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Taha’a -- the Vanilla Island
French Polynesia's Secret Isle

"This can’t be…we’ve run out of Tahitian vanilla" said my husband, a real food fanatic. I quickly replied, "Let’s go and get some at the source, Taha’a the Vanilla Island." After a very busy year managing my travel agency I was ready to follow my own advice: go to the Tahitian Islands and relax. My husband and my children, Alexandra, aged ten, and Andrew, aged four, knew the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and Bora Bora. But they had never visited Taha’a, an island located in the "Iles Sous le Vent" archipelago. Known by the local population as the Vanilla Island, its relative isolation, pristine conditions, clear waters, and superb hotel made it the ideal destination for our vacation. And there was the vanilla. It has always been present in the memories of my idyllic childhood in Tahiti. My mother used to add it to our favorite dishes such as tuna in vanilla sauce, crème brulée, and milk chocolate. Our sugar bowls and coffee pots were always infused with the intense aroma of vanilla, the perfect way to wake up in the morning. Of course our Tahitian punch also benefited from a vanilla bean steeped in the local artisan rum, something I had discovered in my late teens.

Voyage to Paradise

We flew directly from California to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, and then boarded one of the daily 30-minute Air Tahiti flights to Raiatea. Taha’a is located north of its larger sister Raiatea, and they share a marvelous lagoon. An ancient Tahitian legend says that Taha’a was detached from Raiatea by a sacred eel possessed by the spirit of a Tahitian princess. We took a taxi-boat from Raiatea to our hotel across the lagoon. The view was majestic, the islands covered in all shades of green, the deep blue lagoon contrasting with the bright sky, my children delighted by a school of dolphins challenged us to a race. The clean air filled our lungs and we could feel Tahiti working its magic on us. As time slowed down, worries dissipating, we knew we had found our paradise.

View from motu
View from Taha'a private motu toward Bora Bora
(Photo: Pascale Siu-Chow)

Our hotel, the Taha’a Private Island and Spa was located on a private motu (Tahitian for a very small island) accessible only by boat. It was built in a luxurious Polynesian style, with heavy use of richly polished tropical woods, thatched roofs, and natural stones. Our bungalow was over water, and the view included magnificent Bora Bora on one side and Taha’a on the other. The big surprise was that the best view was under the bungalow. The lagoon is quite shallow around the hotel, and the water has unmatched clarity allowing us to see in great detail the snow-white sand, the coral garden, and the amazing tropical fish. We saw wrasses, purple and red damsels, orange butterfly fish, yellow tangs, clown fish, manta rays, needle fish, parrot fish, and many others. The kids spent hours feeding the fish from the hinged glass tabletop. We went for a quick dip in the water by the most direct route, down the wood ladder and into the lagoon.

Taha’a Charms

The next day we set out to explore Taha’a and discover its secrets. After a great lunch of poisson cru à la tahitienne (Tahitian style sashimi with coconut milk) we took a boat from the motu to Taha’a and rented a car for the day. Our first stop was the Turtle Conservation Center. Leo Morou is the founder of the Center, and he also runs a marina and bed and breakfast called l’Hibiscus. He is famous for his wonderful food and his love of turtles. Leo buys the turtles that get tangled in fishermen’s nets, nurses them back to health, and sets them free. He has freed hundreds of these gentle creatures. My kids were full of questions: "What do they eat? Why do they go back to their birthplace? How do they find it? Do they live in groups?" After patiently answering their questions, Leo tagged a large turtle with the name Alexandra, and gave it to the children. They carried the turtle together (cooperation, at last!), deposited it in the water, and gave it a nudge. The turtle circled around for a couple of minutes as if to thank us and with a powerful kick disappeared under water. The kids waved goodbye and wished it good luck.

Taha'a church
Church on Taha'a
(Photo: Pascale Siu-Chow)

Bungalows of Taha’a Private Island and Spa
(Photo: Pascale Siu-Chow)

We went next to a vanilla plantation, La Maison de la Vanille, where thousands of plants were in bloom. Vanilla is a vine orchid, and each flower must be hand pollinated to grow the precious vanilla pod. About eight months later the yellow-green pods are harvested. They are then heat-cured to develop the flavor, and their color changes to a deep brown-black. We bought a large bundle for our use and to give to our lucky friends. One of our friends, Roger Rakotomalala of Lemur2000, sells vanilla in San Francisco. He had told us that vanilla prices have increased enormously, to about $150 per pound, making it the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. The USA is the largest consumer of vanilla in the world.

Our next stop was a local black pearl farm. Tahitian black pearl owes its unique colors to the lagoon water. Its appeal is universal. The farm hands showed us how they seed and grow the oysters in submerged racks to develop the black pearls. Tahitians are also great artisans with surprisingly modern aesthetics in their jewelry. Now it was time to get serious. I shopped the farm’s local jewelry stand and soon became enchanted by a striking necklace featuring braided natural fibers, a single perfect black pearl, and a boar’s tusk. My daughter was also developing her shopping skills, as she found the perfect seashell dolphin pendant.

Lone Tahitian paddler
(Photo: Rita Furnanz)

Tahitian sunset
(Photo: Rita Furnanz)

The Peace of Vanilla
One does not get lost on Taha’a. The 50-mile road circling the island can be traveled in a little over an hour if the tupas (coconut crabs) leave you alone. When Alexandra pointed out that she had seen the same blue and red church earlier, we knew that we had completed our tour. We returned to the port where a boat was waiting to take us back to our private motu bungalow. From the terrace I looked at Taha’a in the Polynesian sunset. Beautiful Mount Ohiri stood outlined against the sky, as if protecting this paradise island still unknown to the tourists. Night was falling, the air was warm, the children were almost asleep, and we had our vanilla. Life was good.

By Pascale Siu-Chow

To inquire about your own trip to Taha’a or other Tahitian islands,
please contact:

Ms Pascale Siu-Chow
Manuia Tours & Travel
59 New Montgomery Street, San Francisco CA 94105
Tel: (415) 495-4500 or Fax (415) 495-2000
Email: manuiatravel@yahoo.com

Courtesy: Frommer's South Pacific

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