Tahiti was stunning, Moorea enchanting and now we were off to Taha’a and Bora Bora for more French Polynesian paradise.
To get to our next destination of Taha’a, known as the vanilla island because it’s the home of the best vanilla in the world, we had to fly from Moorea back to Tahiti, then change planes to fly to Raiatea, sister island to Taha’a, and then take a motorboat to our next hotel, Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa.
This resort is on a private motu (sandbar island) just off Taha’a and is over-the-top luxurious. With its prestigious Relais & Chateaux designation, it’s considered one of the best resorts in French Polynesia. Since it was the low season, we were able to get one of their very best rooms — well, actually, it was an entire villa, with a living room, two bedrooms and huge bathrooms that opened up into private gardens, each with a big tub and shower where you can bathe alfresco. There was a back yard with a small pool and a dining table with tenting, not to mention a private white-sand beach complete with a hammock strung between palm trees.
That night, we ate at Vanille restaurant, the resort’s more casual dining option (the haute cuisine restaurant was closed). Well, if that was casual, I would be terrified of the other. Vanille held only a scattering of French-speaking couples. The ambiance was that of a church. I had forgotten my glasses and couldn’t see the menu, so Dad read it to me and remarked on the high prices in his big American voice. Fortunately, my squinting eyes finally focused on the mahi-mahi in a vanilla sauce, and I ordered it for each of us.
Taha’a, like the other islands, is lush with plant life. It had rained all night, so the next day the leaves and flowers sparkled with diamond-like raindrops. Our tour guide for this island, Alfredo, told us there were no snakes in Polynesia, and he pointed out all the fruit-bearing plants: mango, papaya, passion fruit, avocado and what seemed to be millions of coconut trees. He said you would never go hungry on the island — just pick something from a tree or go fishing.
We stopped at a vanilla farm run by a kindly Danish expat who’d set up his vanilla stand with his Polynesian wife so they could sell vanilla souvenirs. They greeted us with fresh pineapple juice and gave us a tour, explaining the complexity of raising vanilla plants and how the beans dry in the sun and women from the nearby village come daily to massage the beans to release the flavor inside.
The people here, like this vanilla farmer and his family, live in homes most Americans would consider uninhabitable. They are basically shacks, with no glass in the windows and just a piece of cloth hanging over the doorway. I thought back to Joel Hart, our Moorean guide, and how he said the bacteria in rat urine was deadly. There was little barrier between what lived in the forest and the people living in these ramshackle houses. Yet they seemed happy and well fed. Maybe in paradise you don’t need as much, but I doubt I’d last long in a place where jungle creatures can enter your bedroom as easily as the ocean breeze.
The next day, we were off to our last island: Bora Bora. But before checking out, we each enjoyed a massage at the hotel’s Manea Spa. This was my dad’s first massage — another new experience — and it was given by a lovely wahine (woman) massage therapist. I had a tall, gorgeous Polynesian man, so we were both in very good hands. The massages took place in private, open-air cabanas that fringed a freshwater lagoon. When my dad emerged an hour later, he looked 20 years younger.
We had a 30-minute motorboat ride back to the Raiatea airport for our flight to Bora Bora. We were trying out two hotels here: the Pearl Beach Resort & Spa, the lesser sister of the Le Taha’a resort we had just left, and, for our last few days, the new Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora.
The Pearl was lovely and doesn’t try to be as elegant as its grander sister. We were happy to be back in an over-water bungalow and agreed it’s really the best way to enjoy French Polynesia — there’s just something wonderful about being that close to the magical water. But unlike the Sofitel in Moorea, these bungalows are built over sand, not coral, so the fish life is sparse except around the artificial coral reefs built under the viewing glass in the floor (a standard feature, it seems). The water was such a lovely shade of blue-green, I couldn’t wait to jump off the bungalow’s deck and slip into its embrace.
We went to the famous Bloody Mary’s restaurant that night, taking a shuttle boat to a wharf on the other side of the atoll and then a bus to the restaurant, sharing the ride with honeymooners from Alabama and Ohio. The place was full of friendly Americans, and it was the first time we’d heard native English since arriving in French Polynesia. Dad told me that Bora Bora had been a military post in the Second World War. The island was never attacked and provided an idyllic base for thousands of U.S. servicemen. It remains the most Americanized island in French Polynesia today.
