Did you say a private island?
By this point we were on our third week in French Polynesia and we were ready to leave the Pink Sand Atoll of Tikehau. While the pink sands and vacant beaches were a great stop, we were ready to get back to the lush, mountainous, islands near Bora Bora. Our next stop was Vahine (pronounced Wa-hine-ee) Island, a private island paradise located in the lagoon of the island Tahaa near the Society Island hub of Raiatea.
When we were looking at where we wanted to finish our trip we looked at a lot of hotels and a lot of islands. Vahine Island has amazing reviews (especially the food) and it is a private island with only 9 accommodations on it. It sounded awesome. Never in our lives did we think that we would be spending time in French Polynesia let alone finishing our three-week trip on a private island. We were told by our travel agent that if we were interested in Vahine Island we needed to jump on it. It is under really high demand and sells out quickly. We are so happy that we chose this hotel and that it fell on the last week of our trip. It was truly a perfect ending to an amazing adventure.
Private Island? So is it just a small island in the middle of the ocean?
When I heard the phrase “Private Island” I had trouble wrapping my head around it. I was thinking that it was just out there in the middle of the ocean, really remote, and isolated with like one or two houses on it. The reality is that it is a 23 acre island that looks right at Tahaa and has clear views of Mt. Olemanu on Bora Bora. A Private Island is simply an island that is owned by one person or in some cases a corporation. There are a lot of private Islands in French Polynesia of differing sizes and geographies. We were right near one on our Shark and Ray feeding adventures in Bora Bora that was worth $50 million and covered in coconut trees with pristine beaches and a few over water and beach bungalows. Vahine Island is meticulously manicured with a coconut grove and private coral gardens. It is as awesome as it sounds and its proximity to Raiatea makes it really easy to get to.
A little about the location.
Raiatea is considered by many to be the center of the Society Islands and is quite large (relatively speaking) and has a lot of people. Right next to Raiatea is Tahha, much smaller but just as lush with Pearl Farms, fishing, and vanilla plantations. To get to Vahine Island we flew back to Papeete from Tikehau then onto Raiatea. It is a really quick flight from Papeete and there was someone from Vahine Island waiting for us at the airport. It was about a 40 minute boat ride from the Raiatea Airport to Vahine Island.
Vahine Island. Private Island Resort
The Raiatea airport is surrounded by water so the boats pull right up to a dock outside the departure gate. It is a beautiful trip as you are surrounded by the lagoon on 3 sides and the lush landscape of Raiatea from the other. Heading out over the blue ocean we quickly passed into the shadow of Tahaa, Raiatea’s sister island and owner of the lagoon which houses Vahine Island. The peaks were covered in clouds and with its lush green uninhabited looking interior it looked like the set of one of the Jurassic Park movies. The fact that it was mildly overcast increased the movie like quality of the boat ride. I expected a pterodactyl to fly out of the dense trees and start following the boat. When we approached Vahine Island we were greeted by a beautiful white sand beach surrounded by palm trees and an assortment of rustic looking bungalows that blended perfectly with their surroundings.
Waiting for us was some fresh made pineapple mock tails and Laure, one half of the amazing managers of the resort. She greeted us under a wooden sign over the dock that says “Vahine Island. Private Island resort.” We then took a seat in the bar and she went over everything with us, what to expect, where and when to eat, where we can snorkel, etc. We followed her through the coconut grove in the middle of the island to our Beach Bungalow and our final week in French Polynesia began.
Vahine Island is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Group and it shows. When we left we got a book that shows all of the other members of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World Group and we plan on adventuring to others all around the world. After the stay here we are definitely sold on the experience We love boutique experiences and to us, this is the way to travel. The service and attention to detail are perfect as is the setting and food.
First we eat. Then we do everything else. — M.F.K. Fisher
In this whole series I have not dedicated any of the words to food because the food so far was good but not great. It was nothing to really write home about so I did not want to really spend any time talking about it. That changes now. The food on this little private island is absolutely amazing. Both Amy and I are foodies and are picky about the type and quality of the food we eat. This was hands down the best food we ate in French Polynesia. Absolutely 5 star all the way around. Terrance is the other manager of the property and a trained French Chef who sources as much of the food locally as he can and has impeccable standards. The restaurant is right on the beach looking out over the lagoon and onto Tahaa. It is all warm wood and the tables are all unique. The breeze blows off the ocean and the low light is really romantic. The service is great and there is fresh bread and delicious french butter to get started. Since it is a private island with only 9 accommodations on it they really do have that attention to detail and high standards that, in my experience, are sometimes lacking in larger hotel kitchens and restaurants.
