Manihi in French Polynesia is a unique combination of the idylls of pure escapism: a largely undeveloped tropical paradise, but gilded with a touch of unassuming luxury that makes it hard to resist
This remote atoll hidden deep in the furthest reaches of the Pacific Ocean is a real Robinson Crusoe destination: definitely no-news, no-shoes.
One of the less-discovered of French Polynesia’s Tuamotu group of islands, Manihi doesn’t attract the sort of spotlight attention afforded to such tourism magnets as Bora Bora and Tahiti. As a result, it is not on the main island-hopping tourist trails. It is sleepy, minimally populated, and offers little in the way of entertainment – unless of course you like the sea: and then it is about as good as it gets. The water is warm, heart-achingly blue, and teeming with some of the most spectacularly colourful marine life in the world.
There is almost no nightlife: unless, like me, you count star gazing or drifting along a deserted beach letting your imagination wander as far and as freely as it cares to.
Manihi does, however, boast the very fine Manihi Pearl Beach Resort. Travel there outside the main peaks and you may just about have the whole place to yourself. When we visited, there were just 20 guests in residence and the only time any concentration of them gathered in the same place at the same time was during dinner. Having no prior knowledge of the atoll, we limited our stay to just four nights, but wished we had booked for longer.
Our beautifully appointed overwater bungalow straddled a coral wall beyond which the seabed dropped away into the depths of the lagoon. The lagoon is about 19 miles long and four miles wide, fringed with a necklace of tiny tropical islets. It is home to a population estimated at between 400 and 800 people. There is only one deep navigable pass – the Turipaoa Pass - and this is where the main centre of population is based. The hotel runs a daily free water taxi to the village, where it stops for a surprisingly short stay. The reason quickly becomes obvious: there is little to do here. There are a couple of mini-markets where beer is cheaper than the hotel mini bar, and there are a couple of rustic cafés. But that is pretty much it. The people are friendly, polite and welcoming.
Manihi can be windy and for three days, dinner and breakfast were served inside the resort’s traditional Polynesian-style restaurant. Only on the last night were we able to dine out by the pool. However, without the winds, the atoll would be unbearably hot. The Tuamotus are located not far south of the equator and just east of the date line. Manihi is one of the archipelago’s northernmost atolls and lies about 320 miles northeast of French Polynesia’s main island, Tahiti.
Much of life in Manihi – as in the rest of French Polynesia – revolves around the sea. So clear are the waters here, and so relatively undisturbed by the inexorable march of tourism infrastructure development, the Manihi lagoon is largely pristine.
The exquisite black pearls found here were largely responsible for launching French Polynesia’s famous pearl farming industry. The Manihi lagoon boasts some of the purest sea water and conditions that make it one of the best in the world for cultivating black pearls: hence its nickname - Pearl Island.
Visiting a pearl farm is one of the activities on offer. Another is a desert island or motu picnic. Our host was a larger than life character called Kana. First stop was a little lagoon fishing – to catch lunch. Then on to a small but perfectly formed motu where Kana conjured up a brilliant spread of food – including the delicious local speciality, poisson cru (raw tuna fish mixed with tomatoes, onions, lime juice and coconut milk) – washed down with cold beer and chilled rosé, before speeding us back across the lagoon in time for sundowners at the poolside bar.
The resort has its own dive centre, but for those that do not dive, one of the snorkelling trips not to be missed is the Drop Off. The boat takes you through the Turipaoa Pass onto the ocean side of the reef where a shelf of coral, densely populated with exotic fish, drops away over a sheer coral wall into the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean. It’s not for the faint hearted and, although I don’t suffer vertigo on land, the sensation of snorkelling out over the Drop Off is an interesting one.
There are several other snorkelling options, including drift snorkelling - a speciality found at many of the atoll resorts that involves drifting in through a pass on the tide. The resort also has pirogues (outrigger canoes) and kayaks for guest use.
Away from the sea, the hotel has a handful of old-fashioned but serviceable bicycles with which to explore. The brakes on some are not brilliant, but as there are no hills and virtually no traffic, there is little chance of getting into much trouble. There is also not much road and a ride down to the pass and back just about covers it.
Like the rest of French Polynesia, Manihi is not cheap. It is neither cheap nor particularly easy to get to, and it is not cheap once you are there. But it is oh so worth it when you do reach what feels like your own private paradise retreat.
Manihi is perhaps the most laid back place I have ever been and if I am ever lucky enough to return, I shall hopefully stay as long as it takes to finally run out of ideas and things to do!
We flew from London via Los Angeles to Papeete on the island of Tahiti (Air New Zealand/Air Tahiti Nui). From there, the Air Tahiti domestic flight to Manihi takes about 1hr 40min, calling at two other delicious retreats – Rangiroa and Tikehau (also in the Tuamotus) en-route. Although French and Tahitian are the official languages, English is widely spoken throughout French Polynesia.