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Tahitan Islands: Paradise or Heaven?
I am sitting on the veranda of my ‘fare’ (the Tahitian name for a native hut) built right out over the water, a cool drink in my hand, and looking out at what must surely be the most beautiful scenery in the world. In front of me the lagoon is the bluest blue imaginable, turning to turquoise where it gets shallow. Beyond that is a line of coral separating the open ocean from the lagoon. In the distance, huge white breakers pound onto the coral, unable to cross into the calm water. To my right the mountain said to have been Michener's inspiration for Bali Hai, looms out of the deep blue water, wearing a collar of lush, vivid green jungle. The granite peak juts 600 feet to the sky, its craggy top almost continually covered with a single halo-like cloud. And directly under where I’m sitting, hundreds of multi-hued tropical fish play in the crystal clear water. I can not help thinking that this must be the closest thing to paradise one can find on earth !
Charles Darwin referred to Tahiti as, “the Island to which every Voyager has offered up his tribute of imagination”.
This is as true today as it was when Darwin first saw Tahiti. Subsequently it became the great romantic destination of the 19th century. Painters, adventurers and writers like Melville, Conrad, R.L. Stevenson, Pierre Loti, Rupert Brooke, Somerset Maugham, Charles Nordhoff, James Hall, Gauguin and many others made Tahiti famous with their paintings and stories.
They arrived at Tahiti, like many others, with the intention of 'just passing through', and were then caught by the magic of the South Seas, to stay for years --- or maybe a lifetime. On Bora Bora you realise why poets, dreamers, and drifters have been so relentlessly drawn to this part of the South Seas.
And I feel privileged to be on this island, watching the sun slowly turn the sky to a fiery, golden orange.
The island of Bora Bora, is – to me – the ultimate "South Sea Island" and undoubtedly one of the most romantic in the world. With a population of only 4000 people, it is still surprisingly unspoilt, in spite of the excellent five-star hotel complexes that have been sensitively constructed around its edge and lagoons.
This is a nature lover’s paradise and the Bora Bora Nui Resort, considered by many to be the finest of the many luxury hotels here, spoils its guests with endless opportunities to snorkel, swim, sail, dive or even circumnavigate the Lagoon on a water scooter.
International visitors who arrive in the Society Islands (it’s often confusing that the name Tahiti is used for both the main island and the Society group) always land at Papeete on the island of Tahiti, just 45 minutes flight away. This town, with its relative hustle-bustle is very different in ambiance. Papeete is a town of 40,000 inhabitants set at the foot of a steep green mountain range. Utterly fascinating and quite different from other Pacific islands like Fiji or Noumea, this is the heart of the administration of French Polynesia and the commercial centre for the region.
Just walking along the Papeete waterfront and seeing yachts from every corner of the earth moored here never fails to set my imagination alight. I look at the home-port names on the stern of some of these relatively small yachts. England, California, Asia, France, South America. The owners of these yachts are the great seafarers of our time, sometimes taking a year off high-powered jobs in their home-countries to sail half way across the world to reach Tahiti. As I pass, I tried to imagine the challenge of getting here through wild storms and heavy seas. It would not be an easy task !
Then, strolling two streets inland, I find myself amongst the small boutiques, shops and surprisingly-very-French-style supermarkets, where smiling, dark-haired Polynesian women in bright floral cottons chat with fair-haired French neighbour, buying their freshly baked baguettes and the Beaujolais and cheeses which have come to them from metropolitan France halfway across the world.
This year I’m lucky to be here on Bastille Day. I watch the parade of the local French Armed Forces and am extremely impressed. Units are mixed – men and women, and Europeans and Polynesians blend into smartly-uniformed, well-trained units. No wonder that both locals and families from Metropolitan France are proud of them.
And now it’s time to circle the island – a task that can take two to four hours depending on the length of stops. Sometimes I take "Le truck", the local low-cost transport. Some owners take the vehicle only to the far edge of town and back again, others keep going right around the island, and this is my favourite trip, either by this form of transport or by rental car. Whichever the choice, I enjoy some of the most stunning scenery imaginable --- palm plantations, native houses, villas belonging to French administrators with manicured lawns and lush green gardens, smiling children coming home from school, and fishermen returning home with a glistening catch of fresh fish for tonight's dinner -- -- the trip is a kaleidoscope of the island’s people, their lifestyle and environment.
