Bring on 2021: 7 Ways to Hit Reset on The Islands of Tahiti
Unless you see The Islands of Tahiti for yourself, they’re going to sound too mythical to be real. Families of wild dolphins that enjoy getting their bellies rubbed? A 150-year-old Catholic church made of coral? Warm wind scented with vanilla, jasmine and a flower that grows atop one extinct volcano and nowhere else? Can we fact-check this, please?
But they are real. And, somehow, they feel even more real than almost anywhere else. Maybe it’s the rich volcanic soil pulled up from the deepest parts of the Earth, or the crystalline water that’s clear for 130 feet, or the brilliant dome of stars that cocoons the region at night. There’s just something about these 118 islands — flung across the South Pacific, and often called French Polynesia — that makes them feel like the origin of the world.
So, come 2021, The Islands of Tahiti are where we want to hit reset. Read on for seven ways these islands can help you reconnect with loved ones and rediscover yourself as you begin the new year.
No. 1: Spread out in solitude
French Polynesia spans an area larger than continental Europe but has a population smaller than that of Halifax. Let’s just say it’s not hard to find a space just for you.
The destination’s built-in privacy has attracted generations of A-listers who need time away from autograph-seeking fans and flashing paparazzi. Jennifer Aniston, Benedict Cumberbatch and Nicole Kidman all chose to honeymoon in Bora Bora, and U.S. President Barack Obama sequestered himself for a month on Tetiaroa, reportedly to work on his soon-to-be-published White House memoir. (His resort's name? The Brando — Marlon Brando once owned the remote isle.)
And while you'll feel like you’re at the ends of the earth, the islands are actually not that far away: Tahiti is only two or three hours behind Vancouver, and an eight-hour flight from LA.
Studies show that spending time in nature is an antidote for stress; it lowers blood pressure, reduces anxiety and even speeds up physical healing (Yale School of the Environment). Consider the islands’ natural beauty an instant cure for 2020’s mayhem. We’re not even sure it’s possible to feel tense while sunbathing on bone-white Bora Bora beaches or wading into water that’s as balmy as the weather (typically 26-29 degrees).
To really drench yourself in greenery, head to Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesa Islands. There you can hike a jungle path littered with fallen mangoes, occasionally passing an ancient tiki statue at the base of a banyan tree, before reaching the 1,148-foot-tall flickering white ribbon of Vaipo, the tallest waterfall in The Islands of Tahiti.
No. 3: Book (and bond) with your bubble
If you’re embracing pod travel, you can’t do much better than The Islands of Tahiti. You and your family may be the only group exploring a coconut grove or snorkelling in a bay, so it’s easy to avoid crowds and reconnect with one another.
For the simplest way to travel as a group, board a small-ship cruise like the MS Paul Gauguin, named after the French painter who created some of his best-known work on the island of Hiva Oa. This 332-guest, award-winning ship ports in popular spots like Bora Bora, but can also slip through to lesser-known islands like Fakarava (whose beauty inspired Matisse’s later work) and Tahaa, the island covered with family-run vanilla farms that produce 80% of the region’s world-famous Tahitian vanilla.
Expect your plate to be a direct reflection of the fragrant fruit, fresh fish and warm spices found around the islands, with a dash of French flair thrown in.
The most iconic Tahitian dish is poisson cru: raw fish marinated with lemon juice and doused with coconut milk. Locals often use mahi mahi or parrotfish caught from the nearest lagoon; fresh fish is so common in French Polynesia that even gas stations often sell sushi-grade tuna.
For a homestyle Tahitian dinner, opt for a stay in a family-run guesthouse; some feature dining areas with food prepared by the owners. You may finish off your meal with the classic dessert poe, a sweet pudding of taro, vanilla, banana and papaya, all bathed in coconut milk.
To Tahitians, mana is energy — the unseeable life force that embraces us all. Traditional Tahitian tattoos (an English word with Polynesian roots) are a visible symbol of a person’s mana.
Perhaps it’s felt most palpably on Raiatea, the first populated Polynesian island and cradle of Polynesian culture. Kings from neighbouring islands once met at the island’s marae, or outdoor stone temple, for ceremonies and summits. The first Polynesians to sail to Hawaii or New Zealand supposedly embarked from here, perhaps paddling as they smelled the five-petaled tiare ‘apetahi flower that only grows on the island’s extinct volcano and blooms at dawn.
French Polynesia is a once-in-a-lifetime trip — you’re going to want to take a piece home with you. Before you go back to the Papeete airport, stop at the city market, known simply as Le Marché, to find something that will bring back the aroma of vanilla or the sound of the ocean when you hold it in your hands.
Vendors there sell artwork crafted from shells, rainbow-hued pareus, vanilla beans and wood carvings. Two musts: monoi oil, a fragrant coconut oil infused with Tahitian gardenias, and black pearls. These lustrous orbs are only produced by black-lipped oysters found in French Polynesia. Learn how to judge a pearl’s value based on colour and size at the Tahiti Black Pearl Museum in Papeete before you select your souvenirs.
There’s so much to see underwater around The Islands of Tahiti that you could spend your whole trip below the surface. Lapis lagoons and azure bays host sea turtles, butterfly fish, moray eels, manta rays and barracuda, all swimming over a fluorescent garden of coral.
Divers can’t miss the island of Fakarava, home to the highest concentration of gray reef sharks in the world as well as plenty of hammerheads, nurse sharks and blacktips. Sharks in Tahiti are less aggressive than in other parts of the world, so divers can get closer for unbelievable photos.
The average ocean temperature ranges from 26-29 degrees, and it only cools by half a degree when you dive as deep as 166 feet. For true magic, submerge yourself just before dawn and watch the morning sun light up the world from underwater. Just one more Polynesian moment that feels too mythical to be real.