If you're like me (not the born-in-Hawaii part, but the paradise-is-an-easy-direct-flight-away-so-let's-go-now part), then the SFO to HNL jaunt is so well-traveled that you can recite verbatim the in-flight safety video on any airline, and can anticipate every familiar pocket of turbulence over the Pacific Ocean.
And if that's the case, then you're probably in the market for a more exotic Polynesia, one that isn't bombarded with throngs of the white-sneakered, plastic-lei'd, hop-on-hop-off-sightseeing-bus types.
What about Tahiti?
Thanks to a cool new indie airline called French Bee, the colorful, post-impressionist Tahitian landscapes of Paul Gauguin's canvases are also a direct flight from SFO, three days a week. It's not as quick as a hop to Hawaii, but it's definitely less traveled, and what's another few hours on the plane, especially when French It-girl stewardesses in cute denim dresses serve you warm croissants and tea with an effortlessly lip-glossed smile? Or when every seat back in the leggy premium-economy cabin has a large-screen TV loaded with current movies and music? Or when junglier mountains with strange-looking peaks and crystalline ocean lagoons teeming with vibrant sea life await you? (The water also happens to be the temperature of a relaxing bath, so no slow submerging needed, but definitely consider a rash guard for sun protection—the glare is real.)
Beyond French Polynesia's singular geography (like Hawaii, it's a chain of volcanic islands), the mood is richly romantic, but not necessarily in the "honeymoon" sense of the word (although kicking off a long matrimony on these shores is certainly auspicious). Rather, the islands have a dreamy, sentimental vibe that leaves most sojourners enchanted. This feeling prevails throughout your visit, despite the stifling heat and the suffocating layers of reef-safe zinc-oxide and DEET-tastic bug spray required, because the beauty unfolding before you, around every curve in the road or ocean, is simply stunning. And what's more, the wilds also happen to be user friendly. Don't be afraid to get in there and explore—cruise mountain roads on ATVs, and pet a surprisingly snuggly stingray. You might get a sunburn and more than a few bug bites, but trust us, life in Tahiti is much more rewarding when you're not just, ahem, sitting in the boat.
An aerial view of Kia Ora Resort shows the geography of the atoll.(Courtesy of Kia Ora Resort)
The sleepy island of Rangiroa, an hour by commuter plane from Faa'a International Airport just outside the capitol city of Papeete, is actually an atoll—a ring-shaped coral reef with a lagoon in the middle. Rangiroa's lagoon happens to be big enough to fit the island of Tahiti, making it one of the largest in the world. In general, the lagoon water is clear and still, and since Rangiroa is part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, closer to the equator than, say, the island of Moorea, it's pretty hot and muggy here all the live-long day. But, that gorgeous lagoon, heretofore referred to in this story as the Big Lagoon, is your saving grace.
Take a half-day tour from the Kia Ora Resort and Spa, the only four-star on the island with super luxe villas that come with private swimming pools (another merciful amenity considering the hot climate), to the Blue Lagoon, inspiration for Brooke Shields' iconic coming-of-age film. This lagoon within the Big Lagoon is where you can swim with blacktip sharks, which have all of the scary shark traits—a fin that menacingly protrudes above the water, a side-to-side prowl—but none of the bite. They are actually docile creatures and pleasant beach companions. Disclaimer: Don't try wading in waters teeming with these sharks unless supervised by professionals—our Tahitian guides kept one eye on us and the other on the wood-fire barbecue grill, where they were sizzling fish and chicken for our motu (island) picnic.
You can do other things on the island, too, such as tour a farm where Tahiti's famous black pearls are cultivated, or go to Tahiti's only winery, where the grapes are grown on coral soil. While the former is a worthy educational experience, it's also kind of a tourist trap; the latter cannot possibly be taken seriously by someone who lives less than 50 miles from the esteemed Napa and Sonoma wine country.
Lounge area at Moorea Beach Lodge.(Courtesy of Moorea Beach Lodge)
I know that at this point these photos seem tediously beautiful and almost unreal, but I assure you, this is how Moorea, an easy 30-minute ferry ride from Tahiti, looks on an ordinary Tuesday. At the breezy and intimate Moorea Beach Lodge, one of the island's top-rated guesthouses, we witnessed an incredible sunset while we waded close to shore, a large stingray skirting our periphery. Top of mind was Australian zoologist Steve Irwin's untimely demise at the fatal barb of an aggravated ray, so we kept our distance. But the next day, on a boat tour of the island with local residents Joanna and Teva of Temoana Tours, we charted a dolphin- and surfer-filled course toward a special lagoon-utopia, where stingrays and sharks swim in harmony with humans, and nary a bite nor a barb is inflicted. They even followed us to our motu picnic of grilled fish, head-on shrimp, and rice, gliding their way to our table in the water, waiting at our feet for a scrap of food like puppy dogs. After a quick hands-on demonstration from a reef expert on how to rehabilitate Moorea's stressed coral (warming oceans cause the coral to reject the photosynthetic algae that not only produces life-giving oxygen for them, but also helps remove waste), the boat drops us off at the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort, where we check into our overwater bungalow.
True to its worldwide acclaim, the room gives you every opportunity to interact with the water, from the aquarium window embedded into the floor to the outdoor stairs that lead straight into a private ocean lagoon. Wear water shoes for a comfortable walk through the waist-high drink (sharp coral shards scatter the sandy bottom), or swim a short distance to more open water, where, around 5:45 a.m., a fiery sunrise awaits. What's more, chances are good that you'll be the only one basking in its glow. What in the world did you do to deserve such beautiful solitude? By this logic, playing your karmic cards right means you could rack up more South Pacific sunrises in your future. The perks of a saintly life have never been better.