Vanilla, Coconut, and Sandalwood:
Prepare to be seduced by the scents and spas of
By Drew Limsky & Melissa B. Williams
French Polynesia, located in the South Pacific in the same time zone as Hawaii, is made up of hundreds of islands spread over an area the size of Europe. Of the various archipelagos such as the Tuamotos and the Marquesas, the Society Islands, also known as Tahiti and Her Islands are the most accessible (the gateway is the city of Papeete, Tahiti).
These islands are unspeakably beautiful and seriously away. Once your private launch ferries you to your resort, you never have to lay eyes on a car, streetlight, or any other sign of urban modernity until you fly home from Papeete. But before that happens, you'll have no choice but to be mesmerized by the coconut palm-fringed lagoon that is the destination's calling card as the depth drops, the color goes from neon green to deep blue as if a line had been drawn.
Wherever you drop into the water you're bound to be surrounded by an aquarium of purple fan coral, wispy butterfly fish, striped angelfish, and orange, Nemo-like clownfish. The lagoon is tranquil and shallow enough to allow the world's most romantic resort architecture to rest on top of its fabled waters, the over-water bungalow. You'll be entranced by verdant mountain peaks that seem to rise straight from the sea as you stand in serene, fish-filled waters right off your private sundeck.
French Polynesia is finally discovering the spa trend, with older resorts constructing gorgeous tropical facilities and new luxury chains introducing monumental temples for the body and soul. Whether you want a simple massage in a palm grove with the local monoi oil (made from coconuts and the indigenous, fragrant tiare flower), or a six-hour journey in a spa suite with a cascading shower and soaking tub, the choice is yours.
BORA BORA LAGOON RESORT & SPA
This Orient-Express property, one of the first to be built on Bora Bora, rests unpretentiously on Motu Toopua with a direct and dreamy view of the electric-green, double-horned Mount Pahia. The gardens are lush and mature, and the resort is especially magical at dusk when the mountain is reflected in the swimming pool, one of the largest on Bora Bora. Barefoot luxury is the vibe at this eminently comfortable hideaway. Regular boat service is available to Vaitape, Bora Bora's main village, where there are a variety of shopping and dining options.
SPA SPECIFICSThe new Maru Spa is nestled dramatically within the branches of two 40-foot Banyan trees and approached via a walkway suspended over a moat. The five treatment rooms include two treehouse massage rooms. The two-hour Tahitian Rainstorm (Te Ua Maohi) features a Vichy-type shower, a Lagoon Sand Scrub using algae, a rain shower massage, and an application of re-hydrating marine mud. Couples will want to opt for the Honeymoon Bliss, a two-and-a-half-hour experience that begins with a pineapple and brown sugar exfoliation, follows with a traditional Polynesian massage, and sends you off smiling with a bath filled with coconut milk and flower petals.
GET A ROOM!The pandanus roofs come down low over the rustic, yet luxurious over-water bungalows, affording maximum privacy. Interiors are heavy on bamboo and wicker, with woven ceilings, slatted teak shutters to catch the Pacific breeze, and hand-tied padded panels behind the king-sized beds. Remove the glass-topped coffee table and feed the fish, or head to the white, modern bathroom and the wood-encased soaking tub. Beyond the double layer of white draperies, plush teak loungers await on your ample deck. Each bungalow comes outfitted with snorkeling gear. Ask for a room on the outer pier to get the best view of Mount Pahia, and be sure to have your breakfast delivered by canoe. You'll never look at room service the same way again.
DOWNTIMEThe pool is deep enough for scuba lessons, the thatched-roof gym has lifecycles, treadmills, and free weights, and the two floodlit tennis courts are open day and night. In the alfresco part of the restaurant, some of the best local dance performances in French Polynesia are held tableside. The poolside cafe serves up excellent mahi-mahi and pizzas made to order. The resort runs regular shark-feeding and manta ray feeding excursions, and you can find all manner of watersports on the white-sand beachfront.
CONTACT(800) 237-1236, www.orient-express.com
ST. REGIS RESORT, BORA BORA
When it opened in the summer of 2006, this sublime resort with spectacular views of Mount Otemanu instantly raised the standard for luxury in French Polynesia. Other resorts have over-water bungalows; the now world-renowned St. Regis boasts over-water villas, the smallest of which sprawl across 1,500-square feet of fabulous indoor and outdoor space. The resort has the ultimate in celebrity crede Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban spent their honeymoon here, and Eva Longoria showed up just after. Ask for an over-water bungalow far out on the pier, where the crystalline water is deep enough to dive in, or just watch manta rays and angelfish swim beneath your temporary home.
