Bora Bora and beyond: French Polynesia's islands are the most beautiful spots on Earth

I'm sitting in an overwater bungalow at the Le Meridien Bora Bora resort, where the boardwalks to the exclusive stays reach out toward Mount Otehanu like outstretched fingers; the sun is setting, a reedy cloud sits so low over the mountain it appears to carve off the peak like a blade – and I am inside watching TV. In my defence, it is Tahitian TV, the slang name given to the 540-square-foot-sized glass window in the floor of my bungalow where I watch tropical fish and stingrays cavort below me.

I have spent the afternoon cavorting with them, snorkelling behind a pair of stingrays way out into the lagoon, watching the tropical fish dart away from me on the islet's internal natural lagoon. I have checked in on the turtles that reside in the turtle sanctuary connected with the resort.

Le Meridien Bora Bora is situated on a tiny islet with one of the best views of Mount Otehanu there is, with the main reception, bar and dining room looking onto the white sand beach.

Once I draw myself away from the Tahitian TV, I will sit with my feet in the sand while sipping on St Emilion and watching traditional dancers and a fire dancer with a wicked sense of humour.

Bora Bora is doing its best to show my why it is the poster child for Tahiti, the go-to spot for honeymooners and celebrity butt bearing (yes you, Justin Bieber).

But there are more than 100 islands in this South Pacific nation and if you go beyond Bora Bora you will find sacred eels, ancient temples and possibly the most remotely beautiful spot on earth.

Huahine: the garden island

Flying into Huahine, the coral fringes make it seems like a giant hand has traced a line around the island using crashing waves; as if the sea is unwilling to tarnish the white sand on this tropical isle. Huahine is in fact two islands: Huanhine Big and Huahine Small, and is part of the Leeward Group of Society islands. From the air you can also see the mountain ridge that gave the island its name, a curvaceous outcrop said to resemble a pregnant woman.

People have lived on this island since 700AD and it has the largest collection of marae – ancient Tahitian temples – in the whole of Tahiti. Touring the island we see these stones jutting from all manner of greenery, some with carved patterns, others arranged in formations whose significance has been lost in time.

Huahine is known as the garden island not only for this lush, marae-covered vegetation but for the pride the locals take in their homes, this is the Tidy Town of French Polynesia with neat shrubbery holding the wilder jungle at bay.

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Huahine is the natural beauty to Bora Bora's primped Hollywood star, all the more charming for its quirks and traditions.

For example, eel worship is a thing. Our guide for the day pulls over by a running stream and motions for us to follow as he opens up a can of tuna. He is summoning the blue-eyed eel, a rare beast that only lives on Huahine. Within minutes the water at his feet is alive with metre-long, slithering eels with a blue glint in their eyes; they even clamber onto the stone-studded bank to reach the food.

Our stay for the night is Hotel Le Mahana in Avea Bay, a boutique resort with bungalows that take cues from traditional architecture all huddled around a private stretch of beach. As the sun sets on off the hotel's jetty we are presented with a French feast surrounding what is considered the best lagoon in the whole of French Polynesia, and I am unwilling to argue.

Tikehau: circle of atolls

This collection of motus – small sand-and-coral islands surrounding larger atolls – form an almost perfect circle when viewed from the air – the forgotten lip of a long-sunken volcano in the middle of the ocean. When we land at the small hut of an airport we are as close to Mexico as we are to New Zealand sitting on a series of low-lying sand spits some of which you can walk between.

There is one road here, the short drive out of the airport, then it is all boats to connect the sandy specks to each other. On a clear day like today you can glimpse the motus directly opposite across the dark blue water of the 30-metre-deep lagoon at Tikehau's centre.

This lagoon is full of life: reef sharks fight with each other for food, sucker fish – silver fish that look like they have a rubber shoe sole on their head – try to attached themselves to the predators, while Picasso fish (lagoon triggerfish) mind their own business.

Sea birds follow our boat to the private island resort of Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort where you have the choice of overwater bungalows or the more traditional beach huts. We are staying in the beach huts made from teak, bamboo and woven pandanus leaves designed to blend into the island; inside it has a tropical-surreal, upmarket Gilligan's Island feel with polished shells and coral-walled outdoor bathroom. As a tiki-bar fan, this would be my ideal home.

My outdoor decking has a view of the beach with a hammock strewn between two palm trees just beyond, then comes the blazingly pink sunset. The sand on Tikehau is said to have a pink tinge but the sky puts on such a show it is hard to say; post-sunset it is off to the resort restaurant for a local speciality: trilogie polynesienne, raw fish three ways – tartare, sashimi and poisson cru (cured in coconut and lime).

Since arriving on Tikehau I have had a growing sense of what it feels to be truly isolated and after dinner it reaches its peak. As I head down to the beach in the dark it is the silence and stillness that strikes me as I lay on the sand for a spot of stargazing; the lack of ambient light makes the stars shine brightly and they reflect back the remoteness I feel on my own little sand island barely peeking out of the South Pacific sea. Bora Bora may be Tahiti's celeb-magnet but I much prefer these stars.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/tahiti

tahititourisme.com.au

FLY

Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com) flies from the east coast to Papeete via New Zealand. The airline recently announced a plan to purchase a new fleet of Dreamliners .

STAY

Le Meridien Bora Bora is located on a private motu on Bora Bora. Rates start from $1132; lemeridien-borabora.com. Hotel La Mahana is on Huahine. Rates from US260 per night; lemahanahotel.com. Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is on Tikehau. Rates from $600; see tikehaupearlbeachresort.com

Paul Chai was a guest of Tahiti Tourism.

FIVE MORE TAHITIAN STAYS

CONRAD BORA BORA NUI

This resort is located in a private cove on Motu To'opua and while it lacks a view of Bora Bora's famous mountain, it makes up for it with pure luxury. The recently renovated spa has incredible views across the turquoise bay, the bungalows are some of the most luxurious you will find and the food, at spots like the casual Tamure Beach Grill, is simply perfect. See conradhotels3.hilton.com

ST REGIS BORA BORA

This jaw-dropping property is the place the rich and famous flop, and it has drawn everyone from Bieber and Our Nicole and Keith, as well as being the backdrop to the Vince Vaughan comedy Couples Retreat. It's a barefoot luxury vibe with 44 acres of landscaped tropical gardens and its own private beach. See stregisborabora.com

INTERCONTINENTAL THALASSO

Honeymoon heaven, the Intercontinental Thalasso has a grove where you can leave a "love lock", the eye-catching Bubbles bar with bright white furniture by French designer Philippe Starck and a daily visit by the stingrays that inhabit the lagoon. The acres of foliage are native from nearby motus, but they have been curated for you by colour, because Bora Bora. See thalasso.intercontinental.com

TAHITI PEARL BEACH RESORT

If you are on the main island of Tahiti, the Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort is situated on the black sand of Lafayette Beach where couples wander the sands and locals cast a line for some fresh fish. Grab a room with a view of Matavai Bay and then head into Papeete for the nightly food trucks (serving up more great raw fish). See tahitipearlbeach.pf

FAFARUA LODGE

When in Tahiti, why not stay on your own private island? Fafarua Lodge in Tikehau offers your own home on a tiny motu where you can drink Tahitian limeade with a side of coconut marshmallow, and set traps to try your luck to catch a coconut crab. See fafarualodge.com

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