“La vie heureuse” is a phrase often used in Tahiti, which translates roughly to “A happy life”. As it happens, there is not much in the way of that when you’re in French Polynesia. From the unbelievably clear turquoise waters to the enchanting waterfalls, mystical valleys, rich cultural history, and fauna bursting with color and life, it is a land that seems almost unreal until experiencing it in person.
I have to admit that for all its beauty, Tahiti hadn’t been a destination high on my list because I had always considered it a “honeymoon destination”. However, I was proven completely wrong about that misconception recently during an opportunity to attend a trip in collaboration French Bee and Tahiti Tourism. A new addition to the ever-expanding options of low cost airlines, French Bee had just launched a new route from Paris to San Francisco to Tahiti and I was lucky enough to participate in their inaugural flight from San Francisco, (full breakdown available here.)
During my week spent exploring the islands of Tahiti and Moorea, I discovered that French Polynesia is brimming with so much more than just picture-perfect beaches and luxury resorts; that discovery and immersion of all of the artistic and cultural aspects of a different country that make travel so intoxicating for me is all here, in a destination I so easily overlooked previously.
Upon landing at Fa'a'ā International Airport just before sunrise, we were immediately greeted with a fragrant jasmine lei, the sweet smell instantly bringing attention to the fact that yes, we had just arrived in paradise. Rhythms of Polynesian drums and mellow guitar melodies bounced off the walls as dancers swayed to the music, smiling at us as we began a week of unforgettable adventures.
In this write-up, I’ve gathered my highlights of where to stay, play, discover, and eat on these two magical islands, honeymoon or husband not necessary. In fact, all of these locations would make for a fabulous girls trip or solo getaway, depending on your travel preference. Happy trip planning!
STAY: LE MERIDIEN TAHITI
While Tahiti certainly has no shortage of accommodations, from 5 star resorts to guesthouses and humble yet cozy family-run pensiones, I felt completely relaxed and at ease upon checking into Le Meridien Tahiti. Refreshing myself with the Malin + Goetz amenities, I immediately took a walk around the grounds to gaze out at the idyllic overwater bungalows, waves gently lapping on the shore, and waded through the lagoon.
SHOP: MARCHE VISIT FOR FLOWER CROWNS
In the age of social media, what’s a visit to Polynesia without at least one ‘gram with a gorgeous flower crown feeling like a Tahitian princess? Although a few hotels may be able to procure one upon request, a more fun way is to make a stop at the Marche in Papeete. While Sunday at sunrise is a the most popular day among locals who are there to buy the freshest catch possible, the Marche is also open most days if you're more keen on shopping for jewelry, locally made products (soaps, oils, shampoos), and of course, leis & flower crowns. Just a short 15-20 minute taxi ride from most of the hotels surrounding the island, its a great way to take a peek into daily life and bustle on Papeete and see beyond what most tourists experience on the edges of Tahiti. Once you arrive, its hard to miss the rows of local artisans weaving leis and flower crowns on the outer perimeter of the market. A fun little tidbit from Tahitian culture for the ladies: If you wear a flower tucked behind your right ear, it signals that you are “taken”, and if you wear it behind your left year, you’re “single”…
Papeete Marche: 23 Rue du Père Collette, Papeete, French Polynesia
DISCOVER: MARAE + WATERFALLS
Tahiti’s mountainous interior is rich with stunning landscapes of full of streams, waterfalls, trees of tiare, aka the Tahitian gardenia, the most ubiquitous flower on the island. A “circle tour” around the perimeter of the island with stops at significant maraes is a great way to get a sense of the culture and history that binds the Polynesians together. Maraes were sacred gathering places for religious and social rituals, many times for prayer and sacrifice to the Tahitian gods for good fortune and abundance. A rectangular structure of carefully selected basalt rocks, many of the maraes standing today have been lovingly reconstructed by Tahitians eager to preserve their culture and share it with visitors and the next generation.
While there are a few tour operators that do the “circle tour”, its also possible to rent a car or a driver and do this at your leisure, skipping stops that don’t interest you or lingering at the ones that do. A couple of my favorite stops, pictured below, included Marae Arahurahu and Mara’a Grottoes.
EAT: LA PLAGE DE MAUI
Being an island, Tahiti is a seafood lovers dream. Fresh, quality seafood can be found at almost any restaurant, many times inexpensively if you’re having the local favorite- poisson cru. One of the most memorable meals for us was on our way back from Teahupoo, at a deceptively humble restaurant on the side of the road called La Plage de Maui, decorated with charming mix of Tahitian kitsch and maritime tchotchkes.
A mix of French and local Polynesian flavors, every dish here from the appetizers to the dessert was authentic and delectable, made with so much love and warmth. It was a tough decision but I ordered Paraha Peue from Vairao’s Lagoon - fresh whole fished steamed with ginger olive oil and local root vegetables and it was gone in minutes.
La Plage de Maui: PK 7,7 - Cote mer | Toahotu, 98719, French Polynesia
If you have limited time to spend in French Polynesia, 2 days is sufficient to get a feel for Tahiti, the cultural center of the islands, and then hop on the Terevau ferry onto Moorea, which is one of my favorites of the Society Islands. A captivating blend of adventure, nature, relaxation, and culture, Moorea is only a 30 minute ferry ride away yet feels like a world apart. Tickets for the Terevau can be purchased online or in person, and there is a comfortable cafe on the upper level with drinks and snacks as you watch the ferry come in carrying a mix of locals and visitors.
