Tahiti and her islands: an Odyssey in French Polynesia
"At the dawn of this new millennium, singing, dancing and tattooing are practised once again in these islands which resonate with the sounds of paradise"
It is sunrise and on the ivory white sand a solitary figure is greeting the dawn. He lifts a conch shell to his lips and it releases a low cry across the lagoon to the mountain beyond. Then something moves. As if from nowhere a tiny pink crab appears, scuttling sideways across the beach. It skims the surface, barely making an impression in the wet sand
And then they are gone and once more the beach is totally deserted, proof that in a crowded world there are still some places that remain unspoilt. Welcome to Tahiti and her Islands.
My first journey to Tahiti in 1989 was long and arduous, for I was heading for Pitcairn Island, some 1,350 miles (2,173 kilometres) east-south-east of the archipelago, having accepted a commission from Geographical Magazine, the journal of The Royal Geographical Society to write a series of feature articles on the Bicentenary of the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, which took place in these waters shortly before dawn on the morning of 28 April 1789.
There could scarcely be a corner of the world further removed in both distance and spirit from the everyday than these remote South Pacific islands, yet my passion for islands has compelled me to return to Tahiti no less than three times, and over a period spanning close to three decades.
Tahiti, Mo’orea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea ... high, mythical islands with deep green valleys that exude the heady fragrance of the Tiare, an ephemeral gem worn behind the ear as you walk along the winding paths through the luxuriant vegetation. Rangiroa, Manihi, Tetiaroa, Fakarava, Tikehau, atolls at the end of the world, tiny islets dropped like a string of pearls across their lagoon casket.
Tahiti and her Islands, otherwise known as French Polynesia, lie approximately 17,700 kilometres from the United Kingdom and span four million kilometres of ocean – an area equivalent to the size of Europe. Tahiti itself, which is one of the Society Islands, lies halfway between California and Australia.
In all, there are 118 islands, scattered across five archipelagos: the Marquesas (to the north), the Society Islands and the Tuamotu (in the centre), the Austral Islands (to the south) and the Gambiers (to the south-east).
The vision of these islands, open to the ocean, is an experience to behold. The eye cannot tear itself away from the basaltic mountains that rose out of the abyss, those dark peaks towering to the sky, so elegant and proud that one doesn’t know whether to defy or salute them.
The culture of this luxuriant land at the end of the world mirrors the strength and power of their landscape. Neither the first Europeans who reached the archipelago in 1595, nor the sandalwood traffickers and whalers who followed them, not even the catholic and protestant missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries have managed to stifle the cultural wealth of these islands.
Yet for many decades the tattoo, the language, the traditional clothing and dance were banned. In the late 1800’s the artist Paul Gauguin denounced the death of Polynesian culture and resolved to fight alongside a people seemingly crushed by an imported civilization.
At the dawn of this new millennium, singing, dancing and tattooing are practised once again in these islands which resonate with the sounds of paradise.
Tahiti is a mountainous island dominated by the summit of Mount Orohena, flanked on either side by the famous silhouettes of Aorai, the Diademe and Mount Marau. The island is divided geographically into two circles: the larger and more populated Tahiti Nui (literally ‘Big Tahiti’) to the north-west is linked by an isthmus to the smaller Tahiti Iti (‘Little Tahiti’) to the south-east.
The first port of call for most visitors is the capital Pape’ete. The town is the main political and economic centre of French Polynesia, and only 5 kilometres from Faa’a International Airport .Here you will find a plethora of shops teeming with local handicrafts, and broad palm-lined avenues dotted with numerous cafés.
Pape’ete has a vibrant, friendly feel and one of the best places to meet the locals is along the waterfront where you will find the bustling little food caravans known as ‘les roulottes’, that rock the quayside every evening. The public market in Pape’ete (Marché de Pape’ete), between rue du 22 Septembre and rue F Cardella, is the heart of the town and very Polynesian. It’s bursting with flowers, local produce, tropical fruits, fish, patisseries, handicrafts and numerous souvenir stalls.
The circular volcanic land mass of the large island of Tahiti Nui is criss-crossed with beautiful deep valleys, and is connected by the narrow isthmus of Taravao. For the curious visitor, the mountains offer charming walks in wild valleys of shade and light, with cathedrals of fern trees, impressive waterfalls, mysterious grottos and archaeological sites infused with legends. The high valley of Papenoo leading to the Maroto Pass and the crater lake of Vaihiria with its sacred eared eels or the nature reserve of Fenua ai’here and the spectacular costal cliffs of Te Pari on Tahiti Iti, will marvel ramblers and lovers of unspoilt nature.
Matavai Bay to the east of the capital was the favoured anchorage of early European explorers, including Captain James Cook and William Bligh of the ‘Bounty’. On its western boundary, Taharaa Point offers fine views of Pape’ete and Point Venus, the promontory that makes the bay’s eastern end, which was the site of Cook’s observatory, built in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus as it passed across the face of the sun.
