Thirty years after his first visit, an Australian reporter returns to Tahiti to see if the paradise of his childhood is still all it claims to be.
I was only five years old the first time I went to Tahiti, but I still remember the trip as though it took place yesterday. I remember splashing around in a gin-clear creek with my baby sister and going mad with fright when a crab waved its claws at us from the creek bed. I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of the palm-thatched bungalow we called home for two weeks as my mother served chunks of steamed fish. And I remember sitting on my father’s lap in the back of a pick-up truck, speeding along a palm-fringed coast.
Over the years I’ve travelled extensively but few destinations have left as lasting an impression as Tahiti. Like the Polynesian beauties in Paul Gauguin’s famous paintings, the islands woo me, tempting me with images of a sun-kissed paradise. So it’s with some anticipation that I revisit the South Pacific idyll painted throughout history as the most beautiful place on earth.
Most visitors to French Polynesia overlook the main island of Tahiti Nui – Big Tahiti – and its capital, Papeete, in favour of lesser-populated islands and atolls like Bora Bora and Moorea. But overlooked places often have a beauty that’s waiting to be discovered, and in this instance Papeete doesn’t disappoint. A Penang-meets-Paris hybrid bursting with colour and charm, Papeete is a metropolitan paradise.
I spend the day roaming the waterfront district, visiting the Cathedrale Notre Dame and multilevel central marketplace where hawkers sell everything from seafood to sarongs. I also check out a few of Papeete’s ubiquitous tattoo parlours, where I learn the English word for the art form in is an adaptation of the Tahitian word tatu. It was introduced to the West by sailors in the 18th century and to this day remains Tahiti’s most popular export.
The next morning I join a Jeep safari into the island’s little-visited interior for a close-up look at the jungle-clad mountains that tower over the capital. We drove into a velvet-green gorge that looks like something out of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” The Papeno’o Valley, as it is called, is sealed in from the outer world by colossal basalt cliffs along which hundreds upon hundreds of waterfalls collide.
The next stop on my itinerary is the world-famous honeymoon destination Bora Bora, a half-hour flight from Papeete. Comprising a mountainous central island surrounded by an islet-studded barrier reef and an incredibly blue lagoon in the middle, Bora Bora is beyond beautiful: it’s Fantasy Island in the flesh.
I went to a number of lookout points around the 30-square-kilometre central island that give mind-blowing views of the barrier reef. Despite the extraordinary value of land here (islets sell online for a cool $5 million), Bora Bora’s 9,000-odd residents are simple people who live in wooden houses resembling shacks.
I also visit Bora Bora’s last remaining copra (coconut meat) plantation. Before tourism took off here in the 1960s and ’70s, everyone on Bora Bora worked on these farms. “The coconuts must be collected, broken open, then left to dry for two weeks. Then it is crushed and sent to Tahiti Nui to make oil, soap and shampoo,” a local told me.
The Girl Next Door
If Bora Bora is Tahiti’s supermodel, then Huahine, 80 kilometres west, is the girl next door with classic good looks. Known as the Garden Island of Tahiti for its abundant jungle, Huahine is home to the country’s best-preserved marae archaeological sites. Comprising raised stone platforms set at times with mini-obelisks or podiums, marae were the focus of spiritual, social and political power in pre-colonial times. Terracotta pottery pieces have also been unearthed here, along with fishing hooks made of oyster shells and war clubs made from whalebone.
After one short day in Huahine I’m forced to leave her, which is regrettable because I like her more than the other islands I’ve seen. On the way to the airport I find myself being driven along a palm-fringed coast, the sun dancing upon the water like shards. For a moment I’m back on my father’s lap, in love with everything around me, a child in paradise. Tahiti may have changed irrefragably over the decades, but its timeless beauty remains gloriously intact.
Text by Ian Lloyd Neubauer | Photos Courtesy of Tahiti Tourism Board & Ian Lloyd Neubauer