Perfumes of Rarotonga

By Stu Lloyd

Nothing says paradise and romance like the gentle waft of tropical floral scents jasmine, frangipani, pandanus or vanilla rising on a warm sea breeze. Like lovers, they have, become inextricably intertwined.

The allure has not been lost on the Polynesians, who have been making floral perfumes for hundreds of years.

Somerset Maugham, one of the great chroniclers of the South Pacific, soaked his senses in the entrancing sights, sounds and heady aromas of the region.

The evocative writer was continually captivated by the sweet-smelling star-shaped tiare (gardenia), which grew with abandon in lush, wild bushes, and which the women picked to adorn their hair, scenting the air around them as they went.

It has a peculiarly sweet and sensual perfume, he observed of the white-petalled flower, a symbol of innocence, in 1916.

But the use of tropical flowers as a seductive perfume dates back to the ancient Romans and Egyptians. The first meeting of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony was marked on a royal barge with jasmine-infused sails, the aroma of that flower, known as pitate in the Cook Islands, deemed to be supremely feminine.

In the 16th century, Italian Marquis Frangipani would produce scented gloves bearing an intoxicating bouquet for ladies. When the flower - in shades of white, yellow and pink - that matched this scent was later discovered in the South Pacific, his name was given to it.

And these days in Rarotonga, apart from the ukulele strumming at the airport, your first sensory note is most likely to be frangipani, which proliferates everywhere.

On the main road at Matavera, on the northeast coast, a hand-painted sign proclaims "Perfumes of Rarotonga".

This single-storey house, set amid a tangle of shady trees and vines, is a garden factory that perpetuates the proud Polynesian tradition of perfume making.

The business was founded 16 years ago by Ngaoa Ranguini, and is now in the hands of Tatiana and Colin Burn, Russian and British nationals respectively.

They employ a team of four people who are "very much part of our family," says Tatiana, who works in the factory and in their uptown Avarua retail store.

Around the back, colourful packages, bottles and small boxes of products adorn a wooden counter.

A beautiful clash of aromas emanates from the factory, a clutch of small dark rooms behind the counter.

My nose goes into overdrive, like a sniffer dog at the airport.

The area is lit up by the sunny, gap-toothed smile of the matronly manager Nane, replete with white hibiscus behind her right ear.

A couple of young girls beaver away behind her, industriously wrapping perfume bottles in Polynesian fabrics printed in eye-stabbing primary colours.

All of the company's products are handmade, including perfumes, oils, soaps and even exotic banana, mango and coffee liqueurs in ceramic bottles modelled after the sea god Tangaroa.

The only machinery in evidence is a 40-year-old foot-operated press for soap moulds, redolent of laundry roller-crushers of yesteryear. Delightfully Dickensian.

One of their more intriguing tropical offerings is Mauke Miracle Oil. Similar to Aloe Vera, it is a hand-cooked oil made from maire and pi herbs from the outer islands, favoured by locals to soothe insect bites, burns and sunburn.

The couple claim it has even cured their daughter's warts.

But their biggest seller is delicately fragranced soaps.

"We make heaps of 100 per cent coconut oil soap," enthuses Tatiana. "It is rich in glycerine, great for the skin and for those who have allergies. My husband swears by it."

So do many local hotels, and those who order it from all corners of the world via their website.

It keeps the soap mould press rolling at the factory, coming off the production line cake by cake.

The oils and flowers are dried in the sun, and Nane speaks of the difficulty in achieving the right balances. Recipes have been refined, now less reliant on coconut oil bases, which imbued too much flavour.

"Queen of the Night" is a sophisticated and sultry evening perfume made from the local Tiare Orovaruvarietal (Somerset Maugham would have surely approved).

And their piece de irresistible is "Pearl of Paradise", caressed from rare Pua plants that grow sparsely in the mountainous spine of Rarotonga.

With an off-white flower similar to the tiare, it emits a deeper range of floral tunes and a more sparkling tang.

Nane and her team bottle it with a black pearl from nearby Manihiki Island, which can be mounted and set after use.

A polished black pearl shell is also enclosed in the embroidered bag. At $66 for a 50ml sprinkler, a lot of tender loving care goes into their five-star product.

"If we don't have this then it's only imported Calvin Klein," Nane says, conveniently ignoring their one local competitor, the Perfume Factory, up the road.

The somnolence of this fragrant factory on a sweltering afternoon sums up the essence of the South Pacific better than almost anything.

With the possible exception of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote: "Native women came by twos and threes out of the darkness bequeathing to the air a heady perfume of palm-oil and frangipani blossom."

Where to find them

Perfumes of Rarotonga has two outlets. The factory shop is in Matavera, on the main road on the east side of the island, and a retail outlet is in the main town of Avarua. You can also order over the internet.

* Stu Lloyd travelled at his own expense.

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