I’m not a damselfish, flitting between bits of coral reef, or a lemon shark with a toothy grin. I’m a fish out of water—a party of one in French Polynesia. I’m surrounded by newlyweds from Argentina; lovebirds from New York City, renewing their vows on the beach; and couples from Paris sipping coconut water beneath palm trees. Even the bartenders in Tahiti work in tandem, and the dive instructors in Bora Bora swim two at a time.
I quickly resolved to become the world’s most enthusiastic third wheel.
I was keen to explore the lagoons, secluded atolls, and mountain spires, and moments after landing in Tahiti, I hooked a honeymooning couple from Chicago, and asked them to join me on a 4X4 tour of Papeete’s rainforest interior. We ripped off-road through the overgrown Papeno’o Valley, cradled by mountains and Mont Marau, the slumbering giant visible from across the sea on neighboring Moorea. Our trio crashed into the cascading Vaiharuru Falls, kicked up basalt on Point Venus’ black sand beach, and marveled at the belching colossus known as the Trou du Souffluer de Arohoho blowhole.
It wasn’t the only time I found it easy to sync up with fellow travelers. I hitched a ride on a mechanical canoe with a French couple, making our way across the water to the basilica of Moorea, its apse capped by a rocky crown and garlands of hibiscus and frangipani. They wondered what it’s like to explore the world as a travel photographer, so I asked them to join me at the altar of Mount Rotui, a rugged spire that splits the bays of Opunohu and Cook. We three trekked some of the most rugged terrain in the South Pacific.
Despite Moorea’s potential as an outdoor wonderland, many visitors opt to spend their time at the beach, unwinding in thatched huts, or on skiffs in the lagoon: given the backdrop, it’s easy to see why. We went slack-jawed at the Belvedere Lookout, where the Nikon D7500’s ability to handle challenging lighting situations allowed me to beautifully capture the midday scene of a high-contrast bright sky and dark landscape.
Next we ventured toward the island’s heart, with a quick stop at a nearby maraes, an ancient ceremonial site called Fare-aito. All that remains are the stone foundations of old platforms and shooting corridors from when this secluded place, hidden by banyan trees, was used to celebrate the god of archers. We stopped later at the Opunohu Agricultural School to sample the homemade chutneys and ice cream. After sussing out Temae Beach, something of a local’s secret on the northeast coast, we parted ways.
The next seasonal visitors I encountered were humpback whales, ambivalent to my very existence. Swimming with these powerful mammals, watching them dive beneath me and then breach the water’s surface, was a highlight of the trip—and my career.
But there was more. My next stop, Bora Bora, turned out to fit my vision of paradise: an island in a turquoise sea rimmed by an ancient coral reef, opalescent black pearls, and marine turtles surfing undersea currents. Of course, it helped that I was staying in an overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons Resort. I feasted at the resort’s Fare Hoa Beach Bar & Grill with my feet in the sand and got acquainted with Polynesian-French fusion at Arii Moana.
I also indulged in some quality solo time at the Four Seasons spa, where I was doused in monoi oil and tamanu, massaged until I was pliable as tiare flowers, and left to soak in a tub of warm coconut water while gazing out at the Pacific.
Back at the beach, where a lone camera-toting traveler can stand out, I offered to apply sunscreen to anyone in need. A Canadian accepted my offer, and I considered the ice broken. My new friend and his partner joined me on an expedition with Top Dive Polynesia—an under-the-sea adventure that resulted in close encounters with blacktip and lemon sharks, sea turtles, a fever of stingrays, and the chance to sneak into the cockpit and captain’s quarters of sea planes and cargo ships, respectively.
I could go on forever, but I’m guessing you get the point. French Polynesia is mountains and magic and the deep blue sea, and it rewards even solo travelers with meaningful connections and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.