Tahitian Renaissance – Heaven on earth

Today Tahiti is not only a journey into beauty and wonder but also an opportunity to discover ancient traditions that the younger generations are restoring with determination and enthusiasm

by Ornella d’Alessio

On the islands of Tahiti, half a world away, everything is perfect, beautiful, and enchanting. Colours, scents, landscapes. The archipelago of wonders is located in the southern hemisphere, about 22 hours’ flight from Italy, and has been part of those legendary places we only dare dream of since that April morning in 1768 when the French seafarer and explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed there and exclaimed: “This is Heaven on earth”. The 118 islets of volcanic or coral origin, scattered in the South Seas 6,000 kilometres East of Australia, were colonised, evangelised and nuclearized and for many years lived in the shadow of Europe – especially France – as an Overseas Country.

The intense blue of the sea beyond the reef slowly blends into turquoise, dissolving into all possible shades before touching the extremely white beaches overlooked by the luxuriant tropical vegetation.

A short step back in history
The history of the Islands of Tahiti dates back to around 4000 B.C. when the first settlers embarked on a massive migration from South-East Asia and crossed the vast Ocean to explore the Pacific Islands. Tonga and Samoa were the first to be colonised around 1300 BC. Later on, the Tahitians advanced towards the Marquesas Islands around 200 BC. Over the next centuries, the islands of Tahiti were colonised, as was the entire South Pacific. This vast area, called the “Polynesian triangle”, includes Hawaii in the North, Easter Island in the South-East and New Zealand in the South-West. Native Tahitians, Hawaiians and Maoris from New Zealand all descend from common ancestors and speak a similar language known as ma’ohi.

Today something is changing, the younger generation is rediscovering its roots. Alongside the desire for a return to their origins and emancipation, they have embarked on a serious spiritual quest and an authentic cultural renaissance: with the return of traditional dance, old-style travelling aboard large canoes with sails, and tattooing, French Polynesia is no longer so French but rather Polynesian, or, better still, Tahitian. A truly tangible renaissance, even for tourists who can now experience a more authentic Polynesia if they wish. Coming back here after 20 years and witnessing the younger generation’s perceivable reclamation of their identity was a great and unexpected surprise. Already from the aeroplane, just before landing in Papeete, you can get a taste of the spectacular scenery offered by the Society Archipelago, one of the five that make up Tahiti (tahititourisme.com). A spectacle of bright and unforgettable colours. The intense blue of the sea beyond the reef slowly blends into turquoise and then dissolves into all possible shades before touching the extremely white beaches overlooked by the luxuriant tropical vegetation. The mountainous inland is adorned with mystical valleys, clear brooks and tall waterfalls.

The vast majority of the island’s population resides near the coast, which leaves the inland almost unspoilt, despite its proximity to the lively capital. Papeete, which means ‘water from a basket’, used to be a gathering place where Tahitians came to fill their gourds with fresh water, while today it is a dynamic and fast-paced town which offers great shopping opportunities, both in the boutiques and in the large indoor market, where you can buy hand-painted sarongs, tiaré flower necklaces and crowns, scented gardenias, monoi oils (coconut extract), and where it is well worth stopping at the flower corner with its surprising colours, shapes and intense scents.

Sleeping

Hospitality is a speciality of the Tahitian holiday; upon arrival, you always receive
a tiaré flower necklace and upon departure, a shell necklace. All the islands are speckled with countless luxury hotels, among them the 
InterContinental Resort Tahiti (ihg.com) in Papeete, with a spectacular swimming pool connected to the open sea with colourful tropical fish coming and going, where you can snorkel, and an excellent restaurant with outstanding service. In Moorea, the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort (all.accor.com) stands out. It overlooks a beautiful crescent-shaped white sandy beach, with luxurious overwater bungalows, other large and comfortable ones on the beach, two restaurants,
a swimming pool and a valid spa. In the southwestern part of
Huahine – the authentic island – you can sleep at the Hotel Le Mahana (lemahanahotel.com) in Avea Bay, in beach bungalows with homemade cuisine for every taste. Luxury, elegance, sophistication, exquisite cuisine and great attention to the environment at Le Tahaʻa by Pearl Resort, the first resort to join the Relais & Châteaux chain, entirely plastic-free. It offers 58 overwater suite villas, with direct and exclusive access to the sea, and pool beach villas, on the small Tau Tau motu, located between the coral reef and the lagoon, a true tidbit in terms of the excellent service and the architecture of the bungalows built in a pure Polynesian style, and the location. The three restaurants, two bars and the Tavai Spa, where you can restore your well-being with traditional Polynesian rituals, are excellent. Upon request, they can organise romantic dinners or private picnics on the tiny wild motu in front of the dock. 

