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November/December 2005 | Escape to Tahiti

November/December 2005 | Escape to Tahiti

"It's never happened for me with a lover, but I was blissfully infatuated the moment I arrived in Bora Bora." A Hawaiian writer finds another Polynesian paradise.

It’s never happened for me with a lover, but I was blissfully infatuated the moment I arrived in Bora Bora. Perhaps it was the black claw-shape Mount Otemanu rising out of the sea—the dramatic centerpiece of Bora Bora’s crystalline lagoon. Or maybe it was the shock of the vibrant shades of water—azure, turquoise, teal; each time I said one was the loveliest ever, I found a new favorite. That was a couple of years ago. Obsessed with the vision, I was anxious to return and spend time exploring the connections between Bora Bora and my own Polynesian homeland of Hawaii.

This summer, I arrived triumphantly back at Bora Bora’s miniscule airport, the air filled with the cackling of wild chickens, and was soon speeding by yacht to the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort, located on its own private islet, Motu Toopua. And I was again transfixed. I genuinely felt—as writers like W. Somerset Maugham, Pierre Loti, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London have declared much more eloquently—that this was the most magical and beautiful place in the world. But the minute that thought formed in my mind, I rejected it as completely disloyal. How could I, a native Hawaiian who has made a career of promoting Hawaii, admit that?

But I would soon discover that I felt so attached to Tahiti’s mythical islands—immortalized so gorgeously not only in paintings and drawings by Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin but also on film, beginning with the 1931 silent movie Tabu—because they evoked in me a longing for a Hawaii I never knew.

Old-timers say that modern Tahiti and her islands bear a striking resemblance to Hawaii circa 50 years ago. The air and water are unbelievably clear and clean, and the islands themselves are largely untamed. The notable exception is the urban sprawl of the bustling capital city Papeete on the island of Tahiti, which is home to about 70% of the island chain’s 250,000 inhabitants. Most direct flights from the United States will land you in Papeete, so spending at least one night there is almost inevitable.

Smart travelers head straight to Bora Bora’s pristine atolls as soon as they possibly can. They come to dive or snorkel in the coral-filled lagoon brimming with fish and reef sharks, hike or jeep into the island’s electric green interior, or trudge up its three massive peaks: Hue (2,000 feet), Pahia (2,165 feet), and Otemanu (2,380 feet). But most of all, they come here to luxuriate, relax, rejuvenate, and do nothing. The island has only one tiny town, Vaitape, home to a supermarket, post office, church, and a few other services.

Bora Bora’s outrageously luxurious resorts (currently numbering 14, with a St. Regis and a Four Seasons currently under construction) are sprinkled mainly on islets around Bora Bora. They create a harmonious landscape, with overwater bungalows perched above the sparkling lagoon, emphasizing the obvious: that Bora Bora is more water than land. Such architecture stands in stark contrast to Hawaii’s Waikiki, Wailea, and Kaanapali rows of towering concrete resorts. And there are 118 islands and atolls in French Polynesia, compared to Hawaii’s mere eight, giving one the impression that there is always more space to spread out and to discover.

Hawaiians are ethnic descendants of Tahitians who migrated north around 1200. There are obvious similarities in language, with many words exactly the same in Hawaiian, except that K’s replace Tahitian T’s (the Hawaiian word for male is kane, while in Tahitian it is tane). The people of Tahiti, with their broad smiles and graceful manners, were also familiar to me. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that unlike Hawaii, where less than 10% of the total population identifies as ethnic Hawaiian, Tahiti’s population is about 80% Polynesian. More significant, unlike Hawaii, where only a handful of people speak Hawaiian fluently or use the language on a daily basis, most residents of Tahiti, even non-Tahitians, speak Tahitian.