A visit to the nearby district of Arue is a must, for here you will find the tomb of Tahiti’s last monarch, King Pōmare V, and ‘La Maison James Norman Hall’, a museum dedicated to the life of James Norman Hall (1887-1951), the legendary adventurer, soldier, aviator and author who, along with Charles B. Nordhoff, wrote the 1932 classic ’Mutiny on the Bounty’. Today, one can pay a visit to the museum which was once his home and where his daughter, Nancy Hall-Rutgers and her devoted husband Nick still live on the hillside above, as living testimonies to the past.
During the course of my second visit to Tahiti in the spring of 2005, Nancy and Nick invited my wife Rosemary and I to dinner one evening in their colonial-style bungalow overlooking Matavai Bay, where we were joined by their charming friend Tarita Teri’ipaia, widow of the actor Marlon Brando who sadly passed away the previous year. Talk soon turned to the books written by her father and the motion pictures they inspired, in particular ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, ‘The Hurricane’, ‘Botany Bay’ and ‘Pitcairn’s Island’, first published in 1934, in which we shared a mutual interest, given my visit to Pitcairn in 1989.
Shortly before we left, Nancy presented me with a surprise gift of a first edition copy of ‘Pitcairn’s Island’ which she duly signed, but it wasn’t until we returned to our hotel later that evening that I noticed the date of our visit: 28 April 2005. The very day of the mutiny which took place here just over two centuries earlier.
From Tahiti, turn your gaze west across the Sea of Moons. Those tall, dark and handsome peaks 20 kilometres in the distance belong to the neighbouring island of Mo’orea. If French Polynesia is paradise, Mo’orea is the jewel in the crown.
When you spy an island on the horizon, a powerful force takes over. It’s as if the human psyche demands that we discover and explore. If that island is Mo’orea, you’ll be well rewarded for charting a course to her shores.
Transport from Tahiti is absurdly easy, so you’ve no excuse but to spend, at the very least, a day or two on this veritable gem of an island. You can stroll down to the quay in Pape’ete, hop on one of the high-speed ferries, and be on Mo’orea in less than half an hour. Alternatively, you can go out to the airport, get on an Air Mo’orea flight and be there in less than 10 minutes.
To the visitor, Mo’orea appears as a tropical garden filled with pineapple fields, the main agricultural product of the island. In the midst of this fairytale landscape, light rays pierce the Mou’a Puta (“the pierced mountain”). Was it just natural eccentricity, or according to legend, made by the arrow of the demigod ‘Pai ’?
This enchanting island has one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. Its turquoise waters reflect the sumptuous harmony of the underwater world where divers might meet turtles, lemon sharks, manta and leopard rays or even scorpion fish amidst gardens of coral ‘roses’. Here you will find The Lagoonarium, a spectacular marine park where you can swim with the rays, feed the sharks or view the lagoon from the Aquascope, the island’s semi-submersible.
Although the island retains a palpable air of traditional Polynesia, and locals pride themselves on having avoided the jam-packed development of Bora Bora, the island is dominated by tourism. Nevertheless, Tahiti of yesteryear can still be discovered at the Tiki Village Theatre, where you can observe the ‘Tiki’ sculptors at work, the tattoo artists, the ‘vahine’s’ making flower crowns, stringing shell necklaces, weaving baskets and hats from pandanus or discover the secrets of the Tahitian black pearl by visiting the Pearl Farm. After sunset your Tahitian hosts will proudly show you their village, let you participate in the opening of the traditional underground oven (the ‘ahima’a), and dine before joining them in a spectacular Polynesian dance show performed in the natural setting of the open air theatre.
The spectacular Cook’s Bay (Baie de Cook) on the north shore of Mo’orea, is something of a misnomer because Cook actually anchored in neighbouring Opunohu Bay (Baie d’Opunohu), with Mount Rotui as a backdrop. Cook’s Bay is a beautiful stretch of water; it is also one of Mo’orea’s main tourist centres. There are no chain stores or shopping malls on the island. There are, however, many boutiques, galleries, clothing stores and curio shops to satisfy your shopping itch. Because the lagoon is such a strong focus here, the majority of the larger resorts, such as the Mo’orea Pearl Beach Resort & Spa, and the Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort & Spa are located on the north shore.
The most famous of the Society Islands is undoubtedly Bora Bora, home to a population of only 5,767 and the world’s largest, most beautiful lagoon. A mythical island which was, according to legend, once known as “Mai te pora” (created by gods).
Today, this ancient extinct volcano is survived by the immense silhouettes of its two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, whose verdant masses contrast sharply with the shades of sapphire, jade and turquoise of the lagoon which encircles the island. This is where the rich and famous come to play and hotel chains come to open more and more resorts, resulting it would seem, in perpetual development.
Notwithstanding this, Bora Bora displays one aspect of the traditional way of life in the Polynesian architecture of her luxurious hotels in the form of their famous overwater bungalows. Foremost among them is the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora on Motu Tehotu ... the perfect destination for honeymoon couples. The island is also the final stage of the most important canoe race in the South Pacific: The Hawaiki Nui Va’a.
