Beyond the Society Isles

On the Tuamotus, clients find their own slice of paradise

By: Laurel Delp

Palm trees arching over sparkling white-sand beaches, turquoise water as clear as glass, bungalows set on stilts in the water what more could anyone want? French Polynesia has it all. In the jet age, this once remote, exotic destination is becoming more and more popular. So what of the traveler who harbors Gauguin-like dreams of escaping to an untouched tropic isle? Where do you send these clients next?

French Polynesia is actually five archipelagos stretching across a vast area of the South Pacific. Most visitors go to one of the exquisitely beautiful Society Islands, including Bora Bora and Tahiti itself, but go a bit farther to the Tuamotus, a huge chain of atolls, and a lost-in-paradise fantasy world reveals itself.

Atolls are all that’s left when volcanic islands sink back into the sea, leaving behind the necklace of palm islets that have formed on the surrounding reefs. The islets, sometimes no more than three feet above sea level, ring a lagoon. The lagoons are like giant aquariums teaming with tropical fish. Rangiroa is the largest of the Tuamotus, and it’s the world’s second largest atoll after Kwajalein in the Marshalls. It’s probably most famous for its “Wall of Sharks,” a diver’s mecca where hundreds of sharks gather to feed in the opening of the lagoon to the ocean. (The lagoon itself is so large that you can’t see across to the other side.)

The 58-bungalow Hotel Kia Ora is Rangiroa’s only luxury resort (there are a few pensions and a budget 38-room Novotel), but across the lagoon, via a 45- minute high-speed motorboat ride, is the resort’s unique sister property, the Kia Ora Sauvage. This property consists of five stilted, thatched-roof bungalows built entirely of local woods, set at a distance from one another on an otherwise deserted islet. There is no electricity and no hot water at night, each of the attractive bungalows is lit with two kerosene lamps. After an al fresco lunch, guests take the left-over sashimi and toss it into the shallow water, where reef sharks and hundreds of colorful small fish roil for the catch. After a few days of fishing, lolling and existing without interference from the “real” world, most guests return to the air-conditioned bungalows and hot water of the parent resort. But a stay at Kia Ora Sauvage is unforgettable.

Jacques Cousteau once pronounced the lagoon on nearby Tikehau which is a fraction the size of Rangiroa’s one of the world’s richest in terms of marine life. The 38-bungalow Tikehau Pearl Beach resort is a 10-minute boat ride from the village and a world away from any worry more profound than whether to spend the day snorkeling or bird watching. I will never forget standing waist-deep in the lagoon as one of the men from the resort filleted a fresh-caught fish, and we ate it raw, dipped in a marinade.

Manihi is the black-pearl island. There are approximately 60 pearl farms spread across the lagoon, and several of them welcome visitors. The Manihi Pearl Beach Resort is a wonderful spot for beginning divers, even those who have done no more than a resort course, because there is a wealth of easy dives available. The overwater bungalows here are over deep enough water so that guests can sit on their porches and watch big fish sail by below. Throw a little of the lunch baguette into the water, and there’s a feeding frenzy.

Fakarava is being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s second in size only to Rangiroa, with an astounding lagoon: There are places where you can walk hundreds of yards across knee-deep water from one motu (islet) to another. In spots, there are tiny lagoons within the larger lagoon, where the coral is as bright as an English garden and colorful fish swim in tiny schools. Local women make jewelry of the coral-colored shells from the lagoon and from pearls from nearby farms. From Le Maitai Dream, the only resort on the island, you can kayak through water so beautiful it’ll break your heart to go home.


Hotel Kia Ora
Garden bungalows start at $320
and go up to $680 for overwater bungalows.

Pearl Beach Tikehau
Beach bungalows start at $380 and go up to $700 for overwater suites.

Manihi Pearl Beach Resort
Beach bungalows start at $280 and go up to $600 for a Premium overwater bungalow. (“Premiums” are farther apart from one another.)

Le Maitai Dream Fakarava
Bungalows start at $225 and go up to $396 for beach bungalows. No overwater bungalows available.