French Polynesia continues to invite honeymooners and other travelers to its various islands during the pandemic and beyond. A negative COVID-19 test is required to fly to French Polynesia, as well as a second test a few days after arrival. Toast that new life together from an island like Tikehau. Your honeymoon might go something like this …
The blueberry waters of the Tuamotu Archipelago look good enough to eat. But, I won’t need to swallow them for sustenance because I have Bachu — and he’s making me poisson cru for lunch. Marooned (for the day) on a deserted island, an hour’s boat ride from the far-flung isle of Tikehau, Bachu and I make the best of it. That is, if you consider playing around in paradise to be something that must be endured as a hardship. In truth, the most insufferable part of my ordeal is the caressing heat of the sun and the nuzzling touch of the briny breeze in my hair. I lie on the sugary beach, plunge my feet in the pellucid lagoon and wait for Bachu to squeeze coconut juice from the seed. For that, he uses palm bark — doesn’t everyone?
A towering Tahitian, with a maternal instinct, Bachu mutters in French as he cooks. Occasionally, he stops to adjust his floral pareo, tied around his waist like a skirt. Under the shady tent he’s erected for us, he sets a rustic picnic table, then returns to his preparation. The sea wind catches the perfume of the pungent limes he squeezes, fusing it with the creamy scent of coconut. Birds titter nearby, and the water laps a stuttering tune as inviting as a chuckle. Graceful and methodical, Bachu works. I want to join his peaceful ritual. But, when I look over his shoulder, begging to help, he shudders — and shushes me away. He’d rather slice the raw, fresh tuna into chunks, and chop the tomatoes without my interference. So. as he dices pungent onions, I grab my snorkel gear, and begin my two-step gambol to the water. I look back to see Bachu standing over an immense teak bowl, tossing the ingredients. As I step into the sea in search of reef sharks, he calls out to me. “When you find them, swim toward them. They won’t hurt you.”
Poisson cru, the stand out dish from Tikehau, Tahiti, and the rest of French Polynesia, resembles ceviche. Marinated in lime juice, served in a coconut shell atop a leaf of lettuce, it often comprises cucumber, onion, bell peppers and tomato, which add crunch to the sweet, tender tuna pieces. Locals, like Bachu, concoct it most anywhere, and for all occasions. They have the recipe memorized, though each Tahitian surely personalizes it. Bachu swears by the palm bark and the plethora of coconut juice. On this uninhabited islet, where the ingredients have arrived by speed boat, the poisson cru makes a satisfying repast. We eat a plate of it, accompanied by cold bottles of amber-colored Hinano beer. When we finish, Bachu attempts to teach me to weave a basket from palm fronds. He grumbles in French over my inept skills. “Non,” he says, smiling, as he whisks my failure from my hands, and neatly plaits it into a masterpiece.
Back at my hotel, Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, I contemplate the vista. Jacques-Yves Cousteau declared Lilliputian Tikehau, an hour’s flight from Tahiti, the richest atoll on earth. This summation smacks of largesse, but Tikehau, rimmed with pink beaches, composed of craggy coral, is a tiny, unpretentious place defined by its density of fish. Its name, translated, means peaceful landing, and the resort’s low-key atmosphere stays true to the moniker. Snaking piers connect over-water bungalows to the shore, and to a simple, thatched, main lodge. Beach-side villas wedge into palm groves, their hammocks an invitation to repose. A three-star resort, situated to take advantage of the island’s off the grid location, and reputation for remote diving and snorkeling adventures, Tikehau Pearl lets nature rise to its deserved, starring role. Atop a quay, I gaze into water so crystalline it looks like air. From this vantage point, I could stay all day, watching the fleet of brightly colored fish mosey by. Who needs a snorkel here? Even inside the roomy over-water bungalows, sea creatures occupy center stage. Floor windows capture processions of parrot fish, lumpy grouper, moray eels, trigger fish and lemon sharks — among other brightly adorned species. The spectacle, never dull, continues day and night — 24/7, which makes it the world’s original reality show.
Though I see a graceful manta ray leap into the air from a boat off the shores of Tikehau, I have better luck in Bora Bora. There, I swim with the graceful, angel-like creatures. Once feared by the ancients as the kidnappers of children, the harmless fish flap through the sea like dancers following choreography. Twenty feet below the surface, they swim below me. With water this clear, it feels like I snorkel beside them. But, suddenly, I understand their legendary reputation for seduction. Caught up in the beauty, I’ve swum farther away from my anchored boat than planned. I surface to find it looking as small as the head of a pin. Luckily, as I swim back to the craft, my captain steers toward me, and soon I scramble inside, my mermaid adventure successfully a wrap.
At Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort’s sister property, Le Bora Bora by Pearl Resorts, I finish my Tahitian sojourn. As a semi-autonomous territory of France, French Polynesia encompasses nearly 120 islands and five archipelagos. Bora Bora, one of the “islands,” actually incorporates myriad teeny motus (islets), most occupied by just one resort. Here, even the airport inhabits its own island. Arriving guests board yacht-style taxis to whisk them to their hotel. Mount Otemanu, a majestic, emerald volcano, pierces the lagoon. Around it, the resorts gain gravitas from the mountain’s presence. Its shadows add a mystical appeal. So, cocktail in hand, I head to a hammock, the sea proffering an open invitation. I think about how Marlon Brando described this area as “the tincture of the South Seas.” A tincture is a medicine, and healing French Polynesia cures with its big-hearted populace and its eye-popping nature. But, there’s something else: a palpable poetry, which locals refer to as mana. This intangible energy stirs the soul with its whisperings of romance and possibility.
Here, someday, I might even learn to weave a basket.
More Information: www.tahiti-tourisme.com
Recipe: Poisson Cru
Takes: 15 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
- 1¾ pounds of fresh tuna (sushi grade)
- ½ cucumber (3½ ounces)
- 1 tomato (1¾ ounces)
- 1 green pepper
- 1 large onion
- 8 limes (juiced)
- 1 glass coconut milk
- Salt and pepper
- Dice the fish into ½-inch cubes, rinse with fresh water, drain and place in a large bowl.
- Squeeze the limes and pour the juice over the fish, mix well and chill 20 minutes in refrigerator.
- Cut onion and green pepper into thin slices, cut tomato into small cubes, remove seeds from cucumber and cut into thin half-moons.
- Drain some of the lime juice, add the vegetables and season with salt and pepper.
- Add the coconut milk five minutes before serving.
- Serve chilled. Present on a bed of lettuce or in a coconut shell.