By Wendy Lemlin

CLOSE YOUR EYES and picture yourself in a quintessential tropical paradise. Can you feel the sun on your coconut-oiled skin as you gaze out at a turquoise lagoon from the white sand beach? Does a gentle trade wind blow the scent of orchids and vanilla past as you lounge in your hammock, Mai Tai in hand with snorkel gear at the ready? Do you see verdant jungle-covered mountainsides of long-dormant volcanoes and a few wisps of clouds in a sky as blue as water? Just an eight hour non-stop flight from LAX to Tahiti, a visit to any of the islands of French Polynesia could easily fulfill anyone’s definition of a tropical fantasy. But by far, Bora Bora and Mo’orea indisputably compete for the title: “Most Breathtakingly Gorgeous.” A bucket-list destination for seasoned world travelers and international jetsetters alike, the main island of Bora Bora, with its majestic Mount Otemanu standing sentinel, is surrounded by an 18-mile ring of islets encircling what James Michener called “the most beautiful lagoon in the world.” Then there’s the heart-shaped island of Mo’orea (“Island of Love”) with its impossibly green versants, misty waterfalls … the inspiration for Michener’s mythical romantic island Bali Ha’i in Tales of the South Pacific. Although there is very little NOT to love about these islands, the following are eight reasons to pack your bags IMMEDIATELY and head to French Polynesia.

When you stay at an overwater villa In Bora Bora or Mo’orea, you can snorkel or swim right off your private deck.

1. The Water

Each island is surrounded by amazing shades of turquoise. The water is so crystal clear that you can look down and see schools of fish flitting about. Thanks to the coral reefs that surround Mo’orea and the islands of Bora Bora, the tranquil lagoons are calm, warm and relatively shallow.

2. Snorkeling

Snorkeling is flat-out fantastic here. All you need do is float along and let the multihued parrotfish and wrasses, the graceful stingrays, and the other denizens of the aquatic world entertain you.

3. Swimming with StingRays and Reef Sharks

There is something about swimming with stingrays and sharks in their natural habitat that is both primal and exciting—probably relegated to the “If I weren’t on vacation, I’d never be doing this!” experience category. In Bora Bora, a water-safari boat trip with Raanui Tours entails a stop to do just this. The unnerving sensation of several rubbery stingrays, with five-foot “wingspans” (!), jumping on your back as you lower yourself into the water (because, unbeknownst to you, the jokester guide is throwing bait on you), is one not soon forgotten.

4. Over-Water Bungalows

Both the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort and the Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort and Spa offer a variety of top-rated luxury accommodations. But for a truly magical experience, book one of their over-water bungalows from which you can swim and snorkel right off your patio deck. Windows in the bungalow floor offers amazing views of the fish swimming underneath, especially after dark when you can watch the sharks and other night-loving fish that are seldom seen during the day.

5. Poisson Cru and Fresh Seafood

As one would expect on an island paradise, freshly caught seafood is the main culinary staple. Poisson cru (literally translated “raw fish”) is unofficially the national dish. Recipes vary somewhat but always involve super-tender pieces of diced raw fish—usually the local tuna—marinated in coconut milk and lime juice and served delectably cold.

6. Lunch on a Private Motu

You’ll know you’re in paradise when you spend an enchanted day snorkeling and lazing about on the private Motu Tapu, a small islet owned by the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort. In a setting worthy of legendary Queen Pomare IV (who once owned this island), you can enjoy the world’s most romantic lunch of fresh seafood and champagne. Served at an umbrella-covered table, set in the shallows at water’s edge, this “royal banquet” is accompanied by schools of small fish swimming around your feet.

7. Tattoos

The first recorded use of the word “tattoo” was in the writings of James Cook as he explored Tahiti in 1769. To this day, the almost sacred collection of traditional tattoos inscribed on native Polynesians tells the multifaceted history of families. Important life events are depicted via cultural motifs (shapes, symbols, designs) rendered in black ink, and rare is the native Polynesian who is unadorned.

8. Vanilla

The prized Tahitian vanilla bean, a favorite of pastry chefs the world over, is full-flavored with cherry and floral overtones. You’ll enjoy it in desserts, teas, cocktails, and even sauces with meat or fish. Arrange for a side trip to a vanilla farm on the island of Taha’a (“Vanilla Island”) and see how the bean is grown, harvested and processed.

After you reluctantly bid “Nana” (Polynesian for good-bye) to these idyllic islands, don’t be surprised if the words from South Pacific’s “Bali Ha’i” linger in your mind, leaving you pining for your next visit to paradise: Bali Ha’i will whisper, on the wind of the sea: “Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!”