Epicurious Immersion on French Polynesia’s “Vanilla Island”

Breakfast jams at Vahine

Breakfast jams at Vahine

“Here is plate of fresh fruit with banana, papaya, pamplemoussier (a sweet grapefruit) and watermelon, as well as bread with housemade guava, mango and pomegranate marmalades,” smiles Vivi, my breakfast waitress at Vahine Private Island Resort on Tahaa. “And of course, we have our homemade vanilla yogurt.”

Tahaa is well-known for being one of French Polynesia’s most fertile islands, with a variety of produce and fresh fruits — like bananas, coconuts, papaya, mangoes, starfruit and grapefruit, to name a few — growing in abundance. Moreover, the sweet-smelling island is where over 80% of French Polynesia’s famous Tahitian vanilla comes from.

There’s something about eating fruit on a tropical island that makes it taste as good as dessert. In fact, if someone offered to trade me my fresh fruit plate for a hot fudge sundae right now there’s noway I would do it. That being said, the vanilla steals the show for me. It just tastes so…natural;  creamy yet light with a pure vanilla flavor and a hint of cinnamon. Paired with the fruit, I am in an epicurious heaven.

Vahine Private Island Resort and nearby corals

Vahine Private Island Resort and nearby corals

Vahine Private Island Resort is a luxury accommodation set on its own 23-acre island. It’s the epitome of what an island escape should be, with soft white sand beaches, coral gardens, a translucent blue lagoon and over 200 coconut trees. The property features nine standalone accommodations — three beach bungalows, three deluxe beach suites and three over-water bungalows. All rooms are meant to feel like a typical French Polynesian home, with showers adorned with shells, local artwork, bathroom walls made of interwoven peue leaves and bardau shingled roofs. Moreover, throughout the rooms and the resort they focus on using natural materials, like volcanic stone and local woods in the bar area, chandeliers made of shells and lights crafted from coconuts.

In terms of experiences, the resort features a variety of free nature and culture activities, some of which include kayaking to nearby motus and natural pools of stingrays, windsurfing, fishing, taking out a traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe, watching a coconut show and learning to tie a pareo (sarong) or weave palm leaves. Moreover, for a fee tours can be arranged to nearby islands, including to the mainland to visit a vanilla plantation. I immediately know how I will be spending my day.

vanilla

Rows of vanilla at La Vallee de la Vanille Plantation

Visiting A Vanilla Plantation

For a bit of culture, I decide to take a boat trip to the nearby Tahaa mainland to tour a vanilla plantation, as Vahine Private Island Resort has their own boat to transport guests. My driver is a friendly guy who makes jokes with me and talks about the islands. When we dock on Tahaa, he takes my hand to help me off the boat before graciously offering to carry my bag.

Known as the “Vanilla Island,” Tahaa is where those interested in French Polynesia’s famous vanilla should go. As stated above, it is where over 80% of Tahitian vanilla comes from. That being said, only a few plantations run organic operations, and La Vallee de la Vanille (Valley of the Vanilla; email: vanillavalley@gmail.com) is one of them.

“I like being in nature,” explains Brian Hansen, who owns the hillside operation with his wife, Morita Hioe . “When you go organic you don’t have to be inside greenhouses with chemicals. You’re actually outdoors.”

He shows me the vanilla bean plant, which he feeds in an organic way by placing coconut shells at the base. These shells not only help the roots to grow into the ground, but also act as a natural fertilizer and soak up water to nourish the plant. Interestingly, the vanilla plant is a type of orchid, and is the only one of the world’s 25,000+ orchid varieties to produce something edible.

Brian and his staff must pollinate the plants by hand, using what he jokingly refers to as his “magic stick,” a small stick he uses to take what is needed from the male plant and put it in the female. Additionally, he explains how there must be the perfect amount of sun and shade for the vanilla to grow just right before it is brought to “the container” room to be dried and then massaged. In fact, vanilla beans must be individually massaged each day for up to 15 days in order to get the desired scent and quality.

“I like to say that a vanilla bean is like a woman. The more you massage her, the better she will be,” he says, smirking.

As the plantation is also covered in fruit trees, Brian offers me some bananas, coconut slices and papaya juice. This is also when I get to explore the best part of the tour — the boutique. The plantation sells an impressive array of products — coffees, sea salts, body oils, lotions, infused olive oils, volcano rocks, rum, extract, sugar, soaps perfumes and more — all crafted using organic vanilla.

Red ginger and other flora along the hike

Red ginger and other flora along the hike

A Tropical Adventure

During my time on the mainland I decide to partake in Tahaa’s famous Mount Ohiri trek, which leads to the top of Tahaa’s highest point at 1,200 feet. While I partially want to work out all the sugar I’ve been consuming, I’m also hoping to immerse myself in the island’s lush flora and juicy tropical fruits in their natural environment. As I make the ascent, passing flower gardens of pink and orange hibiscus, purple orchids, bright golden trumpet, red ginger and pink and yellow plumeria, the only thing I see is rich, vibrant splashes of color against a green background of ferns, palms, philodenrins, miconia and pandanus. There is also a delicious array of sweet fruits.

