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On Location: Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora

Ever since I was a kid watching the movie "South Pacific" in my jammies at the drive-in, my dream has been to run off to some beautiful tropical island. So when I got the opportunity to take a trip to the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, you can bet I jumped on it! What I expected was a beachy, beautiful destination. What I found was so much more: a place where ancient spirits live in every tree, rock, and flower; a place where your heart slows and beats to a different rhythm; a place where your soul can cry out, and be answered. And the snorkeling is pretty spectacular, too.

It was a long trek from Boston to Los Angeles, then a smooth 7 1/2-hour flight to Tahiti, during which I slept not a wink despite copious amounts of excellent food and wine. The sun was setting in a glorious burst of color as the Air Tahiti Nui airbus began its descent into Faa’a Airport in Papeete. I strained to get my first glimpse of the island, but all I could see was the deep blue Pacific under our wings, then a sprinkling of stars as the sunset began to fade. 

Our group was greeted with traditional Polynesian music, garlanded with flowers, and whisked away to a special room to drink fresh-squeezed pineapple juice as our passports and luggage were cleared through customs. In just minutes, we were out the door and into the deep, soft, Tahitian night. I saw the familiar constellation of Orion lying on his side, as if he was resting from his exertions in the Northern hemisphere. Off to the left was the kite-shaped Southern Cross flying low on the horizon. Standing in the open-air reception area at the Le Meridien Tahiti Hotel that first night, the purr of the ocean breaking on the reef, the calls of unknown birds, the tang of juice on my tongue, and the caress of a breeze soft and warm as puppy breath filled me with an indescribable joy. My pores opened to drink in the moist air perfumed with hibiscus and tiare, and something inside that I hadn’t known was there began to stir, stretch, awaken. Yeah, it’s that kind of place.

The Islands
The island of Tahiti is the most developed of the islands we visited, as befits the home of the capital city of French Polynesia, Papeete. It’s also the youngest, which means its 7,000-foot-peaks have yet to be eroded by time, which makes for some spectacular views of cloud-enshrouded monoliths and sunlight-dappled jungle. To truly appreciate all Tahiti has to offer, you can take a four-wheel drive tour of the inner island or a helicopter tour, or hike some of the many trails. We just had time for a quick spin up the coast, past the bustling Marché (market) in the downtown area, where you can buy anything from fresh papaya to local crafts to black pearls, or even a tattoo if you really want to bring home some local color. 

Because the island is young and its reefs still developing, instead of white crushed coral beaches you’ll find silky black volcanic sand beneath your feet at Venus point, a favorite swimming spot for locals and a great place to watch the outrigger canoes rip by. The blowhole is another attraction not far from Papeete, where surf meets cliff and reverberates deep inside the rock; just minutes away are waterfalls that cascade down fern-encrusted cliffs. The historically minded also can also tour museums featuring the history of the islands; the life and work of painter Paul Gauguin, a famous French artist who spent his later years in Polynesia; and pictures and memorabilia relating to James Norman, author of Mutiny on the Bounty and numerous other books.

Just 20 minutes by water shuttle or a seven-minute flight from Tahiti lies the island of Moorea, full of craggy peaks and deep blue bays protected from overdevelopment by vigilant local environmentalists. Again, an island tour is the way to go—fields of pineapple and vanilla, pastel-colored houses, and gardens of hibiscus and birds of paradise abound, all capped by dramatic vistas of Opunohu and Cook’s Bays, with the soaring summit of Mt. Rotui cresting almost 3,000 feet above sea level. The view inspired James Michener to create the mythical “Bali Hai” for his book, Tales of the South Pacific; who knows what it might inspire your top performers to do.

Then there’s Bora Bora, which may just be the most beautiful place on the planet. Mt. Otemanu thrusts high above the island’s 16-mile coastline and is a central focal point for the palm-covered motus (small islands) and reefs that encircle the main island. The lagoon is world-famous for a reason—the snorkeling and scuba diving are incredible, but you don’t even need to get wet to see tropical fish twinkle over multicolored coral heads: Many of the island’s resorts have overwater bungalows with glass coffee tables or floors so you can watch the wildlife from the comfort of your room. A motu picnic, where you’re whisked off to a  private islet for an authentic Polynesian barbecue, is a must, as is taking a guided tour to see the sting rays up close and personal. For those looking to have an adventure, there’s also shark feeding, where you can watch the sharks gulping fresh flesh right before your eyes, with no barrier between you and those big teeth (don’t worry, it’s safe: No one has ever been bitten in the decades these shark feedings have been going on).

