Sleeping Beauty in the South Pacific
If you’ve seen one too many flame-lit, hip-gyrating “authentic Tahitian show” and dream of sleepy Bora Bora fifty years ago, Maupiti fits the fantasy bill. Guidebooks hesitate to include this untrammeled gem, so most travelers have never heard of the island – and that’s good news.
For the moment, at least, the Last Great Secret of French Polynesia remains blessedly quiet and laid back, delivering the languor of a real tropical paradise. The Bank Lady only makes an appearance twice a month, arriving by boat: If you want to change traveler’s checks, just hope she knows the exchange rate. Otherwise you’ll have to rely upon the kindness of strangers – what this small island of staggering beauty is all about.
Many of the private homes that rent rooms, or the small pensions that have a bungalow or two, don’t even have telephones, so you’ll just have to show up and knock on the door. Long motu islets offshore are home to watermelon and cantaloupe plantations.
You can help your innkeeper fish for tonight’s lobster dinner or take a leisurely walk through the island’s beautiful countryside along a crushed-coral road lined with fruit trees and hibiscus.
Guides are available to take you to the island’s 1,220-foot volcanic summit, or you can paddle an outrigger to an unpeopled cove for a picnic lunch. Or, you can just relax in your hammock, hypnotized by the rustle of palm fronds. Either way, Maupiti will never disappoint.
Old Polynesia and a Room with a View
Steeped in tradition and a standout for its varied scenery, splendid beaches, proliferation of ceremonial temples (maraes), picturesque main town, and tiny, charming villages, Huahine is one of the few Polynesian islands Captain James Cook might recognize if he were to return today.
Tourism has been late in arriving on this island, which is still largely agricultural and is often compared to Bora Bora before the luxury hotels arrived, so there’s not much going on – but that’s the point. Take advantage of the island’s South Seas charm while you can, since it seems to be going extinct elsewhere in Polynesia.
Settle into the Hotel Sofitel Heiva, whose most extravagant accommodations are the six thatched-roof bungalows built on stilts over the lagoon.
Glass-floor panels afford views of the lagoon’s colorful marine life, which has become rather spoiled by regular feedings of bread crumbs filched from the restaurant. You can slip in and join them or loll on either of the hotel’s two sandy beaches, the island’s prettiest.
South Pacific Beauty and an Idyllic Lagoon
Grab a seat on the left side of the plane for your first glimpse of the island that mesmerized Captain James Cook some 225 years ago. James Michener called it “the most beautiful in the world” and “the South Pacific at its unforgettable best” – so beautiful it’s said to have been the inspiration for Bali H’ai in his Tales of the South Pacific.
Four miles long and 2/2 miles wide, Bora Bora rises as an oasis in the deep indigo sea, its circular palm-covered barrier reef of semiconnected motu islets embracing a wide lagoon whose palette of blues and greens defies description. The lagoon, in turn, surrounds the high green island, whose renowned, twin-peaked volcanic cones rise nearly a half mile above the water.
When the original owners of the Hotel Bora Bora arrived to build the first resort on this beautiful isle in the 1960s, they had their pick of locations and so secured the prime spot: exquisite, sugar-white Matira Beach, possibly the most idyllic in the Pacific.
On it, they built a series of thatched bungalows, some on the beach and some out over the water, with two- tiered sundecks and steps that lead directly into the beautiful lagoon. A group of beach- or garden-sited farés (villas), some with their own private pools and Jacuzzis, are some of the largest accommodations on the island. The atmosphere is one of elegant South Pacific charm and simplicity, designed to blend harmoniously with the tropical splendor of the setting. With the powdery palm-studded beach at your fingertips, the blue lagoon at your door, and Mounts Otemanu and Pahia looming over your shoulder, you’ll be effortlessly lulled into the torpor of the island’s kick-back rhythm. But some of the Pacific’s best inshore snorkeling calls, offering underwater traffic jams of trumpet fish, angelfish, parrot fish, and the curiously named Pinocchio and Napoleon fish.
Shark feeding is one of the hotel’s more dramatic activities: Willing guests submerge themselves amid dozens of 5-foot blackfin lagoon sharks, which are regularly hand-fed by local divers. A four- wheel-drive journey that jounces and rattles you through the lush interior terrain is worth it for the cliffside views, which are as heart-stopping as the morning’s nose-to-nose shark encounter.
An Untainted World Apart
For years the wild beauty of the little-visited Marquesas Islands – the most remote inhabited islands on earth, located 1,000 miles from anywhere – has drawn literary personalities and artists. One of the most scenic places in all French Polynesia, this is the untainted tropics, where forest-cloaked cliffs plunge into the rocky sea and eerie volcanic spires that Robert Louis Stevenson once likened to “the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church” are often lost in the clouds.
