Polynesian Spas

There is plenty of pampering in the Society Islands

By: Jad Davenport

PAPEETE, Tahiti Blessed with warm lagoons, white-sand beaches and an abundance of coconut oil, the 118 islands that make up the French Polynesian archipelago have long been billed as the world’s largest outdoor spa. It might come as a surprise to many travel agents, however, that up until recently, purpose-built spas were noticeably absent in the heart of the South Pacific.

“There really weren’t any spas on the islands when we arrived,” said Hippo Lipkin, regional manager of the Mandara Spas in French Polynesia. “The Polynesians live the lifestyle they bathe in mountain streams, massage their children with coconut oil and swim in the lagoons but they never developed the concept of a spa as an institution.”

With over 63 spas around the world and on 50 cruise ships, the Honolulu-based, Balinese-inspired company saw an opportunity. Mandara now runs three of the four major spas in the Society Island group one each on Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea. Partnered with luxury hotels that all offer 10 percent commissions, Mandara gives travel agents between 10 and 20 percent commissions when booking treatments for their clients.

The treatments follow a menu that is one-third Balinese, one-third European and one-third local. Indigenous treatments rely on native ingredients like coconut milk, ginger, vanilla beans, tiare flowers and grapefruit.

Only a 25-minute ferry ride from Tahiti, Moorea has cloud-raking peaks, narrow valleys dotted with pineapple farms and fjord-like bays. At the Mandara Spa in the Sheraton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, the most popular treatment is the sunburn cooler, said Jezel, a therapist.

“It’s a hydrating treatment, perfect for people who were in the sun a little too long,” she said.

Along the same coast, tucked into a forested corner of the Moorea Beachcomber InterContinental Resort, is the only independent spa in the islands.

The Helene Spa, founded by namesake Helene Sillinger, is a rambling affair of palm-thatched huts and bamboo-ribbed walkways that seem to float across flower gardens. It is possible, in the space of a few footsteps, to become lost in a magical labyrinth of shaded trees, dancing pools and creaking walkways.

Sillinger said she didn’t want to replicate the medical spas of Europe. “I wanted something uniquely Polynesian,” she said.

She combined European know-how with traditional treatments she learned from local grandmothers.

“They are the ones who massage the babies and take care of the sick,” Sillinger said. “They always seem to know how to make you feel better.”

It’s hard not to feel better just walking inside the newest and most ambitious of the island spas, the Mandara spa at the Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa. The two-story center is perched on a ridge top high above the resort, and overlooks the sheer basalt face of Mt. Otemanu and the azure lagoon below.

The spa houses a reception area and beauty salon on the top floor, and a gym, sauna and steam rooms below. Cobbled walkways spoke to three open-air treatment villas, each with ocean views, twin massage tables and an indoor/outdoor Jacuzzi.

“The view is one of the things guests like most about the spa,” according to therapist Matahi Guilloux. “One of the most popular requests is to have a sunset massage for two in the open-air pavilions.”

Many of the clients are honeymooners.

“A favorite for new brides is the Javanese Lulu,” Guilloux said.

The ritual originated in the 17th century royal courts of Central Java, and involves a fragrant bath followed by a scrub.

“The therapists then wrap the client using turmeric, sandalwood and yogurt lotions,” she said. “They say it’s how royal brides were prepared for their wedding days.”