To many, Tahiti is synonymous with Bora Bora and overwater bungalows. It is, after all, where that luxury fad originated.
But Tahiti is so much more. It is also the very heart of the Polynesian region, something I was surprised to learn more about on a trip this year sponsored by Tahiti Tourisme as part of its Parau Parau Tahiti Travel Mart.
Having spent part of my childhood in American Samoa, I learned a lot in school about Polynesia and things like the sailing of the Kon-Tiki. While my American and world history may be lacking, I can name, with the proper pronunciation, all eight islands in the Hawaiian chain. And while ballet is not my thing, I can do the hula and a mean Maori war dance.
What I don't recall learning anything about, however, is the Taputapuatea marae, a sacred site on the island of Raiatea from where the Polynesians set out in their outrigger boats some 1,000 years ago to launch their expansion across the South Pacific. Many also returned over the years for sacred religious and social ceremonies that were performed on expanses of carefully arranged stones that are believed to hold mana, a source of power and spiritual strength.
Tahirarii Yoram Pariente of Polynesian Escapes explains the significance of a monument at Taputapuatea marae, a Unesco World Heritage Site on Raiatea. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
We were given a tour along with a lesson of the area, now a Unesco Heritage Site, by cultural expert Tahirarii Yoram Pariente. I asked him why I had never heard of it, and he explained that for years the site was ignored, its history forgotten by many after the arrival of missionaries. In fact, as a child, he said, he played on the overgrown site, unaware of its significance.
The history, he said, is all oral. And after years of effort and restoration, and with help from the Hawaiian-born President Obama, the Unesco designation was won. Today, many Polynesians visit to the site to re-create sailings by their ancestors.
Beside the historical site, the island of Raiatea is among the lesser known of the Society Islands, also commonly referred to as the Tahitian islands, which offer a better glimpse into authentic Polynesia than the more popular islands of Moorea and Bora Bora.
There are no resorts or chain hotels, just a few family-owned guesthouses like the Opoa Beach Hotel, which has white, colonial-style wooden bungalows with covered porches and stunning beach and mountain views.
On the nearby island of Tahaa we found a great mix of luxe and local authenticity. We stayed in overwater bungalows at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa on a nearby private island where guests can snorkel, paddleboard or just enjoy the sheer beauty of their surroundings.
The villas have private sun decks with ladders that lead straight into the warm, blue waters. And instead of skylights, they have glass panels in the floor at the foot of the bed and next to the huge soaking tub, which can be opened so guests can sleep or soak to the sound of the lapping water.
We spent one day with a local guide from Rani Poe Tours, who took us out to a tiny motu for snorkeling, then to his home for a lunch of raw tuna with coconut milk and garlic oysters and later to a local vanilla plantation and a pearl farm. Sunset cocktails were at the Vahine Island Resort & Spa, a small, luxury resort with less than a dozen beach bungalows and overwater villas on its private island.
As two carriers, United and French Bee, this year are launching nonstop service to Papeete, Tahiti, from San Francisco, and as Air Tahiti Nui introduces Dreamliners on some of its nonstop flights from Los Angeles, the tourism board has been focused on promoting the diversity of the islands. Indeed, travelers looking for authentic cultural experiences can easily spend a few days backpacking the more remote islands and staying in guesthouses, then move to one of the bigger luxury resorts for spas and, of course, the iconic overwater experience.
A sailboat used for tours at the Brando, the exclusive resort on Tetiaroa. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
In addition to the islands' better-known properties like the St. Regis Bora Bora and the InterContinental Resort in Papeete, Tahiti is also now home to what is considered one of the greenest, most luxurious resorts in the world: the Brando.
Developed on the Tetiaroa atoll that Marlon Brando purchased after filming "Mutiny on the Bounty," the Brando is the only all-inclusive property in Tahiti and likely its most expensive.
Accessible only by the resort's private planes, it has become a favorite for celebrities (guests have included the Obamas and Leonardo DiCaprio), in part for its privacy.
The resort, where air conditioning is powered by seawater and electricity by coconut oil, has 35 secluded bungalows, each with its own pool and beach access. Kayaks, paddleboards and bikes are available. From the conservation office on the island, guides take guests to the smaller surrounding motus that are also owned by the Brando family to see and learn about the birds and sea life.
For less expensive accommodations in Papeete, try the recently renovated Manava Suite Resort or the Tahiti Pearl, which offers amazing sunset views and a black-sand beach.