Matrimony comes with a taste of paradise
Destination weddings, renewals of vows write new South Pacific stories
BORA BORA — Tahitian drums and song welcomed Anna Maria Mereghetti, wearing a simple white pareo, as she was ferried in a hibiscus-bedecked outrigger across the lagoon.
There at the water’s edge, her husband, similarly clothed in white, waited alongside a Tahitian priest adorned in cardinal red feathers and robes.
Moments later, a host of native dancers and singers, along with other guests at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort, watched as the couple was showered with ocean water, crowned with tiare and other local flowers, and married following the ancient rituals of the Polynesian people.
South Pacific islands such as Bora Bora have long attracted honeymooners and couples wishing to renew their vows, but until recently local laws made it next to impossible for outsiders to marry in these romantic isles. It still takes several months to finalize the necessary paperwork, but more and more couples are traveling to far-away Tahiti and French Polynesia’s smaller islands for destination weddings and to renew marriage vows.
Mereghetti and Francesco Dondarini were married back home in Italy a year ago. They said the sim ple Polynesian ceremony allowed them to concentrate on their commitment to each other without the demands and distractions of a big family wedding. And the Pearl’s setting with its dramatic view of Mount Otemanu, often described as God’s fist rising up from the pristine ocean waters, provided as romantic a setting as one could hope to find.
Jeff Thompson and Linda Leal, who live in San Francisco, were also at the Pearl for an amorous getaway, spending relaxing days beach- or poolside, diving with manta rays and black-tipped sharks and feasting on the bounty the resort offers, a surfeit of local fish, and fruit and vegetables prepared by French chefs.
My husband and I had returned to where we honeymooned 17 years earlier. Over the course of 10 days, and traveling on 12 planes and 16 boats, we had ventured from our home in Vermont to Los Angeles, then to Papeete on Tahiti, the largest of French Polynesia’s Windward Islands, and on to Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine, and Bora Bora, even their names, in which you pronounce every vowel, liltingly exotic.
Our first stop was the Vahine Island Resort, set on a 23-acre motu or islet off Tahaa. The resort is quite intimate with only nine bungalows, three perched over the lagoon, the rest along a white-sand beach overlooking one of two coral gardens.
The only way to the Vahine is a 30-minute speedboat ride from Raiatea, which in turn is reached by plane or boat from Tahiti. There’s no TV on the island, although there is Wi-Fi and the paper arrives daily.
Like all the resorts we stayed at, the Vahine offers snorkeling equipment, windsurfing boards, Polynesian pirogues, or flat-bottomed boats, and, for additional fees, visits to pearl farms, deep sea fishing, and scuba diving excursions. We opted for the hammock off the deck and the coral reef a dozen steps from our bungalow, and feasted on vanilla yogurt, fresh croissants, and omelets for breakfast, and fresh-caught fish, homemade pasta, and local vegetables at dinner.
One day, we took the speedboat into Raiatea — the taxi boat costs about $45 each way so one is circumspect about these trips — to visit Roselyne Brotherson, who with her husband, Andrew, operates the Manava Pension, a cluster of small bungalows on their property.
A native Polynesian, Andrew conducts insightful tours of Taputapuatea, the most important maraeor outdoor temple to the gods in French Polynesia, dating to about 1000 AD. Human sacrifices were once held there to appease the god Oro, but today the site is honored as the birthplace of French Polynesia, a place to which royalty and navigators from as far away as Hawaii traveled for coronations and, even today, to share their knowledge of Oceania.
From Raiatea, we traveled to Huahine, nicknamed the Garden Island, where we stayed at the Huahine Te Tiare Beach Resort, a sumptuous retreat nestled between volcanic rock and white sand beach and inaccessible by automobile. Built by Rudy and Inga Markmiller, who hails from Malibu, Calif., the Te Tiare features 41 bungalows, 11 of which are over water. It too is reached primarily by motorboat.
The Markmillers are engaging presences at Te Tiare, sharing South Sea tales and their affection for Huahine and its people. They encourage visitors to explore Fare, the major town on the island, and the extensive ruins of Maeva village, the largest concentration of pre-European marae in all of Polynesia.
We had first visited Maeva with Paul Atallah, the protégé of Yoshi Sinoto, the Hawaiian archeologist considered instrumental in saving the archeological treasures of French Polynesia. With Atallah again as our guide, we returned to the sacred Lake Fauna Nui and explored the marae of the Huahine royal families, seeing for the first time Marae Matairea Rahi with its great expanse of stone pavement and eight upright stone seats reserved for clan chiefs, now overseen by a giant banyan tree.
But the highlight of our Tahitian holiday was the day we spent with two couples from Japan snorkeling in the rain. While our communication skills were challenged between the French and Polynesian of the guide and the Japanese of our fellow tourists, our mutual surprise in being poked by black-tipped sharks and hugged by manta rays, which felt like velvetized rubber, was unlimited by language barriers.
We had been a bit wary of traveling to Bora Bora, a big tourist destination and our last stop in French Polynesia, but the friendly staff at the five-star Bora Bora Pearl Resort and our accommodations in an enclosed garden complete with patio, lounge chairs, covered breakfast nook, and Jacuzzi, not to mention the miles of unspoiled beaches and seemingly endless lagoon, converted us.
As elsewhere, the food was magnificent, especially the Polynesian show and banquet we feasted at the last night of our stay. We had been to other of these affairs and found them cheesy and commercial, but the Polynesian dancers and singers who entertained us that night exuded such pleasure in their heritage and so much humor and amity as they told the story of their culture in song and dance that it felt authentic.
Thompson and Leal thought so, too, so much so that they spent their entire 10-day vacation at the Pearl. And Mereghetti and Dondarini said they hoped to return in a few years to renew their vows.
None of this comes cheaply, of course. Rates at the three resorts range from $445 to $1,020 a night, depending on accommodations and time of travel. Accommodations with island residents such as at the Brothersons’ pension are more affordable and offer the opportunity to experience village life.
The low season down here is Nov. 1 to May 31. It’s a long trip and, given the cost of travel and accommodations, may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So take enough time to enjoy it.
Yvonne Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.