Say "Tahiti," and chances are, minds will wander to images of Bora Bora—the unrealistically blue lagoon, dreamy sandy beaches and, of course, iconic overwater bungalows. We all know it’s essentially the picture of idyllic, but there is so much more to French Polynesia than that one island, spectacular as it truly is. Here, a guide to navigating and sorting through the paradisiacal 100-plus-island-strong French Republic that’s just an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui.
Tahiti, everyone’s first stop, is not really what people mean when they say they’re going to honeymoon in Tahiti—not really. It’s confusing, but go with it. All flights land and depart from the largish figure-eight–shaped island that was a favorite subject matter of famed artist Paul Gauguin. It’s not that Tahiti isn’t beautiful—it’s famed for its black-sand beaches (a product of a pair of extinct volcanoes), turquoise lagoons, waterfalls and world-class surf break Teahupo’o—but since it’s where a significant amount of French Polynesians actually live, it isn’t exactly that desert-island ideal. Still, a night or two in the palm-printed rooms at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, with a perfect sunrise view and visit to Papeete’s Roulottes, aka food trucks, is a lovely way to ease into your honeymoon. You’ll also depart from here if the culturally rich, authentic and remote Marquesas are on your list. Ditto with a jaunt to The Brando, on Tetiaroa, purchased by Marlon Brando years back and transformed into one of the premiere resorts in French Polynesia (just 35 villas, white-sand beaches, and flawless waters full of sea turtles and manta rays).
For adventurous types, Moorea, the inspiration for James Michener’s mythical Bali Hai, is a perfect choice. Just a 15-minute flight or 30-minute ferry ride away (watch for humpback whales!), the pineapple island that looks like something out of Jurassic Park enchants from both the water and the land. Right away the air smells of flowers, an intoxicating scent that puts anyone in the mood for romance. There are boat trips to see sharks, rays and dolphins; ATV tours of the pineapple plantations and jagged, verdant mountains; outrigger canoes to paddle, hikes and climbs to vistas that reveal the robin’s-egg blue water that oftentimes matches the sky, and sandy beaches on which to relax, swim, snorkel and maybe even surf. Of course, there is no shortage of overwater bungalows, pampering spa services (try the flower bath and massage at the indoor-outdoor Helene Spa at the InterContinental, the first on the island) and poisson crú, the ubiquitous national dish that’s akin to ceviche. The fruit is somehow sweeter in Moorea, and there are plenty of roadside stands for grabbing it. When not dining and sipping piña coladas at lagoon-side resorts like Sofitel and Hilton, you can dine alongside locals at popular spots including the delicious Le Mahogany, atmospheric Moorea Beach Cafe and, for a quick lunch, Snack Mahana. More than some other islands, perhaps in part because of the need to rent a car and drive around the lush island, Moorea is a place where tourists get to see the real Polynesia.
The island chain includes a standout archipelago called Tuamotu, of which the tiny and secluded atoll Tikehau, known for its pink sand, is part. (The flight from Tahiti may stop in Rangiroa, which looks like a pearl necklace from above, and boasts a seemingly never-ending lagoon with the luxe-rustic Kia Ora Sauvage for lovers willing to rough it a little bit in exchange for total privacy and wild beauty). Expect some of the most perfect palm trees, cerulean water and beaches in this casual destination with the sweetest smelling flower leis. With far less than 1,000 people it’s intimate, and the best hotel is decidedly Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, with breezy thatched-roof overwater bungalows that have a slew of sea life swimming beneath. If you love doing nothing you can do that here, in the most gorgeous surroundings imaginable, but there’s also the option to go kayak, fish, snorkel, dive, bocce ball or hop on a private boat for a day of swimming in unbelievable aquamarine lagoon water, beach hopping and fresh fish lunch.
A bit less secluded is Taha’a and its sister island of Raiatea (with Bora Bora in sight), most revered and sacred of the South Pacific islands, where the flights land. Boat enthusiasts should head to Raiatea for outrigger adventures down the cool green Fa’aroa river, plus plenty of opportunities to sail and yacht (plus deep-sea fish), since it’s Tahiti’s nautical base (the Obamas have taken part). Taha’a is just two miles from relatively bustling Raiatea, but its incredibly tranquil, bucolic way of life is quite different. It’s known as the Vanilla Island, since its countless plantations painstakingly (visit a plantation or rum distillery like Pari Pari for an enlightening tour) produce loads of the sought-after spice that sweetens the air. The place to overnight—for as many nights as possible—when visiting is Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, on a private island of its own that makes you feel like Robinson Crusoe gone five star. Again, the property is epic for just lazing around—hammocks, private plunge pools, pristine beach, and beautiful pools, not to mention easy access to mouthwatering tropical cocktails, make it easy. But it would be a shame to come and not get out actually on the magical tie-dye water. Tahiti Yacht Charter is an option for an unforgettable catamaran experience, paired with likely the most delicious and freshest fish for lunch. A stay around Taha’a must include drift snorkeling, a somewhat life-changing experience that will have you and your honey simply going with the flow through a channel in the Coral Gardens, packed with Technicolor fish going about their business as you float by awestruck.
Finally, last but certainly not least, there’s Bora Bora, which is coincidentally usually saved for the grand finale of a Tahitian honeymoon when going for the “crescendo effect.” (Even its airport is likely the most picturesque in the world, framed by such water so vividly turquoise it almost hurts one’s eyes.) The famous island surrounded by coral has no lack of fantasy-fueling resorts—and The Brando is debuting villas at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa in 2018. The 44-acre St. Regis Bora Bora on the so-called “honeymoon island” or “romantic island” is lush, landscaped and bursting with stimulating culinary options (and has a gorgeous Bridal Boutique with feminine dresses by local designer Hani Haring that might just make you want to say “I do” all over), likewise the new Conrad Bora Bora Nui, on its own slice of the electric-blue lagoon, is so colorful, peaceful and postcard-perfect it’s hard to believe it’s real. It’s also unreal how gorgeous the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora feels, with its overwater bungalows and suites facing the iconic Monte Otemanu on the island. The resort’s glamorous accommodations are only matched by the opulence of the rest of the property—there are several places you’ll want to book ahead for a private dinner, like the tiny private island that can be had for a candlelit evening that starts with sunset and Champagne and could end in fireworks—both literal and figurative. And while outings like lagoon boat trips, jet-ski tours encircling the island, quad jaunts up the mountain and adventures to feed reef sharks and stingrays are essential parts of the experience on Bora Bora, it’s also important to indulge with a spa day or two. Because at the end of the day it’s all about romance and relaxation in French Polynesia.