Enough talk, let’s eat!
You can do half board (breakfast and lunch) or full board (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) at most of the hotels in the area but at this one, you need to do half board at least. Breakfast is delicious. Tahaa is known for its vanilla and with each breakfast comes homemade vanilla yogurt and an assortment of local fruits. Since it is FRENCH Polynesia there is no shortage of bread and delicious butter at all of the meals as well. You can have coffee or tea and also choose from different egg preparations from egg whites with veggies to fried eggs. In my opinion, there is no better way to start the day than drinking coffee and eating bread and butter while looking out at the ocean.
Lunch is whatever you want it to be, a fresh salad or club sandwich. They have killer shrimp spring rolls that I would recommend, we got hooked on them. It is really all about dinner though. It is a fixed 3 course menu that you are shown each day at breakfast. They are willing to work with changes if you do not like or if cannot eat something on the dinner menu. Amy and I only eat seafood and eggs as our “meat” so we told them when we checked in and made changes every day to get whatever fresh fish they had. Terrance always blew us away with his meals and attention to detail. This is definitely not hotel food and is a culinary experience. The deserts were fresh, homemade, and always delicious. Like I said, this was the perfect way to end our trip because the food was better than anything we ate in French Polynesia. We would have left Vahine Island with huge expectations if we were headed to another resort.
Beach bungalow or Over Water? The debate rages on –
We chose a beach bungalow for this leg of trip. We had been in over water bungalows for the previous 2 weeks and were looking forward to the change. Unlike a lot of the places we were at that offered beach bungalows, this Bungalow is right on the water and has its own section of private beach with a huge deck and hammock. There are no locks on any of the doors and there are 2 sliding glass doors that allow entrance to the room. We travel with a lot of camera gear, laptops, and the usual passports and wallets so when I first heard this I was definitely a little hesitant to embrace the no lock way of life. Once we got to Vahine Island and saw what private island actually meant, I felt fine with it. It was actually really nice to not have to carry keys around and I felt totally safe and secure with our stuff in the room. We just locked up our wallets and passports in the safe and left everything else out.
There was a nice big bed in the room, a desk, a couple of chairs, and a decent sized bathroom. The thing that made this bungalow amazing was that it had its own little yard, small section of beach and HUGE deck. The deck had some really comfortable chairs and a hammock on it. It looked right out over the lagoon, the reef, and the open ocean beyond. We could see Mt. Olemanu, our favorite peak in Bora Bora, from our deck. The whole area of the bungalow is surrounded by landscaping so it feels really private really private. It is really rustic, made with warm wood and decorated with shells and knotty wood accents. I also liked the fact that it was on the beach and close to everything on the resort. We had been taking the long walk down the dock for the last 2 weeks to the over water sweet, which are amazing as well, but it was nice to be on land and we really enjoyed the room.
Yes, but did you dive?
Of course we went diving! We wanted to experience the flavor of each island and reef. We dove with Tahaa Diving out of the Tahaa Resort. We booked all of our other dives with Top Dive but they do not operate in Tahaa or Raiatea so the ease of online booking was not there. We reached out to Vahine Island a few days before we arrived and they took care of everything for us. We simply told them we wanted to dive, what our skill level is, and what our availability was and we were good to go. From Vahine Island we had to be shuttled to Tahaa where we were met by a car and taken about 20 minutes to the other side of the island. We met the dive boat at the gas station that serves as the pick up and drop off point for the Tahaa Resort and rode back to the resort with them to get suited up.
Thunderbolts and Lightning…
The night before our dive mother nature decided to throw the biggest storm of the whole trip at us. We thought that our bungalow was going to get blown away. There were lightening strikes in the lagoon and we even lost power for a little while. It was definitely a crazy little tropical storm and it made us wonder if we were going to be able to dive the next day. As with the previous dives the sky was blue in the morning and the dive was on! We figured the visibility was going to be affected but that we would still get some nice dives in. As we headed across the lagoon we looked down at the now chocolate-colored water and hoped for the best on the outside of the reef.
