Tahiti: Honeymoon Capital of The World Welcomes Gay Newlyweds
It’s no wonder Captain Cook’s shipmates defected. Upon landing on the tarmac and promptly getting lei-d, I was ready to have my own Mutiny on the Bounty. The aqua color of the ocean alone made me want to give Los Angeles the finger and stay ashore in what could only possibly be the warmest, and most welcoming place on Earth: Tahiti. “It’s like our own little Love Boat,” Jean Guillaumot exclaims. He’s The General Manager of The Hilton Bora Bora Nui Hotel Resort & Spa, showing me to my Overwater Bungalow. The sun outside is glistening on the ocean, the coconut palms swaying in the breeze. It’s as if I am walking in to my MacBook screensaver. Oh, Bora Bora is where those images come from. Well done, me.
It’s for reasons like this that Tahiti, more formally known as The Islands of French Polynesia, are often referred to as “The Honeymoon Capital of the World.” Every island unique and painfully romantic, it’s a “couples paradise” where newlyweds come from far and wide to post honeymoon photos that are sure to make all of Instagram jealous. The iconic Overwater Bungalow just reached its 50th and it’s been difficult to keep people out.
“Are you kidding?” Kim Marshall, PR for the Hilton Bora Bora, says. “At The Hilton, we've tried to arrange evening programs for guests like presentations by famous authors or musicians, but it turns out they'd rather just stay in their bungalows and make love."
On the Island of Motu Tapu, having a lunch at a table half-submerged in a lagoon while being served roasted lobster by French waiters in sarongs (just another day at the office) I spied a handsome male couple down the beach. They were both clad in speedos which meant one of two things: gay or European. Later, at Bloody Mary’s famous restaurant/bar, while kicking up sand on the dance floor (because it’s actually made of sand) I noticed a guy looking at me…and then another. I paused.
“Am I being cruised?” I asked Stacey McCleod, my travel buddy from Toronto.
See, I’m a cheap five star traveler, so I didn’t purchase an international data plan and kept my phone in airplane mode. Thus I had to rely on my rusty social skills instead of mobile apps to spot gays nearby. “Oh yeah,” Stacey nodded, sipping her umbrella-d Mai Tai, “They are definitely cruising you.”
I kind of assumed I was the only gay in the village but upon further investigation my assumptions were kind of dated.
“Oh yeah, you should see Moorea, it’s crawling with gays,” Jason Boeckman tells me of the nearby island, after I caught up with him and his boyfriend, Scott Hansen, down the beach. Yup, the couple in speedos were totally gay. Hailing from Fort Meyers, Fla., Jason and Scott are not married, but highly recommend Tahiti as a honeymoon destination.
“We felt very welcome during every part of our trip to French Polynesia,” Scott says, “Resort staff and locals we met, treated us with the same exceptional service as any couple.”
Unlike, say, Russia, Tahiti has a more evolved PR model (big shocker) when it comes to LGBT travelers. They actually want more gays to visit and think it would be beneficial to their economy and culture. “It’s definitely a niche market,” says Jeffrey Crochet, Marketing Manager for Tahiti Tourism North America, “but it is definitely on our radar.”
And with 17 states in the U.S. with marriage equality, French Polynesia would like to proudly welcome same-sex honeymooners. The tourism bureau has even set up a website specifically designed for the gay and lesbian traveler, cheering Tahiti as “such a gay friendly destination.” The website also reiterates that the country is under French law, in which marriage equality is legal. “There is no legal discrimination against homosexual activity,” the site reassures, and “homophobia in French Polynesia is uncommon.”
“Oh yes! Please come! We are a very open people!” Hinano Teavai-Murphy says at Gump Station, a research and cultural center on Moorea. A native Tahitian, Hinano’s father actually helped design the original Overwater Bungalow. Fifty years later, the designer’s daughter wants everyone to share in the Tahitian Dream.
“No one goes hungry in Tahiti, because you can walk along the road and pick food off the trees,” Hinano continues. “It’s because our islands are so abundant that we have a culture of sharing.”
While bouncing on the trampoline of a catamaran, sailing from the island of Raiatea to Taha, the crew of Tahiti Charter Cruises had the same reaction. “Well, obviously we’d want honeymooners to visit, gay or straight, it’s the same thing” they all agreed.
“Anyone is welcome here.” Jean Guillaumot concurs, “Gay people, will be treated at the Hilton just like everybody else because they are just like everybody else.” In fact, Jean continues “You’ll notice a lot of Mahu and Rae Rae work here in harmony with all the other staff.”
Mahu? Rae Rae?
See, French Polynesia has not grown in to being a gay friendly place… it always has been a gay friendly place. Not only do the Tahitians have a more evolved tourism model, but they also carry more inclusive ideas of sexuality and gender identity, as well. Gays (Mahu) and transgender people (Rae Rae) have been a celebrated part of the indigenous, native culture long before Captain Cook’s deckhands said “Fuck you dude, this place is awesome!”
When getting off the water taxi in Bora Bora I spotted a group of Rae Rae. They were some BIG chicks (think Samoan outboard canoers in skirts), with long hair, and native tattoos. I marched right up and was all “hey gurl!” which I obnoxiously assumed was the universal LGBT phrase for “Hello friends!” but once again, I was completely wrong.
The Rae Rae didn’t even notice me. Two of them were sharing ear buds, while another was juggling a soccer ball. If anything, they thought, Who is this American and why is he jumping up and down like an excited school girl? While watching a native dance performance (not to be confused with the Hula), I saw a Rae Rae dancing with all the other straw-skirted ladies. I was like
“Check it out! A Rae Rae!” and everyone around me was like “big deal.” It was this nonchalance that made me get a glimpse of what true equality felt like. Queer people on Tahiti are just people.
While the French Polynesia website reiterates that although the islands are gay-friendly, it is not a solely gay destination. There aren’t any gay bars and the nightlife is quiet, consisting of “drinking wine and watching the sunset,” as Jason and Scott preferred, or stargazing.
“We enjoy weekend getaways with friends to gay places like Key West and Fort Lauderdale. But when we plan a trip together that is just for the two of us, we will typically select a destination where we can connect and see new and exciting things,” Jason later explains. “There is so much in the world to see, you can find destinations that matter to you.”
CLARK HARDING is a Los Angeles-based writer and traveler. Read more of Clark's adventures here.