Of the six inhabited islands (out of ten total), Fatu Hiva is said to be the most beautiful, due in large part to the beautiful Bay of Virgins, whose steep sides are ringed with lush groves of mangoes, oranges, and guavas. Paul Gauguin intended to live out his days here, but instead disembarked on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa. Herman Melville and Captain James Cook were just as captivated by the Marquesas’s allure, believing them to be even more beautiful than the Tahitian islands. The largest town, with 1,500 handsome, tattooed, brightly smiling inhabitants and a bay that rivals the Bay of Virgins, moved Jack London to write, “One caught one’s breath and felt the pang that is almost hurt, so exquisite was the beauty of it.”
The 343-foot freighter/ passenger ship Aranui is the lifeline that links the far-flung Marquesas with the outside world, delivering everything from cement to medicine to sugar. Entire towns – sometimes entire islands – turn out to greet the ship’s monthly arrival, bartering copra (pressed and dried coconut meat) for basic supplies. Aranui passengers make landfall in the same whaleboats that transport cargo, and once ashore can make excursions to see lush valleys populated by wild horses and the volcanic basalt peaks that inspired Melville, London, and Stevenson.
There are few roads, but follow the trails through steamy jungles to abandoned stone-carved tikis (Polynesian images of supernatural powers) or visit one of the world’s most movingly beautiful cemeteries, where you’ll find the frangipani-shaded graves of Gauguin and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel. A cruise ship could replicate the Aranui‘s route, but not the experience. You’ll come back from this cruise with much more than just a tan.
Faraway Beauties in a Hollywood-Perfect Location
If you feel like you’re on a movie set, you are: The undeveloped and relatively inaccessible Yasawas were used for both the 1949 and 1980 versions of The Blue Lagoon, two Hollywood films most memorable for their remarkable Pacific scenery. First charted by a U.S. exploring expedition in 1840, the Yasawas haven’t changed much in the intervening century and a half: You’ll still find many of the same small villages nestled beneath palm trees along some of the South Pacific’s loveliest beaches.
The Yasawa Island Lodge is everything you could hope for in the mythic South Pacific, commanding a romantically isolated spot on the northernmost island and boasting a stylish, informal blend of Western comfort and Fijian aesthetics.
Days are unstructured and uncomplicated except for a few pressing questions: the hotel’s white-sand beach or a five-minute walk to a number of deserted, spectacular alternatives dotting the 12-mile-long island? Grilled fresh lobster or fruit salad picked this morning? The exhilaration of light-tackle game fishing or dozing off to the music of rustling palms and lapping waves?
Those interested in seeing more of the islands can book aboard one of the four Blue Lagoon Cruises ships, which ply the islands’ waters on one-, four-, and seven-day cruises. Most of the line’s handsome Fijian crew call these volcanic islands home and are proud to share their knowledge of local customs and offer snorkeling tips. Sunset sailing leaves each day free for a visit to a different island and local village, for lunchtime barbecues, and for sunning on isolated beaches where the only tracks will be those left by you and the odd crab.
Blue Lagoon began its operation in the 1950s with a single WW II ship; 1996 saw the maiden voyage of its most luxurious vessel, the Mystique Princess, a 180-foot, 72-passenger ship that’s able to reach some of the area’s more remote islands.
Barefoot Luxury in a Private Shangri-La
Of Fiji’s more than 300 islands, very few are privately owned, but Canadian entrepreneur David Gilmour was so taken with the islands’ beauty that he acquired this 2,200-acre slice of paradise in the 1970s and built his dream home, which represents everything that’s special about Fiji.
The ruggedly forested, mountainous interior teems with wild horses, fallow deer, pigs, massive banyan trees, and soaring 600-foot cliffs, while thirty-two deserted shell- strewn beaches ring the perimeter. Gilmour’s good taste is obvious everywhere, especially in the nine ultra-spacious plantation-style cottages. Indigenous natural materials prevail throughout: thatched roofs, distinctive handwoven bamboo walls, and lustrous yaka wood floors.
At the open-air restaurant pavilion, whose cathedral ceiling soars more than 60 feet, muffled lali drums announce the superb meals, which are prepared by four resident chefs utilizing fresh-grilled seafood, local game, and organic vegetables planted from a backyard garden. Dinners are followed by nightly songfests performed by the warmhearted and ever-smiling Fijian staff, the very soul of this resort. You’ll feel like David Gilmour’s incredibly lucky personal guests – until you get your bill.
A South Pacific Idyll as Seen with a Filmmaker’s Eye
Vatulele is the movie-set result created when an award-winning Australian television producer teamed up with a Fiji-born hotel manager with top-drawer experience.
