“When you arrive in Tahiti, a greeter puts a hei Tiare [fresh flowers garland] around your neck to give you a sense of the smells, colours, and Mana of the islands,” said Valentine Skeels of Epik Escapes, a tour operator based in Canada.
Skeels moved to Red Deer, Alberta for love, but was born and raised in Moorea, French Polynesia.
“And when you leave, you’re given a necklace of shells to take a piece of the islands with you,” she said.
PAX and Skeels were part of a recent Tahiti Tourisme FAM to The Islands of Tahiti.
The islands are full of artistry, Polynesian culture, and adrenaline activities, but what did we love the most?
Here are our top five favourite activities from the trip:
1) ATVing in Bora Bora
“We’re the second ATV tour to open in [the island of] Bora Bora,” said Toiki Ferrand of Bora Bora ATV Explorer. Two by two, our group powered through the island mountains on his shiny new quads. Ferrand only started offering the tours a month before our arrival.
“I used to do an e-bike tour, but most tourists found it too difficult,” he said. As we zoomed up and down winding and rugged paths, I could see why. “I’ve had more ATV clients in a month than a year of e-bikes," he said.
Ferrand also offered jeep tours, but being my own driver was way more fun. Part of what makes his tour special is Ferrand’s access to 7 acres of raw mountain owned by his family. From the top of mount Popoti, he showed us sweeping views of both sides of the island out into the turquoise lagoons.
We ended the tour at a small artist studio tucked into the mountainside, where we met his painter uncle, aunt, and grandmother. “This,” he gestured at the mango trees and the remains of a Polynesian temple, “is where I grew up.” His family was relieved to be living in the quiet mountains, as opposed to the “noisy” life seaside. Everything’s relative, even in paradise.
2) Taking to the sea
“A catamaran is the cheap way to do Tahiti,” said Marie Boutet, account manager for Tahiti Yacht Charter on Raiatea Island. A four-day, three-night cruise costs $2,220 USD per person, which includes a cook, all meals (prepared on board) and a captain/tour guide.
We dined on delicious poisson cru (raw fish) and lots of local fruits, but the company can completely customize the menu. The cooks are so good that one was poached by a client to work on his yacht. Drinks are extra (at cost plus 10 per cent). The catamaran comfortably fit six of us and can accommodate up to twelve. Lounging on deck was an amazing way to enjoy the beautiful views The Islands of Tahiti offered as we travelled to different activities, such as a vanilla plantation, a pearl farm, and snorkelling in a coral garden.
A catamaran offers a whole new experience, she said. “Usually you see the lagoon from the island; here, you see the island from the lagoon.”
3) Taking to the sky
“We can land directly on a couple of golf courses or take clients to sunsets in various locations,” said Laurent Touvron, CEO of Tahiti Nui Helicopters, which began operations last year. Some people will use their services as a transfer from the airport directly to a resort with a landing pad.
“The Four Seasons in Bora Bora is the most popular for this,” he said. But 60 per cent of their business is sightseeing. It was stunning to be flying amongst the thin peaks of an extinct volcano on Tahiti Island and over the breathtaking blues of the surrounding lagoons.
The company is also actively expanding its romance packages such as a new excursion to Tupai Island. “It’s heart shaped” he said. “We’ll land on the beach with champagne.” He expects this to be popular for marriage proposals. As he pointed out, if a heart-shaped island can’t convince someone to marry you, “They’ll never say yes.”
4) Planting some coral
“Yeah, we’re here to save the ocean,” says 20-year-old Titouan Bernicot, who helped found Coral Gardeners two years ago. “We’re a group of island kids; we grew up spear fishing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
He was inspired to help start Coral Gardeners when he saw “bleached coral” (where the algae that gives corals its colourful vibrancy and life-sustaining habitat has died) in The Islands of Tahiti.
The Coral Gardeners were tuned into Mother Nature, but their approach was tech savvy, from crowd sourcing to forging virtual alliances around the world. They just moved into their new headquarters on Moorea Island, rent-free for the next two years because the owner of the property is so inspired by their story.
Their youthful energy is like the island’s Mana spirit—palpable and infectious. The Coral Gardeners experience explained how reefs are being impacted by climate change and offered a hands-on coral planting experience working from grafts.
“We’re aiming to appeal to kids to jump up and save the reefs,” he said, but their impact has been intergenerational. He said some people find the hands-on-learning experience quite emotional. “One grandma cried.”
5) Learning to drum and open a coconut
“Everyone agrees that culture is part of what makes Tahiti special,” said Laura Theron, cofounder and co-director of the Arioi Cultural Center outside of Papeete. “You can go to beaches anywhere.”
But, she said, tapping into an “economy around culture” has a way to go in The Islands of Tahiti. The centre offers a variety of hands-on lessons, from drumming to traditional fire-making.
We couldn’t do the latter because a recent rain left everything too wet, but Theron did teach us how to open a coconut by stabbing it onto a metal rod and patiently peeling back the outer layer. We didn’t emerge ready to be a castaway, but it was a start.
Other highlights included learning to blow a conch and beating drums. I thought I was getting to be pretty bad ass at the latter until one of their 14-year-old students blew us away by beating two drums at once in a performance worthy of France’s Got Talent.
“We want to share,” said Theron. “People learn through craft and rhythm.”
For more information visit tahititourisme.ca.