Illustration by Jason Schneider
It was a Sunday, late morning, post-Cheerios, pre-caffeine tremors. We were reading The New York Times, something that frankly makes me feel like a cliché, albeit one with an exhaustive knowledge of the Weddings and Celebrations of beautiful, privileged strangers.
Suddenly, cutting through the rustle of newsprint, Lauren, my life and Times partner, pops the question: “Wanna go to Tahiti?”
“Maybe,” I reply. “Why do you ask?”
My hedging is, believe me, reasonable here. In more than 20 years of marriage, while we’ve discussed (and visited) many “dream destinations,” Tahiti’s never once come up. Not. Once. Probably because Tahiti, one of more than 100 sunny, sandy islands comprising French Polynesia, would be a beach vacation and such idle retreats are not our bag. (Updating our slang terms is also not our bag.) We’re engaged, energetic travelers. We fly to major metropoli with museums to hit, events to attend, shopping to do; take long road trips with days full of driving, camp-making, hiking, pit toilet–dreading; trek through Europe, exhausting ourselves seeing sights and rolling our eyes in disgusted disbelief at ugly (uglier than us, anyway) Americans. Beach vacations are for sluggards, people done doing and seeing and living, who don’t understand that sand in one’s swim trunks is not only a chafing hazard, it’s a metaphor. So I hedge because a South Pacific beach vacation seems almost masochistically out of character.
Yet: Lauren has come across a deal in the newspaper. Some tour outfit is offering trips to Tahiti—10 days, two islands, hotels, transfers, and airfare included—at a cost per person that’s either a misprint or a cruel deceit.
Unless. What if? This is Tahiti, after all. Jewel of the Pacific. Paradise (the nonjudgmental, secular one). Storied land of Gauguin, the mutineers of the Bounty, black pearls, and festive tropical cocktails blended with healthful fresh-squeezed fruit juices instead of vile “from concentrate” juices. A place that permits the returning traveler to flog friends and acquaintances with the haughty clause, “When we were in Tahiti…”
“Wouldn’t that be fantastic,” Lauren asks—significantly, minus a question mark.
“Call. Check it out,” I say, already mentally damning the tour company for its poor copyediting/foul treachery. “But no chain hotels or group tours.” (Note 1: To stay in a chain hotel overseas is like emigrating from America to live in an American embassy. Note 2: Traveling in a group of more than two isn’t a vacation, it’s a Sartre play.)
Within a week, we’re booked. The deal is real, my caveats workable. So much so, we tack on four extra days. The more healthful juice the better, right?
The South Pacific ain’t exactly down the block. Our itinerary unfolds as a four-hour flight from CVG to LAX, followed by a disheartening layover and an eight-hour-plus overnight flight to Papeete, largest city on Tahiti and capitol of French Polynesia. For the modern air traveler, that means it takes roughly 24 fits of teeth-grinding aggravation to go from Midwestern here to Oceania there. Oh, and since this is international travel? Tack on six bonus fits from tarmac through customs.
That’s undeniably far but, for us, not quite far enough. No, with our first eight days booked on the neighboring island of Moorea, our jet-lagged, ass-dragging selves aren’t shuttling straight from the airport to comatosely collapse into a nearby hotel bed; instead we must trudge off to a deserted dock on the semi-squalid edge of the city to wait for a ferry. And since our tour operator’s promised transfer is a no-show, that’s far more problematic and stressful to arrange than it should be. Nevertheless, we roll up to the dock at 7:30 a.m. where, a sign proclaims, the first ferry won’t arrive till 10 o’clock. It’s a sleepy Saturday. Not one business is open for business. We sit—beat, hungry, uneasy—on hard wooden benches at a table outside a shuttered snack shack (accent on shack). The air is thick, the sky overcast. The heat and humidity, even at this hour, are as oppressive as a Dick Cheney–approved interrogation. Who knew Paradise was a shvitz?
In the last half-hour before the ferry arrives, a small crowd gathers. Compared to me and Lauren, they look fresh, rested, capable of spelling their names. They also look fully hydrated and I begrudge them their copious fluids. At last, the boat, a sleek hydrofoil, arrives. We scuttle aboard, our depleted flesh crackling like autumn leaves.
We make landfall on Moorea and debark to a dock with all the bustle and amenities of an insolvent petting zoo. Locals slide into old Toyota pick-ups, mount speed bikes, set out on foot down the lone strip of two-lane blacktop. Most fellow Westerners board a trio of hotel shuttles. After much confusion and a dash of turmoil, we are directed to our hotel transfer transportation: an old, full-sized, sun-faded, yellow International Harvester school bus which on this tiny island looks grotesquely large—though, upon entering, the lack of charm and dearth of comfort prove to be regulation grade.
