Tahiti is an anachronism wrapped in a culture clash enveloped in a Polynesian Eden, tens of thousands of kilometres from its infatuated coloniser. It’s said that French Polynesia, a nominally autonomous overseas dependency of France, costs the French government a billion euros a year. It has no natural resources, little obvious strategic advantage, and a growing independence movement, but the French just can’t let it go – it’s just too achingly beautiful. Meanwhile, the locals couldn’t really live without the French: zero income tax for anyone who’s not self-employed; outstanding healthcare, education and infrastructure; and government-mandated minimum prices for crops such as copra that are well above the regional average. All of this manifests in ethnic Tahitians gadding about with baguettes, the ready availability of heart-stopping French pastries, and hulking, tattooed young men playing Sunday afternoon petanque.
In the balmy light of our first morning on Tahiti, from the balcony of our room, we’re greeted by Bora Bora, hazy in the distance. We walk outside to a compressed staircase of folded green mountains, rising high into Tahiti’s deep interior, where there’s a two-day hike to the summit of the highest peak.
We’re in French Polynesia for 10 days, island hopping around the Society Islands group, of which Tahiti is principal, to see what makes the region tick. The first thing I want to do is a circumnavigation by road (117 kilometres in this case). What is commonly known as Tahiti is actually two islands – Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and Tahiti Iti (Little Tahiti) – joined like a lopsided barbell by a narrow strip. Despite the presence of that four-lane highway on Nui (of which many of the locals are immensely proud), at the other end of the two-island complex there’s no road at all. If you want to keep going it’s a precarious predicament of picking your way over rocks, and defending yourself against stray dogs as mad as hellspawn. It’s like driving from the backblocks of Paris to the edge of the earth in about half an hour.
Some way along Iti we’re struck by a string of waterfalls, ribboning down the mountainous spine of the mini island and disappearing into the density of treetops behind roadside villages. We pull over. And stare. Imagine a thundering waterfall in your backyard.
Around 300,000 lucky people call the 130 or so islands of French Polynesia home. Well over half live on the island of Tahiti, the overwhelming majority of whom (about 120,000) live in and around the sprawl of the capital, Papeete.
The populace is ethnically stratified into resident French, native Tahitians, a significant and long-term diasporic Chinese population, and the demi, as they call themselves, who are mixed-race. That said, everyone is such a melange that in many cases these distinctions don’t apply. As a result of all the intermingling, racism seems virtually non-existent.
Barely a take-off and landing away from Tahiti, Raiatea is an island with very different energy – it’s said this is the spiritual ground zero for Polynesians, where all souls must pass through to get to heaven. And from where all souls come in the first place. Some of the rarest plants in the world grow here. There’s something special, odd, in the air. Maybe that’s why the eels are so big. We’re snorkelling off the side of a private speedboat, maybe a kilometre or so offshore when I take a deep drag of air and dive to the sandy bottom. I’m met with schools of brightly coloured fish, the occasional coral crop, and a ray in the distance. Just near a drop-off, a monstrously long moray eel nips in and out of its hide. Almost in greeting; almost in reproach. And then I see another. Even bigger. Probably two metres long, if it felt like revealing its entire self.
I could be imagining things, but when I surface and remove my mask, I can smell vanilla. It’s wafting from the plantations on the nearby island of Taha’a, only a few kilometres away, and in plain view. Later on, when we do get to Taha’a, you really can smell vanilla in the air, well before we reach the plantation, where I buy a bundle of 20 pods for about US$23. They’re the finest in the world, with a perfect moisture content, sun-dried by hand, shifted and turned to face the rays, for at least a year. You’d struggle to find them in Australia, and if you did, they’d cost almost twice that much each.
The other great culinary highlight of French Polynesia is the local tuna – kilo upon kilo of the freshest, most supple fish I’ve ever experienced. In an all-night supermarket, alongside a range of baked sweets, we find fresh tuna in all its glory – great big inky hunks of it presented as sushi, sashimi and all the rest. Beats Doritos for a snack. At every lunch stop along the way, poisson cru (the local raw tuna salad) is the star dish, alongside melt-in-the mouth carpaccio de thon – paper-thin slices of fish drizzled with vanilla-infused olive oil. If you like your tuna cooked, you’ll find it smothered in rich vanilla sauce. Given half a chance, I would have sat around eating various forms of tuna for the entire trip.
