After a busy few days in Bora Bora, it was time to hop over to neighboring Tahaa Island for another quick three day trip. Of French Polynesia’s 67 inhabited islands, Tahaa has to be one of the wildest ones. There are less than 5,000 people living here, but they do have one thing going for them: vanilla. Tahaa is known as ‘the vanilla island’ and that’s because some of the world’s finest beans are grown right here. In this update from the South Pacific Islands, we’ll explore the island of Tahaa and live the life of ultimate luxury for one special night.
So close yet so far
Though I could clearly see Tahaa from Bora Bora in the morning, it would take two flights plus a boat trip to get there. Such are the ‘challenges’ when island hopping in French Polynesia, where getting from one island to another is actually part of the fun. The connection from Tahiti was so turbulent, that even the Air Tahiti flight attendants could not serve the customary glass of fresh pineapple juice… ah well. Weather was ironically looking good upon landing, and I could clearly see the beautiful lagoon of Tahaa – with a clue in the aerial shot below of what’s to come later in this post… hint hint.
The thing is that Tahaa shares the same lagoon with its bigger sister Raiatea, and the airport is actually in Raiatea (we’ll be heading there next time). So I actually needed to catch a boat across the lagoon and land in Tahaa. It was a Sunday, and Sundays are not the best days to do heavy duty traveling in the South Pacific. In the morning, everyone’s at church and by afternoon everyone’s either stuffed with food or drinking heavily by the beach. To further add to this challenge, as soon as I got to the pier for the three hour wait for the boat, the skies opened up with a thunderous pour.
Finally, when the tiny boat arrived, I rushed on board along with a few locals heading home after doing some shopping on the ‘big island’. It was pissing rain and I had the last seat outside, but happy enough just to have made it to Tahaa after this long journey. I was picked up at the pier by my host, and as we drove to the other side of the island, I got my first glimpses of the wild island of Tahaa: massive mountains, tiny villages and a whole lot of trees.
I checked into my simple pension and called it a night, as the battle raged to keep the mosquitoes out of my mosquito net. I am happy to say that I won this battle, not without many casualties (on one side)!
Around the island tour
The next morning it was time to get down to business. I was picked up bright and early by Teva, my local guide for the day. It was a very wet morning but that didn’t stop us from exploring the island. From time to time, Teva would spot a special flower on the side of the road and we stopped to have a look – like this wild hibiscus. Did you know that the wild hibiscus works like a clock? In the morning, its flowers are yellow, then at about 2:30 they turn orange and finally red at night. This cycle repeats itself every day. The flower was used by the ancient Polynesians to tell the time, along with the sun.
Teva also pointed out the odd looking mailboxes that folks have here. That’s actually not used for delivering mail but rather for delivering baguettes. That’s right! Every morning, the baguette truck makes its round and delivers freshly baked baguettes to the island’s residents. Cool, ah?
At some point, we ventured with the 4X4 into the wild interior of the island, where it’s even rougher in wet weather. I could spot an elderly man in the distance heading to church, dressed in his finest clothes and battling the rain. That’s devotion folks!
Teva stopped the car and pointed out a star fruit tree. I think the last time I had star fruit was in Zanzibar. Teva warned me that this particular star fruit tree is of the sour kind (there’s a sweet version too). I replied that I actually really like sour stuff (it’s true – everyone who knows me, knows that I’m a sucker for sour candy) and dove right in with a big bite. It was sour, alright! Just to put my money where my mouth is, I finished the soury fruit, with sodium levels jumping through the roof. It would take a few hours for the taste to wear off. Only have the sweet star fruit, guys!
Back on the main road, we passed by a few sleepy villages. There was some action however in the local church, as services were just about to wrap up. Tahaa is beginning to feel like Samoa’s Savaii Island: wild, traditional and lush.
From here, we climbed to a beautiful spot overlooking Fahaaa Bay. That’s not a typo guys, there are 4 a’s in Fahaaa. It’s clear to say that Tahaa is pretty, even in the rain.
Pearl & vanilla farming in Tahaa
From Fahaaa Bay (I love saying that), we descended back to sea level and paid a visit to a local pearl farm. It turns out the farm is operated by Teva’s parents. His mother, still dressed in fine church clothes, gave us a great explanation of how the exquisite French Polynesian black pearl is made.
French Polynesia is a ‘powerhouse’ in the global black pearl market. Though the market has tanked recently, pearl farming is still a major source of income to Tahitian families living in the Society Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago. I didn’t realize that it takes at least five years for the oyster to produce a commercial pearl. There’s a whole lot of science in making black pearl – you don’t just crack open an oyster and find one of these gems…
The day’s bit of education continued with a visit to the vanilla farm. Once again, this is a family business. The mom makes pearls, the son grows vanilla… Teva has been growing vanilla here for years, and he’s quite the expert. There’s something in the vanilla particularly grown in Tahaa that makes it renowned around the world – just ask Gordon Ramsay. Is it something in the air? something in the soil? I don’t have a clue, but as far as hard facts go – over 75% of French Polynesian vanilla is grown right here.
Here’s another interesting vanilla fact for you. The vanilla farmers in French Polynesia are actually a cartel. That’s right, think OPEC. Every year, farmers from every vanilla growing island gather in Tahiti to determine the market price of Tahitian vanilla for the upcoming year. No farmer can sell below this price. On bad years when crops aren’t plentiful, like this year, prices will be set high. Rumor has it that a few farmers are even stocking up, waiting for the price to rise even further….
It turns out that it takes about nine months until you get the finished product: a dried vanilla pod, and a total of three years from seed to bean. The vanilla flower actually needs to be pollinated by hand, in a very delicate process, in order to turn the flower into vanilla beans. This is because the insects who’ll gladly do this job are not to be found in French Polynesia.
So as you might have guessed, pretty much every food dish in Tahaa is sprinkled with a bit of vanilla. That includes fish, rice, sauces of all kinds and of course – desserts. My kind of place!
Sunday feast with the locals
As we ended the tour at Teva’s house, which also doubles as the gift shop, he noticed that he’s running late for the family Sunday feast – the ma’a Tahiti. He invited me to come along, and we headed back to mom’s house by the pearl farm. The extended family was all there, along with a few other guests. There must have been 20+ people there with enough food to feed an entire battalion. There was of course the poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk), breadfruit, baked bananas, sashimi and a whole lot more. It gave me the chance to not only taste authentic Tahitian food, but also to chat with the family and get their taste on life. It turns out they’ve traveled quite a bit, to the US and Europe – but they are always happy to return to their little paradise, even if there are no fast food chains, shopping malls or other Western ‘delights’.
That night, the skies opened up once again in super strong fashion. I was praying for good weather the following day, and you’ll soon see why…
Click over to the next page, for a day spent in the ultimate French Polynesian luxury!