’s president and managing director. “This suggests there are more islands beyond the island of Tahiti itself.” He says that Tahiti Tourisme adds a “Just 8 Hours from L.A.” subtag onto the market’s messages to resolve distance misconceptions.
“With as many tourists visiting in a year as Hawaii receives in seven days, Tahiti’s privacy and seclusion is ideal for both romantics and families alike,” says Reap. Thanks to visibility up to 150 ft., divers also dominate.
Advise your clients that it’s “always summer” in Tahiti, with December-April slightly warmer and wetter. Average yearly temperature is 79ºF, with lagoon waters averaging 80ºF.
Last year, Air Tahiti Nui made the journey from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Papeete’s Faa`a International Airport (PPT) even more pleasant when it rolled out a $17 million seat enhancement and entertainment expansion on its Airbus A340-300 aircraft.
During a recent visit to the Islands of Tahiti, I took an afternoon flight and checked into InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa less than 10 minutes from the airport. Fringing a lagoon with Moorea dazzling on the horizon, the 258-room property features infinity pools, a fitness center and spa, Tiki Bar, fine dining restaurant Le Lotus, and open-kitchen restaurant, Tiare.
While many visitors quickly springboard beyond, the 403-sq.-mile island is well worth exploring. During my visit, I stuck close to the resort, perusing Papeete’s Le Marche Public Market where mellow vendors display fruit, soaps, monoi oil, vanilla beans, woven baskets and colorful pareo fabrics.
Waterfront Vaiete Square changes its evening demeanor with a cluster of roulottes (food trucks) prepping global fare ranging from French crepes and Peking duck to burgers and coveted poisson cru, Tahiti’s signature raw fish salad with diced vegetables soaked in coconut milk. No worries if trucks are sold out. It’s on nearly every menu in French Polynesia.
From there, I took an Air Tahiti (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui) flight to Rangiroa; as with any island-to-island flight, recommend your clients grab a window seat for the stunning scenery.
Tallying a modest 13 percent U.S. business annually, Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago is a natural aquarium where 240 palm-laden motu (islets) ring a luminous lagoon brimming with harmless black tip sharks.
Large by atoll standards, Rangiroa is limited to some half-dozen accommodations. Among these are sister properties Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa between the Avatoru and Tiputa dive sites, and Kia Ora Sauvage, a Robinson Crusoe-style hideaway with five electricity-free bungalows accessible by boat. Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa is fresh from a $26 million upgrade to its 60 overwater beach and garden bungalows. Each category offers its own distinctive feature, with my Motoro garden version sporting an oversized private deck with lap pool. Thanks to the design, couples still enjoy seclusion—especially in three deluxe beachfront villas with private infinity pools and outdoor tubs for two.
Gerard Garcia, the resort’s GM, notes that roughly 50 percent of the resort’s guests are honeymooners and 15-20 percent are divers. “Guests often choose a few nights at Kia Ora Sauvage to unplug in traditional-style bungalows,” he says. “Then they opt for the resort where they enjoy the only spa in the Tuamotus.”
Kia Ora also earns nods for its PADI-certified TOPDIVE Center. Aquatic fans craving an adrenaline rush can “shoot the pass,” where a rush of water between the ocean and lagoon immerse them within a flurry of tropical fish.
The activities desk arranges a 7-hour Blue Lagoon journey that rips across the water for snorkeling in a massive natural pool homing docile black-tipped sharks. Following an authentic Tahitian feast, guides ignite a photo-op feeding frenzy with leftovers.
Kia Ora bungalows are priced from $675 per night dbl. With a minimum 2-night stay, nightly Le Sauvage rates are from $422. Both offer meal plans.
A 25-minute flight from Papeete, Huahine enchants with a time warp ambiance reflecting old Polynesia—not that other Tahitian islands have a metro vibe. While Huahine is also sparse on accommodations, Monette Aline has found an amiable way to up the ante. The Relais Mahana owner expanded its offerings beyond 32 beachfront bungalows to include a Surf & Turf option with Tahiti Yacht Charters.
During my visit, I was whisked offshore to Senso, a 56-ft. catamaran with four air-conditioned double cabins outfitted with private bathrooms and showers. Every aspect oozes luxury, from the 360-degree view interior living room with TV, to the galley and trio of outside lounge areas.
