October 2008

Latitude Adjustment: Adventures in Paradise

Author: Hannah Reinmuth

Since childhood, I have longed to visit tropical islands. My first introduction to the South Pacific was the musical and movie of the same name, inspired by James Michener’s classic novel. I could sing every song and dreamed of living on mystical Bali Hai. Then there was the classic movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, in which Fletcher Christian and Marlon Brando fell in love with Tahiti and its people. Both settled there and have descendants who still inhabit the islands. I also remember a TV show of the ’60s called Adventures in Paradise. Watching Gardner McKay sail from island to island each week convinced me that I had to see it for myself. So, in the mid ’80s, my husband and I toured the South Pacific and spent five days on the islands of Tahiti and Moorea. We knew we had to return, which we did in 1991 and 2004.

French Polynesia, better known as Tahiti, is located halfway between South America and Australia. It has the same longitude as Hawaii and is as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north. Tahiti is actually dozens of volcanic islands and atolls. Five archipelagos make up the territory. The Society Islands, the most populous and most visited, include Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Huahine. To their northeast are the Tuamotus, mostly flat coral islands enclosing large lagoons. Beyond them are the mountainous Marquesas, and in the south are the Australs and Gambiers.

Ancient Polynesians probably came from other Pacific Islands such as Fiji or Tonga, but it wasn’t until Captain Cook arrived in the late 1700s that the rest of the world heard of this beautiful place and settlers began to arrive. The French laid claim to it in the 19th century, and it still remains a French territory—hence the name French Polynesia.

A seven and a half hour flight from Los Angeles will bring you to FAAA airport in Papeete (pronounced pa pee ay tay), the capital on the main island of Tahiti. Papeete is a modern, bustling port city. It offers shops, restaurants, museums, and a colorful local market, all easily accessible by “le truck”—an open-air local bus. Tahiti is the largest of the Polynesian islands. This “island of love” also offers cloud-draped mountains, lush, fertile valleys, white and black sand beaches, and breathtaking scenery.

To get the true South Seas experience, you must visit the outer islands. The closest, Moorea, is a half-hour ferry ride or 10-minute flight from the main island. With a circumference of only 37 miles and coastline served by a paved road, Moorea can be encircled in a single day. You will see quaint villages and boutiques, jagged mountains, white sand beaches, and crystal clear lagoons. Don’t miss Belvedere Lookout, high in the interior, for its spectacular views of Opunohu and Cook’s Bays. Make sure you take along some French wine, cheese, and a baguette for your stops along the way.

The most magnificent of the Tahitian islands is Bora Bora, James Michener’s Bali Hai. He called it “the most beautiful island in the world.” For the most amazing views, you need to arrive or depart by plane. In the center of this emerald green island, Mount Otemanu, a volcanic peek, dramatically reaches to the sky. Surrounding the small island is a breathtaking lagoon, its colors ranging from palest turquoise to the deepest blues. Beyond the lagoon is a ring of small sandy islets called motus. Here is the perfect place to spend the day enjoying the sun, water sports, and investigating the sea life. It was here that we fed the sharks, swam with the stingrays, and I saw the most fabulous creature I’ve ever seen in my 40 years as a certified scuba diver. It was a giant spotted eel. It had to be more than a foot in diameter and about 20 feet long. It was huge but gracefully slithered through holes in coral outcroppings. Of course, I didn’t have my camera, but I summoned friends to back up my “fish story,” a whopper I still find unbelievable.

When we first traveled to Bora Bora, there was one luxury hotel: the Hotel Bora Bora. Now they dot the perimeter of the island and are some of the finest hotels in the world (the St. Regis, Pearl, Intercontinental, and Le Meridien). Splurge for at least two nights and book an overwater bungalow. Some have trap doors, glass windows in the floor, or glass-bottom coffee tables for marine viewing. They all have stairs leading into the water for a quick plunge. The St. Regis has a few with private Jacuzzis or pools built right into their expansive decks. The Sofitel even offers deluxe bungalows in treetops.

