As our plane descends through a wispy layer of low-lying tropical cloud and for the first time the turquoise sea that envelops the islands of Tahiti is revealed to the weary traveller, it is as if the stuff of dreams has been made real. There before you, spread out in a thousand miles toward the edge of forever, is an ocean whose hue is surely the colour of heaven itself. Tahiti is the very best of our world, electrified. Possessing the bluest of waters, the lushest of flora, the loveliest of people, the calmest of breezes, the softest of sands — travelling to this paradise is to know temptation, written on the wind. As if its status as one of the world’s most exquisite places isn’t enough, the islands of Tahiti are responsible for commodities that are as rare as they are alluring: Tahitian vanilla and the Tahitian black pearl. And although powdery beaches and overwater bungalows are welcome distractions, it is the search for these precious goods that inspired this particular trip.
Although journeys to Tahiti usually focus on the island of Bora Bora, it is to the lesser-visited (but no less breathtaking) Raiatea and Taha’a that we travel to visit sources of richly scented vanilla and the darkly luminescent black pearl. If pearls and vanilla may seem like very disparate entities, they are conceptually linked in that they are rare, precious commodities whose very existence requires delicate “seeding” by the human hand.
The islands of French Polynesia are strung together over an area of 4 million sq km and together serve as a nexus of the South Pacific. French Polynesia, often referred to collectively as “Tahiti”, is comprised of 118 islands spread among five archipelagos, each one with a distinctive character. The archipelagos — Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Austral and Marquesas — contain chains of smaller islands, each one rich in cultural and social heritage and alive with delights awaiting the traveller. Our journey is focused on the Society archipelago, perhaps the best known region as it is home to Tahiti’s most beloved destination, Bora Bora.
The Society archipelago is divided between two island chains: the Windward and Leeward islands. The Leeward chain, located in the western end, is made up of nine islands and includes Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora. It is in this group that the cultivation of Tahitian vanilla takes place and it is also a hub of the island’s pearl industry.
First impressions are often everything and Tahiti doesn’t disappoint. Trips to the islands begin on Tahiti’s main island, also called Tahiti, and at the international airport, Fa’a’a, near the capital city of Papeete. For a point of embarkation that sees its share of daily international plane traffic, welcoming visitors from most points on the globe, the open-walled design and traditional carved design motifs are as instantly transporting as the salted breezes that kiss just-arrived cheeks.
After touching down in Tahiti, it was on to a little Air Tahiti Nui regional jet that whisked us toward Raiatea and what is certainly one of the most special places on earth. Upon arrival, it is the scent that envelops you first: as if raining from the cloudless sky as you step from the plane, even before hitting the baking tarmac, the heady waft of vanilla, sweet and round, is borne on the winds that sweep through the plantations that ring the island. Arriving here is an otherworldly experience; deeply saturated by the tropical air, the salt-tinged breeze blowing up over the seawall and right into the open air of the tiny airport bears with it the sweet scents of this island that instantly erase all weariness.
The second largest of the Tahitian islands, and a cultural and spiritual centre for the Tahitian people for more than 1,000 years, Raiatea is the embodiment of that underlying enchantment and hospitality, known as fa’ari’i in Tahitian, which seems to hang in the air no matter where you turn. In common with a number of other islands in the region, Raiatea (which means both “faraway heaven” and “sky with soft light”) is surrounded by a coral reef that protects it and its small outer islands from the pounding Pacific, which spreads for thousands of endless miles in every direction.
Warmly greeted by a small crew from the Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa, we board a handsome branded shuttle boat for a 30-minute ride from Raiatea to the five-star resort on a “motu”, or small islet located off Raiatea’s sister island of Taha’a. The resort has no cars and no visible roads, and takes up almost the entirety of the islet with buildings and overwater bungalows made of lacquered local and palm woods that find their design inspiration in the traditional outrigger-style canoes that are still in use.
With unexpected features, including a glass hatch nestled in the floor at the foot of the bed that opens directly to the sea below, the bungalows are the perfect vantage point from which to be awestruck at simple, natural grandeur. That achingly beautiful, bathtub-warm ocean, completely calm due to the protective ring of the reef, sounds a siren call to either sit and stare off into the horizon for long periods of time, marvelling at the riotous spectrum of what must be every hue of blue, or leap from the deck of the bungalow into its embrace.
At dawn, as the sun rises over the lagoon, its golden light spreading over the dense jungle of the island of Taha’a, which is visible across a small bay from the hotel, a boat is readied for our journey in search of the island’s cultivated wonder. That the vanilla grown and processed here scents the air to a degree that must be experienced to be believed is enough to lend these islands a fantasy-like quality, but that they are also home to some of the most well-known pearl farms leads one to wonder if Eden is more than a metaphor.
After a short trip across the calm lagoon, we wind through the densely foliated lanes of Taha’a to Love Here Pearl Farm, located at the water’s edge. As it is with many commodities in tourism-dominated countries, the ubiquity of the Tahitian pearl belies scarcity and value: stop at any luxury hotel throughout French Polynesia and there is bound to be a gift shop offering black pearls in some form or another and although the finished product seems easy enough to find, pearl cultivation is an exacting and time-consuming art. Although bargains are to be had at some of these outfits, visiting the very source of the Tahitian black pearl and watching as the darkly luminescent orbs are carefully plucked from the oysters is like watching the earth itself give birth to these mysterious beauties.
Pearl cultivation is an intricate, if slightly unnatural, enterprise. Talk of pearls often conjures images of chaste chokers, but these natural gems come in a vast spectrum of colours ranging from the gleaming white tones of the classic cultured pearl (pioneered by Japan’s Mikimoto) to the midnight black of Tahiti’s native ocean-born gem. Tahitian cultured black pearls can range in colour from a moody storm-cloud grey to the blue-black-green that is almost iridescent in the sunlight. It is no wonder that Elizabeth I was said to be mad for them.