The only groups who may not fall in love with Tahiti and the outer islands are die-hard golfers and late-night partiers—there’s only one 18-hole golf course in French Polynesia, the 72-par Olivier Breaud International Golf Course in Tahiti, and outside of Papeete, there’s not much nightlife to speak of—even restaurants empty out by 9 p.m. or so. But between jet skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving, tennis, outrigger canoeing, kayaking, parasailing, and beach volleyball, there’s so much to do during the days that they’ll be too pooped to party anyway.

No Last Resorts
In my way-too-short visit, I had the pleasure of seeing just of few of the many spectacular resort hotels the islands have to offer. While there are similarities—overwater, beach, and garden thatched-roof bungalows, incredible restaurants serving French, Polynesian, Chinese, and other types of indescribably delicious meals, and a variety of water sports—each has its own special allure.

For example, a reflecting pool at the Le Meridien Tahiti Hotel mirrors the sun and stars as birds flit around the treetops. The resort also offers the colorful Matisse ballroom, which opens out onto an outdoor reception area. The Tahiti Beachcomber Inter-Continental Resort has indoor facilities that can hold up to 240 people theater-style, and up to 600 for a sit-down dinner. When they’re not in meetings, your group will love hanging out in the Beachcomber’s two swimming pools, one of which has a breathtaking view of nearby Moorea from its swim-up bar. The Sheraton Hotel Tahiti, with 200 rooms and suites, plus extensive conference areas, stands out not only for its superb restaurant and interesting décor, but also for an elegant spa and fitness center that  offers something unique in my experience: ocean views for exercise bikers. The panorama from all these resorts is incredible, especially when the sun begins to slip across the Sea of the Moon to sink behind neighboring Moorea in a splash of color.

The overwater bungalows at the Moorea Beachcomber Inter-Continental Resort are especially well-suited for groups because they rest on motus instead of docks, with courtyard areas a group could take over for a private function. Its Tepee meeting room can accommodate up to 150 theater-style. But what’s really cool about this resort is the Bathy’s Club world-class scuba diving center and the Dolphin Quest area, where guests can frolic with Flipper. Not to mention the ultimate amenity: H´eléne’s Spa, where you can get treatments surrounded by the sights, scents, and sounds of nature in rooms that open to lush gardens.

Then there’s the incomparable Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, whose 80 bungalows face Mt. Otemanu on the main island of Bora Bora. The docks to the overwater bungalows include baskets of bread guests can take to feed the swarms of fish under their rooms’ glass coffee tables, and just a short hike from the rear of the property is a panoramic 360-degree hilltop view from Bora Bora to the ocean’s horizon, an ideal spot for viewing the sun as it rises and sets. And Le Meridien in Bora Bora’s beach-front bungalows are something really special: They open out onto a private beach fronting a lagoon full of rescued and rehabilitating sea turtles and a variety of exotic and rare species of fish.

Unfortunately, some of these resorts get so much honeymoon and tourist travel that they’re not hungry enough to negotiate discount rates for group business. But most say they do want your business, and are willing to work with you on rates. With the great exchange rate for the country’s currency, the French Pacific franc, and Air Tahiti Nui’s willingness to work with planners on airfares, you may just find that this destination is more affordable—and, just 2 1/2 hours further by air than Hawaii, closer—than you expected.

An Experience that Lingers
I thought it was just my imagination, but the day after I got back to Massachusetts, my husband noticed it too: The gardenia-like scent of tiare flowers seemed to have followed me home. Every now and then, I still catch a faint whiff, a light, ethereal reminder of these unforgettable islands.

So if you want to reward your top producers, send them to Florida or California. If you want to show them you really appreciate their hard work, send them to Mexico or Hawaii. But if you want to rock their souls, send them to French Polynesia. They, like me, will never be the same again.


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