AT Les Relais de Joséphine guesthouse, a grande-dame proprietor holds court every evening. Her Cartier jewellery jangles as she sashays round a waterside terrace dappled with guests enjoying aperitifs before dinner.
Those out of earshot are content to sip and smoke while watching nearby fishermen cast their hooks in the twilight, hoping for spangled emperor (the prized catch of the region).
This evening’s get-what-you’re-given meal — ‘pacific fish’ soup, green papaya gratin and delicately grilled scampi — is a happy coupling of Polynesian ingredients and old-world savoir faire. To accompany it, I drink Vin de Tahiti, a tropically nosed white made nearby in French Polynesia’s only vineyard. It’s delicious. Besides the evident ‘charme et raffinement’ — as advertised on the property’s entrance sign — there is a welcoming and homely atmosphere here (£154 per person a night, relais-josephine-rangiroa.com/en). One where family-style, long-table dining prompts good-quality conversation among solo travellers, couples and groups of varying nationalities.
Tahiti tonic: Enjoy the spa at Hotel Kia Ora (above) or a dance show (below)
The conversation is largely led by what they’ve seen that day: singing dolphins, ‘scary’ sharks and all manner of tropical wonderment. I listen quietly, knowing it’s all to come.
I am at the edge of a motu — a small reef islet — on Rangiroa, the largest atoll in Tahiti’s Tuamotu archipelago, the third and final stop of an island-hopping tour I’ve taken round French Polynesia. To make visiting the end of the earth even more attainable, new low-cost airline French Bee launched flights from Paris this summer that have more than halved the price of getting to Papeete, the capital. One-way flights from Paris, via San Francisco (the national carrier stops off at LA), start at £455. What’s more, instead of five-star hotels, I’m staying exclusively at cheaper family-run guesthouses.
Tahiti and its surrounding islands are often considered the preserve of moneyed honeymooners and privacy-seeking A-listers. The high price of flights reflects just how far away it is, while a water bungalow (a Tahitian invention, no less) will cost you the same amount for a single night as your entire flight.
But there’s a little-known alternative that actually predates the hotels. Those who aren’t so fabulously wealthy — or, indeed, people looking for a more authentic Polynesian experience — can stay at one of 400 or so pensions de famille.
Accommodation packages for these properties start at £1,495 per person for ten days while rooms at Hotel Kia Ora — a few minutes down the road from Les Relais guesthouse — start at £505 a night.
But flying for over 24 hours in a low-cost carrier is a commitment only your chiropractor’s accountant will champion. So, is it worth it? It was a lagoon tour on Rangiroa that removed all doubt. Paati Excursions (£56 per person, firstname.lastname@example.org) — run by the cheery men folk of a local family — took us from a tiny port near Les Relais to Ile aux Récifs, their collection of family-owned atolls, an hour’s boat ride away.
If the Flat Earth theorists are right, this sublime curation of coral and coconuts must surely mark the grainy edge of the precipice. There is a giggle-inducing vertigo born of being so far from civilisation. In part, you’re elated you’ve finally made it to what feels like a fictional destination, golden-hued and otherworldly. But the same scene engenders a childish sort of fear: having travelled so far from the real world, will you ever be able to return? Or, more profoundly, do you want to?
We alight into shallow water and make our way to shore for some freshly machete-cut coconut. It’s something to fortify us for the upcoming hour spent snorkelling down a narrow strait with a water-park current. Baby blacktip sharks and their rainbow prey wait to entertain us in the water.
The Paati people then walk us one motu over to a frond-covered picnic area. There, they cook coconut bread on a barbecue fuelled by the fruit’s husks. It’s served with a salad of grated carrot, cucumber and mahi-mahi [fish] chunks, blanched in a citric coconut-milk sauce.
Then out come the guitars, which make me wince. The beach-guitar singalong is a cliché potent enough to spoil even the most paradisal lunches. But these songs are sung in a language only 6,000 people can speak. Tuamotuan folk is a thing. I nod along happily, supping Hinano, Polynesia’s Peroni.
Tonight at dinner, back on Josephine’s terrace, it’ll be me and my stories holding court. My budget BB (Tahiti-style) break is an experience you really couldn’t put a price on.
After a good lunch at kitschy Beach Burger, we were met by Pascal Luciani. He spends most of his time running the annual Billabong Pro competition but also gives private lessons (£11pp for an hour, tahitisurfschool.info) at both Papenoo (good for beginners) and Taharuu beaches. Sure enough, I was an embarrassment. Couldn’t even stand up (I blame the burger). But that didn’t stop me enjoying a little makeshift bodyboarding for an hour.
San Fran’s Candytopia is an interactive pop-up art exhibition where you can peruse celeb portraits created from boiled sweets and jump in a gigantic marshmallow pit. candytopia.com
Dama, that’s good
Pan for Gold
A one-time strip club in east Hollywood is now a ‘sensual’ dive bar, 11-room hotel and recording studio called Gold-Diggers. From £137 per night, gold-diggers.com