Raiatea, the second largest of the Society Islands, is revered by the Tahitians as the birthplace of their culture. Many religious sites, called marae, dot the island. Taha’a, Raiatea’s sister island and a short boat ride away, is almost untouched by civilization. You can pick succulent star fruit or grapefruit fresh from the tree or visit the many orchid and vanilla plantations. Climb Mount Temehani and glimpse the Tiare Apetahi, a rare flower that grows nowhere else on earth. Both islands offer a relaxing, stress-free vacation in a serene, yet magical atmosphere.

Huahine, known as the “Garden of Eden,” is the last of the Society Islands reached by tourism. Like Raiatea and Taha’a, the pace is slow, and life is peaceful. The scenery is awe inspiring and water sports abound. You can surf the renowned Avamoa Pass or hire horses to ride the tropical mountain trails. Maeva, a former royal village, has restored its marae once used as sacrificial temples, and its 300-year old stone fish traps are still in use.

The last island of French Polynesia that I must describe is Rangiroa. It is an hour flight north from Tahiti and is part of the Tuamatu Archipelago. It is actually the second largest coral atoll in the world. A ring of 250 small motus (islets and sandbars), 42 miles long and 16 miles wide, encircle the150-foot-deep lagoon. No land is more than three feet above sea level, and some is under water at high tide. One primary inlet, Tiputa Pass, allows the tides to enter and leave the lagoon, producing one of the world’s best drift-diving sites. Propelled though the water, you will pass schools of sharks, rays, tuna, barracuda, and brilliantly colored fish. Water sports are the activity of the day. Boating is the most practical form of transportation, and fishing is excellent. I’ll never forget several local men in a small boat chasing a wahoo, casting off the bow like they were lassoing a bucking bronco. Their catch, I was told, would feed the whole village.

When we experienced Rangiroa in 1991, there were very few accommodations on the island. Our choice was a fine hotel in town, the Kia Ora, or a rather primitive one. We opted for primitive. I must admit when we first arrived by water landing, I was in shock. There was no phone or TV. Our thatched hut, called a fare (pronounced far uh), had a bed and table. We had to walk outside to the toilet and shower. There was only one other couple staying there. The daily activities were walking the beach, swimming, snorkeling, and playing bocce with the resident crabs. Yet the food, mostly fresh fish prepared by a local Tahitian, was delicious, and it was truly a “Robinson Crusoe” adventure. Within a day, we were enchanted and never wanted to leave. (Actually, that’s what happened to the owner). There are now several excellent hotels on Rangiroa in addition to the Kia Ora Village. Kia Ora Suavage touts a “get away from it all” vacation like we had but at a superior property.

Cruising is another tourist option. Regent Seven Seas, Star Clipper, and Cruise West have small ships (120-330 passengers) that visit the main islands. Yachts, sailboats, and catamarans carrying 4-60 people can get into more remote areas. There’s even a freighter that provides a two-week voyage from the Society Islands to the Marquesas. Princess has 10-day cruises from October to December. Celebrity and Holland America spend several days in Tahiti on trips combined with Hawaii or crossing the Pacific.

I can’t tell you about Tahiti without mentioning black pearls, one of Tahiti’s main industries. These cultured pearls come from a black-lipped mollusk native to the lagoons of French Polynesia. It produces pearls ranging in color from gray to black (the most expensive having touches of green, pink, or purple). Not only a valuable export, they are highly marketed to tourists. Every shop or kiosk seems to be selling them. The price can range from $5 to $10,000, depending on the size and quality. It is nearly impossible to leave Tahiti without one. After three trips, I have quite a collection!

Tahiti is a land of spectacular scenery, crystal clear water, quiet surroundings, and friendly, welcoming Polynesians—all the things Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse painted on canvas, and James Michener, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Herman Melville painted with words. I hope you get a chance to see for yourself and experience your own “Adventures in Paradise.”

Hannah Reinmuth is a travel associate with Valerie Wilson Travel.

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