Ah, the exotic South Pacific, it brings out the dreamy romantic in everyone. And so, after years of talk and dreaming—not to mention a full year of planning—we went. And no, it was not our honeymoon or an anniversary. We went with our children—yes, our teenage children.
Armed with fuzzy memories of the 1980’s film Blue Lagoon, along with songs from the more recent Moana, we headed to Tahiti. And to be honest, I’m not sure many other trips could have lured our college and high school kids to spend nearly three weeks with “just us.” It actually reminded me of the many Disney trips from long ago, when destination was driven by their preschool pleas. But this time they didn’t want Buzz Lightyear or Ariel, they wanted overwater bungalows, just like Kim Khardashian. Thanks social media, and Kim.
And since summers have become more about internship opportunities than family bonding, Christmas break was the only chance to go. So, although the best weather in French Polynesia is actually in June, July and August with less heat, humidity and rain, we took our chances and landed in Tahiti in full rainy season.
If you are contemplating taking a family trip to this part of the world and want to know if it is worth going, our answer is a resounding yes. To stand amid all that natural beauty is as breathtaking and exhilarating as you think it will be. Actually more so. And it is most definitely worth the expense, long haul, and jet lag (which was surprisingly minor.)
Of course we endured family fights and teenage drama, who doesn’t? But when you are in such a stunning part of the world, the sulking is softened by picturesque coastlines, paddle boarding and fresh fish every night.
And if you do retaliate, it might just mean tossing someone’s book out a bungalow into the glistening green water below. This may have happened…OK, it did happen. The point is that this tropical paradise of volcanic origin is just too gorgeous to let spoilsports win out for long.
We began this family vacation by flying from JFK to LAX on Jet Blue, then hopping onto an 8 hour Air France flight to Papeete, Tahiti, which is the gateway to the Society Islands. We chose hotels for their overwater bungalow experience,
but many we met along the way were quite content with their cruises, such as Windstar and Paul Gaugin. A seven or ten day cruise to Tahiti and the society islands, paired with a week exploring New Zealand would be a perfect plan for next time.
Upon arrival, the immense heat and humidity set us into a slow motion while calm enveloped us in the form of Tahitian smiles, relaxed attitudes, and fragrant welcoming leis working their magic at just-below-nose level. Time felt more precious, and our heartbeats found a new rhythm, one set to the pounding Pacific surf.
We were whisked from the airport in an SUV, amidst a frenzy of ‘la ora na’s (hello) and maururu’s (thank you), bound for the remote and lush Tahiti Iti, where our rustic hotel, the Vanira lodge, felt more like a tree house. It had sweeping ocean views and a relaxed atmosphere of open-air thatched huts. And no matter where you were on the property, from hammock to restaurant to outdoor shower, you could train your eyes on the waves crashing on the outer reef in the distance.
First things first, the heat was oppressive, so we shed clothing and searched for sunscreen. We plowed through our luggage for converter plugs and bikinis, as endearing geckos scampered along rock walls, adorned with pungent greenery. It was all so intoxicating, but I held on to my reason for being here—to see the infamous Teahupo’o wave up close—even if my enthusiasm was unmatched.
The hot moist air made us lazy so gazing off into the ocean horizon from the hammock became a thing, and so did crawling into the pool, lazily trying to decipher the French being spoken by the staff and other hotel guests. The outdoor shower was a standout with its extraordinary water views.
We then climbed into a pick up truck with a local guide, all three kids in the flat bed, hanging on tight and then laughing in the sudden rain. We piled aboard a simple motorboat in the marina, taking in the stunning shoreline and glimmering shades of blue in the lagoon, as we headed toward the reef. The breeze was a blessing and I honestly hadn’t expected to get this close, pulling up right beside the Teahupo’o break.
The force of so much water approaching such a shallow reef created such a glorious wave. To see its curling shape and power, feel the mist and sense that exhilaration—that was why we’d come. It was so beautiful, and so extremely wild and perfect. I could have stayed right in that spot for days. But we pulled away, and motored over instead to a sandbar in the lagoon where we could all jump in and swim our first of many swims in salty sweet surrender.
We reluctantly returned to Tahiti, staying at the Inter-Continetal Hotel, which lies a mere five minutes from Papeete airport, and boasts prime sunset viewing over the Sea of Moons and volcanic peaks of Moorea.
While in Tahiti I found the surfing with Tamahee Surf School was fantastic at Mahina’s Orofara break, with a sandy bottom and big warm waves.
The next day we flew to Bora Bora, which came from Tahitian word Pora Pora, meaning first born, indicating it may have been the mort important island after Ra’iatea. But to us, it felt like landing in Oz, with such mind-blowing exquisite colors, especially after the crowded, hot, free for all nature of the island airports. We all stood like wide-eyed five year olds at Disney, in full wonder, awe and amazement at the beauty before us.
We were silenced by the vibrant colors all around us and the natural beauty of Mount Otemanu, sticking out up out of the sea like a hitchhikers thumb, surrounded by a lagoon comprised of every shade of blue imaginable, and some I was sure didn’t even exist. It felt like work to turn my gaze away from this majestic mountain majesty.
In bleating heat, we soared across the pale green lagoon in the shuttle boat from the airport to reach our home for the next 5 nights—The St. Regis, Bora Bora. The balmy sea breeze kept us breathing, while the turquoise water kept us riveted to our spots.
As we disembarked, we were greeted with the most heartfelt smile from our own personal butler, the exuberant and efficacious Scott Shen.