Other island resorts may have locations of similar natural beauty (reef-ringed azure-blue lagoons, powdery white beaches, swaying coconut palms), but where they strain to respect your privacy, here the house policy assumes you’ve come to this laid-back barefoot hideaway to relax and socialize, not necessarily in that order. Excellent dinners are enjoyed in the company of the resort’s other eighteen couples, champagne flows like lemonade, and if you haven’t met a dazzling gaggle of interesting, discerning Australian, American, and European types during your first couple of days, it’s probably because you’ve been hiding in your bure.
Attention to detail is the word of the day: Armloads of ephemeral frangipani blossoms decorate and scent the spacious, airy bungalows, while a Do Not Disturb sign (for those catnaps before cocktail hour) is fashioned out of a cowrie-shell necklace.
Fiji’s diving possibilities are legion, and Vatulele is known as a five-star hotel with five-star diving. But unlike most of the dive-oriented resorts in the Pacific, nondivers here can chose from an embarrassment of activities topside while waiting for their diving Other to come up for air.
A Garden Island and the Soft Coral Capital of the World
A coconut plantation in the 19th century, Taveuni, Fiji’s lushest and third largest island, earns its nickname as the Garden Island, boasting the largest population of indigenous plants and animals in the South Pacific. The towering spine of peaks reaches 4,000 feet, some of the highest in Fiji, and its fertile volcanic soil supports and explains the thick tropical flora.
Flying north from Fiji’s more populated and developed island of Viti Levu is like flying back fifty years in time. A string of small, traditional villages along the western side is home to easygoing, friendly Fijians, who greet Western visitors (no longer a novelty) with a warm, heartfelt welcome.
But it’s the world-famous dive sites in the narrow Somosomo Straits separating Taveuni and Vanua Levu that have put this area of Fiji on the travel map, offering a riotous profusion of soft coral reefs and the endless varieties of fish they attract. Premier diving sites are the 20-mile-long Rainbow Reef and the Great White Wall – Taveuni’s Mount Everest of reefs – but local dive operators will take you farther afield to sites with no names that can be even more magnificent.
Taveuni Island Resort, a small hotel run by New Zealand couple Ric and Do Cammick, is the island’s top land operation. Their seven bluffside bures command a magnificent view of the straits, but nothing compared to what you’ll see down under. Every day, divers can gear up at one of the nearby dive operations for the dive of a lifetime. An afternoon return leaves time for a trip to the island’s 180th meridian – the international date line – where you can stand with one foot in today and one in tomorrow.
Heaven, Above and Below Water
Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you’ll recognize Jean-Michel Cousteau as the son of world-famous explorer and oceanographer Jacques Cousteau; you may surmise – correctly – that his resort offers an experience exceptional for its environmental consciousness.
Settled in a 17-acre ocean- front coconut grove and resembling a traditional local village, the Cousteau resort is a progressive ecosensitive operation that, in addition to its undersea world, offers luxury, leisure, and languor thanks to a joint venture with California’s Post Ranch Inn. For divers and nondivers alike, the South Seas experience served up here will be significantly different from that of other resorts.
Staff naturalists lead hikes through tropical rain forests and to neighboring Fijian villages; or enjoy a massage followed by a candlelit dinner delivered straight to your private bungalow veranda.
Still, this is essentially a scuba-diver’s utopia. Jean-Michel designed the resort’s 37-foot, state-of-the-art dive boat L’Aventure, whose captains and marine biologists guarantee you the best dive experience possible in one of the most diverse and populous marine habitats on earth. Jean-Michel is around often – who knows, you may go down under with Cousteau fils himself.
Island Sanctuary for Humans and Boobies
A three-hour boat ride drops you off on the dragon-shaped island of Namenalala, whose name – loosely translated as Uninhabited Island – is accurate but for the ten guests of a small retreat on the edge of a jungle. The tribal owners of this natural reserve named Tom and Joan Moody as honorary wildlife wardens, allowing the American couple and their few guests to live their island fantasy here.
Namenalala has no television, no electricity, and a delicious do-whatever-you-like and when-you-like philosophy. The five unobtrusive treehouse bures are perched high on a wooded ridge to catch the ocean breeze and are unexpectedly luxurious, with romantic gaslights, his and her baths, canopied king-size beds, and wraparound decks with million-dollar views. But the mile-long island’s true luxury is the feeling of being shipwrecked and forgotten, with no newspapers and no phone, just lazy picnics on any of the six beaches (guests who want the beach to themselves can post an “occupied” sign at the foot of the path) and walks through lush forests whose silence is broken only by exotic bird calls.
Namenalala is home to a colony of red-footed booby birds, a giant variety of albatross, and orange-breasted honeyeaters, and is also the nesting ground for Hawkesbill and green turtles, who lay their eggs on the beaches between November and March.
Namena Barrier Reef creates an unbelievable walk-in aquarium, with more than 100 varieties of brilliantly colored coral and clouds of gemlike fish that make for excellent snorkeling and diving. Namenalala and its reef belong to Mother Nature; its human interlopers are just temporary guests.