Vanilla Tasting & Luxury Living In Tahaa Island

February 19, 2016

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.

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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.

view of tahaa island from the air tahaa french polynesia

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.

mountain road tahaa french polynesia

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)!

pension chez pascal tahaa french polynesia

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.

island tour tahaa french polynesia teva

wild hibiscus in island tour tahaa french polynesia

plam trees in rain storm island tour tahaa french polynesia

island tour tahaa french polynesia

tropical bay island tour tahaa french polynesia

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?

baguette mailboxes tahaa french polynesia

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!

interior of tahaa french polynesia island tour

tahaa island tour man walking to church in rain

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!

eating sour star fruit tahaa french polynesia

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.

sunday church service tahaa french polynesia

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.

Fahaaa Bay tahaa french polynesia island tour

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.

pearl farm tahaa french polynesia

pearl farm tour tahaa french polynesia

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…  

pearl farm tour tahaa french polynesia tools

black pearl necklace tahaa french polynesia

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.

vanilla grower tahaa french polynesia

vanilla plants at vanilla farm tour tahaa french polynesia

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.

vanilla flower at vanilla farm tour tahaa french polynesia

vanilla polinating at vanilla farm tahaa 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’.

maa tahiti sunday polynesian food feast tahaa french polynesia

tahitian polynesian food at maa tahiti tahaa french polynesia

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…

rain storm at chez pascal pension tahaa french polynesia

Click over to the next page, for a day spent in the ultimate French Polynesian luxury!

The ultimate French Polynesian luxury

The next morning I packed my bags and headed to the local pier. Someone up there listened to my prayers, it was a gorgeous day. A boat picked me up and whisked me away to the edges of the lagoon, to the dreamy Le Tahaa Resort & Spa – where I’ll be spending one magical night. Le Tahaa is an award winning luxury resort, and I was kindly hosted there for the night.

le tahaa luxury resort bora bora background french polynesia

The magic starts as you disembark from the boat. Greeted by the customary tiare necklace, you land on a dreamlike private motu – a small island within the blue lagoon. This resort is the stuff dreams are made of, so it’s no surprise movie stars, artists, honeymooners and other folks who know a thing or two about luxury, choose this place.

We started the tour of the resort, just to know where everything is, and my God – it is gorgeous! Palm trees everywhere, white sand and an authentic Polynesian touch everywhere you look.  

tropical motu beach le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

coconut trees on tropical beach le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

plam trees on tropical motu le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

beautiful white sand beach on motu at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

The resort’s signature accommodation is the overwater bungalow. You know, those bungalows set right on the lagoon like the ones we saw back in Bora Bora. There’s only a handful of them, so unlike Bora Bora, it feels very quiet around here, and that’s a good thing.  

overwater bungalows le tahaa luxury resort tahaa french polynesia

overwater bugalows at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

pool at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

hammock and overwater bungalows le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

Inside the overwater bungalow

The tour ended at my designated bungalow, right on the edge of the tentacle extending out to the lagoon. It is so nice both inside and outside, that you don’t really know where you want to park it. Finally, some air conditioning… maybe let’s just cool off inside for a bit?

overwater bungalows deck at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

overwater bungalow in tropical lagoon le tahaa french polynesia

overwater bungalow interior le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

glass bottom floor le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

overwater bungalow le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia bath tub

window overlooking blue lagoon le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

view from balcony le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

view from balcony at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

Out on the deck, you can just simply jump into the warm water, where during the morning hours dozens of stingrays come to greet you. When the rays are gone, you can simply stare at Tahaa on one side and even catch a glimpse of Bora Bora – hiding just behind the palm trees.

stingrays off overwater bungalow le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

bora bora seen from balcony le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

view of tahaa from bungalow le tahaa luxury resort tahaa french polynesia

When I summoned the energy to leave the bungalow, it was time to hit the beach. Tahaa itself has very few beaches, but it’s the outer motus that are scattered with picture postcard spots. Le Tahaa is fortunate enough to have one of the prettiest spots you’ll ever visit. Pristine waters, white sand and just the sounds of the waves and coconut branches swaying in the wind.

tropical beach with boat at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

coral garden at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

coconuts on tropical beach at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

There’s even a super tiny island smack in the middle of the lagoon where you can have a super romantic dinner with nobody around, but the stars above you.

tiny island in le tahaa resort tahaa french polynesia

The coral garden

But that’s not all. Tahaa’s coral garden is also located right here, between the resort and the neighboring motu. I’ve visited coral gardens in both Maupiti and Bora Bora, but this one was super special. It all starts with a walk to the very edge of the motu, for a great view of Bora Bora in the near distance. It’s so close yet feels like miles away, without the massive cruise ships, massive resorts and all the hype.

bora bora silhouette from le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

Once you’ve reached the edge, you just jump into the water and let the current do the job. You’re taken straight back into the lagoon and at an incredible speed. If you extend your arms out, you feel like Superman! There are tons of colorful fish – including the famous reef resident clownfish (a.k.a Nemo), radiating shells and a bizillion corals. I guess that’s why they call it the coral garden.

pristine coral garden le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

blue shell coral garden le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

tropical fish up close coral garden le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

clown fish in coral garden le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

cpral garden le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

Some of these fish are extra curious, and they don’t mind coming over for a quick taste – probably a byproduct of the fish feeding that happens around these islands.

Polynesian gourmet & dancing with the stars

Speaking of feeding, it was time for dinner. As you would expect in such a resort, the food at Le Tahaa is superb. I was curious to see how Polynesian dishes would be served ‘gourmet style’ and so, opted for the fish. After a huge glass of mai tai,  it was time to head back to the bungalow for what should be a good night’s rest.

vanilla restaurant le tahaa resort french polynesia tuna tartar

vanilla restaurant le tahaa resort french polynesia tuna

Before heading to bed, how about some stars? No, I’m not talking about De Niro or Madonna. It was a cloudless night without any lights to interfere with some overwater stargazing. Simply spectacular! That’s Sirius you see shining brightly, almost 9 light years away from Earth.

sirius star seen from tahaa french polynesia

The next morning I woke up extra early and extra rested just in time for the sunrise. Later, I will  catch a ride back to Tahaa and then Raiatea.

sunrise over tahaa tahaa french polynesia

After spending a memorable day at Le Tahaa, I can honestly say – who needs Bora Bora when you’ve got a place like this. Bora Bora is extremely beautiful but unfortunately, it’s not a local secret anymore. Le Tahaa is sort of like Dicaprio’s The Beach, beautiful and yet to be discovered!

Sad to leave the life of luxury but excited about what’s ahead, the ride from Tahaa to Raiatea offered great views of the vanilla island. Though it even looks pretty in the rain, it’s prettier with the sun shining.

village church tahaa island by boat french polyensia

Joe Dassin tropical beach tahaa french polynesia

What’s Next?

Naturally after Tahaa, it’s just a matter of crossing the lagoon to Raiatea Island. Raiatea is known as ‘the sacred island’. It is home to the most important Polynesian temple in the entire South Pacific and one of the world’s rarest flowers. We’ll be on the hunt for both, and much more!

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