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Hawaii and Pacific: French Polynesia - Tahiti, Moorea & Bora Bora

Famous for its picturesque landscapes -- French painter Gaugin created his most famous works in Tahiti -- and overwater fares (thatched-roof bungalows), French Polynesia consists of 118 motus (small islands) and coral atolls midway between Australia and South America. The postcard-pretty scenery is filled with palms, coconut plantations, fragrant vanilla farms, colorful blooms, citrus trees...and relatively few tourists. According to Tahiti Tourism, more people visit Hawaii in 10 days than come to Tahiti in an entire year. Most visitors travel to the Society island chain, one of five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia, which includes Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora.

In a Word: Stilts

First built in Bora Bora, overwater fares ("fa-RAYS") are a honeymoon must. Suspended on stilts over the water, these dreamy huts feature all the modern amenities of marine life, including plexiglass floors or coffee tables through which you can watch your fellow fish swim beneath your feet (slide a door open to share a bit of croissant from your canoe-delivered breakfast). Many even have lights to illuminate your in-room aquarium at night! Connected by wooden walkways, Christmas-light strings of fares can stretch several hundred feet out into the gentle water. When you're ready to swim, just dive out your doorway.

Why We'd Go: Five Features You'll Never Forget

  • Black pearls: Polynesia is the capital of these sultry members of the demure pearl family, which are cultivated in the indigenous black pearl oyster. Tour pearl farms, learn how they are cultivated, and choose your own little beauty on the islands of Mahini, Tahaa, and Rangiroa.

  • Surfing: Hail the surfing gods in Tahiti, the sport's birthplace. Popular spots include Papenoo, Punaauia, and Paea. Huahine and Moorea offer clockwork swells and fewer crowds.

  • Music: Traditional Polynesian instruments include omnipresent ukuleles, pahu and toere drums, conch shells, nose flutes, and guitars. The lilting island-country tunes are happy and relaxing.

  • Friendly fish: In the multiblue lagoons of Polynesia, you can swim with dolphins, sleek moray eels, sea turtles, and docile manta rays who practically glide into your arms looking for treats. Feeling brave? Feed the sharks. Small reef sharks, that is.

  • Coconut shell bras: Need we say more?

Pucker Up: Island Aphrodisiac

Missing your mojo? Sip a little noni, a bitter local juice believed to stroke your libido. If that doesn't work, mai tais are always a surefire solution.

Tahiti

Most visitors to French Polynesia land in Tahiti, where the islands' main airport is located, but spend the majority of their trip elsewhere in the islands. Not so fast! Consider spending a day at either end of your trip exploring "The Island of Dreams." The big island's interior is deep green valley covered in rain forest, waterfalls, lava tubes, and fields of flowers. Put a fragrant white tiare, Tahiti's national bloom, behind your left ear (that means you're taken) and explore by foot or Jeep.

In the capital city of Papeete ("pa-pee-AY-tee"), don't miss the Marche du Papeete (central market) to browse black pearls, wood carvings, pareus (sarongs), mother-of-pearl shells, vanilla, coconut oil, coffee, and French perfume. (Knot Note: Haggling is considered rude.) At night, take in a Polynesian show, featuring traditional music and dance plus manly majorettes twirling flaming torches; hit the discos; or head for Rue des Ecoles, the main drag for Polynesian transvestites, known as mahus. The Piano Bar is the best place to people watch and catch a cabaret.

Moorea

The sight of Moorea's jagged volcanic peaks, just 11 miles from Tahiti, proves irresistible to most visitors. Tahiti's hustle and bustle gives way to a quiet isle boasting beautiful bays, lagoons, and pineapple plantation-draped mountain slopes. Moorea means "yellow lizard" and you can reach it by plane (10 minutes) or ferry (30 minutes) from Tahiti.

Rent a Jeep or bikes to see Moorea, and follow the coastal road to ogle the stunning interior mountain range. Be sure to visit Belvedere Lookout, surrounded by mountains save for spectacular vistas over Cook's and Opunohu bays. At night, feast your eyes and stomach at the Tiki Village Theatre. The evening begins with a tamaara feast, in which food -- usually an entire pig -- is wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pit oven in the ground. Next, drum-beating dance and fire breathing enhance the effects of that punch you're sipping!

Bora Bora

A 45-minute flight from Tahiti, Bora Bora is a majestic island with three verdant volcanic peaks and offshore islets inside a protective necklace of coral. Famous for its starring role in the 1950's film South Pacific, Bora Bora is French Polynesia's most exclusive island and considered one of the most beautiful in the world. Expect to pay top dollar for accommodations and enjoy the amenities to match. Don't miss dinner at Bloody Mary's, a celeb hangout and island mainstay, where the menu revolves around the catch of the day.

When We'd Go: French Polynesia at its Best

  • Best weather: Dry season runs May to October; evenings are sometimes cool enough to necessitate a light sweater.
  • Best prices: Rates are consistent year-round
  • Festival highlights: The first highlight of the Polynesian calendar is the month-long Heiva i Tahiti festival in July, a festival of music, dancing, sports, arts and crafts that crescendos on July 14, France's Bastille Day. The second big event is the three-day, four-island Hawaiki Nui canoe race. Sixty six-man teams -- often bedecked in traditional tattoos -- from all over the territory and abroad compete against each other. The race ends in Bora Bora to the rhythm of drummers and cheering spectators.

Before You Go: Need-to-Know Info

  • Entry requirements: Passport, return ticket
  • Language: French, Tahitian, English
  • Currency: French Pacific Franc (CFP)
  • Flight time: 14 hrs from NYC, 7.5 hrs from LA, 11 hrs from Dallas
  • Hotel tax: 9%
  • Tipping: Not expected
  • Getting around: Le Truck (the public bus service); taxis (very expensive); rental cars; scooters; bikes; inter-island boats, catamarans, or charter flights
  • Homework: Read Tales of the South Pacific, Return to Paradise, or Rascals in Paradise, all by James Michener
  • More info: Tahiti Tourism, (800) 365-4949

TYING THE KNOT: MARRIAGE LICENSE REQUIREMENTS

-- Matthew Allan

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