“Our Surf & Turf [complements] beach bungalow stays with sailing to explore the islands of Tahaa, Raiatea and Bora Bora,” says Aline. She adds that aside from the upscale privacy, both honeymooners and families enjoy running amok with paddleboards and kayaks.
For an authentic taste of Huahine’s two bridge-linked islands, Poe Island Tours’ 4×4 Jeep jaunts rambles from marae (archaeological sites) to the gorgeous Belvedere vantage point. En-route, I savor treats at a vanilla plantation, shop for treasures at a Tahitian pearl farm and gawk at sacred blue-eyed eels. Poe hands me off to her family’s nautical counterpart for a motu adventure where I graze on yet another Polynesian feast from tables and chairs planted in the crystal-clear water.
Six-night Surf & Turf rates are from $2,696 dbl. With half-board meals, packages cover three nights at Relais Mahana and a 3-night private cruise. Bungalow rates are from $253 per night dbl.
This island is a gorgeous magnet for romantics seduced by majestic Mount Otemanu and neon-blue waters. Along a scenic VIP water shuttle trek from Motu Mute Airport (BOB), Le Meridien Bora Bora emerges as third of four on an international brand strand including Four Seasons, St. Regis and InterContinental.
Our first overwater bungalow experience in this Tahitian sojourn is worth the wait. I land in Bungalow 20 hovering above pristine water waiting down private steps from the outdoor deck. The lagoon is so clear that it’s easy to eye marine life from decks and through massive glass floors touted as French Polynesia’s largest.
Roughly 70 percent of the resort’s business is romance oriented, with 40 percent from the U.S. “It’s a good fit for couples because of the privacy,” says Boumediene Ouadjed, general manager.
“It’s a wonderful place for newlyweds and even those wanting to renew their vows in our overwater chapel.” Adding that “the property is [also] ideal for families with activities like our turtle adoption program.”
As hard as it is to leave these air-conditioned digs, guests gravitate to complimentary snorkeling, kayaking and pirogue sailing aboard traditional Tahitian flat-bottomed boats. Surcharge activities include Manahau Wellness Center treatments, scuba diving, jet skiing, parasailing and waterskiing.
At the resort’s Bora Bora Turtle Center, I meet, greet and swim among hawksbill and green turtles in their natural environment as supervisor Hanalei keeps a watchful eye for their safety. Le Meridien also allows guests from neighboring resorts to participate through day passes.
Rates are from $692 per night dbl. Meal plans and seasonal Stay 3/Pay 2 or Stay 4/Pay 3 plans are also available.
Beauty aside, Bora Bora is steeped with U.S. military history from some 5,000 soldiers inhabiting the island between 1941-1945 to create a South Pacific military supply base. Tupuna Safari shares that slice of life on a 4WD tour that’s often white knuckle. My guide, Andy, hauls me up uncivilized roads to perches for viewing artillery cannons that were part of “Operation Bobcat.” No doubt this was the most enviable assignment in WWII.
What Travel Agents Are Saying…
“The main thing that draws my clients to Tahiti is the overwater bungalow,” says Sylvie Eidson, senior travel consultant at San Diego’s Carmel Mountain Carefree Vacations. “You can watch fish swimming beneath the bungalow in such gorgeous clear water. And that’s something you can’t experience in other tropical destinations.” Eidson has noted lower repeat Tahiti business since it’s such a “bucket list” destination. “Many consider Tahiti as one of those special places to celebrate a honeymoon or anniversary,” she says. “That said, I usually try to get my clients to visit more than one island since they’re all so beautiful. When you land on a motu and have a water taxi take you to your resort, it’s even more special.”
Air Tahiti: airtahiti.com
Air Tahiti Nui: airtahitinui-usa.com
Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa: hotelkiaora.com
InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa: tahiti.intercontinental.com or ihgagent.com
Le Meridien Bora Bora: lemeridien-borabora.com or starwoodhotels.com/pro
Poe Island Tour: poeislandtour.com
Relais Mahana: relaismahana.com
Tahiti Tourisme: tahiti-tourisme.com or tahititiareagent.com
Tupuna Safari: boraboraisland.com/tupuna/index.html