Have you seen that movie A Perfect Storm?
There was a little chop as we rode across the lagoon to the entrance/exit to the open sea. Then we saw the waves. Around the mouth of the channel there were some enormous waves breaking. At lest 10 foot, probably bigger. When we passed the reef break into the open sea the rollers coming in looked like something out of a movie. Our Dive Master was driving the boat and was literally gunning the engine to make it up the walls of water as they rolled in towards us. It seriously looked like we were motoring over mountains of water that were hurtling towards the reef to pitch into the lagoon. With each impact we were all growing more unsure of whether we would actually be able to, or should, get into the water. I am so glad we did though.
We’re here. Do not miss the rope when you get in the water.
The Dive Master was a really cool French guy who was funny and definitely had a firm grasp of the conditions of the area. When we pulled up to the part of the reef he was looking for they dropped anchor and we all suited up. The craziness of the ocean had died down a little bit when we approached this side of the reef so it did not look that bad in the water. Our Dive master told us to be sure to grab onto the rope and follow the anchor line down because there may be a current. Then he was off. We all just looked at each other and one at a time went over the side of the boat. This was the best dive yet. When we got down there was no current and the scenery was absolutely stunning.
We dropped to around 100 feet and were swimming over some beautiful coral when we came upon a huge underwater beach. It was about 30 feet below us and we could see big White Tip Reef Sharks lying in the sand and Napoleon Fish hunting for food. The beach was so cool to see and as we continued along there was no shortage of coral or fish to look at. The best part of the dive was at the end. We all hovered 30-40 feet under the surface and looked at the wall of the reef about 15 feet away. We could see the mountains of water above us pushing towards the reef and breaking against it. It was pretty dramatic to see from below and swimming around us were huge puffer and porcupine fish as well as some black and white spotted puffer fish which I have only seen there. This dive was my favorite of the whole trip. The water was crystal clear and there was so much to see, There were huge coral formations, and anemones, just so many fish. The second dive was kind of crazy though… and not crazy in a good way.
Enjoy your cookies, because you are all going for a ride!
First things first. We had the ubiquitous cookies and tea during our surface time. The cookies were homemade and the best so far so if you dive with Tahaa Diving, eat your fill of the homemade cookies, they are BOMB! Our next dive was a drift dive which are generally fun. Let’s just say that this one was an adventure. We had to descend hand over hand on the anchor line and the current was screaming through us pulling away from the reef and almost directly out towards the open ocean. I never felt like I would be pulled out to sea but we had to navigate forward through huge coral mounds and rock formations so it was challenging to say the least…and exhausting. We had to cling to one huge structure then propel ourselves forward or laterally to another one to make progress. On a side note I thought I looked really streamlined and graceful but Amy said I looked like I was struggling. We will have to agree to disagree lol. We were all breathing hard and working harder. Our other diving partners got a little cut up from the coral and we all ran low on air quickly due to exertion. We hit a lull in the current and went up for our safety stop. The giant rock and coral formations were really cool and I would have loved to swim through them on a more mellow day. As it was, this dive was a little crazy and definitely more adventurous than we had done previously. It was fun in its own way but I prefer to see a lot more wildlife and experience more of the underwater environment. Tahaa Diving was great though and the first dive we did with them was my favorite of all of the diving that we did when we were in French Polynesia.
More of the life aquatic.
With the private island came some private coral gardens. They were amazing. There are a total of 3 different places that you can snorkel right around the resort. All of the areas are accessible by kayak and there are even a few uninhabited islands right around Vahine that we kayaked to and snorkeled around. Right across from our bungalow there was a small motu that we kayaked to where we spent a few hours swimming through the coral gardens looking at the huge coral formations with puffer fish, anemones and clown fish, and even some sea horses. There was no one else out there and it was really cool to hang out in the water and take pictures. Vahine Island has a complementary daily activity that they encourage the guests to participate in. One of the activities is a snorkel tour to some coral gardens that are a little further away. We missed the first tour because we were diving but caught the next one a few days later. One of the awesome employees takes you out in the boat about 5-8 minutes from the island to this amazing, HUGE, reef with tons of fish and intricate coral formations. The guide gives you a little background on the place then we slipped over the side of the boat and started exploring. We could have snorkeled here for a week straight. There was so much to see and the water was crystal clear.
