When a man of few words and many muscles literally offers you a leg up on Rurutu, you take it. If I hadn’t, I might still be clinging to a cliff on the northernmost isle of the Austral Islands, 355 miles south of Tahiti, where I had come to experience French Polynesia without the opulence of an overwater bungalow or the confines of a cruise ship — or the hassle of flying there via Los Angeles. Instead, I had luxuriated in Polaris class on United’s new nonstop service from San Francisco to Papeete, before taking a 90-minute connecting flight to untrammeled Rurutu, pop. 2,100, for an authentic South Pacific idyll.
Mine included staying in one of eight near-the-water, thatched-roof bungalows at newly renovated Vaitumu Village, one of only six lodgings — all family run — on the 12.5-square-mile island. Co-owner Virginia Tapatu picked me up at the one-room airport about 15 minutes away, then prepared a dinner buffet of French, Tahitian and Chinese specialties (a nod to her family’s shared heritage) while husband Jean-Claude drove me on a sightseeing loop around Rurutu.
Shaped like Africa, the island resembles the windward side of Kauai, from its lush valleys, fragrant flowers and sprawling taro fields to quiet beaches and towering green cliffs pockmarked with caves. Like the Hawaiian Islands, Rurutu is also known as a breeding ground for humpback whales; under certain conditions, visitors may snorkel or dive with them while pods with newborns are sheltering close to shore between July and October.
I had just missed the window for swimming with whales, but not for hiking Rurutu’s Lost Track, a narrow trail linking several spectacular cliffside grottoes above surging waves. These unusual caves, among at least 30 on the island, feature an unusual combination of limestone and volcanic rock, some with embedded seashells, glistening rain-fed coral, delicately dripping stalactites and imposing stalagmites. They began forming 10 million years ago, when a volcanic eruption pushed the existing coral atoll — the eroded remains of another eruption 2 million years earlier — as high as 1,260 feet in the air. Some caves once housed the first people to arrive here, about 1,100 years ago; one is said to be the source of Rurutu’s renowned artistry in pan-danus weaving, most easily viewed at the handicrafts store at the airport.
On my circle tour with Jean-Claude, we’d easily walked inside literally cavernous Ana a’eo, also known as Mitterand Cave since the 1990 visit of the French president to this former place of worship. But the next day, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place on the Lost Track, unsure of how to scramble up yet another vertical section of the steep and narrow trail. That’s when guide Reti pointed to his bare thigh, pantomimed placing my foot on it, and pointed upward.
With no way to ascend (or descend) on my own, I reluctantly used my human steppingstone, mentally increasing his tip to available French Polynesian francs. Our mutual reward was relaxing in Toarutu Cave, nicknamed “The Mouth of the Dragon” for its toothy natural pillars, created millennia ago before the sea dropped some 35 feet below the grotto. The surf thundered below as I looked out across the bay to the beach where we’d started, suddenly very impressed with myself, while Reti quietly smoked a cigarette.
The Lost Track ended with a wave-timed trudge through warm, knee-high water around a rocky ledge to another beach park, where a local jalopy shuttled me back to Vaitumu Village. The locally sourced fish and taro fries of the family style meal, shared with friendly, French-speaking guests and our hosts, tasted especially delicious that night. So did the cocktail with which I toasted a rose- and violet-hued sunset over the ocean, and the sturdy limbs of Reti.
Getting there: United flies nonstop between San Francisco and Papeete three times a week, as does fledgling discount carrier French Bee. From Papeete, Air Tahiti flies to Rurutu four times a week.
Staying there: Vaitumu Village, Rurutu, vaitumuvillage.com. Rates for two people with break-fast and dinner are $200 through June 30, $220 in high season, July 1–Nov. 30. Single, family, breakfast and room-only rates are also available.
Inspired by there: Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey, at the de Young Museum through April 7, includes five paintings based on the French painter’s time in French Polynesia, as well as indigenous artworks and artifacts that influenced his work
JET-SETTERS WEIGH IN
April through October has the best sailing weather [to cruise the Society Islands]. If you don’t know how to sail, look for a crewed yacht charter — many will even stock the boat with food so you can set sail the minute you step off the plane. — Spencer Brown
For my husband’s birthday last October, we visited French Polynesia. Our trip was by boat, so we were able to experience the extraordinary beauty of many of the islands. I think Bora Bora is the most beautiful place on earth. The water surrounding it was an intense, happy blue that was unimaginable. And the underwater sea life was so abundant it was like being in an underwater zoo — a magical paradise. — Dr. Carolyn Chang
With my family’s first visit to the French-speaking Caribbean island of St. Barthélemy years ago, we were hooked and return at least once a year. … Our favorite place on earth is Nikki Beach, a beach club on St. Jean Beach. We go there each first day and last day, and while it is known for magnums of rosé and dancing on tables, you can’t beat the friendly service of sushi, burrata, and chilled Montrachet … — Mary Beth Shimmon