When we returned to the hotel that night, we enjoyed our ritual of taking in the stars from our bungalow deck. We’d been on our dream vacation for about nine days now. Although my father is young for his age, I could see signs. His sense of direction is not as good as it once was; he’d turn left when we should turn right. He got frustrated when things couldn’t be found — an electrical outlet, a light switch — or got annoyed when a room key wouldn’t turn the lock. I wouldn’t want him to take a trip like this alone, and I think he’s savvy enough to realize that too. Traveling together required patience at times, like sitting with him at the bar while he ever so slowly finished his beer. Yet nothing could compare to the quiet joy of sitting side by side on the bungalow deck, gazing at the equatorial stars and hearing his voice in the darkness as he pointed out constellations like the Southern Cross. He often stayed on the deck long after I’d gone to bed, watching the night sky and listening to the sea lapping against the pilings.
The next day, stormy weather provided a dramatic shift of colors. We watched clouds roll over the volcanic cliffs and sweep toward our bungalow, releasing a deluge of warm rain. Because of the storm, I almost canceled our dinner reservations at Villa Mahana. The concierge at the Pearl assured me the shuttle boat would run, even in the rain, and encouraged us to keep our plans. I’m glad she did, or we would have missed one of the best meals of our lives. Villa Mahana is run by Damien Rinaldi Dovio, a Corsican master chef who marries the best of French and Italian culinary skills with fresh food from the islands. Located in a residential neighborhood, the restaurant is housed in a small Tuscan-style villa and seats only six tables for dinner.
The menu offered the choice of exotic, lighter courses or an epicurean option with more traditional fare. We chose the exotic route, starting with an appetizer of seared ahi laced with vanilla oil that sat on a tender slice of potato and was partnered with a green salad. That was followed by mahi-mahi cooked in a curry-banana crust and served with a mango sauce and mashed sweet potatoes. I thought we’d be heading into dessert, but instead our waiter brought another course: roasted New Zealand tenderloin, medium rare, with a red-wine vanilla sauce and creamy gnocchi. We’d never tasted such wonderful beef. Just when we thought we couldn’t manage another bite, out came the banana flambé with rum and Taha’a vanilla ice cream. If there is one restaurant in all of French Polynesia that cannot be missed, it’s this one.
With only three days left in paradise, we departed for our last hotel, the new Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora. Guest accommodations are mostly over-water bungalows, 100 of them, along with a huge resort area featuring restaurants, shops, a child-care center, a teen club, free high-speed Internet access and a magnificent spa that overlooks a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other.
Our bungalow didn’t have a glass window in the floor like the others before because there was nothing to see. Fish feed on coral, but here there was only sand. We were warned not to swim off the deck because of the strong current. This was disappointing news since we’d gotten used to initiating each new bungalow with a dip in the surrounding sea.
We did see fish here, however. The hotel is developing a coral lagoon with the help of a French marine biologist. I snorkeled in it and encountered a friendly sea turtle, at least a foot wide, something I’d always wanted to see but found startling when it bumped up against me.
Another plus at the Four Seasons is the friendly staff that effuses Polynesian charm. Polynesians love to tell you about their island and their culture. They have a warm disposition that is the exact opposite of the collective personality of freeway drivers in Los Angeles. The best part of our dinners at the hotel was Didier Fimeyer, our waiter, who told us about his son’s healing powers and the ancient custom of burying a baby’s placenta in the family garden and throwing his or her belly-button scab into the sea so the child will grow up empowered by both land and sea. It wasn’t just the story that enchanted us, but his sweet voice and the sparkle in his eyes as he told it.
On our last full day, I was starting to feel separation anxiety. We’d both become very fond of this paradise and our luxury accommodations. I wanted to have one good snorkel trip before we left, but Dad opted to stay next to the picturesque pool sipping Hinano. My snorkeling excursion was arranged with Maohi Nui Tours, which came to pick me up in a flower-festooned “make believe” pontoon boat.
The wiry Bora Boran guide took me to a coral garden, far off from shore, teeming with hundreds of tropical fish. After I paddled about, we went to feed manta rays in water that was the color of pale-green glass. Then we were off to the open ocean to swim with blacktip sharks and black angelfish laced with neon blue. Fifty feet below us, big lemon sharks, 7 feet long, prowled the deep.
That night, our last, we ate at the Four Seasons’ outdoor buffet. We were hoping for a traditional Polynesian barbecue, but this was just a standard dinner buffet. The only things we sampled were the cold penne-pasta salad and the coconut macaroons with raspberry filling.
But charming Didier was there, and after we finished eating, he announced, “Your father has a very big heart.” It was a surprising statement, completely out of the blue. Of all the ways I’ve defined my father, this was something new. I would call him independent, strong, determined, adventurous — but a man with a big heart? Well, it touched me that Didier would see him that way, and it allowed me to see him that way too. We had grown closer than we’d ever been before — closer than I’d ever thought was possible. It was a perfect ending for a father-daughter trip to paradise.