At Ninamu Resort, most activities are included. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Pensions, like Le Relais Royal Tikehau, can occupy their own private islet. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Think of the Islands of Tahiti, and perhaps the first association will be that of the overwater bungalow, which debuted in the islands some 50 years ago. Indeed, staying in an overwater bungalow at a Bora Bora luxury hotel is often a nonnegotiable for clients, particularly for honeymooners; first-timers to Tahiti; and for those who haven’t stayed in overwater bungalows before.
But there are quite a few reasons why clients should also consider pensions, a serious sounding word for the islands’ most authentic, wallet-friendly and social lodging option. Here, we answer some of the questions clients are most likely to ask about pensions.
What does the word pension mean?
The word “pension” comes from the French “une pension de famille,” which loosely translates to boarding house or guesthouse. In September, Tahiti Tourisme officially renamed pensions to “guesthouse” or “Tahitian guesthouse,” but it will probably take some time for folks — especially French-speaking Tahitians — to adopt the new name.
What qualifies lodging as a pension?
Pensions are locally owned and tend to be smaller than a resort. They are usually family-run, but they don’t have to be. Some offer just one unit, while others offer up to 15 guestrooms. Many feature four to nine rooms.
Do pensions have overwater bungalows?
While they don’t offer overwater bungalows, pensions are located in beautiful destinations, which can even be better and more remote than that of a luxury hotel. For example, during my stay at Le Relais Royal Tikehau — which is located on its own private motu (islet) — the only thing separating my beach bungalow from the shore was pink sand and my personal lounge chair. The restaurant was perched above the water, where reef sharks and fish congregated, and across from a sandy stretch of palm trees.
What are the main benefits of staying in a pension?
You can expect an authentic, family feel; an immersion in local culture; and great value for money at a pension.
What are some examples of guesthouses being run like a family household?
At Le Relais Royal Tikehau, the two women who picked me up at the airport did it all: one captained the boat shuttle while the other played the ukulele and guitar. Both sang and, later, the hotel’s cook joined as well; she was waiting for us with fresh, cold coconuts at the shore-side entrance of the hotel. These two women also served us dinner and performed a long concert of local songs and music during dessert.
At Tikehau Village, Caro, the proprietress, picked up guests at the airport. She also greeted and served guests at mealtime. At dinnertime, her husband led a three-piece band joined by a little boy and a hula dancer, who invited guests to join her. One of their staff — Serge, a Canadian — had been visiting for decades before he decided to move to Tikehau and head the pension’s excursions.
At Ninamu Resort in Tikehau, a husband-and-wife team is always available. Chris O’Callaghan, an expat Australian, built the property from the ground up and leads most excursions; it’s an extensive program that caters to group interests and includes most sports except for scuba diving. His wife, Greta, greets guests and usually oversees the gift shop.
In addition to activities and transfers, most pensions include meals, including family-style dinners. Though pensions tend to be smaller than hotels, guests typically socialize with each other more.
What are some more cultural experiences offered at pensions?
Because these guesthouses are run by local families, expect to observe and take part in local customs. During dinner at Tikehau Village, guests were brought up to shimmy with the star dancer, a memorable experience that reflected the warmth of the community at the pension.
At Pension Vaimano in Raivavae, guests will most likely visit the proprietress’ father’s home to watch the hour-long process of creating an ahimaa, an above-ground oven, and join the family the next day when they take apart the oven and eat the traditional feast. Guests can also meet with local artisans to learn how to weave, create flower crowns and more.
So, are pensions cheap?
The price of Tahitian guesthouses ranges from $56 per night to $398 per night. Check out Tahiti Tourisme’s Guesthouse Packages page to see how prices can vary.
Is the food good?
Unlike a resort, pensions typically do not offer menus. And as small businesses operating on islands, there are usually limits to what they can do. For guests with dietary restrictions, let the pension know ahead of time, but be aware that it’s unlikely the guest will be served a comparable main course.
As a vegetarian, the meals at pensions were not always a highlight for me — one night I was served spaghetti with sunny side-up eggs, for example. Of all the pensions I visited, Ninamu had the best access to organic fruit and vegetables through a partnership with a local organic farm, and Relais Fenua in Tahiti made a delicious and satisfying vegetarian curry.
Meat and fish options looked especially great at Tikehau Village, which served a buffet with poission cru, cooked fish and chicken.
What do luxury hotels have that pensions don’t?
Pensions don't have the frills of a resort — amenities are often more limited; structures are more basic; and everything tends to be, and look, homemade, from the rooms to the showers. At La Relais Royal Tikehau, for example, the showers featured individual gas lamps that turned on with a switch (and the water warmed immediately). French is mainly spoken at the pensions, while luxury hotels tend to have folks who speak English.
Who should stay in a pension?
Tahitian guesthouses are perfect for those looking to get to know locals and take part in Tahitian culture. But if you’re looking to be coddled and to be able to pick your dinner option, stick to a luxury resort.
How can travel agents book pensions?
Tahiti Tourisme suggests that travel agents contact guesthouses directly for their individual commission structure.