The emerald sea stretches out as far as the eye can see. I’m soaking up the view to the soothing sound of lapping waves when I spot a striped fish through the glass beneath my feet. For a second I feel like I’m stranded alone in the middle of the Pacific. And in a way I am – I’ve booked myself a solo holiday in French Polynesia. The glass floor is in my temporary abode: an upscale hut on stilts on the Tautau islet, set over a lagoon.
Tautau is the size of a grain of sand on a map. In fact, it isn’t officially listed among the 118 islands and atolls that form French Polynesia, an archipelago scattered across a section of the Pacific Ocean that’s roughly the size of Europe. Only 67 of the islands are inhabited, the best-known being Tahiti. But for someone like me, seeking to reconnect with myself, it’s the perfect place to be.
The day is nearing its end, but I’m itching to explore my surroundings. I choose a path that crosses Tautau toward a beach where the sunsets are said to be breathtaking, stopping along the way to admire how the lush fauna is reflected in the mirror-flat surface of a lagoon. A golden light frames each palm frond and tree branch and imbues the scene with an air of mystery. I jump as an enormous crab comes out of nowhere, but he’s more afraid of me than I am of him – he scuttles back into his hole. Aside from this new friend and the birds in the trees, there isn’t a soul in sight.
I feel as though I’m suddenly starring in Cast Away – minus the stress, of course. Unlike Tom Hanks, I haven’t had to work for my dinner: raw tuna with coconut milk, called i’a ota, or Tahitian poisson cru. It’s a Polynesian delicacy. Did I mention my desert island is also home to the Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, a Relais & Châteaux property? Clearly, my Robinson Crusoe week comes with a five-star twist.
I’m tempted by more lazy luxury the next day – cue the chaise longue by the hotel’s sprawling infinity pool – but I choose exploration instead. With mask and snorkel in tow, I trek to the beach. Between my motu (“islet” in Tahitian) and the next one over lies a turquoise lagoon with its own coral reef. I take a few steps into the shallow water, then plunge my head in. A kaleidoscope of multicoloured fish swims in front of me. As I move forward, I feel as though I’m walking through a coral labyrinth. Every now and then I spot the long quills of a sea urchin. Suddenly a school of huge, nearly transparent fish appears and swims around me, unfazed by my presence. Now this is the kind of company I was after.
A school of fish swims around me, unfazed by my presence. Now this is the kind of company I was after.
Like many visitors to French Polynesia, I want to experience a few of the different islands while I’m here. Two boat trips and a flight get me to Tehotu, which faces the volcanic island of Bora Bora and is home to a Four Seasons resort. A whole other atmosphere reigns here. It feels like a village, criss-crossed with little roads navigable by golf carts. “‘Ia ora na!” the drivers greet me as they pass. I reply without breaking stride as I make my way to the spa, intent on ridding myself of any last traces of stress.
After a soak in the outdoor tub (my only company this time, a group of tiny preening birds), I let the expert hands of Siti work their magic. I’ve chosen the Polynesian massage, also known as taurumi, which involves monoï or tamanu oil, derived from a local nut whose extracts have reparative properties – perfect for any sun damage inflicted the day before. There’s a centuries-old tradition of massage in Polynesia, whereby locals get back rubs from family starting in infancy as a way to cure both body and soul. A few minutes into the treatment, I already feel reborn.
I’m totally blissed out by the time I plunge my paddle into the clear waters of the nearby lagoon. To my surprise, I’m a natural at keeping my balance on a stand-up paddleboard. I mimic Sara Garcia, who’s about to up the ante by teaching me yoga moves in this idyllic setting. Between asanas I gaze at Mount Otemanu, the highest peak in Bora Bora, rising up on the horizon. Then, during pigeon pose, I catch sight of a handful of fish passing by my board. “There’s also an octopus that likes to join in sometimes,” she says with a smile.
At nightfall I sit down to a meal at Arii Moana, a restaurant that mixes French and Polynesian cuisine. Couples in romantic tête-à-têtes surround me, some on their honeymoon, yet I feel completely at ease in my solitude. I savour each of the flavours put before me: royal crab with pineapple and miri (an aromatic local herb that resembles basil), mahi-mahi with lime from the Marquesas Islands, a millefeuille flavoured with vanilla from the nearby island of Taha’a. I’m so relaxed, I feel as though I’ve shed my tumultuous life back home for good.
From my seat on the propeller plane I spot a ring of islets around an opalescent lagoon. There lies Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando’s private atoll. The actor fell in love with the area (not to mention his co-star Tarita Teriipaia) while on location filming Mutiny on the Bounty. He bought Tetiaroa in 1967 and holed up here until the 1990s whenever he needed a break from Hollywood. “In the evenings he would stargaze on his catamaran,” says his granddaughter Tumi, who still lives on-site. She works for the Tetiaroa Society, an organization whose mandate is to preserve this nature reserve, in keeping with Brando’s wishes. Both a bird sanctuary and turtle birthing grounds, Tetiaroa is protected by a coral barrier that makes it practically inaccessible by boat. Of its 12 islets, only Onetahi is inhabited.
On Onetahi, a resort called the Brando allows a fortunate handful of travellers to experience the solitude the actor sought for himself, without affecting Tetiaroa’s sanctum sanctorum. The property runs on solar power and is on its way to being granted Platinum LEED certification, the greatest distinction in eco-design. As I float in the private pool of my luxurious villa, I can see why celebrities might hide out here. Since arriving, I haven’t crossed paths with a single other visitor – not even on the pristine white-sand beach. If I wanted, I could choose to have my meals delivered and never to step outside this villa, as many guests do.
I enjoy an occasional change of scenery, though, so I head out for dinner at Les Mutinés, presided over by Michelin-starred French chef Guy Martin. On the way, I spot three couples gazing up at a different set of stars with Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, director of the Tetiaroa Society. He’s pointing out constellations. Polynesian people travelled impressive distances by boat, he explains, guided by the heavens – that’s how they came to inhabit their own Pacific paradise.
I think back to a conversation I had the previous day with Teiva, my guide to Tahiti’s Papenoo Valley. “The Polynesians were the Vikings of the south,” he said. “For them, land was their home, and the ocean, their garden.” I asked if it was loneliness that made them venture out to explore the seas. “It’s true that there’s a certain melancholy to being alone amid all this water,” he said. “We call that feeling fiu.”
A little loneliness can lead to great things, it seems. After all, without it, I never would have discovered this little slice of paradise.