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
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,
“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
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
Many of the clients are honeymooners.
“A favorite for new brides is the Javanese Lulu,” Guilloux
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.”