Just out-of-town, the unobtrusive Polynesian Museum offers fascinating insights into local culture. I also like to stop off at the Gauguin Museum, 40 minutes further along the coastal road, to break our trip around the island. Though most of the artworks at this museum are excellent replicas of the originals which hang in the Louvre and similar galleries, the museum really captures the spirit and ambience of the period, and graphically brings the visitor right into the life and times of Tahiti during the period when Gauguin lived and painted in this lovely corner of the world.
There are many other things I like to do in Papeete. In the mornings, there is nothing more fascinating than to visit the downtown produce market and watch housewives shop for their daily food requirements. Fishermen bring their best selection to the fish section, their freshly-caught catch strung up on sturdy wooden sticks. Farmer’s wives sit cross-legged on the floor, the fruit, vegetables, and flowers that they have brought set out in a semi-circle in front of them. Everyone laughs and jokes, purchasers carefully examine the offerings before making decisions, and the market is a happy, laugh-filled structure.
For those who want a stunning meal, here is an insider’s tip. Look no further than the restaurant L’O a la Bouche in the tiny passage Cardella downtown. Or drive out to CoCo’s, our other favourite in this town. The meals at both are memorable.
The third island in this area which, is a ‘must’ is Moorea, a short twenty minute ride on a fast and modern ferry. Moorea is half-way in size between Bora Bora and the island of Tahiti. You can comfortably drive around the well-made bitumen road that follows the coastline, and there is a wide range of accommodation available here. But for me a favourite hotel is the Moorea Sheraton with its overwater fares, and the most unbelievable scenery is Cook’s Bay, around the corner from the hotel.
Cook’s Bay is the very epitome of Tahitian ambience, with a deep-water mooring surrounded by jungle-covered ragged peaks that, to me, are the essence of the romantic South Seas. Each week the Sheraton puts on a Polynesian barbeque with an authentic native dance team coming in from nearby villages. None of the phony Hawaiian hulas performed by blue-eyed redheads from Chicago to music from Yamaha synthesisers here ! These are real dances by real locals, and better for it !
Don’t expect high-rise hotels or glamorous shopping in these islands ! The nearest discos are in Papeete, and even those are mere shadows of the ones in larger Pacific-rim cities. For some, the pace of these islands will undoubtedly be too slow – those people should head for Hawaii – but for others like myself these islands will be their paradise.
These islands are always an interesting mix that both contrasts and complements the two elements of Polynesia and ‘France in the Pacific’. As a tourist, I benefit by getting the best of both worlds. The open friendliness and warmth of the native Polynesians, the well-run resort hotels with their good restaurants and the South Sea atmosphere are a combination rich in atmosphere and charm. The better establishments offer swimming pools, entertainment evenings and excellent accommodation. And for those who want outings there are plenty of these also. The Tahitian islands are a long way from anywhere. Perhaps that is why they have been able to maintain their natural style, beauty and authenticity. Go there before any of that is lost !!!
AIRLINES SERVICING TAHITI
Air Tahiti Nui (Direct flights from New York, Los Angeles, Australia and Tokyo)
Air New Zealand (from Los Angeles, Hong Kong via Auckland, Auckland and London)
Air France (from Paris and Los Angeles)
Qantas (from Australia, Beijing and Hong Kong via Sydney)
Lan Chile (from Sydney and Santiago, Chile)
Hawaiian Airlines (from Honolulu)
Air Calin (from Noumea)
BEST TIME TO GO
Anytime is great for Tahiti. Because of the tradewinds, average temperatures range from 26.4 C - 27.1 C.
Check your travel agent
Pacific Franc. Most credit cards are welcome, as are Euros, US dollars, Australian & New Zealand dollars and Japanese Yen
French and Tahitian are official languages, but English is usually spoken in tourist areas and shops
GREAT ACTIVITIES AVAILABLE IN TAHITI
Scuba diving, snorkeling, sailing, parasailing, big game fishing, surfing, canoeing, jet skis, coral viewing (by glass-bottomed boat), wind-surfing, kite-surfing, water-skiing
More sophisticated activities are to explore the under-water world by walking on the ocean floor with a special helmet ‘Aqua Safari’ (www.boradive.com ) or using the ‘Aquascope’, a semi-submersible watercraft (www.boraboraisland.com/aquascope/)
On Bora Bora and Moorea you can also swim with sharks and sting-rays while your tour guide hand feeds them on the open reef. Check the concierge at the various Sheraton Resorts for details and bookings.
A number of cruises from the large Tahitian Princess ships to smaller cruise ships and freighters are available.
Prices in Tahiti are sky high so you will not be tempted. However, Tahitian black pearls are the exception and cost considerably less here than in Europe.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.