BORA BORA, French Polynesia -- High atop a Bora Bora hillside, overlooking the lagoon author James Michener called "the most beautiful in the world," Roberto Martinez proposed to this year's Bachelorette, Ali Fedotowsky.
Nearly 20 million viewers witnessed the romantic conclusion to ABC's sixth season of The Bachelorette, which was filmed on this resort island. And now, standing on that very spot, I was mesmerized by the gemstone shades of blue water below me -- aquamarine, sapphire and topaz.
I had just left the spa, where I had a full body massage, and was about to return to my overwater bungalow by golf cart, the preferred mode of transport across the sprawling 16-acre Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort. Aerial photos of French Polynesia -- Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora -- with their dramatic volcanic peaks and awe-inspiring blue lagoons had fascinated me; they represent that ultimate exotic place in the tropics, halfway around the world, almost unreachable.
Tahiti and the 118 islands that make up French Polynesia have long been a favorite spot for celebrities who have married, honeymooned or just traveled for rest and relaxation. Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban honeymooned in Bora Bora in 2006. More recently, Carrie Underwood and Mike Fisher honeymooned on the nearby island of Taha'a. The Bachelorette's next-to-last episode was filmed there also, before making the short hop to Bora Bora for the season finale.
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Since its airing, the romantic appeal of these islands has received a major boost in popularity; bookings at resorts are up and tour companies are offering special package prices, many of which include airfare from Los Angeles.
Modern Bride magazine readers voted the Hilton's thatched roof overwater bungalows, like the one I called my temporary home, the No. 1 Honeymoon Suite in the World. Splurge if you have to, or look for a package that includes at least part of your stay in one of these dreamy huts built on stilts above the shallow lagoon. Glass viewing panels in the floor of the decks and sitting areas, and running the length of the large bathtubs, make it possible to keep an eye on the fish below without touching a toe into the water. When the water becomes too tempting, just take a few steps down a ladder on the deck to commune with the blue lagoon and its inhabitants.
Steps away from my 950-square-foot bungalow were a pair of two-story Overwater Presidential Villas, added in late 2009. They're the only ones in French Polynesia and the closest thing to a "high-rise" you will find. Bachelorette fans will recall Ali introduced her parents to Chris and Roberto, the final two bachelors vying for her heart, in one of the villas. Each is a spacious 3,400-square-foot, two-bedroom villa, ideal for families, including its own private whirlpool spa on the second-story deck, a plunge pool and bathtub with a not-to-be-believed view of the lagoon.
A day in paradise
The site of Ali and Roberto's "last-chance date" was the Hilton's private islet, Motu Tapu, said to be the most photographed islet in French Polynesia. My traveling companions and I enjoyed an idyllic excursion there, where we snorkeled on the nearby reef, sipped champagne and strolled along the white sand beach of the motu, before being served an incredible lunch at the water's edge.
While we ate, calm blue waters barely covered our feet. A trumpetfish hovered in the water near me, like a pampered pet waiting for his morsel. More likely, it was searching for lunch among the small fish swimming in the shallow seawater. This was dining al fresco as I'd never experienced it.
In case we find ourselves stranded on a deserted island, we were treated to a coconut-husking demonstration, then tasted the fresh coconut milk. We also learned ways to tie the traditional colorful Tahitian wraps called pareos, worn by both women and men in French Polynesia.
On the short boat ride back to the Hilton, one of our Tahitian hosts sang and played the ukulele, as our private motu disappeared into the distance. This "day in paradise" on the private islet is one of the most popular excursions offered by the Hilton. Other Bora Bora resorts offer similar excursions to their own private motus.
It all begins in Tahiti
Most travelers to French Polynesia spend time on more than one island. All journeys to the rest of French Polynesia begin in Tahiti -- and all journeys to Tahiti from the U.S. begin in Los Angeles, leaving from LAX airport on Air Tahiti Nui or Air France. (There is also a weekly flight on Air Hawaii from our 50th state.)
Within the span of a normal eight-hour workday, travelers are transported below the equator, 4,100 miles away from L.A., halfway between California and Australia, to Papeete, Tahiti. The time difference is four hours earlier than our own Central Standard Time (five hours during Daylight Saving Time months).
An overnight stay in the capital city of Papeete is required when traveling in both directions, as midday flight times from L.A. make it difficult to get to other islands by ferry or air the day of arrival, and flights leave early morning the day of departure.
Our first night's lodging was spent in Tahiti's newest hotel, the Manava Suite Resort, a TripAdvisor Traveler's Choice winner in 2010. It was perfect for a night's stay, as the majority of its 121 rooms on the edge of the lagoon offer spectacular views of Moorea, our next island destination. We arranged to stay here again on our last night, before our early morning flight to L.A.
While many visitors immediately leave for other island destinations, we spent most of the following day touring Tahiti, the largest island of French Polynesia. If at all possible, build this into your Tahiti vacation plan. Once you are out of the hustle-bustle of Papeete, this island has its own beauty and magic to share.