By the time our bags are loaded and our course set another hour has passed. Several stops at the resorts (DANGER: chain properties!) of our bus-mates fuel additional vain pique, until eventually Lauren and I are the sole remaining passengers on this rolling steel sweat lodge. Relief reigns: our hotel has to be next. Or not. Because the next stop we make is nowhere. A vacant lot. Where we must transfer to another, identical school bus for the last leg of our journey. A move that feels gratuitously gratuitous.
“I just want to be there,” Lauren sobs.
“I know, babe. Me too,” I tell her. Bumping down the road, I know none of our accumulating exhaustion, exasperation, perspiration, inconveniences, complications, and disappointments—this ignominious slog—is my fault, yet I feel like it is. Who knew Paradise was just like home?
From the get-go, the Hotel Bali Hai sounded like a joke, comparable to visiting New York and staying at the Gee, Officer Krupke! Inn. But that’s where we’d been booked and on first impression the joke was tanking.
Picture a narrow ribbon of lawn. Behind a thick blind of overgrown vegetation, barely visible, stands the nondescript stone facade of a low-rise building. To one side is an oval, wooden, tabletop-sized bas-relief sign with “Hotel Bali Hai” carved in a hackneyed native-esque font. Two long rows of thriving shrubs and broad-leafed trees, not quite forming a hedge, extend away from the facade in opposite directions; several palm trees and the peaks of a few thatched roofs rise above and beyond them. I immediately start comparing this place to the handful of other beach properties we’d seen on the way. Where they were grand, this is humble; where they were luxurious, this is meager; where they were, let me be clear, “not us,” this is, judging by the total absence of humanity or activity, “not anyone.”
The bus driver offloads our bags, drives away. Whereupon, we stand. In a small, graveled, carless parking lot. Under a torrid sun, now beating down from a cloudless, noonday sky. We have a decision to make: Fall down dead on the spot or follow the stone path leading through the greenery and somehow muster the energy to find and fillet at least one of the people responsible for at least one of our sufferings. A faint sense of self-preservation mandates the latter.
No one was deboned that day. Far from it. Bliss was born. Delivered without a minute’s labor.
Stepping past the facade, we crossed the threshold of a restorative realm, an Eden of gardenia-scented repose. In front of us was an open-air reception area, the serpentine front desk shaded by a thatched awning, the grass and stone “lobby” sun-dappled through the long, fingery fronds of lush palms. A soft, cooling sea breeze wafted the sweat from my hair, lowered my body temp and blood pressure. Flamboyantly exotic tropical flowers, both cut and in bloom, burst brightly around us, an eye-level display of hothouse fireworks. Fifty feet away lay a pristine beach, gentle lagoon-tempered waves lapping at its edge. Fifty feet past that, along an elevated boardwalk, sat six over-water bungalows with glass in the floors, so guests could watch the fish swimming in the clear turquoise water below. A lovely young woman wrapped in a brilliantly patterned pareo greeted us in a voice so soft and honeyed, so sincerely welcoming, it was like she’d been waiting her whole life for us. Unbidden, cold drinks materialized in our hands.
I instantly grokked Gauguin.
We were led to our bungalow, built atop short piers at the back edge of the white sugar sand beach. It was airy, with a steep cathedral ceiling of exposed palm thatch. Furnishings were not so much minimal as optimal, crafted from indigenous materials, decorated with authentic island print fabrics. The feng shui felt feng sh-WOW! Fresh, subtly fragrant flowers stood in various small vases throughout the space and an intricately woven spray of scarlet and saffron blooms, an object of ephemeral artistry, lay on the bed. In the bathroom, flush with the tile floor, just close enough to the shower to be watered by splash and spray, was a small garden sprouting orchids and jade plants.
Taking it all in, I suddenly realized: I was no longer exhausted. I was tranquilized.
For the next eight days, Moorea beguiled and seduced us. Its charms included warm people, flawless weather, and a tempo that was always in perfect sync with our own. It was as if our surroundings could anticipate, even initiate, what would content us. We lolled, we lazed, we napped. We gazed and savored. We bobbed and snorkeled among a stunning diversity of sea creatures painted in vivid, vibrant colors, clustered in schools of dozens, scores, hundreds. At breakfast and lunch we ate and ate well, sticking to native-to-the-island foods and dishes. At dinner we dined, indulging in the finest French cuisine prepared by Moorea’s many fine French chefs, the only holdover of French colonialism worth retaining.
