Hooked on a pearl paradise

By Elizabeth Binning

"Be careful when you get in the water," says tour guide Vaea as our boat comes to a rest near a small Tahitian island resembling something off a postcard.

The friendly but firm warning comes as a man stands in knee-deep water about 20m away from us. He is holding a piece of nylon and pulling in a reef shark with his bare hands.

The fisherman's catch and Vaea's warning were not what I - someone with a fear of things in the water - wanted to see or hear as I was about to jump out of our anchored boat.

It was however something I paid close attention to as I waded cautiously but quickly to the shore.

Once there, with fears of a Jaws-type scenario behind me, I gathered with the others from the boat to see the metre-long shark the local fisherman had caught. It looked harmless, but the warning remained with me for the rest of the day.

Sharks are part of life in the turquoise waters that surround Tikehau, a an oval-shaped atoll in the Tuamotus, about an hour's flight north-east of Tahiti.

I was on Tikehau to experience a part of Tahiti that few New Zealanders venture to.

Around 400 people live on the atoll, made up of lots of tiny islands called motus, but is not as popular as Bora Bora or Moorea and with less to do for adventurous tourists.

Day trips, like the one I was on, offered a change of atmosphere from lying in the sun and drinking cocktails at the exclusive Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort nearby.

The half-day trip was also a chance to get back to basics with an island picnic consisting of fresh fish and coconut milk.

Before the feast could begin, our group of about 12, mostly Italians and a family of Scandinavians, were offered a choice of basket weaving or fishing.

As the women in the group headed for weaving, I decided to fight my fear of things in the water and headed out with the men.

Watching for sharks or anything else that might bite, I made my way into thigh-deep water, thankful it was clear enough to see the bottom.

Although I had fished before, this was to be a new experience. My "fishing rod" was little more than a piece of nylon attached to a bit of card, with a hook on the end.

We got our bait by crushing large land crabs against rocks and plucking the flesh from their shells.

Casting the line involved throwing the nylon and hook as far as possible - which was not that far, especially when compared to the men.

However, despite my lack of throwing power, I - the only woman in the fishing party - was the first to catch a fish. Minutes later I also caught the second one of the day.

I couldn't understand the Italian being spoken by the men in the group, but the looks on their faces were something that made entering the water worthwhile.

Their wives even ventured into the water to take a picture of my catch - a decent sized creature if I do say so myself.

The picnic was good but came at quite a cost, around $120 per person. It was, like most things in Tahiti, expensive.

Back at my island resort the costs were also high though that's what you'd expect at a five-star property.

Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is mainly frequented by honeymooners living it up large on their once-in-a- lifetime trip. The island, Aua, is so small it only consists of 16 over-water bungalows, 14 beach bungalows, a restaurant, reception and small pool. The day is spent swimming, kayaking, snorkelling or relaxing in rooms that actually live up to the glossy brochures.

The over-water bungalows, starting at $700 a night but well worth it if you have cash to spare, have glass floors so you can see the tropical fish swimming below.

At night, sitting in a hammock tied to a coconut tree and watching a sunset so pink it almost looks unreal, it is tempting to raid the minibar for that luring bottle of bubbles. But be aware that it'll cost you close to $120.

Most travellers opting for five-star quality probably won't mind that. But if you are on a budget and still want to stay at the luxurious resort take your own drinks and snacks for your room.

Another word of advice would be to bring a pair of shoes you can wear in the water. The coral reef is beautiful but sharp. Also take suntan lotion and a hat. Fluffy bathrobes are provided.

There are cheaper accommodation options available if you're on a budget called pensions (family-owned guesthouses) which are scattered around the motus.

Be warned though that there are not many tourist facilities or amenities like banks, so it's best to take some money with you if you intend paying cash at resort restaurants or gift shops.

In terms of tourist activities there isn't much on offer if you are looking for adventure.

There are lagoon excursions, fishing trips and scuba diving but Tikehau is more an atoll of relaxation and romance.

There is always the half-day trip I experienced if you do want a bit of activity and fun. But, if you do take up the challenge of leaving the relaxing golden sands, be careful - there are sharks in them waters.

Getting there

Air Tahiti Nui flies to Tahiti direct from Auckland three times a week, with easy connections from Wellington and Christchurch. Air Tahiti flies from Papeete to Tikehau six days a week.

Packages

House of Travel has packages to Tikehau from $3369 a person share twin (valid Aug 1-Oct 31) and from $3035 a person share twin (valid Nov 1-Dec 15) plus taxes and surcharges of $116 each. This includes airfares from Auckland to Papeete, two nights' accommodation in Papeete, five nights' accommodation at Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, return flights to Tikehau from Papeete and all transfers in Tahiti. A compulsory city tax of around $2.20 each a day is to be paid upon check-out.

Meals

The only available dining option is at Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort. You can pre-purchase the meal plan for $135 a day per person.

Papeete

An easy way to explore this city is with the Le Truck service. The colourful marketplace Le Marche is open daily, and the popular Les Roulettes (or mobile diners) on the waterfront are inexpensive places to eat. Accommodation prices start from $104 a person.

Further information

Speak to your House of Travel consultant on 0800 838 747

* Elizabeth Binning travelled as a guest of House of Travel.

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