Impossible Beauty - Luxury Travel Magazine
|By: Timothy Morrell, Issue 46 - Autumn 11|
|FOR CENTURIES PHILOSOPHERS, PAINTERS AND WRITERS HAVE IMAGINED A LIFE OF UNCOMPLICATED BLISS ON A SOUTH SEA ISLAND. TIMOTHY MORRELL EXPERIENCED IT IN FRENCH POLYNESIA, AND IT WAS INDEED ALL THAT HE HAD IMAGINED.|
|The dream begins when you arrive in Tahiti the day before you left Australia. Re-crossing the international dateline on the way home restores you to your normal time and space, but for a brief period French Polynesia transports visitors to an imaginary world. The impossibly beautiful setting, however, is real. Just as you’d always imagined, the air really is fragrant with flowers, the coral sand is pure white and the limpid turquoise of the lagoons is not a trick of photography. Immersing yourself in the physical sensations of this place, somewhere that already existed in your mind as a perfect fantasy, is perhaps the most extraordinary experience of the islands.|
It even works for sceptics. The Pacific paradise theme is so overworked by the travel and real estate industries world-wide that it comes as a surprise to arrive in the place where it all began and realise why Polynesian allure helped inspire the European romantic movement in the 18th century.
French painter Paul Gauguin considered the capital Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti, to be excessively urbanised by the time he arrived there in 1891. Today Papeete is an agreeable but nondescript harbour town and still the place where international travellers first touch down. Most are in a hurry to get away to resorts on outlying islands.
I was a guest of the Sofitel chain, which operates three properties in French Polynesia, including the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort in Papeete. Its close proximity to the airport and the inter-island ferry terminal is much appreciated by French travellers, the region’s principal clientele, who arrive exhausted after their 27-hour trip. Flying from Australia takes less than a third of that time (five hours from the obligatory transit stop in Auckland), so I arrived feeling fine and keen to do more than sleep.
The seven-storey accommodation block and connected pavilions enclose a garden with a big pool and private beach. If you choose to venture out into Papeete you’ll encounter a lively waterfront scene for international yachties, who are catered for with good bars and restaurants. Far more memorable is Papeete’s easily accessible hinterland of lusciously green valleys and soaring volcanic peaks, which are brilliant with wild orchids and flowering trees, but devoid of leeches and snakes. Guides walk you through this spectacular Eden and you can cool off in a rock pool beneath a waterfall. Be warned, however, that the jungle trails are moderately hard going, and the mossy rocks are slippery.
All this would be enough to justify spending your entire holiday in Tahiti if you didn’t know that the main attractions of French Polynesia are elsewhere. It’s hard not to be aware that there’s more to see when the Sofitel’s little bay frames a perfect view of the massive jagged bulk of Moorea Island, mauve and cloud-topped on the horizon, which beckons like Bali’hai.
In some ways the short ferry ride to Moorea transports you further than your international flight. Civilization evaporates when you step off the boat. There is only one road, and it leads quickly to the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort. At the hotel you have a choice (in ascending order of expense) of bungalows in the garden, by the beach or on stilts in the water. Each overwater bungalow has a broad deck with steps down into the sparkling lagoon. Using the snorkel, mask and flippers provided by the hotel I paddled about and returned the polite curiosity of the exquisite tropical fish.
All this should be enough to give anyone a benign sense of the world standing still, but if you need more help, try the spa. Just reading the list of treatments could induce a transcendental state. Despite the secret-sacred overtones, and ingredients that seemed wasted when applied to the skin rather than eaten, I received an exceptionally good and deeply relaxing massage.
You have to love a place where doing nothing in particular is elevated to a sublime experience. Nevertheless you can keep busy if you want to. The hotel has a professionally staffed aquatic activity and scuba diving centre. You can ride through the magnificent landscape on a horse or in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, investigate the stone maraes of pre-missionary Polynesian religion, or visit the black pearl farms.
For your evening entertainment, the best table at the Vue Bar is at the end of a softly lit jetty that projects into the rippling lagoon, where you can sit in total tranquillity until late in the evening when the bar turns into a frenetic dance club. This could be your chance to meet locals and perhaps test the elaborate codes pertaining to gender and availability A that govern what sort of fragrant white tiare flower you put behind which ear. Although it’s safer just to enjoy the excellent live music.
