Dilvin Yasa sidesteps Tahiti’s most famous and popular icon for the quieter yet equally beautiful islands of Mo’orea and Taha’a
It’s not often one’s waiter has to paddle his way through a shoal of inquisitive reef sharks and manta rays to deliver breakfast, but this is my current situation.
Standing on the deck of my overwater bungalow – rainbow pops of fish lazily gliding just beneath my toes – I watch on as this handsome Adonis expertly ‘parks’ his canoe at the steps and presents my morning meal of poisson cru, tropical fruit salad, coffee and a plateful of baked goodies.
“Welcome to Mo’orea!” he grins and motions at the scenery behind him with the flourish of a game show host. “Now just relax and let us take care of you.” Relax? Ha! I’m already way ahead of him.
You might have heard murmurs about this heart-shaped tropical island located just 17 kilometres from Tahiti: talk of the natural beauty Mo’orea shares with its famous Society Islands archipelago neighbour Bora Bora – all lush, jagged peaks rising out of a reef-fringed lagoon.
Perhaps it’s a whisper or two about its pretty white-sand motu and luxurious aqua-centric resorts and overwater bungalows with steps leading into the aquamarine waters.
Yet here’s something you may not know: despite the host of blessings Mother Nature has bestowed on Mo’orea (eight soaring mountain peaks, poetic threads of waterfalls and a whale-rich waterway, for starters), the island remains the Neil Connery to Sean, or the Daniel Baldwin to Alec.
It has the same brooding movie star looks and talent to enthral, but remains eclipsed by the dazzle of celebrity. It’s a fact that will play to your advantage.
The jewel in Mo’orea’s crown is arguably Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort & Spa, a sprawling property nestled between two bays which offers both garden bungalows with private terraces and plunge pools, as well as overwater bungalows with glass floors and claw-footed tubs.
“Yeess!” my husband shouts as we launch ourselves into the resort’s opalescent coral-filled lagoon, and “Nooo!” I scream as I run back to my towel, realising I’m the only one swimming/kayaking/paddling without a Go-Pro and 450,000 Instagram followers.
Instead I find my happy place under the healing touch of a masseuse at Mo’orea Lagoon Spa, not to mention behind the counter of the resort’s chic in-house Robert Wan Boutique.
Leaving the resort takes willpower, but outside, a necklace of pretty pastel-coloured villages strung around the island’s 60-kilometre coastal road beckons.
Whale-watching tours, private jeep safaris and half a dozen hikes of varying difficulty sit high on the list of Mo’orea must-dos, but after a couple of days, I’d easily put the signature lobster ravioli at Le Mayflower restaurant, and an action-packed, atmospheric lagoon tour with Captain Taina right at the top.
Of course, for those keen to drop out of society altogether, there’s no better option than catching a plane to the island of Raiatea, the nautical centre of Tahiti, before taking a boat transfer to the flower-shaped island of Taha’a – wild and carefree, even by French Polynesia’s standards.
A hit with the sailing set thanks to its enclosed lagoon with wide channels, calm waters and steady winds, ‘The Vanilla Island’ (named after the countless vanilla plantations dotting its landscape) is tranquil, traditional French Polynesia, offering escape from a modern world but with top-notch snorkelling and dive spots, as well as some of the most luxurious island resorts on the planet.
Most travellers here stick to water activities, anchoring a catamaran just off the coastline and either drift-snorkelling in the shallow coral gardens between Motu Maharare and Motu Tautau, or diving the sites of Nordby (a shipwreck) and Octopus Hole, where sharks and sea turtles can be found in large numbers.
We take a private jeep safari tour with Vanilla Tours instead; an experience that traverses ascending slopes and deep valleys in comfort as it takes in some of the island’s pearl farms, vanilla plantations and a rum distillery.
I’m told the hiking trails in these parts are particularly good, but I’m just going to have to take their word for it.
As sun sets, it’s a quick transfer over to Vahine Island Resort & Spa, a private island property where exclusivity is key. Home to only six beachfront and three overwater bungalows, a restaurant, bar and spa, the experience is decidedly ‘Robinson Crusoe in luxury’ yet with high-end dining to draw in the gourmands, and endless coral gardens and water sports to entice more active guests.
We eat, we drink, relax with massages and hit the repeat button. Sure, we could chopper in to Bora Bora for the day, or take a private sailing tour as the resort’s activities brochure recommends.
But sitting here on the deck of our bungalow and watching the sunset over Bora Bora’s Mt. Otemanu in the distance, it seems silly to consider any other option rather than being right here, right now, in paradise.