Our picks for the most romantic but affordable inns in the islands
Simple is the way to go on the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Huahine: All you really need is a thatched hut with friendly owners and a beachfront location.
On Tahiti, the namesake of the French Polynesian islands, pleasure lies in hiking magnificent green peaks and verdant valleys; browsing markets for beach wraps, exotic fruits, and carvings; and wading far from shore in warm, gently lapping water
All international jets land in Papeete, the hectic capital of French Polynesia's 118 islands. Although many tourists quickly switch planes (destination: isolation), the island of Tahiti is worth more than a layover. To begin with, it's the most populated spot in the island nation, which gives visitors the clearest insights into modern Polynesian life. The Gauguin Museum and the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, both on the west side, shed light on the free-spirited tribalism that seduced generations of artists and voyagers--and scandalized starchy missionaries.
Tahiti's sea-facing hotels all have the same noisy defect: They're on the busy main road, which hustles along the prime coastline and ruins the serenity. Hiti Moana Villa, on the southwest coast 40 minutes from Papeete, feels mostly removed from the hubbub because of its position on a large lagoon. The Brotherson family runs the establishment with exactitude. Son Steve keeps the 10-year-old property looking no older than two; mom Henriette, in her girlish flowered dresses, tends the vibrant courtyard gardens and koi pond. Three garden bungalows, done in polished wood and vibrant colors, are within earshot of the loud morning traffic, but they come with furnished porches suited to sundowners and journal writing. Upgrading to one of the four ocean-facing bungalows near the pool and the boat ramp yields a quieter space with a kitchen and picture-window views of the lagoon--which, many days, is used for training by rowing teams in canoes. For cheap meals, there's a supermarket a mile down the road, and, a quick stroll away, a few roulottes (evening-only food stands serving $9 dinners). Don't leave the islands without trying a bowl of cold poisson cru, a traditional raw-fish dish that's made with fresh coconut milk.
Granted, Papara Village Family Resort's mountainside site requires a short car trip for any activity except jungle hikes. But having to drive five minutes to the beach is a minor penalty when you consider the serenity and the stirring view: miles of surf, wee pink churches in the distance, and a valley speckled with a thousand shades of green. It feels like sacred land, and it is; several stone marae slab altars dating to the 1700s, before missionaries arrived, dot the property (along with a few cows). The resort is owned by Noel Chave, a young Polynesian whose family has lived on the spread for three generations. Noel routinely finds tiki statues in his lawn, which the local archaeology museum subsequently comes in and takes away. Two bungalows and three family-size houses, all made of concrete, have fully equipped kitchens, ceiling fans, TVs, and narrow balconies but aren't remarkable for much more than their good value. Still, guests are free to eat any fruit they can pick from the many trees--lemon, mango, and grapefruit among them. Few properties on Tahiti are as tranquil, and few on any island provide closer access to both bygone and modern Polynesian life.
Punatea Village counters the Tahitian norm in many ways. Its rooms are sheltered from the road; it faces bracing surf rather than a peaceful lagoon; and it's big enough for kids to roam around, with a swimming pool in a garden grove and a private waterfall nearby. A live-in cook prepares full dinners for $25 (try the tuna steaks with vanilla sauce) in a pavilion beneath the towering palms. The four simple beach bungalows--bed, sofa, porch, no kitchen--are spaced for maximum privacy. As is often the case with family-owned properties, there are also a few smaller, cheaper, motel-style rooms sharing a building set back from the sea, but they can't compare with the romance of renting a private hut. The young, attractive Bordes family, who lives on the property with a menagerie of cats and dogs, built everything from scratch three years ago. It's an hour's drive from Papeete, near the village of Pueu, and a 15-minute drive from Teahupoo beach, where the waves are cherished by surf pros.
The tight-budget choice in ritzy Punaauia is Taaroa Lodge, on the main road 20 minutes west of Papeete. The owner, Ralph Sanford, is a middle-aged surfer who wanted a place where both his international surfer friends could hang out and paying guests would feel comfortable. Three years ago, he ordered a few prefab chalet kits from New Zealand and set about creating his casual clubhouse on a grassy plot overlooking a good snorkeling lagoon. The inspiring, jagged profile of Moorea looms on the western horizon like something Bloody Mary enticed the Seabees to visit. Big windows, solar power, a shared open-air kitchen, and a much-used barbecue grill give Taaroa the kind of laid-back vibe usually only found on the outlying islands. Ralph happily loans out kayaks and sailboards to guests, and as an added bonus, water at the lodge is potable (drinking untreated tap water isn't recommended anywhere in French Polynesia). For the most dedicated shoestringers, there's a $24 dorm.