You'll see lush grottos and waterfalls, the black sand beach at Teahupo'o, where the Billabong Pro World Surfing Tournament is held, the lighthouse where Captain Cook first made landfall in 1769, and Matawaii Bay, where scenes from Mutiny on the Bounty were filmed.
We ended our day at The Papeete Municipal Market, Le Marché, where we shopped for local handcrafted items, oils, pareos and inexpensive black pearl jewelry, before boarding the last ferry of the day to Moorea. The market is open every day, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., just one block inland from the waterfront.
Moorea, heart-shaped island of love
Moua Roa, the most distinctive of Moorea's jagged peaks, is thought to be James Michener's inspiration for the mythical Bali Hai in Tales of the South Pacific. The song from the movie South Pacific kept playing in my head as I stood on the top deck of the high-speed catamaran, which ferried us across the Sea of Moon, the 11-mile waterway separating it from Tahiti.
The 30-minute crossing is one that many Mooreans make daily to work or to attend school in Tahiti. Air Tahiti also offers a shuttle service several times each day between the two islands; at seven minutes, it's one of the shortest commercial flights in the world.
The exotic surroundings of the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, our lodgings for the next several days, were postcard perfect from every vantage point. TripAdvisor.com named it "Top Hotel for Romance in the World" in its 2010 Travelers' Choice awards. My thatched roof garden bungalow, surrounded by bougainvillea, included a private plunge pool on the deck, added as part of an $11 million-plus renovation project, completed in 2009, of the resort's 104 overwater, beachfront and garden bungalows.
While the main attraction of Moorea may be the crystalline lagoon, an island tour is a "must do." One paved 37-mile road circles the island. Awe-inspiring overlooks, black sand beaches, ancient Polynesian temples, drives through pineapple fields (the main agricultural product of Moorea) and tastings of jams and liqueurs made from island-grown fruit were highlights of our half-day tour.
Many of the excursions offered on all the islands involve getting up-close-and-personal with creatures in the sea. On the way to our group's stingray-feeding excursion, we were told small blacktip reef sharks would most likely crash our party for a few leftovers. We emerged with all our fingers and toes and happily snapped photos of the sharks and rays that allowed us to enter their watery world. By all means, book this excursion, which also includes snorkeling with colorful reef fish.
Into the blue lagoon
As soon as we boarded our 45-minute flight from Moorea to Bora Bora on Air Tahiti, someone suggested I sit on the left side to get the best views and photos. Since seeing that aerial photo years ago, I wanted to try to photograph it myself from this unique vantage point. When it came into view, I instantly recognized the 18-mile-long necklace of islets called motus, containing its protected lagoon and barrier reef that surround the main island, and the mountain, Ote Manu, which rises as the focal point of the mainland. If you go, try to grab a left-side window seat.
Bora Bora is, indisputably, one of the most beautiful islands on earth, which makes it even harder to believe that for the early Polynesians it was a place of exile for outcasts. It is no longer a place to be banished, but to banish oneself -- to totally unplug from civilization.
Much of the rest of our self-banishment in Bora Bora, beyond our day on the private islet, was spent in or near the blue lagoon. We slipped into it from our overwater bungalows for morning sea baths and snorkeled its coral reefs on lagoon safari excursions. One day, while the rest of our group fed the stingrays, I went diving with sharks.
I had scuba dived throughout the Caribbean since 1992 and couldn't leave Bora Bora without spending time below the surface of the deeper blue water beyond the lagoon. As we approached the dive site, our guide told us that we would likely be seeing lots of sharks, but none of the man-eating Jaws variety. Minutes before entering the water, we were surprised by the appearance of a humpback whale near our boat. This was the beginning of whale season and quite a treat. We watched it break the surface several times, spraying water through its blowhole before disappearing from sight. The adrenaline rush continued as we spotted at least 30 sharks of several varieties on our dive.
Jet skiing, glass-bottom boat cruises and leisurely lagoon tours are other ways you can experience the lagoon's beauty above the water. A visit to the Lagoonarium and half- or full-day Jeep tours of the main island of Bora Bora are also easily arranged.
French Polynesian dining
If you are a "foodie" like me, French Polynesian dining will not disappoint. The chefs at the Hilton (on Bora Bora and Moorea) creatively combined the two cuisines for unforgettable meals. One night, however, we left the Hilton in Bora Bora to go into Vaitape on the main island for an evening at Bloody Mary's. Named for the character in South Pacific, Bloody Mary's has been visited by celebrities from around the world. Diners view the evening's fresh-catch selections displayed on ice, hear how they can be prepared, then place their orders. While waiting for our meals, we ordered cocktails, shed our sandals, and buried our feet in the white sand floor. The house specialty drink, is, you guessed it, a Bloody Mary.
All too soon, we were headed back to Tahiti, where we spent the last of our French Polynesian francs, the local currency, and had our most bargain-priced meal at Les Roulottes, an open-air dining area near the waterfront where about two dozen food-truck vendors prepare a variety of inexpensive international dishes. We had Chinese stir-fry at Chez Mamy, then returned to our hotel for a few hours' sleep before our early morning flight.