For luxe travelers, Tahiti hits the mark

Tahitian sunset from the Tahiti Pearl Beach resort. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
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Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

PAPEETE, Tahiti  -- The destination that invented the overwater bungalow wants the world to know that it is so much more.

It certainly hits the mark for the varied and evolving demands of today's luxury traveler: From accommodations from the Brando, one of the world's most exclusive resorts, to intimate guesthouses tucked away on its more than 100 islands to traditional beach resorts. There are Unesco World Heritage sites -- a sacred Polynesian cultural site has been recently designated. And there are options for families and outdoor and adventure travelers of all ages.

Tahiti Tourisme showcased French Polynesia's unique offerings this week at is inaugural Parau Parau Tahiti travel mart, which brought 32 tour operators from North and South America, Australia and New Zealand for two days of one-on-one meetings along with fam trips across some of its lesser known islands.

During the event, Tahiti Tourisme CEO Paul Sloan also announced that a "Take Me to Tahiti" campaign will be launched on its website and YouTube channel next week to showcase French Polynesia's diverse options and Tahitian people and their welcoming culture.

Parau Parau Tahiti, he said, was organized in part to help tour operators learn more about French Polynesia's hidden islands, unique activities and small guest houses, the owners of which can't afford to travel the larger Pacific and international travel trade shows.

"A big chunk of what we are doing, a big objective is to show the diversity that we have," he said.

The fam I joined took us for a day trip to the Brando, the ultra-luxe, ultra-green (the air conditioning is powered by coconut oil and sea water, the electricity by solar) resort developed on the Tetiaroa atoll that Marlon Brando purchased after filming "Mutiny on the Bounty" there.

The pool at the Brando.
The pool at the Brando. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

The Brando, which is the only all-inclusive property in Tahiti, has become a favorite for celebrities, (guests have included the Obamas and Leonardo DiCaprio) in part for its privacy. Accessible only by the resort's private planes, it 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 atolls that are also owned by the Brando family to see and learn about the birds and sea life.

From Tetiaroa we went to Raiatea, where cultural expert and owner of Polynesian Escapes Tahirarii Yoram Pariente gave us a tour of the sacred Taputapuatea marae Unesco site, from which Polynesians launched their expansion across the South Pacific some 1,000 years ago. 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.

Pariente said the history is all oral, and the site was largely ignored, overgrown and forgotten by many after missionaries arrived. But after years of effort and restoration, the site was recently recognized by Unesco.

Unlike the more popular islands like Bora Bora and Tahiti, Raiatea offers a glimpse of authentic Polynesian life. There are no resorts or chain hotels, just a few family-owned guest houses like the Opoa Beach Hotel, which has white, colonial-style wooden bungalows with covered porches and stunning beach and mountain views.

The final stop on the fam was the island of Taha'a,  where we stayed in overwater bungalows at Le Taha'a Island Resort & Spa. A local guide from Rani Poe Tours 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 own private island.

The diversity is perfect for the swelling demand by today's luxury traveler for authentic and cultural learning experiences. As Sloan said, travelers can "totally mix and match," spending a few days backpacking on a remote island before moving to one of the bigger luxury resorts for spas and, of course, the iconic overwater experience.

"Overwater bungalows were invented here 50 years ago," Sloan said. "But they're found everywhere in the world now. ... So what we have is awesome. But the reality is, what sets us apart is the other part of the experience."

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