Local specialities aside, France ensures that all the denizens of its national mistress are fed and watered with the finest the world can offer. Here, New Zealand beef is streaks better than the best of what the Kiwis eat. Every French cheese known to man is available in the hangar-sized Carrefour supermarket near the airport in Faaa. A nice bottle of bordeaux with the evening meal seems a constitutional right.
A 20-minute hop from Raiatea is the marvellous tangle of mountains, inlets and lagoon known in Tahitian as Huahine. For better or worse, this translates most directly as ‘vagina’. I’m not entirely sure what that’s about. A local tells us it’s likely Huahine means something closer to ‘woman’, in which case it’s probably got something to do with all the many curvy curves of the island, and its extraordinary aesthetic attributes.
As soon as we arrive on Huahine, we hire some underpowered Yamahas. It’s 60 kilometres around the island, which is structured like Tahiti, with a Huahine Nui and a Huahine Iti linked by an isthmus, and our steeds manage much of it, with the notable exception of an outlandishly steep section on the west side of the island up to the belvedere or lookout. Putting along like a golf cart containing a sumo wrestler, our Yammies deliver us to the lookout and its cloud of ravenous mosquitoes, through which we take in an expansive confluence of blues and greens of inlets, lagoons and forested hills. By the time we return to our digs, the colour palette has changed to yellow, orange and ochre. The sun drops below Taha’a, setting it ablaze.
The next day we find ourselves on an isolated promontory of Huahine in the village of Haapu. Here, we find a clutch of petanque players and, after a few passes on the scooters, we climb delinquent-like through a hole in a chain-link fence to join them. A backdrop of bright water and mountains, the handful of singleted men and their almost dainty, chrome balls play out their game as if in provincial France. We engage in some banter about the weather “Chaud,” I remark, sweating profusely to emphasise the point. “Oui,” one of them indulges me, sweating only a little: “Très chaud.” It’s only when we scoot off, and around the rest of the island, that we realise this is one such scene of many. There is petanque, swimming kids and family gatherings the whole way around.
At the beginning of a slow dusk, near the island’s main village of Fare, we’re out on another promontory, watching an adolescent fisherman haul in his catch. His mum and dad wait for him, lazing under a small shelter. There’s a beaten-up Corolla hatch, with a boombox in the back playing something 90s. Then fisherboy turns around, with the most incredible riot of rainbow-splashed fish I’ve ever seen. It’s like a scaly disco ball, dangling at the end of his line. He chucks the fish in the boot where they slap against the boombox. We hop on our scooters, wave goodbye, and ride into the sunset.
On our last afternoon on Huahine, we’re paddling out near where the reef drops off into the ocean. We’ve had a go at the heavy wooden outrigger canoe that is the national sport here, the va’a, but we ended up going round in circles and traded it for two plastic kayaks. The lagoon is so perspex blue it’s like an artist’s impression of how a lagoon should be. A ray smudges grey along the bottom. The sun is low, the water blood warm, and the sprawling amorphous shape of Huahine appears as nothing more than a green lump on the horizon. We contemplate paddling around the coast to the stunning, fjord-like inlet where we’d seen the fishy disco ball. Stroke by stroke, the lagoon turns purple, blends into the sky, and I can already taste tonight’s vanilla-sauced tuna.
Veteran surfer Ralph’s brilliant Taaroa Lodge is the most chilled out place to stay on Tahiti. There’s a couple of bungalows all with beach views across to Bora Bora.
For a night of tasteful, secluded luxury, don’t miss Royal Huahine Resort.
Vini Beach Lodge is located in probably the best spot on Raiatea, with five good-value, spacious, self-contained bungalows around a pool on the edge of mountain-rimmed Faaroa Bay.
From May to October temperatures stay in the high 20s and there’s virtually no rain. It’s a bit pricier, but if you have limited time, you won’t have to worry about tropical downpours ruining your fun.