As for the Hotel Bali Hai, the name had been wholly stripped of its cheese, its corn, instead signifying an idyllic atmosphere, the lyrical refrain “Come to me, come to me.” It was us, after all: the anti-chain, anti-resort, anti-anti-beach vacation. No hyper-glitz and mega-magnificence here. No reconfigured topography and cement sprawl. No crowds of all-inclusive partiers tended to by indentured attendants in a fever for tips. One of the owners roamed about regularly, checking on, chatting with, hosting his guests. The Bali Hai way was gracious, personal, comfortably familiar, yet it never intruded or overstepped. I wanted it to be my mother-in-law.
Then there was this: Five days into our stay, we roused our inert selves and booked a half-day off-road tour of the island. Next morning, with the sun not yet above the soaring palms, Lauren and I, along with three other couples, climbed into the open bed of a Land Rover. Our guides were a charismatic couple who’d been born and raised on Moorea. For the next three hours, we explored a significant swath of the tiny island’s interior: visiting out-of-the-way villages; traversing dirt roads up and down craggy but verdant volcanic slopes; scaling precipitous overlooks; and meandering through a garden wonderland of vanilla and pineapple and wild groves of lemon, papaya, passion fruit, and other uncultivated delights.
Just past noon, the Land Rover stopped at the verge of a damp tropical forest and we were pointed down a dark, shaded path. A 10-minute hike, we were told, would take us to a waterfall and a pond where, as our last adventure, we could take a swim.
This was true but oh-so-woefully undersold. Our hike terminated at a narrow, rocky stream, the path petering out as the thick forest canopy opened up, rising from 20 feet to a hundred feet over our heads. On one end of this capacious jungle dome a steep rock wall rose 60 feet and a steady stream of liquefied diamonds cascaded into a broad, shimmering pool. The water seemed to fall in slow motion. Everything was in slow motion. The sound was subdued, suppressed, hypnotic, solitary, the air scrubbed of all civilization. We took this dreamworld in, edging our way into the cool water to float under the falls. No one was not smiling.
After 20 minutes we were told it was time to go. Reluctantly, we drifted to shore. The hike back down the path was quieter than the hike in: we were leaving this sacred space, this true and unspoiled Paradise, the journey at an end.
Though not quite. That’s not how Paradise rolls. Before getting back to the Land Rover, just around a sharp bend in the path, in the only sunlight that had found its way through the treetops, we came upon a table heaped with fresh-picked, fresh-sliced fruit, an abundant harvest our guides had plucked along the way. The effect—the surprise, the setting, the bounty of the island, the scents and flavors, the communion—was (and I’ve never used this word unironically before) breathtaking. We feasted, talked, laughed, lingered. At some point, I noticed that among the overlapping rows of fruit there were some hibiscus, gardenia, and other wildflowers, put there purely for beauty. Like Moorea itself.
Day 8. Our time at the Hotel Bali Hai was up. The next morning, we’d return to Papeete and check into a large non-chain but resort-ish hotel for our last five days. The active vacationers who’d booked it that way were anxious to check out the city, explore, sightsee, do the fun things we always do in new locales.
“I don’t want to go,” Lauren said.
“Me [sobbing deleted], either,” I said.
So, we cancelled and arranged to stay on Moorea until the day before our flight home. When we finally caught the Tahiti-bound ferry and watched the island disappear on the horizon, we realized the perfect vacation was ending. A glaring imperfection.
Of course, we wanted to return. Wanted to sorely. But just a couple years later, I learned the Hotel Bali Hai was closed for repairs. That closure stretched into the next year. And the next. It never reopened. Instead, it was sold, razed, and replaced by a resort. One with super-hyper-glitz and meta-mega-magnificence. The leviathan ate our baby. How could we go back after that?
Our time on Moorea revealed to us the incandescent brilliance, the life-affirming sloth of the beach vacation, an SPF-soaked tradition we now honor nearly every winter. We’ve tried a couple of places on the Yucatán coast, gave Maui a shot, and, for the past few years, have stayed at the same small inn in Negril, Jamaica. All nice in their own way—comfortable, friendly, gloriously sunny, few distractions or occasions requiring meaningful thought or action—and all a distant second. But it turns out we’re OK with second. Sandy trunks be damned.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue.