Add this to the list of things I never dreamed I’d say: I spent three nights on a private island in Manihi, French Polynesia.
Yes, it was dreamy. No, it wasn’t fancy –– in the sense of butlers and high thread-count sheets, fancy restaurants and giant bathtubs. It was better. Much better.
Two days after arriving in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, last December, my husband and I boarded a plane. The aircraft skipped from island to island until it reached the atoll of Manihi, a ring-shaped chain of “motus,” or islets, surrounded by water the color of peacock feathers. There, at a sleepy end-of-the-line airport, we descended the plane’s steps, walked across the tarmac under bright sun, collected our bags and stepped onto a small boat.
Manihi, population 685, isn’t connected by roads. It’s not even connected by a contiguous strip of land. The only way to get around the place is by water. And if you book a stay at Blue Way Manihi Dive Lodge, owners Bernard and Martine Tora will meet you at the airport in their boat, present you with a fresh and very fragrant floral lei and take you directly to your first scuba diving site. And I do mean directly.
Dive right in to Manihi
Moments after boarding the French couple’s vessel, they asked us if we were ready to go for a dive. We nodded enthusiastically, assuming we’d zip over to the guest house to drop off our luggage and change clothes first. The details, it turns out, were lost in translation. Thirty minutes later, after we’d chugged through the choppy pass that divides the atoll’s lagoon from the open ocean, we pulled up to a mooring ball bobbing at the surface.
Time to dive
That was fine with us. I rummaged through my suitcase, plucking out a mask, neoprene booties and a dive computer, then stripped off my clothes and tugged on a swimsuit and wetsuit, all while Bernard and Martine got the dive tanks ready.
My husband, Chris, and I had a good laugh about it later, as we sat on the back porch of our off-the-grid bungalow sipping a rum cocktail on the Tora’s private island (maximum capacity three guests) and recapped that amazing first dip into a world filled with colorful fish and coral.
For sheer quantities of marine life, aim directly for Manihi, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, just an hour and 15-minute flight from Papeete on Air Tahiti. Blue Way Manihi Dive Lodge is the only dive operation there. You won’t find other humans, but you will find huge, undulating schools of fish in all colors.
The underwater world of Manihi
On our first day of diving there, we spotted groups of bullet-shaped barracuda, flamboyantly colored parrotfish, silvery jacks, and the largest puffer fish I’ve seen in more than 500 dives around the world. (It looked like a miniature Hindenburg!) The abundance of tiny blue, yellow and red fish skimming along the reef astonished us.
We made six dives around the atoll –– two the day we arrived, and two the next. First, we explored the ocean side of Turipaoa Pass. Then we soared right through the pass itself. Just take note: Currents blast here, so stay alert, keep a close eye on your air consumption and communicate with your dive buddy. We whipped past a nurse shark resting beneath an overhang, then zipped over a shallow section of reef. At the end of the dive, we dropped into what felt like a huge aquarium filled with Napoleon wrasse, gray sharks and remoras, including one affectionate one that apparently wanted to attach to my spouse. After we climbed back into the dive boat, Bernard cracked open a fresh coconut. We drank the water it held and snacked on the rich meat.
Life on a private island in Manihi
That left afternoons for playing on the motu’s tiny beach, paddling around in plastic kayaks, wading in tidepools (where I discovered a well-camouflaged octopus), playing with a flourishing population of hermit crabs, reading books and napping in hammocks.
From the porch of our charming solar-powered, non-air conditioned wooden bungalow, which was equipped with a rainwater collection system, we could see the next motu over. In between, a sliver of deep water held a small dock for parking the dive boat. It also made an ideal swimming hole, and I took more than one dip in it.
At night, we ate home-cooked meals with the owners, sitting at a table on the front porch of their home –– a 2-minute walk down a sandy path from our bungalow. Fish was the specialty –– fresh tuna, purchased from a neighboring fisherman, served with garden tomatoes inside a coconut shell.
We joked about life on a deserted island. Bernard and Martine bought this tiny moto six years ago. They moved here from France, fulfilling a lifelong dream. Now they host guests, mostly scuba divers looking for a remote and idyllic destination, who arrive via the plane, which comes three times a week.
It’s a quiet life, since the closest thing to a town on Manihi is a settlement on a bit of land adjacent to Turipaoa Pass, where we did most of our diving. There’s a school, a small grocery, a small bank and a town square with a towering banyan tree and a few benches for lollygagging. We stopped one day to check it out. A woman pushed a cart loaded with long palm fronds to be woven into hats; stray dogs skipped down the dirt road. This didn’t feel at all like the deserted island of Tom Hanks’ “Castaway.”
How the lodge on a private island in Manihi began
Bernard, who retired from a job in technology, and Martine, who directed a retirement home, decided to open their guest house and dive operation after several visits with a friend who ran a dive shop on a neighboring atoll.
￼“The first time I saw this lagoon, I looked it up on Google Maps and saw just one (very short) road (next to the airport). I thought ‘How could anybody live there?’ Now I live here and it’s even less –– there are no roads at all to our motu,” Bernard said. They took the plunge anyway. “We decided it’s time to do what we dreamed about.”
Living here requires planning. A commercial plane comes three times a week, and a boat delivers supplies to the atoll once a week –– usually. Fresh fruit is hard to come by; locals head to Papeete with coolers full of fish to trade for coolers full of produce.
We played with Bernard and Martine’s two friendly dogs (both rescues) and watched with delight every morning as one of their cats climbed to the top of a banyan tree next to their home, selected a tender green leaf, carried it down the trunk and presented it for approval.
At night, we flung open the louvered windows in our cabin, drew the delicate white mosquito netting around our bed, and fell asleep to the sound of lapping waves and rustling palm fronds.
For me, it was paradise. A paradise I hope to return to one day.
If You Go
Scuba dive, visit a nearby pearl farm, lounge on the private beach, swim, kayak, read a book. Relax!
Eat & Drink:
Bernard and Martine Tora provide home cooked meals. There are no restaurants in Manihi.
Bring reef-safe sunscreen that uses physical UVA and UVB filters instead of chemical ones to block harmful rays.