The only thing more decadent than a trip to Tahiti might be a five-star cruise through French Polynesia—a floatable feast of gourmet food and casual opulence. Could such a trip reveal the "real" Tahiti?
When 19th-century parisian businessman Paul Gauguin sloughed off civilization (and his wife and five kids) to live out a painterly fantasy in French Polynesia, he was fleeing a stock market crash and hoping to live closer to the bone. When I slipped down to the same islands last spring and boarded a French cruise ship bearing Gauguin's name, I too was running away. The dot-com tsunami that once flooded San Francisco with cash had abruptly receded, taking thousands of jobs with it, including mine. So I took the artist's lead and fled to the mother of all tropical isles. I didn't need a new life, just a fresh perspective.
Still, a cruise ship? Friends snickered. Even if we no longer hitch rides to Marrakech (or never did), we still think of ourselves as the sort who might at any minute. We are a generation of trekkers and barterers. We run, we bike, we travel the back roads, and we eat the frail and the meek for lunch. Why put a moat between the visitors and the visited?
Ah, but these skeptics had never been aboard the m/s Paul Gauguin. This ship, I soon discovered, is more home base than destination, a floating school/camp/resort that caters as easily to culture vultures and the incessantly active as to those whose notion of paradise is a deck chair and a soft breeze.
No question, modern ship life is stylish. At 513 feet long and a mere nine decks high, the Gauguin is relatively small by oceangoing standards, but staterooms are spacious. Polished wood accents and marble baths evoke the feel of small European hotels. All staterooms face the water, and half sport private balconies.
And the food—ah, the food. Gauguin is said to have survived mostly on tinned meat during his years in French Polynesia, because he could never learn to spear fish or climb coconut trees. (Lesson One: The simple life is harder than it looks.) No such problem aboard his namesake: French-trained chefs govern three restaurants on board, and 24-hour room service encourages passengers to indulge any and every gastronomic whim. (Mahimahi at 2 a.m.? No problem. French chocolates at 3 a.m.? Mais oui!)
But there's more to the ship's allure than luxury. For some kinds of travel (particularly when part of the journey is inward) planes are too speedy, condensing the whole affair into one long walk down a featureless tube. A ship, in contrast, is open to the sea and sky; it rocks with the tides to a tempo that's closer to the rhythm of the soul.
Lullabied by the easy surge of the prow cresting each wave, I watched on rainy mornings as the shallow waters of the lagoon, normally five shades of lavender, turquoise, and aqua, turned violet, silver, and slate. Everywhere, crimson spears of wild ginger and yellow and orange hibiscus splashed brilliant bits of color across the verdant shore—Gauguin must have been beside himself, surrounded with such saturated hues. I almost picked up a paintbrush myself.
All but the die-hard relaxers were keen for at least a smidgen of activity and for most of us the water beckoned. Once the ship dropped anchor in the middle of a new lagoon each morning, a flap in the stern would open flat to create a small marina—a launch point for kayakers, windsurfers, and water-skiers. The Gauguin also offers parasailing hops and catamaran sails, as well as scuba certification classes.
I chose to skirt the surface, stealing away for an hour or two each day with a mask and snorkel to bob facedown, watching golden trumpet fish and showy wrasses vie for food and territory amid spiny urchins and staghorn coral. (Lesson Two: Some bubble economies are dicier than others. "We may have lost our jobs," I jotted on a card home to friends, "but at least we weren't eaten.")
I'm no Braveheart, but guidebooks had raved about the shark- and ray-feeding expeditions off the coast of Bora Bora, so I reluctantly tagged along on one such trip. Ghostly manta rays and reef sharks (supposedly harmless) didn't show up that day, but the convention of 20 or more friendly stingrays who happened by and a testier moray eel darting in and out of his cave seemed eager for the free lunch of raw fish chunks our Polynesian guide dangled before them. Snorkelers who dared to feed the underwater acrobats said the rays' suction mouths on their palms felt like toothy French kisses. Fine. I settled for standing in the shallows and having my ankles tickled by puppy-soft wings as the creatures sailed past. The water was exhilarating, but if that had been all that the tropical week had offered, the amateur anthropologist in me would have been sorely disappointed.
Fortunately, we had a professional on board. Mark Eddowes, a research archaeologist and anthropologist from New Zealand, is affiliated with the Museum of Tahiti and has lived on the islands, studying Polynesian culture, since 1989. A couple days each week he lectures aboard the Gauguin and leads passengers on informative hikes. Fifteen of us followed him one afternoon up a mountainside in Mooréa, along an overgrown path that skirted a pineapple plantation, then plunged into thick forest. A stroll through the woods soon became a tour of old-time Polynesia's pantry and medicine chest.
