Is it better to cruise around Tahiti or explore the Tahitian Islands by land? It’s a tough question, but the easy answer is to do both.
My first taste of Tahiti was over land and some time later by ship. Given that choice today, I would cruise first and explore the islands at a later stage.
Cruising Tahiti is breathtaking
When sighted for the first time from the deck of a cruise ship the raw beauty of Tahiti is breathtaking. No wonder artist Paul Gauguin and writer Robert Louis Stevenson were captivated, while James Michener found inspiration for the mythical island of Bali Hai in his Tales of the South Pacific.
The jagged hills, swaying palms, rampant Bougainvillea, waxy white jasmine and fragrant vanilla plants, all add to the French allure of these remote tropical islands.
Yet, my standout Tahitian memory centres on a glass-topped table in an over-the-water bungalow at a 5-star resort. I looked down through glass floor tiles to the sea where mesmerizing fish explored the colourful coral reefs. It was my David Attenborough moment and one I will always cherish.
Tahiti’s overwater bungalows
Over-the-water bungalows helped put Tahiti on the tourist map and Tahiti Tourism is now celebrating the 50th anniversary of the advent of this quirky accommodation on stilts over the islands’ blue lagoons.
Tahiti was the first destination in the world to take this accommodation into uncharted waters in 1967 when overwater bungalows were built off the islands of Raiatea and Moorea by the Bali Hai Boys – Americans Don “Muk” McCullum, Jay Carlisle and the late Hugh Kelley – who travelled there after being swept away by James Michener’s take on the South Pacific.
Fifty years on, around 900 overwater bungalows are spread across eight of Tahiti’s 118 islands. Some have palatial suites, private terraces and pools, hammocks and those in-room glass floors – fondly called “Tahiti TV”.
Hotel Bora Bora, the first hotel on that island – it reopens as an Aman Resort in coming years – added its overwater suites in 1970. Now 11 Bora Bora resorts from the St Regis to the Four Seasons and the Sofitel offer this luxe accommodation, which has made the island a romantic playground for honeymooners and celebrities.
Surrounded by such luxury, many travellers opt to go no further than their resort for a tantalizing taste of Tahiti.
The Tahitian Experience
Nonetheless, the islands have much more to offer from a rich Polynesian culture to some of the world’s finest snorkel and dive sites amid coral gardens alive with marine life.
Cruising is an increasingly popular way to explore the islands, with the cruise ship Paul Gauguin (pgcruises.com) and the cargo/passenger vessel Aranui (aranui.com) offering year-round itineraries to the Society Islands, Tuamotus, and the Marquesas archipelago.
Windstar Cruises (windstarcruises.com), Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com), Silversea (silversea.com), Regent Seven Seas (rssc.com), Princess Cruises, (princess.com) and Royal Caribbean (royalcaribbean.com) also offer itineraries that take in some of these islands.
A longer voyage is a repositioning cruise, when a ship heads from a summer in Alaska to a summer in Australasia, with the Hawaiian islands usually included in the itinerary.
Bora Bora’s blue lagoon, Papeete’s picturesque harbour, the black pearls on Huahine, the tropical wine on Rangiroa and traditional Polynesian tattoo techniques are also very much part of the Tahitian experience.