The French claimed Tahiti as a French protectorate in 1842, and French Polynesia became an overseas territory of France in 1946, making Tahitians French citizens with all attendant civil and political rights. France’s testing of nuclear weapons on the fringes of French Polynesia caused riots in Papeete in 1995, and a small independence movement has been growing since. Nevertheless, many Tahitians own land and their own homes, so while some of the same problems exist among the native population as in Hawaii (drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, heart disease, etc.), overall the people seem more content and empowered by their pure-blood numbers.

Each July, the monthlong Heiva I Tahiti celebrations—competitions in native song, dance, and sport—are in session. The Bora Bora Lagoon Resort arranged for us to attend the finals of the dance competition, a bold display with 100 dancers in grass skirts manipulating lit torches. I was amazed at how many young people participated in performances that took many hours of practice to perfect—hours spent not watching TV or playing video games. I loved Tahiti even more that night.

Tahitian people were curious about me as a Hawaiian, but I never felt vulnerable as a woman. I never felt anonymous, ignored, or unable to communicate my needs. Not even the shopkeepers were aggressive, nor were the native men. Many of them were in fact slightly feminine and shy, despite their large size. Of course, I noticed many mahu, the word for gay men in both Hawaiian and Tahitian. And perhaps one of the factors that immediately put me at ease here on my first trip was seeing male-to-female cross-dressers—referred to as rae rae in Tahitian culture. They worked as flight attendants, hotel desk clerks, tour guides. No one seemed at all surprised to have them in the mix. And Tahiti being an overseas territory of France, there are many laws protecting homosexuals

On this trip, I befriended a rae rae named Tomita Teruea, a crew member on Bora Bora Cruises’ Ti’a Moana, a boutique yacht I sailed on for six nights around Raiatea, Huahine, and Taha’a. Meeting Tomita was one of the highlights of my week, and she seemed to be a superhero among the crew.

Having read conflicting reports about the Tahitian tradition of boys whose families raise them as girls, I was pleased when Teruea sat down and told me her life story. Sometimes a rae rae is chosen because there are no daughters in the family, though Teruea had three older sisters. “But they were lazy,” she laughs, so her mother overruled her father, declaring that their firstborn son would be raised as a girl to help with the household chores. Teruea’s family later expanded to include two younger sisters and two younger brothers, but with her versatility she remains the most accomplished. She played professional volleyball on the Tahitian men’s team for two years, and was the first to travel outside of Tahiti: to New Zealand, the United States, France, Fiji, and the Cook Islands. She’s also the first rae rae to work on Bora Bora Cruises as a server in the dining room. “Usually the rae rae work behind the scenes,” she told me. Teruea also sings, plays the guitar and ukulele, dances on special occasions for guests of the Tia Moana, and is responsible for the daily flower arrangements. But the most remarkable story I heard from the other members of the crew, all of whom are quite fond of her, was about a night when a young male bartender from the Tia Moana got drunk. It was Sunday, their night off, and while out at a local bar he ended up in a fight with a Tahitian. Teruea stepped in to try and calm things down, but the Tahitian took a swing and hit her. Mistake or not, Teruea was forced to teach him a lesson and beat him silly.

Since parents choose sons to be rae rae, many of them are heterosexual, but Teruea likes men. She’s had a French boyfriend for seven years and hopes to settle down soon. “I’d love to be a mother and raise a daughter myself one day.”

The live-and-let-live attitude of Tahiti, combined with the French gloss (a good café au lait is a lovely midday treat in any climate), make these islands very appealing to sophisticates. The gay-friendliness of Tahiti extends beyond the usual vague inclusiveness—gay couples vacationing, honeymooning, or seeking commitment ceremonies are explicitly targeted via the gay section of the official Tahiti tourism site. And French laws prevail here, so there are no discriminatory laws against homosexual activity.