This young guy was an amazing human who managed to make each of us feel like royalty. He whisked us around the extensive hotel grounds by golf cart–
and seemed to have no one else to care for but us (not true) and nothing else he’d rather do (also not true). The illusion was perfect though, and we all adored him and felt so grateful for his presence, constant attention and almost eerie anticipation of our needs.While there, we packed each day with activities into each day, like snorkeling in the lagoonarium, paddle board racing against other hotel guests, sailing, kayaking and riding bikes.
But we also lounged a lot in a hammock strung up between driftwood poles in the lagoon, feeling as if we’d climbed right into a travel magazine spread.
At night, we dined on French cuisine at Lagoon by Jean-Georges,as sharks swam beneath glass just below our feet.
We spent plenty of time—including Christmas Day—enjoying our overwater villa’s front row seat to all that marine life, complete with a large suspended infinity pool and drop dead view of Mount Otemanu.
Soaking in that view each morning while drinking coffee then jumping into the sea was a truly unreal way to start each day.
It was the perfect paradise perch, complete with glass panels in the floor so that you could watch the fish below, even while in the bathroom!We also did down dogs alongside celebrities, jet skied around the entire island,
performed in a Polynesian dance show,and had massages in the spa (backdrop for the movie Couples Retreat).
We bonded with marine life by helping heal sea turtles for a day at Le Meridien Turtle Center,
then swimming with lemon sharks, sting rays and moray eels.
We channeled mana while eating more coconuts, pineapples and vanilla bean than we knew we could, while giving in often to the urge to buy local black pearls.
The view somehow kept getting better with each sunrise and sunset, while relaxation and Instagram photo ops were endless. We got better and better at throwing our bodies off the deck into the warm sea, in surrender and celebration.
One morning while swimming in front of the villa, I was followed by a pair of sting rays and got nervous. But it quickly turned to jealousy, as I wished for gills so I could stay down there and glide permanently around with them in all that silent pale green glory.
Another time I lost my goggles and within minutes a hotel jet ski arrived, thanks to Scott Shen of course, in a futile search for them, proving the Kardashian-level of pampering at this resort.
Needless to say, when we had to leave the St. Regis, after five nights of such royal treatment, there were many tears, as we said farewell to Scott Shen. He waved to us non-stop until our boat was out of sight. We felt like we were saying goodbye to family.
We took the quick Air Tahiti Nui flight to Raiatea where we boarded a 40-foot motorboat to explore both a vanilla plantation and a black pearl farm on nearby Taha’a—known as the “vanilla island.”
We spent that night at Opoa Beach resort in Raiatea in side-by-side open-air cottages beside a deep blue lagoon fringed with layers of turquoise and seafoam green on the distant horizon.
The bright white porches and hammocks at Opoa allowed for some amazing decompression time. I will always remember reading in that hammock, glancing up at the lush motu wedged within a triangle of sand, sea and palms, a salty sea breeze cooling my skin to the perfect temperature.
To avoid stepping upon the life-threatening stone fish (Brooke Shields, Blue Lagoon), we are told to protect our feet when snorkeling. The ride in a small skiff out to Bird Island was breathtaking, as we spotted sting rays, fish and mesmerizing coral gardens.
We then headed by boat to the super remote and tranquil overwater bungalows at Le Taha’a Island Resort, a Relais & Chateau. It’s set on a small island near the main island of Taha’a, where coral gardens were out of this world. We snorkeled through the labyrinth, with a strong current guiding us, while we fought to not let it push us straight into the reef.
It was also a paddle boarding paradise, where rainbows shot from sky to sea So connected to the sea were we, as we swam blissfully in shallow green lagoons with baby black fin sharks. To the west, lay the perfect view of Bora Bora, while the lush tranquility of Taha’a sat to our East.
And after two days of Taha’a calm, we made the very long journey to Moorea via boat, plane, car, and ferry. We settled into the Hilton to celebrate New Year’s Eve in overwater bungalows, set in a shallow lagoon between Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay.
Some highlights in Moorea were our dinner of champagne and parrotfish at Moorea Beach Café
and our waterfall hike with VIP tours, rich with island history, fresh fruit, and flora and fauna lessons.
We especially loved our ATV ride on our last day, which left us on such a high, wild-eyed from the adventure of ascending to Magic Mountain peak. We’d covered a lot of ground from the center of the crater that birthed Moorea through pineapple fields, up to dizzying heights and the usual pitstop for fresh pineapple and fell in love with soursop ice cream.
We had also hit our stride in Moorea in the overwater bungalows, swimming and exploring the coral gardens of the lagoon with even more bravado, like little Mermaids.
One crazy moment while I was far out by the barrier reef, a manta ray just slid beneath my board as I hovered a few inches above the coral. I caught my breath and swallowed all those glorious shades of blue and green like they were delicious dessert flavors. Sinking into that salty, buoyant, and buttery smooth blue-green water each morning was such a natural therapeutic tonic. I actually whimpered as I climbed back up the wooden ladder to the bungalow for the very last time, realizing that life would now have to resume, without this water in it.
But we did leave, wishing we could somehow pack up that night sky of stars and Milky Way like a blanket and stuff it into our bag. We rode the ferry back to Tahiti to spend our last night at the Intercontinental Hotel in Papeete, then flew back to LAX on a 7 hour Air France flight. We topped the trip off with a whirlwind weekend in LA, staying at Casa Del Mar to look at a few colleges and connect with family and friends before our final leg home to JFK.
Landing in New York, after three weeks of warmth and salty seas, we were assaulted by windchill and leaden skies as our Tahitian skin shed off us in thin sheets, rebelling against the dry air. I held my breath and shut my eyes, trying hard to hold on to my imaginary gills and pale green underwater memories.