In half an hour by ferry boat, you land on Moorea, the little sister of the island of Tahiti, which inspired Darwin’s theory on the formation of coral atolls. The English explorer and anthropologist described it as a picture in a frame, referring to the coral reef that embraces the island. The first impact of the Tahitian Renaissance is the original half-day sailing trip on the Vaapiti, Polynesia’s first certified double outrigger canoe (vaapiti.com).

In defiance of the many jet skis, which speed by cutting through the blue sea and leaving behind an intricate weave of white lines, the outrigger canoe was entirely built in three years, piece after piece, by the young captain Raphaël Labaysse, who proudly lets guests take part in the onboard manoeuvres, and, together with his brother Jean-Roland, accompanies participants to discover the submerged statues while snorkeling and bathing with rays and sharks. On the way home, passengers are offered a small refreshment made of fresh fruit, local snacks, and rum. A slow and quiet trip at sea to appreciate the true pace of Polynesian life.

Eating

The restaurants often offer international cuisine, especially French and Chinese, while local fish is enjoyed at home: tuna, mahi mahi, and parrotfish, mostly served raw and seasoned with lemon juice or coconut milk. Pork and chicken dishes are not uncommon, but as they are imported they tend to be quite expensive. Thanks to the Tahitian renaissance, organised trips and hotels increasingly offer dishes and traditional recipes, such as fresh marinated tuna seasoned with coconut milk, which is prepared expressly by hand-squeezing the grated coconut. Desserts are also almost always coconut-based. Poe is prepared with pureed pieces of banana or papaya, mixed with taro or manioc flour and vanilla and wrapped in banana leaves. These bundles are then baked and served with coconut milk. The local Hinano beer is worth a taste. A few places where you can find good food: Moorea Beach Café, on the beach with an excellent sunset menu, Huahine Yacht Club, near the airport, which is also popular among locals for its fried parrotfish, Yacht Club d’Arue in Papeete, which is casual chic. 

Another amazing experience is the one with the young Pier of Enjoy Moorea (enjoymoorea.com) who successfully launched a new, more inclusive way of showing tourists around in a 4×4. The day is spent among waterfalls around Afareaitu, diving into natural lakes to take a swim, pineapple fields walk in the forest, breathtaking views from the top of the Magic Mountain, and at the end of the tour, you can stop at Temea, a private and wild beach. Here Pier built a hut made of bamboo canes that is open on the sides, where you sit down for lunch, which is prepared by him following his grandmother’s recipes, served with natural juices, punch and local beer, but only after a walk on the beach – taking care not to step on the corals.

THE DOMAINE PARI PARI DISTILLERY PRODUCES AN AWARD-WINNING
T RHUM AGRICOLE (SUGARCANE JUICE RUM), MADE FROM
HAND-PICKED SUGAR CANE.

Bora Bora, the island of the myth, can be overflown on board the local airline Air Tahiti. On the route from Moorea to Huahiné, you can make a strategic stop-over. It is worth it, seen from above Bora Bora is staggeringly beautiful, and for those who don’t want to stay there, but just want to stop for a short visit, there is usually a ferry boat going back and forth to the port in the city centre in connection with incoming and outgoing flights. Huahiné – the magnificent – is the Polynesia of the past, rich in history and tradition, born from the explosion of three different volcanoes. With Romain Dubus of Green Tours (greentourshuahine.com), we go off the trodden paths to unveil this island’s discreet charm, culture and local medicine, which is mainly plant-based. Romain is also proud to show us some large blue-eyed eels that live exclusively in these waters.

If you want to reach the most beautiful beaches and loneliest bays in the Huahiné lagoon, it is worth setting out to sea on board the Eden Martin (tahitisailingcharter.com), a sailboat captained by a French couple who have been living here for some time. Wind permitting, we raise anchor under full sail bow to South towards Avea Bay for a first stop-over to take a swim, then have lunch on board with expressly prepared typical dishes and head North to the spectacular Hana Iti Bay to go ashore, snorkel around the Vaiorea Motu, and then sail back to the port of departure at sunset while admiring the fiery sky. An experience you cannot miss is sailing from one islet to another onboard one of Tahiti Yacht Charter Centre’s catamarans based in Raiatea (tahitiyachtcharter.com).

Challenging the breakers of the Pacific Ocean, overcoming the turbulence of the passes – the openings in the coral rings that allow you to navigate towards the cobalt blue ocean – you sail from Huahiné to Taha’a, the islet of vanilla and black pearls. A delightful adventure captained by Terehau Doudoute, a trustworthy 27-year-old who is already a captain thanks to the experience he has gained from sailing since he was a child. These are three intense hours, during which you might be lucky enough to catch a nice 40-kilo tuna fish. If this happens, the crew always shares it with friends, so the tuna is cleaned, divided into pieces, and then distributed. «It is too much for us», states Terehau «and wasting it would be a pity. It is better to share it, and so will our friends: when they get lucky in fishing they will share it with us, as our ancestors used to do». A great idea, practical and generous, which makes this land so precious due to its people’s philosophy of life, which is based both on sustainability and sharing. The catamarans are all brand new and of different sizes depending on the number of guests. For couples, the catamaran becomes a floating 5-star luxury boat, the perfect choice for honeymooners. You are even luckier if you have the wonderful Angelique Tapi on board – a trained chef who prepares typical dishes for every meal, from breakfast to dinner, always respecting the passengers’ tastes and preferences. To the point that, from day one, she enquires about the guests’ habits and schedules to anticipate any culinary desire.

