With every trip, there comes that long-awaited moment of arrival. For much yearned for bucket-list travel, those arrivals should be particularly special. They ought to quicken the breath and conjure a gasp of wonder. Sadly, that “aha” moment doesn’t always happen. But, I guarantee that it will—when you visit French Polynesia.  

 “Did I bring enough clothing to stay forever?” you’ll ask yourself, glancing at your suitcase.

In this expanse of nearly 120 islands, which compose five archipelagos that spread across the gin-clear waters of the South Seas, you’ll experience amazement not just once—but again and again. Likely, it will begin at the airport. There, greeted with leis and Tahitian kindness, you’ll first hear the words “La Orana (hello)” and “Maeva (welcome).” The jaw dropping astonishment will continue as you explore the various islands. It might be the ocean’s bevy of blues, hues from cobalt to cornflower, which you’ll glimpse from your beachfront room when day breaks in Papeete; or, it could be that first view of Moorea in the distance from the ferry, when you’ll discern an emerald mound, your destination, supremely exotic, rising from the waves. “I’m in Tahiti,” you’ll say, stating the obvious, dumbfounded and thunderstruck. I promise you will. I always do.  

You’ll be wowed again when you land in Bora Bora, an island surrounded by scores of sandy motus (islets), many boasting their own hotel.

You’ll be wowed again when you land in Bora Bora, an island surrounded by scores of sandy motus (islets), many boasting their own hotel. That’s when you’ll descend to a narrow landing strip, then literally disembark to a pier, where hotel boat taxis await to whisk you to your private island paradise. You’ll pass an ancient volcano, Otemanu and leaping dolphins along the way, before arriving at your hotel, greeted with flowers, a musical serenade, and a tropical libation. If you choose to visit Teriaroa, expect an epiphany aboard The Brando Resort’s private plane, the only way to approach the actor’s own island. You’ll swoon at the seascape from above, understanding clearly why Marlon fell in love at first sight with this haven, never really going home again. “Did I bring enough clothing to stay forever?” you’ll ask yourself, glancing at your suitcase, then back down at the watery carpet below, a weave of a thousand shades of blue. I know you’ll say this to yourself. I always do.  

You’ll have these once-in-a-lifetime, lightning bolt moments, as well, on other islands: Tikehau, Rangiroa, Raiatea, Taha’a—to name a few. Tahiti has that effect on people. Locals call it mana, a palpable poetry, a healing, invisible energy that flows through everything—the sea, the land, the people—like a magical spell. Add in the tangible things—French-intoned culture (including gastronomic cuisine and fine wines), over-water bungalows, opulent (but casual) hotels, black pearls, mind boggling diving and snorkeling, fragrant flowers, marine life galore, abundant activities from wine tasting to boat tours, and inviting hammocks for repose. With no further ado, French Polynesia will have you in its clutches. You’ll want ti that way. Perhaps you’ll stay forever. 

Here’s a list of some special islands I love and where to stay.

Moorea: 

Considered Tahiti’s island for athletic pursuits, Moorea vaunts inland mountain trails that wind around eight pointy peaks. Hike, bike, snorkel, jeep tour and partake of dolphin and snorkeling expeditions. Stay at five star Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, which bestrides two bays. Eco-focused with over-water bungalows, a creperie and activities such as jet skiing and snorkeling, this hotel embodies the island’s casual spirit.  

Bora Bora 

Moan-worthy Bora Bora deserves her accolades. Stunning, with its array of blues, punctuated by a plentitude of mini-islands, in the shadow of a volcano, this bucket-list location never disappoints. Insanely romantic, said to have invented over-water suites, it reigns as a place where breakfast can be delivered by canoe and enthusiasts can swim with manta rays and gallivant with sharks. Stay at the storied, re-polished Four Seasons Bora Bora, which manages to feel intimate with 108 overwater suites (27 with plunge pools) and seven expansive beachfront villa estates, the ultimate way to social distance.  

Tetiaroa 

Once the summer refuge for Tahitian kings, this stunning destination lies further afield in the Society Islands. Bought by Marlon Brando as his own hideaway, kept pristine and undeveloped, it redefined then, as it does now, barefoot elegance. With a goal to keep the Tahitian regal tradition alive and to fulfill Brando’s dream of an eco-conscious hotel, which summons the true spirit of French Polynesia, The Brando draws guests enraptured with understated largesse and nature’s gifts. Fly to this oasis on Air Tetiaroa, which has its own terminal at Fa’a’ā International Airport in Papeete. Discover a retreat with 35 thatched-roofed, beach-side villas, each outfitted with a bicycle. Expect a slow pace—that’s the magic. LEED Platinum-awarded, The Brando is 100 percent sustainable with solar panels, a generator fueled by coconut oil and seawater powered air conditioning.   

Other Options 

Tikehau  

Go for its pink sand beaches and quietude. Stay at Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, an unpretentious Robison Crusoe-like fantasyland.  

Taha 

Go for its vanilla plantations, cuisine and pearl farms. Stay at Le Taha’a by Pearl Resorts, a Relais & Chateaux member, where every meal is an epicurean event.  

Rangiroa  

Go for its endless lagoon, wineries and water excursions.  Stay at Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. , where sunsets at the over-water Miki Miki Bar will change your life.  

Cruise French Polynesia 

While some travelers must choose between islands, cruisers can see it all. Board Wind Spirit, Windstar Cruises’ vintage-evoking, four-masted, yacht- like ship, which offers a variety of scheduled, island-hopping jaunts. 

Another option: ELYT Yacht Charter provides a four-room floating villa in Bora Bora, with various moorings.  A modern, solar catamaran, inspired by the ancient Polynesian canoes and overwater way of life, this floating (eco-friendly) personal hotel is like owning your own island.   

Getting To French Polynesia.  

United Airlines is the only US carrier with non-stop service between San Francisco (SFO) and Papeete (PPT). Those wishing to fly out of Los Angeles (LAX), will enjoy Air Tahiti Nui and its Dreamliner experience.  

Current Covid Guidelines 

Travelers to French Polynesia who are 11 years of age and older are required to have a medical certificate with proof of a negative coronavirus (COVID-19) PCR test result issued within three days before international departure. All travelers must also submit an ETIS application, with a printed receipt showing a QR code that must be presented upon arrival to the country. 

Upon arrival in French Polynesia, travelers will also be provided with a free self-test kit which they must administer and submit to their place of lodging on the fourth day of their stay. 

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