On arrival in Moorea, we were whisked to a private beach by friendly Pierre and his company, Enjoy Moorea. As we marveled at the rugged natural beauty of our new surroundings, wandered around, he prepared a delicious platter of fresh local fruit to start the day - pineapple, grapefruit, passion fruit, and bananas, all beautifully served on a banana leaf. Was everything sweeter and tastier because we were ingesting it in such lovely surroundings? We may never know the true answer to that...
After breakfast on the beach, we headed inland and up the mountain to drive through Moorea’s pineapple plantations. It was incredible watching the landscape and climate change as we ascended the mountain in a 4x4 Jeep. From the warm sunny breeze on the coast, the air gradually became cooler and mistier, adding to the mystique of Tahiti’s extraordinary landscape and of course, making for some gorgeous landscape shots.
EAT + DISCOVER: TIKI VILLAGE
Tahitians come from an incredibly rich history of rituals and traditions, so a hands-on experience is no doubt the best way to immerse yourself in Polynesian culture, at least for a few hours while at Tiki Village. For me, a cooking class is always an enjoyable way to experience local ingredients and learn cooking techniques practiced in the region. Although it didn’t involve any technical “cooking”, I loved seeing how simple it was to make the popular Tahitian dish - poisson cru - fresh raw tuna marinated in coconut milk, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Like my mantra for California cuisine, less is more in this case, and the fresher and simpler the ingredients, the easier it is to prepare a delectable dish thats both healthy and appetizing.
Tiki Village: Moorea Bungalow, Moorea 98729, French Polynesia
STAY: INTERCONTINENTAL MOOREA
As in Tahiti, there are many options for accommodations in Moorea, and I was grateful for a warm and welcoming stay at the Intercontinental. Its sprawling grounds with lagoons and pools are easy to navigate, and there is so much to experience on site. Rent kayaks or stand up paddle boards, take an exercise spin class in one of the lagoons, indulge in the spa (below) or gain awareness about the sea turtle conservation efforts at the Te Mana o Te Moana Association, an independent non-profit with a mission to conserve and rehabilitate sea turtles and educate children about marine life. (The group is independent but their offices are on the Intercontinental grounds).
Intercontinental Moorea: Tiahura, Moorea, 98729, French Polynesia
REJUVENATE: HELENE SPA AT INTERCONTINENTAL MOOREA
With its distinction as the first spa in Tahiti, Helene Spa has a lot to live up to, and from my immensely relaxing experience there, it exceeded my expectations. I loved how much all aspects of the spa showcased the natural qualities of the islands, both through the indigenous ingredients and various treatments that stem from ancient Polynesian healers.
If you do indulge, arriving early to settle in and relax is highly recommended. Prior to your treatment, you have the option of soaking in the river bath or the rain shower - while I opted for the rain shower, it seems like either choice is equally calming. During the massage, I chose from the monoi oil, tiare oil, or coconut oil, all naturally harvested, and sank into a deeply relaxed state. Every bit of the experience felt so personal and soothing. I emerged feeling renewed, not wanting to leave this cocoon of comfort.
Helene Spa: Pk 24.5 Haapiti MOOREA, Haapiti 98729, French Polynesia
EAT + STAY: SUNSET RESTAURANT AT HIBISCUS HOTEL
On our 2nd day in Moorea, we spent a few hours at the Hibiscus Hotel, a lovely mid-range accommodation option that falls between a guest house and a luxury resort. With its scenic Bali-esque huts situated around the lush green property, it was definitely a place I could imagine spending a few days at. Several of the bungalows are equipped with kitchens and being walking distance from a few convenience stores and makes it a comfortable yet budget-friendly option for a group of friends or a family. Our favorite part of the hotel was the water-facing restaurant, Restaurant Le Sunset, where we had a hearty breakfast of traditional American items like eggs and pastries, but not without a side of poisson cru. We marveled at the serene views and soft island breeze as we lingered over a casual meal that felt as if we were on a friend’s patio.
Hibiscus Hotel: PK 27, Seaside, Haapiti BP 1009, Papetoai 98728, French Polynesia
DISCOVER: SHARK + RAY LAGOON EXCURSION WITH TEMOANA TOURS
And now for the grand finale of my must-do list- a lagoon excursion with the warmest hosts - Teva and Joanna of TeMoana Tours. Conveniently, we were picked up by boat just outside of Sunset Restaurant after our breakfast (above) and again greeted with fragrant jasmine leis. We sailed around Cooks and Opunohus Bay, witnessing the mountainous peaks rise up from the island as we imagined the explorers who came upon Tahiti centuries ago did.
We stopped at a stunningly clear lagoon to snorkel with sharks and sting rays, easily the most memorable experience on the trip. The water was deliciously warm, and the sharks and sting rays simply swam around and beneath us.
After another lagoon stop where we saw a variety of fishes, we docked for a delightful lunch of grilled tuna, poisson cru, and island beverages at a table half immersed in water. It was the ultimate island experience and I can’t recommend it enough if you are on Moorea.
DEPARTURE: FRENCH BEE
As it happens, all good things must come to an end, and after a momentous week of new friendships, experiences, and a deeper connection and understanding of this incredible destination, we boarded our flight on French Bee back to San Francisco. With its flexible fares and endless a la carte options for customization, its another awesome option for planning a trip to Tahiti…Bon voyage!
If you checked out any of my recommendations above, would love to hear about your experience below!