SPA SPECIFICSThe resort has the genuine full-service Miri Miri Spa tucked away on a tiny island reachable by footbridge. The men's and women's changing areas are beautifully appointed, with complimentary snacks at the ready, plus private outdoor space and dunking pools. The air-conditioned gym is expansive and well equipped. The Classic Monoi Massage can be customized according to your preferred scent, and the Luminous Pearl Body uses pearl powder and kamani oil for smoothness and shimmer. Though the spa bests all others in these islands, some guests opt to have their treatments performed right in their villas or on their ample sundecks. Small wonder.
GET A ROOM!The interiors of both the on-land and over-water villas were constructed and outfitted with the finest materials, craftsmanship and technology ”amenities" include thick, canopied beds with direct water views, state-of-the-art entertainment systems, and multi-level decks with covered dining areas. As the rate increases, so does the wow factor: some over-water villas have over-water Jacuzzi tubs and even over-water swimming pools. Nicole and Keith chose the $15,000/night Royal Estate for its private beach and its kingly pool set within an interior courtyard.
DOWNTIMEThere isn't anything this resort doesn't offer, from helicopter tours and deep-sea fishing to sailboats and kayaks to wakeboarding around the magnificent lagoon. Scuba and its cousin snuba (think scuba-lite) are available, as are guided jet-ski tours. One pool fronts the beach; the other, called the Oasis, is composed of private wading pools, a free-form waterfall swimming pool, and sexy cabanas.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's sleek, over-water Lagoon restaurant serves local seafood, including a tangy, perfectly marinated carengue and a pleasingly crunchy rice-cracker crusted tuna. Wash it all down with their signature "Bora Bora cocktail" champagne and raspberry puree.
CONTACT(689) 607888, www.starwoodhotels.com
BORA BORA PEARL BEACH RESORT
From your vantage point at Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort’s pool on Motu Tevairoa, you’ll gaze across azure and sapphire waters to the renowned Mount Otemanu, one of Bora Bora’s distinctive and lush icons. With only eighty rooms, fifty of which are over-water, the property caters to the romantic; afterall Bora Bora is known as the Romance Island, and what better way to be romanced than in a bungalow facing Bora Bora’s signature setting?
SPA SPECIFICS Opened last spring, the Manea Spa is nestled amongst a tropical garden bursting with Tahitian fragrances including gardenia (Tahitian Tiare), and surrounded by a lake. The treatment rooms all feature thatched pandanus leaf roofs as well as timber-panelled walls. But the piece de resistance is the Royal Pomaire Suite designed for couples with a private shower and Jacuzzi. For a real taste of Tahiti, book the Coco Otemanu experience, which includes a coconut hair mask and scalp massage, a coconut body polish, Vichy shower, and a full-body massage with coconut oil. The only thing missing is a pina colada!
GET A ROOM! The property offers both garden and over-water bungalows. The garden bungalows each feature a private plunge pool and garden, while the over-water bungalows are situated as such that you can literally walk from the beach, through the warm waters, to the furthest bungalow from the property. If you’re staying in an over-water bungalow, either have your breakfast delivered by canoe, or swim in the warm turquoise waters from your bungalow to the shore, grab a towel, and enjoy the delicious tropical fruits offered on the breakfast buffet.
DOWNTIME All of the Pearl Resorts are PADI dive centers, so diving is definitely a draw for most visitors. However, the Bora Bora property also features a unique coral nursery, To’a Nui. Designed by marine biologist Denis Schneider, the nursery was established to protect and renew the coral in Tahiti while increasing the fish population. Currently, there are more than eighty different species of fish in the nursery, offering quite a spectacular snorkeling excursion just steps from the property’s shore. If you’re romantically inclined, get married or renew your vows (like my hubby and I did), in a traditional Polynesian wedding ceremony. After being wrapped in white parea’s and serenaded by Polynesian dancers and music, you’ll be bound together in a tifaifai (wedding quilt), handed a fruity drink, and escorted to the white sands where you’ll have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pose, newly wed, with Bora Bora’s legendary Mount Otemanu looming behind you.
