Tikehau still an unspoiled retreat

Tikehau still an unspoiled retreat

by Anne Z. Cooke
Tribune News Service

There’s nothing quite so vibrantly, blindingly blue as the lagoon on Tikehau, an hour’s flight from Tahiti, in French Polynesia.

I’m deliciously alone, lying on the deck of my overwater bungalow at the Tikehau Pearl Resort, peering down through water as clear as glass and busier than any aquarium. When I climb down into the lagoon to float face down, a crowd of colorful iridescent fish crowd around me, bumping my hands and pecking at my face mask’s shiny rims.

The water is shallow close to the Pearl’s thatched main lodge. A breezy Polynesian-style retreat, it shelters beneath coconut palms on a sandy islet on this coral atoll, in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

From my perch on the deck, it’s peaceful watching the frigate birds overhead and listening to the waves crashing on the outer reef, a continuous low hum. Since Tikehau’s only “pass” through the reef is a narrow gap too perilous for anything larger than a fishing boat, it’s likely that Tikehau, where time seems to have stopped, will remain secluded and unspoiled. And how different it is from Tahiti and Bora Bora, in the neighboring Society Islands where my vacation began.

“Choices,” said Marie Garrigou, a spokesman for the Pearl Beach Resort hotels. “Choices is what visitors have here on Tahiti, or Bora Bora or Tikehau. There are a dozen ways to spend a vacation, from introducing your kids to Polynesian culture to mountain biking or kayaking. But mention Bora Bora and most people think honeymoon. We’d like to change that.”

After 10 days in French Polynesia, I knew what she meant. I didn’t know much about Tikehau when I added it to my itinerary, figuring that an atoll would be a change from two high islands. But I was lucky. Not only was it close to Tahiti — convenient for flying in and out from the airport at Papeete, Tahiti’s capital — but Tikehau is as different from Tahiti and Bora Bora as the two are from each other.

The magic on Tikehau was the empty islets, the silence, hot sunny days and the chance to be part of a group of six — not 60 — exploring Bird Island, a Galapagos-like sanctuary where two dozen sea birds eat, fly and build nests, completely unafraid of the visitors who pause to snap selfies with newly hatched chicks.

In contrast, Tahiti and Bora Bora’s steep, volcanic peaks and encircling lagoons beckoned with hiking, rock climbing, first-rate snorkeling, and those famous South Seas sunsets, the ones that paint the sky when the clouds gather over the peaks. And for explorers yearning for variety, the rest of French Polynesia was there, 115 more islands in five archipelagoes scattered over 2,123 square miles of Pacific Ocean.

The big-city thrill of the trip was my day in Papeete, a city alive with energy, shops and offices, a busy harbor filled with ships, narrow streets clogged with taxis and delivery trucks, and sidewalks crowded with sightseers, snack joints and fancy store windows displaying everything from women’s dresses to office equipment.

I’d contemplated mountain biking on the lower slopes of 7,352-foot Mount Orohena, highest mountain on Tahiti, and in the Society Islands, but after a closer inspection changed my mind. Instead, I joined a half-day cultural and waterfall truck tour guided by Teiva, (he uses just one name) a 12th-generation Tahitian who arrived in festival gear (boar’s tusk necklace, green pareo, pony tail and a huge smile).

Teiva’s family once owned the valley that was now parkland. Having played there as a child, he knows every creek and gully, he told us. Leaving sea level and a lush, flowery forest behind, we drove uphill on a narrow winding road, heading for the top of the valley. Then suddenly the forest parted to reveal rows of waterfalls pouring down each narrow gulley.

On Bora Bora, the vibe was all about the South Seas dream. And with a blue lagoon and two dozen deluxe resorts, hotels and guesthouses, the possibilities seemed endless. No matter where you stayed, you could find a on a beach, snorkel with the sharks or take a jeep trip up the mountain.

My bungalow at Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort on Tevairoa Motu (islet) made bamboo and thatch feel as elegant as a palace. The extra-long bathtub invited slow, pampering soaks, and there was a pool as well. Much larger than its sister resort on Tikehau, the Bora Bora Pearl occupied acres of beach and a palm grove. But as luxe as it was, low-key, traditional Polynesian hospitality was the modus operandi. And for those who wanted to experience a bit more, one-hour cultural activities were offered daily at 10:30 a.m., according to General Manager Sylvain Delanchy.

Born in France, Delanchy took the job on Bora Bora “to give Polynesia a try” and fell in love with the lifestyle. “Look at the flower wreaths that the waitresses wear around their hair,” he said. ... What matters here is the culture,” he added. “Without it, it’s just another beach.”

Just because you can fill every minute with sports, cuisine and culture, doesn’t mean that a honeymoon, or even a wedding, wouldn’t be a dream come true. It would. If you’re planning to get hitched, any deluxe hotel on Bora Bora will make it happen. Assistants can arrange the flowers, organize a reception, order a wedding cake decorated with flowers and whales and can promise enough beds to accommodate all your relatives as well as your entire high school graduating class.

If you want a smaller wedding, choose Tikehau and book the entire Pearl Beach Resort, all 19 overwater bungalows, plus the restaurant. Fly your friends over from Papeete and treat them to snorkeling, scuba diving, picnicking, a trip to Bird Island and romantic evenings watching the stars come out.

And there’s another plus. Because Tikehau is self-sufficient (the resort’s “green” technology includes a desalinization plant, solar panels and refuse disposal tanks periodically shipped to treatment plants on Tahiti) your wedding will leave no footprints. But it will surely be the year’s most memorable.

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