"That's a mape tree—Tahiti chestnut," Eddowes explained, as we passed a man gathering egg-shaped pods that had dropped around the tree's base. "They taste sort of like a sweet or nutty potato. People sell them as snacks in banana leaf tubes on the street." Around the next bend was a 20-foot-tall candlenut tree, gangly and pocked but loaded with oil-rich nuts that are sometimes eaten as a laxative. Neither of the trees are native to these islands; they'd been planted centuries before. As Eddowes explained it, what looked to our eyes to be untamed jungle was about as wild as a Kansas wheatfield.
By American standards, Polynesians travel light. Shower shoes and an informal pareu (a six-foot stretch of brightly patterned cloth) can take anyone from the beach to the bank in style. Still, it takes some serious planning to survive a long sea voyage, and those early Polynesians knew how to pack.
More than a thousand years ago, adventurous souls in Tonga and Fiji piled into 90-foot-long canoes and followed the sunrise across the aqua expanse. These pioneers brought candlenut, yams, sugarcane, pigs, dogs, chickens, and rats (yes, rats) to sustain themselves. About 200 wound up in what are now the Society Islands—Tahiti and its neighbors.
They cultivated coconut and breadfruit on the islands and looked to the forest for other useful plants. On a Jeep ride up the highest mountain of Raiatea, the island most sacred to all Polynesians, our guide/driver Tuturiteauma (a family name, which translates as boy who prays in the ocean), pointed out a yellow flower that's better than spit for defogging a snorkeling mask, and another that's used as a balm against diaper rash. When they're sick, most modern Polynesians still reach first for a forest remedy, Tutu says.
He pulled over to grab a few plate-sized banana leaves off a roadside tree. On Saturday afternoons, Tutu explained, most locals pile into outriggers and paddle or motor out to a motu—one of a number of small atolls in the lagoon—for a picnic. Just as in centuries past, a pit of coals is fired up in the sand and each carefully prepared delicacy is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed.
"This also makes a great plate," Tutu said, palming one of the leaves. "Unless you have a big appetite, and then you string a few together and it works even better." He deftly punched a hole near the base of one leaf, pulled the stems of the others through it, and fanned them out into a platter. "Good for roasted chicken, wild pig, fresh fruit, or fish—delicious!" Tutu said.
Gluttony, it turns out, is not just a cruise ship tradition. in tahiti, it's long been customary to overfeed guests as a way of boosting one's own prestige, Eddowes said. "Overfeasting," they called it. Traditionally, visitors who could consume all they were offered proved they had the stronger life force, more mana. Anyone pushing back from the table early was admitting weakness and might have to forfeit land or other possessions. The consequences of putting down the fork are less dire today, but the idea of giving in abundance continues throughout the islands, Eddowes said. "It's deeply cultural."
Along with the search for simplicity, that notion of plenty—of food, of time, of warmt—may be what has always fired our fantasies about Tahiti. And those fantasies, though built around a kernel of truth, allow little room for change. For as long as there have been pale-faced visitors to the islands, there have been complaints about the South Pacific losing its charm. Gauguin, for one, was miffed to arrive in Papeete, the capital of the Society Islands, in 1891 and find locals living under tin roofs and wearing European clothes. Today, the same disdain shows up in guidebooks warning travelers to get out of Papeete if they want to see "the real Tahiti."
I disagree. The last night of our cruise, we pulled into the port at Papeete and the town was hopping. I walked out on deck to survey the scene: A stage had been erected at one end of the waterside promenade. There, five hefty Tahitian women danced and sang, alternating local tunes with Caribbean, reggae, and rock, pumped up with amplified ukuleles, guitars, and drums. At the other end: booths selling grilled fish, savory stir-fries, and coconut pudding. Families, sweethearts, and singles (some dressed in Gap jackets, some in pareus), all glad to be done with the week's work, strolled about. Several dozen children had clambered atop a platform that extended from the stage and sang and danced with all their might while amused parents stood in the throng below, a community of Polynesians, Asians, and Europeans—all Tahitians, all swaying to the beat.
Like their ancestors before them, these Tahitians had come to the water to welcome strangers and tell their story, a narrative of abundant life and community, of taking joy in the here and now. Nothing virtual about that—I rushed down the gangway to join in.
Photography by Douglas Peebles
This article was first published in September 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.