CONTACT (800) 65-PEARL, www.pearlresorts.com/bora
BORA BORA CRUISES
This is the cruise for the cruise-phobic. With only thirty cabins aboard the streamlined and stylish Ti’a Moana, there are no lines, no unsightly midnight buffet feedings, and lots of elbow room. As soon as you land in Bora Bora, you are effusively greeted and led to a private beach pavilion and toasted with champagne. Meanwhile, your luggage is being loaded onto the launch and ferried to the yacht in the bay. You’ll soon follow, only to find a cheerful international staff plying you with cold scented towels and welcome drinks. The personalized service continues at such a high level that leaving after a week is a bit traumatic.
SPA SPECIFICSSpa treatments can be enjoyed either in a cabin or on a different beach each day. You can’t go wrong with the Egyptian Foot Reflexology; something about the kneading of different pressure points on one’s soles truly inspires a sense of lightness and well-being. The treatment concludes with a scalp massage. The papain fruit enzyme in the Papaya Body Scrub works well to smooth tired skin, but might feel abrasive if you’ve gotten too much Polynesian sun. In that case, the Aloe-Cucumber Body Wrap is good for re-hydration.
GET A ROOM!The cabins are not huge, but they are ingeniously designed—a place for everything and everything in its place. You’ll find good closet space, lagoon views from double windows, comfy robes, and wall-mounted plasma TVs with DVD players (DVDs provided on request). The bathrooms feature compartments for bath and grooming products, stall showers, and bottles of light monoi and monoi-based moisturizer. You’ll become addicted—the monoi also works as an insect-repellent and hair tonic.
DOWNTIMEThe Ti’a Moana hits several ports-of-call in the Society Islands, including Taha’a, Huahine, and Raiatea. Excursions include visits to a vanilla farm, a pearl farm (bring your AMEX), and other options such as a submarine ride. But most folks choose to while away their cloudless days in the stunning lagoon—the yacht drops you off on a different sandy motu (island) everyday, where beach chairs, kayaks, and snorkeling gear are always available. The cuisine is to die for—it’s international style with full American breakfasts made to order, multi-course lunches (either on the boat deck or a motu), and elegant dinners where the entrees include rack of lamb and the wines flow. Catch the dramatic Tahitian sunsets from one of the Jacuzzis on deck as butlers feed you strawberries.
CONTACT(404) 915-8728, www.boraboracruises.com
MOOREA PEARL RESORT & SPA
Located just twelve miles from Tahiti, the island of Moorea is accessible via a short eight-minute flight from Tahiti. The property, which is situated between eight acres of white sandy beach and the island’s lush and tropical mountains, offers the perfect setting for both land and water adventures, and is just a short drive from both Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay.
SPA SPECIFICSThe Manea Spa at Moorea is an intimate Polynesian affair featuring only three treatment rooms, yet a full range of spa experiences that highlight such indigenous ingredients as pineapple from Moorea, monoi—a perfumed coconut oil common in Polynesia, and sandalwood and umuhei oils from the Marquesas. The spa also features a traditional hammam (steam bath). Book the Manea Manea, one of their signature treatments, which begins with an oil-infused steam bath and is followed by a body scrub, wrap, massage and facial. And don’t be too surprised if your therapist looks familiar; during my stay, my therapist moonlighted as a fire dancer on property!
GET A ROOM!Garden bungalows feature private plunge pools and are accented with kohu, an exotic tropical wood. In the over-water bungalows, underneath your modest coffee table, you’ll see the bright hues of both the ocean life and water below. From your deck, watch as other guests snorkel around the property or as locals swiftly pass by during their catamaran practice.
DOWNTIMEBook the optional excursion to one of the island’s most notable pineapple plantations where you’ll not only have the pleasure of tasting delicious, juicy pineapple, but you’ll also get the opportunity to sample a selection of local jams and liquors including banana, vanilla, and papaya. Other excursions include day trips to Cook’s Bay, which is home to a variety of sea creatures including turtles, leppard rays, and scorpion fish.
