27 May 2024

Le Taha'a Private Island and Spa: a South Pacific paradise
A perfect ten for Polynesia
Marie Helvin arrived in Tahiti to find she had overpacked. In her South Pacific paradise clothes were needed only for dinner. She came with great memories - and an all-over tan
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arrived in Papeete it was 4am. This is not a great time to arrive anywhere, but particularly so in the South Pacific as it was still pitch black – so close to the equator the sun rises late and sets early. But come the day and the first thing that strikes you about the island of Tahiti is the lushness – it’s just so green. Papeete itself is a bustling harbour town with honky-tonk kind of atmosphere and, although ‘modern’, there are no skyscrapers or designer label shops.

French Polynesia is an overseas territory within the French Republic; French and Reo Maûhi (Tahitian) are the main languages, although English is spoken too. The territory is made up of 118 islands scattered over five archipelagos covering an area as large as Europe. I was going to visit just three: Tahiti, Tahaa and Bora Bora. I was surprised to be told how much they are helped financially by France – they receive about £700million a year in subsidy. I remember watching TV coverage of the anti-nuclear protests in Papeete in the Eighties and Nineties and the town looks much the same. However, the French have stopped their nuclear testing. Not to be missed in the lively town is Le Marche, a market place that sells flowers, fish, fruit, coconut oils, hats and paréos – the colourful cotton cloth that you wear like a sarong.

There are also food stalls that serve French, Chinese or local food. Not far from the market, at the harbour waterfront, Place Vaiete turns into a square teeming with Les Roullottes (mobile food vans) as soon as the sun goes down. They offer a variety of delicious dishes – probably the cheapest meal you’ll eat during your stay. Because so much is shipped in, food and drink can sometimes be a little expensive.
Relax in an Overwater Bungalow at Le Taha'a
Go snorkelling at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort
It is marinated in lime or lemon juice with coconut milk and fresh herbs. The lemon ‘cooks’ out the raw flavour and texture of the fish and it is simply delicious. I always added masses of Tabasco much to everyone’s horror! Papeete was the perfect place to unwind after a long flight – I travelled from London to Los Angeles on Air New Zealand. If you need a bit of culture you could take in the Musee de Tahiti in Punaauia, for the history and geology of the islands. The Musee de la Perle Noir will explain all you want to know about the mysterious Tahitian pearl.

It is staggeringly beautiful and comes in colours ranging from green to aubergine to grey. After two fascinating days in Papeete I was eager to see Tahaa and Bora Bora. I flew first to Raiatea where I was met at the airport by the shuttle boat to take me on a 45-minute ride to Le Tahaa Private Island and Spa – which turned out to be one of the finest hotels I have stayed in. Its simple beauty left me breathless. As we neared it we were actually being escorted by a school of dolphins. Such a magical welcome. My over-water bungalow was based on traditional Tahitian architecture. Elegant and sophisticated inside, it also had a large sundeck with direct access to the lagoon and a covered eating area which was lovely at night.

The lagoon was turquoise and so clear I could see my toe nail polish and the colours of the various reef fish vividly without even putting on my snorkelling mask. I did not need any clothes for my stay, apart from when I was going to one of the three excellent restaurants. As a wahine from Hawaii, it is the first time I have had the opportunity of getting an all-over tan (nudity is banned in Hawaii). The bungalows are designed for maximum privacy and the ones on land even have their own pools. Le Tahaa is on one of the largest coral reef motus (atolls) and is separated from the island of Tahaa.

It is a five minute boat ride away and from the private island you can see Raiatea and Bora Bora in the distance. If the idea of lying around naked, sipping a coconut vodka surveying your private expanse of ocean bores you, there is the Manea Spa, which is in a coconut grove surrounded by a small lake and the lagoon. Like all the other buildings on the island, it is built from natural materials. All the products they use are indigenous to the islands, such as tamanu from the Leeward Islands, Moorea pineapples and Tahaa vanilla. I had one of the most incredible body treatments there which consisted of freshly grated coconut in oil. It was a scrub-cum-nourishing oil treatment that was out of this world. Because I had decided that the naturist’s life was for me, my masseuse Dorothee arrived by canoe and gave me the treatment on my bungalow deck.
Take as much duty-free alcohol as you can and then just buy mixers or juices. The local beer Hinano is not bad at all. The local Polynesian seafood speciality of poisson cru is a must, particularly if you usually find the idea of eating fish raw daunting.
"Le Taha'a turned out to be one of the finest hotels I have stayed in."
Massage, or taurumi, as it is called on Tahiti, is an ancient tradition here incorporating healing, philosophy, medicine, ancestral practices and customs, and a holistic expression of spirituality. The service was just amazing on Tahaa, perhaps because, apart from the manager, his glamorous girlfriend (who is the director at the hotel), the efficient German concierge and French chef, all the staff are handpicked locals.

It was such a pleasure to be greeted by wonderful smiling faces wherever I went. Tahaa is nicknamed the Vanilla Isle because of its numerous plantations of vanilla. I swear the air smells of vanilla, which is considered to be an aphrodisiac. I chose to chill in Tahaa and swam and snorkelled day after day under blue skies in the crystal-clear lagoon.
"If it’s escape you are after, these islands are South Pacific gems surrounded by exceptional beauty."
Your comfortable bungalow at Le Taha'a
Enjoy a warm Polynesian welcome wherever you go
The pool at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort
In the evenings there were always groups of two or three rays swimming around my bungalow though I was never brave enough to go in when they were around. It is a fabulous place for absolute peace and quiet. Here, it is a matter of ‘Hey Hurry Up and Go Slower’ – a pace I had grown up with in Hawaii but had forgotten about. I was terribly reluctant to leave Tahaa. However, a ten-minute helicopter ride away lay the mythical lagoon at Bora Bora. The Bora Bora Lagoon Resort is located on Motu Toopua, a small islet in the middle of the lagoon which is surrounded by beautiful tri-colour blue waters and views of the lush green peaks of Mount Otemanu.

I had an over-water bungalow. The shallow water is thick with coral, which the hotel is reintroducing to artificial reefs. The resort is now owned by the Orient Express Group, which has added its own signature with features such as the beautiful teak interiors, glass-top coffee tables and DVD players. There is a wonderful spa, the Maru, which has two treatment rooms a dozen feet above ground amid the branches of two banyan trees. It is run by Rachelle who has developed a unique range of products using only local plants and flowers. She arranged for me to have one of her special treatments using the tamanu plant, which is meant to have the capability to heal and enhance skin tissue and is highly recommended for use after sun exposure. In the sun of Tahiti it is important to have everything you need to protect your skin. If it’s escape you are after, these islands are South Pacific gems surrounded by exceptional beauty.

I am going back as soon as I can. I loved visiting them and left feeling awed by the fact that, although tourism is obviously a most important part of their economy, they have somehow managed to retain the Polynesian spirit of majesty and dignity. On the journey back to London I stopped over at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The hotel has a spa on the fourth floor where the you can have a treatment called the Margarita Punta Mita – a combination of scrub and massage which blends citrus oils, tequila and crushed sea salt. Incredible.It smelled exactly like a cocktail. My therapist commented on my golden tan and asked my secret. I could sum it up in one word – Polynesia!.

Original article published in Jul 2008. All info and prices correct at time of publication.

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