I challenge you to a dance off.
One of the days we were there we got a call in our room that there would be a traditional Polynesian show that evening before and during dinner. When we showed up there was a group of Tahaa locals dressed in traditional Polynesian attire playing drums, guitar, ukulele, and singing. When dinner started they put on a great show where they did traditional Polynesian dances and even got us all out there to dance with them. Since this is a small resort with not a lot of people there was no hiding so we all got out there and showed some moves. It was really fun and they closed the evening with pictures and a fire dance which was awesome! We saw one of these shows at the St. Regis but this one was infinitely better and the group doing it looked like they were really having a blast.
Back in the Jeep!
One day we booked a half day jeep tour of Tahaa. This was fun and the two ladies who guided the tour were great. We visited a vanilla plantation and learned the differences between Tahitian Vanilla and Madagascar vanilla most of us have access to. We also learned that they hand pollinate each vanilla plant. It is a crazy laborious process but it produces an amazing product. The guy’s plantation was sweet. It was super lush and had a lot of indoor outdoor space where they made everything, coconut oil, room sprays, and everything in between having to do with either coconuts or vanilla. From there we headed to a viewpoint where we got a great look at the lagoon and the layout of the island. Our last stop was a pearl farm. Tahiti is known for its pearls and this farm was really interesting. We learned all about the production of pearls and how much it takes to actually get a good pearl out of an oyster. After hearing all of that I understand why they are so expensive! The family that owned and operated the pearl farm were very welcoming and they had a Boxer we got to play with which made it even better since we were missing ours. Tahaa is beautiful and to cruise around the perimeter of the island in the back of a jeep was really fun. The people on the tour with us were cool and we got to eat fresh fruit and coconut and get some pretty local pearls and a bunch of vanilla goods.
The best yet.
Vahine Island was hands down the best place we stayed during our three weeks in French Polynesia. We were sold on the small boutique feel and the entire private island experience. I loved the service and the vibe of the place. It was laid back and fun and felt like summer camp for adults. Between the amazing food and pristine settings I cannot come up with anything mildly critical to write about it. Tahaa was really pretty and the mountains make for lush, beautiful scenery. The lagoon is picturesque with Mt. Olemanu on Bora Bora visible on most days and the snorkeling is second to none. I would even say that it was better than Tikehau. We saw the most black tip sharks of the whole trip here, right off the dock of the hotel and they were the biggest we saw as well. The coral is in pretty good shape, far better than Bora Bora, but as with many locations the sea is warmer by a few degrees than it should be so much of the coral is bleaching and likely will not be around much longer. I think one of the main things that made this place special was the lack of people. With such a small group there all the time it makes for an intimate experience where you can talk to people if you would like but you can also just relax and explore on your own. There is a good mix of honeymooners and vacationers while we were there and we met some fun people. We were definitely sad to leave when it was time but we did have one more surprise in store when we were on our way out.
Go see the tattoo man.
Tattoos are a huge part of Polynesian culture, everybody has them. You have probably seen Polynesian style tattoos on people, they are very distinct and really cool. Amy and I love to get tattoos when we are traveling so when she saw that someone would come to the bungalow and tattoo us she immediately went to make an appointment. Unfortunately the guy who comes to Vahine Island had to go to Papeete because his wife was having a baby so we had to find an alternative. Luckily Vahine Island is well-connected and they called someone else who was actually really close to the airport in Raiatea. On our last day we headed to the airport early where he picked us up in his truck. From there we went to his home/shop and got down to business. I wanted a shark and Amy wanted a Manta Ray, both very common designs in Polynesian tattooing. Our artist free-handed the shark on my shin/knee complete with all of the intricate fill and proceeded to tattoo it. Right after we were done it was Amy’s turn. He drew the perfect manta ray in the perfect spot and got it done in about 30 minutes. All in all we were there for a few hours and he had his friend drop us right at the airport when we were done. It was a great way to cap off our experience and an awesome way for me to celebrate 10 years of sobriety. My Sobriety birthday just happened to be on the day we left the islands. It took 3 days to get home to Puerto Rico but it was a perfect trip.