CONTACT(800) 65-PEARL, www.pearlresorts.com/moorea
SHERATON MOOREA LAGOON RESORT & SPA
This pretty resort is not the most lavish in French Polynesia, but it's a favorite of many because it is so enviably positioned, so beautifully laid-out, and so homey. The over-water bungalows sit atop four or five feet of glistening, parrotfish-filled water and are reached via wood-planked walkways that always curve at just the right spot. There's a bar and lounge with a tall, thatched roof smack in the middle of the over-water walkway, and the rooms are flanked by friendly pots of bougainvillea.
SPA SPECIFICSThe resort's Mandara Spa, accessed right off the beach, is modern and candle-lit. The Polynesian Indulgence, which takes three hours to complete, lives up to its name: it starts with a cleansing footbath in a copper basin, continues with a vanilla/lavender body wash and coconut scrub, reaches its peak with a massage of your choice, and concludes with a flower-filled bath where fruit and ginger tea are served. The eighty-minute Ve'a ve'a Massage utilizes lava rocks and monoi to relieve tense muscles while the Exotic Island Facial employs honey, lime, papaya, coconut milk, and flower essences to clarify and mositurize.
GET A ROOM!The rooms are well-designed, with comfortable beds, sitting areas, and open-style bathrooms. The claw-footed tubs are the calling card here, as well as the dual-level decks: the lower platforms have lounge chairs just inches above the aquamarine lagoon. The views of the Moorea mountains are so striking, that for uninterrupted vistas, you'll want to book an odd-numbered over-water bungalow between 100 and 110. Early risers will appreciate the morning sun from the even-numbered rooms between 101 and 109.
DOWNTIMEAll kinds of vehicles are available for rent right on property. Take one of the open-air buggies around the magnificent top half of the island. The road winds around deep bays and leads up to Belvedere Point, with its dreamy views. Just staying put is rewarding, too, for the snorkeling is among the best on the island. The entrance to the Arii Vahine restaurant is especially lovely, with its waterfall-flanked walkways suspended over koi ponds. The varied cuisine lives up to expectations, with dishes like tuna sashimi, a duo of langoustines and scallops, Moorea prawn ravioli with vanilla butter sauce, and Polynesian snapper.
CONTACT(800) 782-9488, www.sheratonmoorea.com
Taha'a Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa
Vanilla is known to be an aphrodisiac so it should come as no surprise that Taha'a, the Vanilla Island, is alluring and seductive. After your private helicopter charter from Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort, you'll be transported to your private over-water oasis, with sparkling and breathtaking views of Bora Bora just beyond the lagoon. Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa, a member of Relais & Chateaux, is located on the Tautau Motu and is surrounded by even more motus, which make for blissful hideaways for romance.
SPA SPECIFICSNestled in the shade of a coconut grove, you'll find the Manea Spa featuring several thatched roof huts connected by an intricate weaving pathway. Couples will enjoy the couples suite, replete with a double Vichy shower, located outside, allowing the fresh tropical breeze to warm your skin without sacrificing privacy. Another alluring option is the Manoi Pape Miti, a massage set on a floating table in the lagoon. Treatments focus on indigenous therapies including Polynesian massage, but be sure to book an experience that highlights the island's true magic: vanilla.
GET A ROOM!Overwater bungalows include Sunset View, Bora Bora View, or Taha'a View, so choose your accommodations based on the scenery you prefer. From your room, filled with light native woods, beige and white linens, and modern fixtures, step outside and descend just a few steps into the warm waters. When you return you'll find a private outdoor shower for removing any last traces of white sand before heading to your deck for a snack and some R&R. Inside your room, you'll find that the foot of the bed as well as several locations in the bathroom feature cut-outs allowing you to watch the fish swim below your private little oasis.
DOWNTIMEHead to the freshwater infinity pool overlooking the beach where you can swim up to the bar and order an afternoon cocktail. Traditional Polynesian beach barbeques can also be arranged, replete with a firepit, roasted piglet and veggies, music, dancers and even fire-eaters covered in tattoos, which have origins as well as cultural significance in Polynesia. Pearls are renowned in this area and tours to local black pearl farms are available, or you can head to the gift shop and pick out a strand ready to wear.
CONTACT(800) 735-2478, www.letahaa.com
For more information about Tahiti, visit www.tahiti-tourisme.com.
International flights from Los Angeles and New York are available on Air Tahiti Nui. www.airtahitinui-usa.com.