Love Here Farm, like many independently owned pearl farms throughout French Polynesia, is situated on a warm, calm lagoon where the constant replenishment of nutrient-rich seawater provides an ideal location to nurture the black-lip pearl oyster, a native South Pacific species. During their fertile season, the craggy creatures release spawn into the warm waters of the lagoons; Love Here’s pearl farmers corral this free-floating spawn into artificial collectors that stay submerged for around three years until each oyster reaches maturity. Once mature enough, the oyster is collected and “nucleated” by inserting a bead made from mother of pearl. Tissue from a donor oyster is placed, along with this bead, into the oyster gonad, the creature’s sexual organ, where it causes a constant irritation. As a natural defence, the oyster deposits micro-thin layers of nacre, the pearl substance, for 18-24 months, after which a pearl is formed.
This particular farm, although modest in its appearance, is home to a number of experts in all stages of propagation, including the technicians who work in a small wooden structure at the water’s edge. The workers sit at benches and process individual oysters using forceps and tweezers that wouldn’t look out of place in the hands of a skilled surgeon. With hands deft and nimble, one by one the mature oysters are relieved of the treasure created within those rough shells. Of every 100 oysters nucleated, only 40 produce pearls. Of these, only one will produce a gem-quality round pearl. This means that a single strand of Grade-A Tahitian black pearls takes up to 10,000 oysters and four years to produce.
The next day begins with a short boat ride from the motu back across the waters to the shores of Taha’a, where some of the world’s rarest vanilla is grown. A bumpy open Jeep ride through lanes of dense jungle terrain takes us to La Maison de la Vanille. Although vanilla is grown throughout the tropical world, most notably in Madagascar and Indonesia, the native Tahitian variety vanilla tahitensis is found only in French Polynesia. Produced from the vanilla orchid through human pollination, this rare substance is among the most labour-intensive spices to produce and is second only in value and rarity to saffron. Because the vanilla orchid is native to Central America and can only be pollinated by one variety of bee (of the genus Melipona), which is found only in Mexico, and whose seeds will only germinate in the presence of a fungus that is also native to Central America, vanilla production is an exceedingly time- and labour-intensive process. But one only needs to experience the intoxicating effect of a cloud of its scented air to understand precisely why the tedious propagation of this fruit-bearing orchid continues to thrive.
As it is with Tahiti’s pearls, the production of vanilla is only possible with the direct intervention of its propagators and Tahitian vanilla is especially laborious to produce. This particular operation is comprised of a shaded growing area under which the vanilla orchid vines are coaxed to grow along stakes placed in nests made of coconut husks and plant matter. After two or three years, the vine produces a series of delicate yellow-green flowers. When the flower opens, blooming for one day only, the tip of the flower is bent inward by hand to induce pollination. About ten months later, the vanilla bean grows to full maturity.
The green pods are collected, heated and dried on tarpaulins in the sun for several months, where the plantation team daily massages the pods to keep them supple. When the beans are dry and a deep brown colour, they are sorted by size and weight and stored in the dark for a further 60-90 days before being packaged and shipped to all corners of the world.
As it is with all good things, however, a stay here in the Taha’a island group had to come to a close. However another, better-known, paradise awaited just across the Pacific from this jewel — the island of Bora Bora. After a short flight one emerges into a typical island terminal — open-aired and surrounded with walls of glass that provide a first glimpse of the iconic double-peaked Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia, which serve as the centre, both literal and spiritual, of Bora Bora. These mountain peaks, visible from most overwater bungalows on the atolls that ring the main island, offer a daily reminder of the dual nature of Bora Bora’s beauty: light and dark, ancient and timeless, sometimes ringed in clouds and covered in rain, sometimes a glowing emerald.
Met by the uniformed crew of Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora’s branded yacht, guests are whisked across the bay to the lush grounds on the resort’s atoll. As one would expect from a Four Seasons property, the service is impeccable and the most desirable rooms, those iconic overwater bungalows, are the stuff of every honeymooner’s fantasy. Each bungalow features floor-to-ceiling glass windows that slide away to reveal an enticing ocean expanse and allow for a luxuriating en plein air soak in the deep spa, the view from which is reason enough to become lost in the breathtaking vista — not an inch of the horizon shows the mark of another human being.
Although Bora Bora doesn’t produce vanilla or cultivate pearls, it is worth ending a trip here. If given the chance, all should experience Tahiti’s wonders, but know that for each day spent in her tropical embrace, returning home seems ever more impossible, improbable, impractical. There is an impossibility to French Polynesia: it is impossibly beautiful, impossibly serene, impossibly relaxing — and yet entirely accessible. Flights are relatively short and travel between islands, motus and atolls is straightforward and simple. And although the world seems to be in a state of flux, where our news is filled with stories of chaos and strife, the mere existence of French Polynesia — the very embodiment of tropical beauty — is evidence enough that ours is a world of polarities balanced between dark and light, order and chaos, heaven and earth.
Fresh look for the new year
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An elegant journey
Explore the iconic landscapes and seascapes of the Scottish Highlands, which have inspired authors, poets and artists for centuries, as you visit magnificent castles, ancestral homes and a remote lodge, travelling in style behind the wheel of a distinctive and elegant Aston Martin. The five-night Scottish Legends journey includes drives to the Isle of Skye, weaving along scenic stretches of open road surrounded by lochs, forests and snow-capped mountains, and the remote Aldourie Castle on the shoreline of Loch Ness with a boat trip on the loch. astonmartinartofliving.com