Despite some drawbacks (low English fluency, quiet nightlife, high prices, and a poor singles scene), it would be difficult to imagine a more glorious, sensual, romantic, and welcoming place for gay or lesbian lovers. If you crave the lap of luxury and wish to eat fresh fish and coconut milk (a local delicacy called poisson cru) and spa yourself into oblivion, this is your nirvana. If you want to get fit and be healthy on vacation, you can swim, paddle, surf, or run to your heart’s content. If you want to create, this is a perfect spot to start your new novel, screenplay, or sketches. And if you want to dig deeper into the mysteries of Polynesia, as I did, they abound here.

Every island, person, and question asked opened a door, giving me a clearer understanding of what it means to be, in a broad sense, Polynesian. We are a people who are in equal parts adventurers, craftspeople, hedonists, sensualists, survivalists, and environmentalists. Tahitians ventured to Hawaii in the first place because they recognized the need for more resources for their growing population. And though there are many Gods in Polynesia, the land, or aina as we say in Hawaii, reigns most supreme—the lush natural wonder that endlessly inspires.


Air Tahiti Nui (877-824-4846) offers surprisingly affordable rates (as low as $550 round-trip from Los Angeles to Tahiti) on air/hotel packages as well as great stopover packages on your way to Australia or New Zealand.

ACCOMMODATIONS (Dial 011-689 before all international phone numbers)

Moderate: If you want a clean, simple, comfortable place to sleep, Sheraton Hotel Tahiti (PK 2 Cote Mer Auae Faa’a, 864-848, $330–$883) is ideal. It’s five minutes from the airport in Papeete (beware of cheaper hotels that require a $40 cab ride from the airport) and relatively small, with 200 air-conditioned rooms, so you can be in your shower or bed within minutes of checking in. There’s even a modest infinity pool should you need a cool-down night swim. Expensive: Our top pick for luxe stays is the Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa (Motu Toopua, Nunue, 603-300, $642–$2,850), with 120 villas on 16 acres of lush, terraced hillside, perched on the water of a private, protected cove. And yes, the fabulous bungalows are right above the water, just like in movies. The super glam Orient-Express Bora Bora Lagoon Resort and Spa (Motu Toopua, 604-000, $550–$940) has 44 overwater bungalows—room service arrives via canoe!—and, for more privacy, 20 equally fab beach bungalows with gardens and plunge pools. You can also try their “Motu Miti” package—a luxury land-and-sea vacation that includes three nights at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort and six nights sailing aboard the special shallow-water 30-cabin boutique yacht Tia Moana around Bora Bora, Taha’a, Huahine, and Raiatea. Meals, entertainment, transfers, and special outings are included. Rates start at $12,000 per person, double occupancy.


The best restaurants are at the resorts, most of which are accessible by motu (water taxi). The Bora Bora Nui Resort’s Tamure Beach Fare Grill (Motu Toopua, 603-300) is an outdoor beachfront and poolside venue serving fresh seafood, with a free Polynesian show twice weekly. Celebrity-popular Hotel Bora Bora has the breezy Matira Terrace (Point Raititi, 604-411), with tables built of monkeypod trees, situated under a thatched roof, and a light menu of local tropical refreshments as well as a dignified afternoon tea. Hotel Bora Bora was established in 1961 as the first resort on the island, and it still has that old Polynesian glamour.


In Papeete, there is one very popular mixed gay/straight club called The Piano Bar (rue des Ecoles, 428-824), a multiroom disco that features nightly rae rae drag shows. In Bora Bora, folks head to Bloody Marys Bar (Povai Bay, 677-286) on the weekend to blow off some steam.


Capt. Richard Postma may be best friends with Pierce Brosnan and Tommy Lee, but you don’t have to be a star to charter his boat, Taravana (677-779), for deep-sea fishing, an island tour, or a sunset sail in Bora Bora. For diving in Bora Bora, Moorea, Rangiroa, and Tahiti, turn to the well-established TOPdive (605-050). For jeep tours of the island, contact Bora Safari 4X4 (677-132), and for shark feeding in the wild, call Shark Boy (676-093).


For planning information, general facts about each island, and gay and lesbian vacation packages, visit

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