Few places are farther away from the UK than Tahiti but it’s more than worth the journey, says Stephanie Krahn

tahiti

As I step off the aircraft and walk across the tarmac to the palm-fringed open-fronted  ‘arrivals’ hall, the sound of a ukulele eases away the weariness after a 22-hour journey and I feel like I’m in another world.

It’s not quite another world but it is the other side of the world. Forming part of French Polynesia, Tahiti’s 118 islands lie midway between Australia and South America and at the centre of the Polynesian Triangle made up of Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui.

It is a long way to go but it’s worth the journey when you’re rewarded with breathtakingly beautiful waters, shimmering with shades of blue ranging from aquamarine to deep blue.

This is a region that has a rich culture and strong traditions, with an environment that boasts verdant islands with lush rainforests and mountains rising from the sea.

Tahiti offers luxury in spades and has been enjoyed by the likes of Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and the Kardashians. Marlon Brando liked it so much he bought his own slice of paradise, Tetiaroa, a palm-fringed island where The Brando, a $150 million six-star eco resort, is due to open by the end of 2012.

Despite its allure for celebs, these paradisiacal islands have seen a fall in visitor numbers, due in part to the economic downturn and a lack of airlift.

Last year it welcomed 154,000 visitors, compared with 227,000 in 20o1. UK visitors last year totalled 2,840, a figure Tahiti Tourisme aims to double this year.

Account director Jane Dawkins says: “We have seen a massive downturn in visitor numbers from the UK due to the recession and the fact that Air New Zealand stopped flying to Tahiti in 2007. There are now two airlines that fly there, Air Tahiti Nui and Air France. Our goal is to get back to pre-recession figures of about 5,000 UK passengers a year.”

New facilities may help. Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa reopened in September after renovating its traditional-style units. The property, on the north coast of Rangiroa, offers 25 garden bungalows, 25 beach bungalows and 10 overwater bungalows.

Dawkins believes it’s the diversity of the islands that make them so attractive. “All five archipelagos are very different,” she says. “The high islands, known as the Society Islands, are very lush and green, with the classic image of a turquoise lagoon surrounding a mountain in the middle.

“Then you’ve got the low islands, called the Tuamotus, which are atolls and offer great diving. There are the Gambiers with Mangareva, which is famous for its high-quality black and multi-coloured pearls; the Australs, which are islands that retain a wild, preserved and mysterious feel; and Marquesas with its powerful landscapes, cliffs, sharp peaks and deep valleys.”

Agents can become a Tahiti specialist by completing the online Tiare Training programme at tahiti-tourisme.co.uk.

Once you are a specialist, Tahiti is not a hard sell. From whale watching and swimming with dolphins in Moorea to unrivalled dive sites in Rangiroa, the unique experiences offered are plentiful.

Arriving in Bora Bora really does feel like you’ve landed in paradise, the imposing Mount Otemanu providing a backdrop for an island of unbelievable beauty.

Karine Peyras, assistant manager of Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa, says: “People come to Bora Bora because it has a mystical charm.

It is famous because of World War Two [the US army used it as a base] and because the island is so remote. When people talk about French Polynesia, they know about Bora Bora, they don’t know the other islands. And of course the lagoon is one of the main reasons people come here.”

The lagoon is the location for a must-do trip – feeding sharks and rays. Our guide, Ra’inui, or ‘Big Sky’, started the day by speeding across the stunning blue waters of the lagoon while serenading us with Tahitian songs and a ukulele. As the warm air rushed across my face – temperatures rarely dip below 30C – I truly felt I was in paradise.

We stopped to snorkel and feed the fish, before travelling a bit farther out to find black-tipped reef sharks. Dark blue water indicated we were in much deeper water and as Big Sky beckoned me I suddenly had second thoughts.

I gingerly walked to the back of the boat and lowered myself into the water, all the while clinging to the rope that held the anchor. After I was sure the sharks were more interested in eating fish than humans I let go and began swimming among these graceful creatures, which can grow up to five feet in length.

One amazing experience was followed by another as we sped off to the shallows to feed stingrays, which, well used to being fed, glide past so closely you can stroke them.

The day was topped off with lunch on Big Sky’s Robinson Crusoe-like private island, complete with palm trees, house, and unexpectedly, a fully plumbed toilet.

As we ate, Big Sky once again strummed a sound on his ukulele that will forever remind me of the extraordinary beauty of the South Pacific.

GETTING THERE: Virgin Atlantic flies non-stop from London to Los Angeles to connect with partner airline Air Tahiti Nui’s service to the islands. For more information or to book call 0844 482 1675 or email resa@airtahitinui.co.uk.
Operators that offer Tahiti include Kuoni, Turquoise, Carrier, Austravel, Elegant Resorts and ITC Classics.

EXPERT TIPS
Shamira Kaumaya-hatt
Commercial director,
Sunset Faraway Holidays

“The first time I went to Tahiti was in 1997 and the wow factor just hits you. From the air you see all the archipelagos and the crystal-blue sea merging with the lagoons. You feel like you are lost in paradise. When I went again five years later, I fell in love with it all over again. I have visited four of the Society Islands and each one has its own beauty. Some are rustic and mountainous, while others have the wildlife and the lagoons, and the capital Papeete has the market, where you can haggle for black pearls.
The Moorea and Bora Bora combination is the best experience, with one night in Papeete. Moorea is the most naturistic island in the Society Islands and customers can experience the flora and fauna, as well as dolphins and turtles. The best way to sell Tahiti is eight or nine days in the islands, with a three-night break in Los Angeles on the way back to break up the 22-hour flight.”