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Rediscovering Tahiti

Despite its glittering growth, French Polynesia still holds transfixing myths, rustic wonders and youthful innocence with the power to inspire awe in even the most jaded of travelers. Story and photos by IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER.

Published on Nov 30, 2016


I was only five years old the first time I went to Tahiti, though I still recall 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-thatch 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 palmfringed coast.

It's impossible not to spot sea turtles in the gin-clear waters.

Over the years I've traveled extensively but few destinations have left as lasting an impression as Tahiti. Like the Polynesian beauties in Paul Gauguin's paintings, the islands woo me to return, tempting me with images of a sun-kissed Eden. The atoll nation has come to define, of course, the über-luxe honeymoon aspiration, but I'm seeking out the simple life beyond those overwater bungalows and private submarines. So it's with just a little trepidation that I revisit the South Pacific archipelago, wondering if I can recapture that innocent idyll of my childhood.

In honor of Tahiti's most famous refugee artist.
In honor of Tahiti's most famous refugee artist.

Most visitors to French Polynesia overlook the main island of Tahiti Nui ("Big Tahiti") and its capital Papeete in favor of the more glamorous, less-populated Bora Bora and Moorea. But Papeete's beauty is more than skin-deep. A Penang-meets-Paris hybrid bursting with color and charm, it's a paradisiacal metropolis.

I spend the day roaming around the waterfront district, visiting the Cathédrale Notre Dame and the multilevel central marketplace where hawkers sell everything from seafood to sarongs. I also check out a few of Papeete's ubiquitous tattoo parlors. I have no intention of getting inked—I'd already entertained that folly in my youth—but I'm interested in seeing if local artists employ special techniques befitting a culture that popularized the art form to the West via mariners during the age of exploration. (The first written reference of the word tattoo is found in the journal of Joseph Banks, the famous British naturalist who accompanied his compatriot explorer Captain Cook on his first visit to Tahiti in the late 18th century.) While traditional glyphs, such as turtle shells to symbolize longevity and the Marquesan cross to signify harmony among the elements, are still employed, I learn the old method of inking warriors using a chisel called an uhi has long been superseded by modern tattoo machines that are more accurate and much less painful.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Papeete's Notre Dame Cathedral dates to 1875.

In the afternoon I park myself at a café and watch a procession of beautiful women walk down the esplanade in floral-print skirts. Their numbers are interspersed by vagrants, flirtatious teenagers and a smattering of tourists, as well as outlandish drag queens known as rae-rae. Identified by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa in Gauguin's artworks as "the secret root of his women with the solid thighs and broad shoulders," rae-raes are prime expressions of the Tahiti's legendary sexual freedom. Here, the gender spectrum is considered fluid, and rae-raes are a respected segment of society whose presence dates back hundreds of years. Historically they took on the roles of servants, cooks and nannies because of their convivial nature and aptitude for domesticity. These same characteristics have today made the rae-raes darlings of Tahiti's hospitality sector.

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. My driver, 20-something Tere Chavel, is a never-ending source of often bogus but highly entertaining stories. "I worked as a pearl grafter for many years. Made lots of money. But this is much more fun because I get to meet people like you," he says as we drive into a velvet-green gorge that looks like something out of Jurassic Park. The Papeno'o Valley, as it is called, is sealed in from the outer world by colossal basalt cliffs along which hundreds of waterfalls collide.

Shark tattoo
Tour guide Tere Chavel says his shark tattoos protected him from the predators as a pearl diver.

At noon we stop for lunch at Relais de la Maroto hotel, a former boarding house for hydroelectric workers built on an eagle's nest precipice. The property is somewhat rundown but the view is something else, with cloudshrouded mountains tumbling into blankets of treetops. "If you feel a bit weird here, there's a reason," Tere says. "Tahiti is just a little rock in the center of the biggest ocean on earth, and this place is the very center of Tahiti." He's right. The energy is palpable—a raw, tectonic magnetism akin to the Great Pyramids of Giza or the ancient temples of Angkor.


The next stop on my itinerary is Bora Bora, an hour's flight from Papeete. Comprising a mountainous central island topped by a dormant volcano in an incredibly blue lagoon ringed by an motu-studded barrier reef, Bora Bora is beyond beautiful, and a slew of super-exclusive resorts have wisely positioned themselves around the horizon of this Fantasy Island in the flesh. But Bora Bora's interior holds the intrigue for me.

Bora Bora
What passes for bustle on the central island of Bora Bora.

My enquiries lead me to Patrick Mahauta, a local guide who offers historical tours of Bora Bora. "Don't worry," he says when he picks me up from The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort where I'm staying. "I'm a professional… even though this is my first day."

Patrick takes me to several lookout points around the 30-square-kilometer central island that each provide mind-blowing views of the barrier reef and the vast seeming-nothingness beyond. He tells me that despite the extraordinary value of land here (islets sell for a cool US$5 million), Bora Bora's 9,000-odd residents live much more basic lives, in wooden houses resembling shacks.

When we pass a series of far more stately residences, he explains they belong to the family of Tarita Teriipaia, Marlon Brando's third wife. The one-time couple met on the set of the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty and spent a decade living on and off in the nearby island of Tetiaroa, which Brando called home for a while. Today Tetiaroa is home to The Brando, a super-slick resort with 35 one- to three-bedroom pool villas on a sugar-white beach frequented by sea turtles, manta rays and seabirds.