The K Restaurant at the Moorea Sofitel has an international menu that works well, along with a dependable French wine list. The surroundings are a design fantasy that works wonderfully. The open timber structure in traditional Polynesian style has a lofty cathedral-like roof, tables that are illuminated by elaborate glass candelabra and a floor that is the white sand of the beach.
This part of the world is ideal for resolving the dilemma of wanting to remain resolutely idle on holiday when you’re the kind of person who quickly becomes bored. Island hopping is easy. Clothing here is so casual you won’t be encumbered by much baggage (although it’s best to show a bit of style at K Restaurant to avoid spoiling the ambience). Each of the Sofitel resorts in French Polynesia has a particular charm, and it makes sense to see more than one island.
Bora Bora, about an hour’s flight from Moorea, is Polynesia’s most desired destination. You can understand why as soon as you get off the plane. From the little airport you walk out, as you do from the Venice railway station, onto a quay with waiting boats and the view you’ve seen in picture books.
There are many hotels in French Polynesia offering apparently interchangeable rows of palm-thatched bungalows on stilts over the water. The Sofitel properties stand out largely because of their superb locations. Pick of the bunch is Bora Bora, where the main resort at Marara Beach also offers more exclusive accommodation, plus a bar and restaurant, on a tiny island nearby. The view of the lagoon and Mount Otemanu is one of the world’s great sights, and sitting on your private deck on your private island you feel pretty much that you have it all to yourself.
Pristine simplicity is essential to the Polynesian mystique, something Sofitel understands well. The food at all three hotels is good, often distinctly regional, but the menus don’t try to astonish. On Bora Bora I had the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten, but I consider it punishment from the hotel chefs for not ordering one of their delectable local specialties such as reef fish tartar and breadfruit chips.
French Polynesia is one of the remotest places on earth. It’s a legendary destination, sufficiently far off the beaten track to make just being there an adventure. This is both its greatest attraction and its greatest drawback. Maintaining five-star properties in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is a lot harder to do than it is in the middle of a big city, so they’re expensive. Service is unfailingly friendly, but doesn’t always conform to the clockwork precision you might expect elsewhere. At times the sophistication of the food and service seems to diminish in proportion to the increase in distance from the capital, while the prices, because of logistics, are inclined to rise. You will, however, quickly reach a state of utter contentment where none of this bothers you in the slightest.
|When To Go|
|July is said to be the best month to visit. I was there during the rainy season (November to March) and it was sunny almost all the time. Rain in Polynesia, like your accustomed sense of reality, doesn’t last long.|
|Where To Stay|
|Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort|
BP 60008 Tahiti, 98792 Faa’a, French Polynesia +689 866 600
Rates: Rooms from XPF12,000 (about A$131) per night.
Amenities: Two tennis courts, driving range, freshwater swimming pool, private beach, water skiing.
Dining: Le Bougainville, Le Sakura teppanyaki restaurant, Le Moorea snack bar.
Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort
BP 28 Moorea, 98729 Maharepa, French Polynesia +689 551 212
Rates: Garden Bungalows start from XPF28,000 (about A$304) per night.
Amenities: Outdoor swimming pool, day spa, private beach, glass bottom boat, kayaking, dive centre, sailing facilities, water skiing, wind surfing, petanque, room service.
Dining: Pure, K, Vue snack bar.
Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach And Private Island
BP 6 Bora Bora, 98730 Nunue Vaitape, French Polynesia
+689 605 500
Rates: Lagoon Bungalows start at XPF29,000 (about A$216) per night.
Amenities: Day spa, infinity swimming pool, cigar cave, wine cellar, private beach, boat excursions, kayaking, dive centre, sports facilities.
Dining: Latitude 16°, Manu Tuki, Mako Bar serving snacks, Hurricane bar.
Air Tahiti Nui flies from Sydney to Papeete via Auckland three times a week. Economy fares start at A$1,333 return and business at A$3,381 return.
Air Tahiti operates domestic flights between islands. Pass fares allow you to visit several islands within a 28 day period for a flat rate. The Bora Bora Pass covers Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora and starts at XPF38,700 (about A$428) per person.