An experience you cannot miss is sailing from one islet to another onboard one of Tahiti Yacht Charter Centre’s catamarans based in Raiatea (tahitiyachtcharter.com). Challenging the breakers of the Pacific Ocean, overcoming the turbulence of the passes – the openings in the coral rings that allow you to navigate towards the cobalt blue ocean – you sail from Huahiné to Taha’a, the islet of vanilla and black pearls.

I strongly recommend the professional combination Terehau – Angelique. Both of them have expert knowledge of these places and, discreetly, they convey and illustrate the peculiarities of the beaches and bays and stop at all the best spots. Once in Taha’a, a small islet located in the same lagoon as Raiatea, we visited a pearl farm (facebook.com/Loveherepearlfarm), where every single step involved in the formation of pearls is explained in detail. The pearls can be purchased in the end (at attractive prices compared to European ones). A curious experience is visiting the vanilla crops, a plant of the orchid family that grows on a vine liana. Since it is not a native flower, here it has to be pollinated by hand to bear fruit (according to the local marriage technique, female and male flowers are perforated and placed in contact immediately after hatching, usually between dawn and early afternoon, and after nine months the vanilla beans appear). Farmers of this spice are veritable alchemists who, with precision and passion, carry out the fertilisation process during the blossoming period, between July and October, to produce the fruit: the green vanilla berries that then need to go through a long drying and processing phase. The Domaine Pari Pari (domaineparipari.com) distillery is also worth a visit. The distillery produces an award-winning T Rhum agricole (sugarcane juice rum), made from hand-picked sugar cane grown in various parts of the islet, extra virgin coconut oil for seasoning (it is bought on site as a liquid and under 15 °C it changes consistency and turns into butter), coconut and banana flour. A pleasant hut-café anchored to the pier in front of the distillery has just opened.

Flying

The national airline Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com) connects Papeete,
in the archipelago of Tahiti, to Paris, with 4 or 5 flights a week, which become 6 or 7 in the summer, as well as to Seattle, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Auckland and other destinations in 10 countries, some of which are code-shared with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, SNCF, Aircalin,
Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, Qantas, and LATAM. Thanks to the renewal of the fleet in 2019, with four new Boeing 787-9 “Tahitian Dreamliners”, Air Tahiti Nui now boasts the youngest fleet in its network. Onboard accommodation offers 3 classes (Poerava Business, Moana Premium and Moana Economy), all the aircraft are equipped with the latest comfort and technology for a refurbished travel experience, always in the spirit of Polynesian hospitality. For the second time in 2021, the airline was awarded the title of “Best Airline Design in the Oceania region” by The Design Air website, after receiving the award for the most comfortable seats in the South Pacific region in 2020. In 2022, it was once again awarded two acknowledgements by the Passenger Choice Awards: “Best in-flight service” and “Best in-flight entertainment programme” for the South Pacific region. Domestic flights between the islands are operated by Air Tahiti: airtahiti.com

Small is beautiful: despite the tiny size of the island of Taha’a, one of the most powerful experiences of the trip takes place here. Located between the two motu of TauTau (one of the exclusive Le Taha’a by Pearl Resort) and Maharare, there is a small strait where you can let yourself be carried gently by the current, experiencing the feeling of flying over corals and colourful tropical fish. You walk along the path until you reach the end of the islet of Maharare and then dive to be transported without having to do anything but take great care not to cause damage to the corals. In front of me, Terehau was shelling a coconut (not bread!) and the fish were following him as if he were the Pied Piper. A unique and unforgettable feeling, almost as unique as the traditional sailing experience relaunched in Papeete by sailor Teiva Veronique, who grew up at the Yacht Club that his father used to run. «This is what my ancestors used to do», Teiva explains, «they would cross the Pacific Ocean on a Polynesian canoe to discover Tahiti or the Tuamotu. I get goosebumps at the thought of it. It is now up to us to teach young people to sail in close connection with nature and to set up more and more hubs on the islands to make our true means of transportation known to everyone». When the weather is unstable this is a true challenge. It is a fight between the waves and the wind with many slaps of water on the face, to sail zigzagging into the wind alternating port and starboard tack and turning between one gust of wind and the next.

(Tahitian Renaissance – Heaven on earth – Barchemagazine.com – April 2023)