The St. Regis Bora Bora
The inner lagoon of The St. Regis Bora Bora.

Later on in the tour, Patrick points out a modest brick home with two ornate graves in the front yard. Polynesians always buried their parents in this manner since time immemorial, but the practice became illegal under Gallic law when Tahiti became a protectorate of France in 1842. Burials across French Polynesia are these days still restricted to public cemeteries, yet in Bora Bora the law is flagrantly flouted. "It is better like this because if you bury your mother in a cemetery you will only see her on the Day of the Dead," Patrick explains. "But if she is next to your home, you know whenever you have a problem, you can always talk to mum."

We also visit Bora Bora's last remaining copra (coconut meat) plantation. Before tourism took off here in the '60s and '70s, everyone on Bora Bora worked on farms such as this one. Coconuts are opened, dried for two weeks, then crushed and sent to Tahiti Nui to make oil, soap and shampoo. "It is very hard work and you make very little money. Now, 80 percent of us work in tourism. We all have better lives and schools and hospitals, but we know it comes at a price," Patrick says of a trend I've seen throughout the South Pacific that is turning once unique island nations into tropical facsimiles of each other. "There are many jobs on this island but most of them are filled by people from other islands," he laments. "Most of our young people will leave this place."

Aquatic athletics.
Aquatic athletics.


If Bora Bora is Tahiti's supermodel, then Huahine, 80 kilometers east, is the classic, sweetheart girl next door. Known as the Garden Island of Tahiti for its abundant jungle, Huahine's attractions include water-purifying blue-eyed eels that locals revere as sacred, a sustainable farm for growing world-famous Tahitian black pearls, and the country's bestpreserved marae archeological sites. These rectangular slices of communal land hold spiritual, social and political significance for societies throughout the South Pacific. In French Polynesia, marae are stone platforms sometimes surrounded by mini-obelisks or podiums that were the locus of power in precolonial times. The discovery by archeologists of human bone fragments at Taputapuatea marae on Raiatea Island and other Society Islands, for example, suggest they were used for Aztec-like human sacrifices. Here in Huahine, 1,000-year-old red terracotta pottery objects have been unearthed, along with war clubs made of whalebone and fishing hooks made of oyster shells.

My abode, the Maitai Lapita Village resort, is unusual in that it is also a museum of pottery. Its 32 bungalows feature soaring double-story interiors beset with indigenous artwork to create a low-key, culturally rich alternative to Bora Bora and its somewhat untethered decadence. "I named this place 'Lapita' because it provokes the question of where the Polynesian people come from," says designer and co-owner Peter Owen, an American potter who's lived on Huahine for decades. "The Lapita are the supposed ancestors of the Polynesians who came here by canoe from East Asia. I've unearthed more than 200 pieces of Lapita pottery on the island." Some have been carbon-dated to 1050 A.D.; the best are on display in the lobby.

Maitai Lapita Village Resort
Maitai Lapita Village Resort in Huahine.

I'm loath to leave Huahine because I like her more than the other islands I've visited. Wilder than the tropical urbanity around Papeete, far more understated than glam Bora, Huahine holds the feeling of community and the sense of awe I've been trying to recapture. I've fallen for her incredible green radiance and the restrained nature of her development. She's a natural beauty with no need of makeup.

On the way to the Huahine airport I find myself being driven along a palm-fringed coast, the sun dancing upon the water like shards of broken glass. "My mind is always soothed," Brando wrote in his 1994 autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, "when I imagine myself sitting on my South Sea island at night." For a moment I'm back on my father's lap, eyes wide open, a child in paradise engrossed by the promise of adventure and discovery.

Commuting in Huahine
Commuting in Huahine.





You'll likely have to fly via Auckland on Air Tahiti Nui or Air New Zealand to get to Papeete, then catch a connecting flight on Air Tahiti to Bora Bora or Huahine. The Brando is only serviced by the private planes of Air Tetiaroa. The dry season runs April to November.

Ahitea Lodge Near Papeete, the city's best value with large bedrooms. +689 531 353; doubles from F9,550.
InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa A great primer resort on the main island, just two kilometers from the airport, with overwater bungalows and views of Moorea. +689 40 865 110; doubles from F33,792.
The St. Regis Bora Bora Resort +689 40 607 888; doubles from F162,000.
The Brando +689 40 866 300; doubles from F262,830, two-night minimum; accessible only via Air Tetiaroa with flights billed separately.
Maitai Lapita Village Resort +689 688 080; doubles from F30,955.

Tahiti Safari Expedition +689 40 421 415;; full-day excursions of Tahiti Nui's interior F7,000 per person.
Bora Bora Explorer Half-day excursions of Bora Bora. +689 87 720 121; Cultural Island Tour by 4WD €71 per person.



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The permanently cloud-ringed Mount Otemanu casts its gaze over Bora Bora's lagoon.
  • Sunset on Huahine.
  • At home at The St. Regis Bora Bora.
  • At The St. Regis.
  • The thick jungle interior of Tahiti Nui.
  • It's impossible not to spot sea turtles in the gin-clear waters.
  • Cold coconuts for sale in Papeete's central market.
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