After about an hour and a half I make it to the top, taking in the views of Haamene and Apu bays. While the scene is truly breathtaking, it has only enhanced the true highlight of the journey, the tropical fruits and flora.

One of the restaurant's signature appetizers, this dish features local watermelon, goat cheese and Serrano ham

One of the restaurant’s signature appetizers, this dish features local watermelon, goat cheese and Serrano ham

Culinary Delights

One of my favorite aspects of Vahine Private Island Resort is its food and beverage program. Along with artisanal breakfasts, Chef Terence Trouyet focuses on creating exquisite French meals made using local ingredients. Just like the resort’s villas made with locally-sourced natural materials, their restaurant continues to immerse you in Tahaa culture. While the menu rotates, some typical dinners you may enjoy include scallops and roasted prawns sublimed with a coco curry emulsion and served with Thai rice and vegetables; a pan-fried veal filet served with local “Feii” banana, garlic cream and zucchinis julienne; or a filet of roasted Papio fish served with vegetables and squid tempura, sweet potato cake with coconut milk and garlic.

Luckily tonight’s menu features the island’s signature orchid. The starter is something I’ve never heard of, eggplant caviar. It features a mousse made with eggplant and seasoning, complemented by a separate goat cheese, tomato and basil coulis. The two creations are perfectly mixed to offer a refreshing, soft textured appetizer, made even fresher by an outer circle of cucumber slices.

cocktail

Before the main course comes I order one of their signature cocktails enhanced with local fruits and flowers. While the “Vahine,” a blend of vanilla and pineapple rum, guava and grenadine, sounds tasty I opt for something a bit more tart, the “Tane.” The libation features vanilla and ginger flavored rum, pineapple juice, blue curacao and lime juice. It is the perfect blend of sweet, spicy and tart, and it is served with a refreshing slice of pineapple.

Onto the main course, a pan fried filet of white flaky Mahi Mahi caught fresh from the ocean is served on a bed of coconut-infused risotto. The fish is enhanced with a Tahaa vanilla emulsion, which adds an airy and local sweetness to the seafood feast.

While I may be done with vanilla for the night, the dessert allows me to continue my exploration of local fruits as a flambeed banana cooked in caramel sauce is served with a fresh coconut biscuit. While the banana is soft and sugary, the biscuit adds a bit of crunch to the meal. It is the perfect ending to the fresh, cultural meal.

massage

We’re Not Done Yet

For most people this may have been enough vanilla for one weekend; however, the truth is I became addicted to this unique orchid. Because I had eaten my body weight in local produce, I opted to indulge in vanilla one last time with a massage.

The following morning before my boat was due to take me back to the airport on Raiatea, Hoani* showed up at my over-water bungalow dressed in a blue pareo and carrying a massage table. She had with her three choices of Manoi oil — noni, coconut or vanilla. Can you guess which one I chose?

As she massaged the rich vanilla into my back, I stared into the headrest through the cracks of my bungalow deck and watched the tropical fish — parrotfish, clownfish, butterflyfish and copper sweepes — swimming about searching for food. I wondered if they were aware of the delicious delights that existed on land.

While I’ve always believed chocolate was the epitome of delightful indulgence, I know I say it’s vanilla.

vanilla yogurt

Cooking vanilla yogurt via Cooking for Geeks

Try it At Home

Here is the recipe for Vahine Private Island Resort’s homemade vanilla yogurt for those who want to try it at home:

Ingredients for 10 yogurts:
1 liter of semi skimmed milk
40 gr of milk powder
25 gr of powder sugar
1 vanilla bean (peel the skin off to use the seeds inside) or 2 gr of vanilla powder
1.5 gr of yogurt ferment

Preparation:

Mix all the ingredients together;
Fill up the yogurt pots and put them in a large and high sauce pan;
Boil 2 liters of water;
Gently poor the water in the saucepan until it reaches the top of the yogurt pot without spilling over onto the preparation.
Wrap the whole saucepan with a plastic wrap until it becomes totally hermetic and put a lid on.
Wait for 6 hours, allowing the yogurts to cook and then put them in the fridge for a list of 3 hours.

Enjoy!

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

2 Comments

  1. Hello Jessica, thank you for your post about Taha’a! I hope you can help with one point you wrote about. We are visiting Taha’a and Raiatea in a couple weeks. We have chartered a bare Moorings yacht for the week. One of the girls loves hiking and so all our travels must include hikes. You mentioned hiking to the top of Mount Ohiri on Taha’a. Can you please tell us how to find the trailhead for that hike? Actually any information about hiking in Taha’a or Raiatea would be appreciated. Mahalo. Seth

    1. Hey Seth,

      Saw your post on Plansify. Just waiting for some information from someone. Hoping to get you a full answer soon! 🙂

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