When you get to Tikehau, a ring-shaped atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you are immediately struck by how small everything is. The airport is the size of an average California living room. Our destination was Ninamu, a resort on one of the tiny islands of the atoll. A boat was waiting for us a few blocks away. Viktoria and I looked at each other, wondering how we found our way to such an unusual part of the world.
That, of course, is why we had chosen Ninamu as part of our French Polynesian vacation. We longed for remoteness, social distance from the news, television, and traffic. Our stay was going to be a less stressful version of Robinson Crusoe's adventure, with a bungalow, three meals a day prepared by a chef who had studied French cuisine, and excursions on a catamaran navigated by an expert Australian captain.
Ninamu is a small eco-friendly resort located on a private island. It is run and owned by Greta and Chris, whose innovative minds created this gem fifteen years ago, attracting tourists from all over the world. The resort can host about twenty guests, staying in eight handcrafted bungalows serviced by filtered, recycled water and solar energy. Each bungalow is unique, with every detail speaking for itself: walls covered with locally collected coral fragments, the roof made from intertwined palm leaves, all of which exudes the relaxing sense of nature and comfort.
When we first arrived at Ninamu, a smiling Greta welcomed us at the entrance with a fresh glass of mango juice. She joyfully exclaimed, "Ia Orana, Maeva!" (hello and welcome, respectively, in the Tahitian language). I asked Greta where we might find Chris, to which Greta responded: "Oh, he's out there, on his millionth excursion. Don't worry. He'll tell you all about the outings when he returns. You are all set for your room."
There is no official check-in and no need for magnetic keys to get into your bungalow. Once you step into the Ninamu resort, you are part of the family and treated as such.
Every day you can sail through oceanic highways on Chris's catamaran. You will have to wait until morning to know where he will take you: if to see manta rays, sharks, whales, dolphins, or rich coral gardens. You're in good hands with Chris. He grew up in Australia's outback and has extensive knowledge and experience from many years of sailing in some of the roughest shorelines in the world.
At some point, you will hear Chris say: "Listen to me …" That's the signal to pay close attention. He isn't one to lecture but rather wishes to keep you informed for the sake of your safety. You will rely on Chris's remarks to know which side of the catamaran to dismount from, where to snorkel or pay attention to the lanes where boats come and go. It's sad to see some people dismiss his instructions not because they don't care but because they are not used to listening, as they live in a world of constant noise and distraction.
Listening is a must if you truly want to enjoy your stay at Ninamu. You can wake up early to watch the sunrise and walk around the island while listening to the water crashing on the pink shorelines, the wind whispering through the palms, seabirds running after one another, and the white terns perched on tree branches. The eremite crabs are quiet but very present on the island. You can see them zigzagging on the beach, and they will play dead when they sense your shadow or if you get too close to them. Listening is a skill that you will gladly enjoy at Ninamu, and at times it is so quiet that you can even hear your own heartbeat.
Chris also has to listen to his wife, Greta. How could he not? Who is a man without the guidance of a woman? Exceptions do not apply, even on this remote island. This primordial rule is true everywhere. Greta may not be involved in the excursions and may not have grown up in the Australian outback, but she is the rock upon which Ninamu stands. Her roots are from French Polynesia. She breathes the nation's spirit of a culture, friendliness, and hospitality into the resort. Greta oversees its day to day operations and directs the staff community, who, as a family, ensures the guests have everything they need to enjoy their stay.
In the novel Robinson Crusoe, the protagonist has to adapt to his surroundings to survive. Chris does not teach you survival skills, although I'm sure he is plenty capable. At Ninamu, you are too spoiled even to need to go fishing for food. But you can become a connoisseur of croissants. The croissants served for breakfast at Ninamu are some of the best we have ever encountered in our travels, including Southern France. We feel sorry for Crusoe, who never would have returned to England if he had the opportunity to taste the pastries served at Ninamu. If you live in Europe, you may not be so desperate as we are in the States, where good bakeries are hard to find.
After an eventful morning on the catamaran, we would return to a delicious lunch, which was usually a fresh fish, and carefree afternoons. We also enjoyed our frequent naps. They are delights, often forgotten in the everyday lives of busy people. You can nap in your room or under the canopies on the beach. We spent the remainder of the day kayaking, lazily tanning, observing nature, spotting creatures going in and out of the pristine sand, and snorkeling among the rich corals adjacent to the island. If you're bored and forgot to bring a book, you can borrow one from the Ninamu library. There are even ping pong and billiard tables to enjoy.
Sam jokingly asked Chris if he had any job openings. Part of his inner child wanted to stay here forever. What else does one need in life? Ninamu offers serenity, finger-licking good food, guaranteed adventures on the catamaran, a community to rely on, and Chris and Greta, the nicest managers to work for. But California was calling. We had to go back.
After spending two splendid weeks in French Polynesia, we returned home with many joyful memories and the nostalgia of Ninamu most of all. It was a fantastic vacation, one we will never forget. We can still hear Chris telling us, "Listen to me," and the gentle whisper of Greta telling Sam: "Take care of your pearl," referring to Viktoria. What would Sam be without his Viktoria? In this exciting life, it helps to have a partner to take on every adventure.
Let love take you to French Polynesia, and don't forget to stop to see Chris and Greta. You will always remember the sense of belonging that we experienced at Ninamu. "Listen to us"… and take your pearl to Ninamu Resort in Tikehau.
~ Written by: Viktoria Rusnakova & Samuele Bagnai, authors of Enthusiastic All the Way & Tuscan Who Sold His Fiat to the Pope, respectively.
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