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I landed — with a surprisingly loud thud — in a kneeling position on the sandy ocean floor. Taking a deep, slow drag from the oxygen tank strapped to my back, I paused to take in my new surroundings. A rainbow of fish glided through the water above me toward a far-off reef, where a single moray eel eyed me from its hiding spot between two pieces of coral.
Yannick, a scuba instructor with Top Dive Rangiroa, a dive shop located on-site at Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa, gave me a round of underwater applause. Taking his outstretched hand, I propelled off the sea floor to join the school of fish swirling around us in “The Aquarium,” a beginner’s scuba-dive lagoon located just off Hotel Kia Ora’s private beach.
Even before traveling to Rangiroa, a French Polynesian atoll located about 200 miles northeast of Tahiti, I knew the island’s reputation as one of the best dive spots in the world. But what I didn’t expect was how secluded and peaceful its shores would be — a stark contrast to its bustling underwater world.
Most visitors are drawn to the celebrated Society Islands — which encompass the ever-popular Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea, among others — but life on ring-shaped Rangiroa, the largest atoll in French Polynesia and one of 80 islets within the Tuamotu archipelago, is decidedly quiet. Rangiroa is home to only 2,800 locals, and its far-flung position keeps it on the periphery of tourists’ radar (although U.S. visitors should keep in mind that Air Tahiti operates daily one-hour flights to Rangiroa from Papeete, Tahiti).
Tourism infrastructure on Rangiroa is modest: Almost all visitor accommodation options take the form of quaint, unassuming pensions (Tahitian guesthouses) run by local families. That is, except for Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa. The 60-bungalow resort, a member of Japan-based Hoshino Resorts, has its fair share of romantic overwater bungalows, fine-dining options, Polynesian culture and top-notch services.
But although the resort is exactly the type of option sought after by the many honeymooners who flock to the shores of the South Pacific, its main difference — and real appeal — lies in its simplicity.
The property itself is located in the middle of a palm grove that lines the lagoon’s crystal-clear waters, and the estate features three accommodation options: pool villas, beach bungalows and overwater bungalows. My spacious pool villa was surrounded by white-coral walls for privacy and, when I wasn’t diving in The Aquarium with Yannick or reading by the resort’s infinity pool, I was happy to spend time at my villa, lounging in my private pool, rinsing under an outdoor shower or snoozing in the breeze under a thatched canopy.
In addition to snorkeling and diving, clients can rent bicycles for exploring the island or perch up at Kia Ora’s Restaurant & Bar to nosh on coconut-milk Tahitian fish salad or to sip local wine. (The island produces the world’s only wine made from grapes grown on a coral atoll.)
And in the evenings, interactive and lively nighttime performances take place at Kia Ora’s restaurant, with local Polynesian residents dancing and singing to the beat of drums and ukuleles.
From my place at the dinner table, I watched as the local performers’ fluid movements and colorful clothing created a rainbow swirl across the dance floor. While watching them, I couldn’t help but think back to that same morning in The Aquarium, where I had observed the equally graceful and colorful movements of the sea creatures that seemed to dance around me.
And then — as I had earlier — I joined the dance.
The DetailsHotel Kia Ora Resort & Spawww.rangiroalagoon.com