Katrina Lobley finds the fins are friendly and the stingrays can be cuddled on an underwater eco-adventure in French Polynesia.
"I AM freaking out!" I announce to, well, no one except the outrigger's crew. Every other tourist with me in the boat just a second ago is now bobbing around in Bora Bora's ridiculously blue waters, snorkels poking upwards. But I'm fixed on something else poking out of the water: the instantly recognisable shape of shark fins.
Masses of them slice through the sea like scythes, a sight I'm culturally programmed to react badly to. Just for a moment, I hear the Jaws theme - da-dum, da-dum - in my head.
I've known these fins were coming, so I try to pull myself together. After all, I'm on a tour of which a highlight is swimming with sharks and I've been excited about it, right until the point when we cut the engine and dropped anchor. Now, adrenalin surges through my body. Images of razor-sharp triangular teeth flash before my eyes. I need reassurance I won't end up as lunch. The happy-go-lucky family running this lagoon eco-tour tells me the black-tipped reef sharks - and larger lemon sharks that are lurking on the seabed below but aren't visible yet - are harmless. (I never really believe them until I get home and look up the species' rap sheets courtesy of the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File - and OK, they were right.) But at the time, there's nothing for it but to go through the motions: snorkel and fins go on,
I cautiously shuffle over to the ladder then, plop, I'm in among them.
It's freaky and frightening but also exhilarating to be this close to sharks on their home turf. They're within touching distance but I keep my arms folded across my chest, fearing for my fingers. The eco-tour includes another wildlife encounter, this time with pastenague stingrays. We pull up in waist-deep water and wade into the school of rays. We're told to keep clear of their tails - so rough they can drag the skin right off your body - but I can't get the Steve Irwin tragedy out of my head and squeal every time a ray brushes my body. Nohoarii, the teenage drummer from the boat, decides to show off - hauling a flapping ray from the water, flipping it to reveal its pale underbelly and sticking his tongue in its mouth, making us squeal some more.
We stop for more snorkelling at a coral garden that's home to a giant moray eel. The boys tempt it from its hidey-hole with a fish then drag it to the surface like a slippery trophy.
Back on board, as the family sings along to the drums and ukulele, nodding in time with the rhythms they're broadcasting across the water, just one thought crosses my mind: this is one of my best days. Ever. And that's before we stop for lunch - barbecued meat and fish, rice, salads and fruit laid out on palm fronds with festoons of hibiscus and fragrant gardenias - at a motu (islet) that fringes the lagoon widely considered the world's most beautiful.
Three generations - Papi, the silver-haired captain who looks like a cross between Tom Jones and an ageing Italian playboy, his beautifully tattooed daughter Titaina (which means "little flower") and her son, Nohoarii - plus a crazy cousin named Marii, croon traditional songs as we cruise around.
French Polynesia is such a fantasy destination. Everything really is as stunning as it appears in brochures. People can relax here as much as they like, though even newlyweds may tire eventually of gazing into each other's eyes and want something else to do. Luckily, Bora Bora is blessed with spectacular snorkelling and it's easy to check out the underwater scenery.
From the Sofitel's private motu, five minutes' boat ride from the main resort, there's a coral garden within easy swimming range. We start to stroke out to a cluster of boats waiting to pick up their snorkellers, an easy pointer to the underwater treasure. The glorious sight below the surface - schools of butterflyfish, angelfish and crazily coloured picasso fish darting in and around the coral - makes you feel as though you're swimming in a vast tropical fish tank.
Then we take a four-wheel-drive tour into Bora Bora's jagged interior. Etienne, a champion javelin thrower who can hit a coconut hoisted 9.5 metres in the air, is driving the open-topped jeep. We follow the coastal road, then bounce up a potholed goat track. A rain cloud threatens at the top so we pull on waterproofs as we admire the motus ringing the lagoon and count the shades of blue. One, I swear, is the exact same shade as a Tiffany box.
Bora Bora is a one-hour flight from the island of Moorea, where I tear myself away from my overwater bungalow long enough to explore another part of the island. Ranch Opunohu Valley offers horse-riding treks through the remnants of a volcanic crater. Our guide is Terai "Georges" Maihi, who leads our nags to a spot that featured in the Mel Gibson film The Bounty. We trail in single file through fields of pineapples sprouting from red soil. We're under instruction to keep the horses from stealing the fruit but to no avail; my beast sucks down pineapples whenever the urge strikes. It's stunning country. Towering peaks surround us as we meander up hills and down dales, criss-crossing creeks at our nags' leisure.
On Tahiti, a 45-minute ferry ride from Moorea, I set out to canyon in the interior. It's sunny on the coast so we're in for a surprise in the mist-crowned hills. Drizzle turns to a downpour by the time we reach the Papenoo Valley and our guide, Arnaud Lucciopi, decides it's too dangerous to canyon. Instead, we trudge to a waterfall. The upside of rain is that hundreds of waterfalls are now trailing down the peaks like white ribbons, transforming the landscape into something almost surreal. When it comes to spectaculars of the watery kind, French Polynesia sure knows how to turn it on.
The writer was a guest of Sofitel Luxury Hotels, Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.
Air Tahiti Nui flies from Sydney to Papeete via Auckland three times a week, priced from $1193 return, and operates inter-island flights within French Polynesia. 1300 732 415, airtahitinui.com.au.
Courtesy of early-morning and late-night plane arrivals and departures, most travellers will spend time at Tahiti at either end of their trip. Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort, a five-minute drive from Faa'a International Airport, has rooms from about 12,000 French Pacific francs ($138) a night.
Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort has garden bungalows priced from 28,000 francs a night and overwater bungalows from 50,500 francs a night, from which you can step directly into the lagoon. K, a romantic bungalow, is the hotel's top-end restaurant. Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach and Private Island is two resorts in one; overwater bungalows on the private island (a five-minute boat ride from the main resort) are priced from 39,000 francs a night and lagoon bungalows from 29,000 francs. sofitel.com.
See + do
Bora Bora The lagoon eco-tour is a full-day trip of swimming with sharks, cuddling stingrays and snorkelling, with buffet lunch on a private motu, from 11,500 francs a person. Sofitel uses a variety of tour companies but the writer travelled with Teiva Tours, email email@example.com or book through your hotel. Tupuna Safari's three-hour excursion circumnavigates the island in an open-top vehicle, priced from 7600 francs a person. +689 677 506 or through hotel.
Moorea Ranch Opunohu Valley, on the Opunohu Domain Pineapple Road, provides horse riding to suit all abilities. A two-hour guided tour departs daily at 8.30am and 2.15pm. Hotel transfers included, from 5500 francs a person, +689 784 247 or through hotel.
Tahiti Natura Exploration offers full-day guided canyoning, hiking or four-wheel-drive trips to Tahiti's rugged interior, with lunch, from 10,000 francs a person. +689 430 383 or through hotel.
When to go
Prices are highest in July-August at the height of the European summer, when French and Italian tourists flock to French Polynesia.