Bora Bora is 270 kilometres north-west of Tahiti and can be reached by air or boat from the capital. There are 2-3 sailings per week and the journey takes around 10 hours. However, the majority of visitors arrive by air for there are at least six flights a day from Tahiti and they take little more than 50 minutes to reach the island.
It would be impossible to report on every island in French Polynesia, but I have strived throughout the text to devote my attention to the main tourist destinations. However, should you ever decide to visit these islands and have more than two weeks at your disposal, you really should endeavour to visit some of the smaller islands and atolls such as Huahine, Raiatea and Tetiaroa, and if at all possible take a cruise to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Archipelago or the low-lying coral atolls of the Tuamotus, Australs and The Gambier.
Huahine is made up of two volcanic islands split by an arm of the sea, although at low tide you can walk from one to the other. Like the other Society Islands, Huahine is green and lush with a vanilla, melon and citrus fruit agriculture. With ancient sites at Fare, Maeva and Faaie, the island is a treasure of Polynesian archaeology.
Raiatea is the largest of the Leeward Islands with an area of 280 square kilometres. As it has few beaches, tourism is little developed. The island was the religious centre of ancient Polynesia and visitors to the island can see the great temple of Taputapuatea dating back to 1600.
The closest atoll to Tahiti is Tetiaroa, the ancient royal residence of the Pōmare Dynasty. The island boasts a shimmering lagoon in privileged, protected surroundings. It is not surprising that the late Marlon Brando, its owner since the 1960’s, fell under its spell when filming on the set of the 1962 remake of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, in the role of Fletcher Christian.
Enthralled by the Polynesian way of life – and his leading lady Tarita, who played Maimiti opposite Brando, and later became his third wife and the love of his life – he resolved to find a way to own this piece of paradise and succeeded in his goal in 1967. It was in this natural wonderland that he settled down, and finally found a home.
Brando was passionate about preserving Tetiaroa’s natural beauty, biodiversity and rich cultural heritage and was determined to find a way in which it could be a centre for research and education and a model of sustainability. He was convinced that this small atoll could bring good to the entire world.
In 1999 he asked Richard Bailey, a long-time friend and resident of Tahiti who shared Brando’s passion for the environment and who had created some of the region’s finest resorts, to help him conceive a plan that would help Brando achieve his dream. Together, Brando and Bailey pursued a vision of creating the world’s first and foremost post-carbon resort – an island where innovative new technologies would enable a self-sustaining luxury environment for hotel guests, residents and scientific research.
On his death in 2004, Marlon Brando’s dreams for Tetiaroa were spearheaded by Bailey, who worked tirelessly to see them fulfilled. The plans went through many redesigns but Marlon’s wishes were finally carried out when The Brando resort opened on Tetiaroa in the summer of 2014. Today, this pristine island paradise is the legacy of that shared vision. It was my good fortune to stay there on my return visit to Tahiti in 2015.
The Marquesas Islands, or “Enua Enata” in the local language, comprise a group of islands that rise up like lush green fortresses against the wide indigo blue of the Pacific Ocean, right next to the Equator and some 1,500 kilometres from Tahiti. Of the twelve Marqueasas islands, only six are inhabited. The best known are Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa and Ua Pou. This is an ideal world for sailing, the natural means of transport from one valley to another. The Marquesas have very few beaches, so they are all the more precious! Pigs, goats, sheep and horses roam freely across the splendid landscape.
The Tuamato Archipelago to the east of Tahiti consists of some 77 low-lying coral atolls. Only 45 of the islands are inhabited, ranging from large islands such as Rangiroa with a population of around 2,000 to small, secluded islands such as Hereheretu and Tematangi. Rangiroa is home to French Polynesia’s only vineyard! The Tuamotus remain relatively untouched, as tourism did not begin until the 1970’s when the airstrips were built. The islands are the heart of the Tahitian black pearl culture and it is here that visitors can observe the grafting process at the many black pearl farms.
To the extreme south of French Polynesia lie the islands of the Australs group, only 5 of which are actually inhabited. The Australs were the last of the Polynesian islands to be settled and are perhaps best known for their association with the ‘Bounty’ saga, when the mutineers led by Fletcher Christian unsuccessfully tried to establish a settlement on the island of Tubuai.
Just a few hours from Tahiti by air, the magnificent beaches of Mangareva and her sister islands of Aukena, Akamara and Taravai unfold their infinite, dazzling whiteness on the peaceful shores of the most remote archipelago of French Polynesia –The Gambier. There are only three guest houses to choose from on Mangareva, the only inhabited island of the group. The climate is relatively mild and winter can be quite cool.
If you have a touch of romance in your soul, close your eyes and imagine a South Pacific island. You might see a thatched-roof bungalow perched above the crystal clear waters of an inviting blue lagoon. And then you become part of the vision, adorned in hibiscus and bathing in the warmth that surrounds you. Come to Tahiti and her Islands and find yourself in this dream. And it’s just possible that you’ll never want to say goodbye.
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