Tahiti: Palette of a magical island

By Paul Rush

Circling the colourful island of Tahiti, Paul Rush sees an impressionist painter's view everywhere.

The vivid colours of Paul Gauguin's work come to life in as soon as you arrive in Tahiti.
The vivid colours of Paul Gauguin's work come to life in as soon as you arrive in Tahiti.

It's easy to understand how French painter Paul Gauguin was so inspired by the island of Tahiti Nui. In one sweeping view from the deck of a cruise liner, I can see all the vivid, electric colours of the famous impressionist's palette - sky blue, forest green, volcanic black, sunbeam yellow, lagoon turquoise and ocean aquamarine.

The great master painter arrived in Papeete in 1891 but became disillusioned with the town and moved into a bamboo hut on the south coast with his 14-year-old little princess. I'm unable to do that, so I settle for a Circle Island Tour in a colourful old bus.

Our guide is Noelle, a mid-life maiden who wears a crown of flowers on her head and calls herself the "Queen of Paradise".

I tuck a fragrant tiare bloom behind my right ear and instantly know this tour will be a beautiful thing.

The road east hugs the coast, giving glimpses of a silvery blue sea that is smooth as silk, rippled here and there by the gentlest breeze.

Sheer lava cliffs rise above the road and as we pass valleys, and I see vivid green slopes below mist-shrouded jagged peaks.

Noelle points out the tomb of King Pomare V at the commune of Arue and tells us, "He signed the treaty with France in 1840 and we became French. Today we are all international chopsticks - a mixture of all races. You won't find a pure Chinese or Tahitian. We're the children of the new generation."

From the lookout on One Tree Hill we admire stunning mirror-like seas stretching to Tahiti's sister island Moorea. European explorer Captain Wallis walked ashore in 1767 and claimed Tahiti for England. French navigator Bougainville landed a year later and declared Tahiti for France.

We pause in historic Matavai Bay and visualise this idyllic scene in 1769 when Captain Cook's Endeavour was riding at anchor. Excited natives clamoured to board the vessel and covet wondrous things beyond their imagination.

The English sailors equally desired the local women, who were quite agreeable provided a ship's nail changed hands.

Once the transit of Venus was observed, Cook left the island before the ship's hull was stripped of nails.

Captain Bligh was commissioned to carry breadfruit seeds from Tahiti to the Caribbean to be grown as food for plantation slaves but the allure of the Tahitian maidens was too much for his English sailors. The infamous Mutiny on the Bounty aborted the mission. It has since generated a stream of epic Hollywood movies.

The highlight of our jaunt around the island is a visit to the Paul Gauguin Museum and the Gauguin Restaurant, which are reached after passing Taravao, where a narrow isthmus joins Tahiti Nui with its little sister isle, Tahiti Iti.

"Art is either plagiarism or revolution" was Gauguin's favourite saying, illustrating his strong individualism. His evocative paintings have become synonymous with Tahiti and they continue to enhance the island's image as a modern-day paradise lost.

Back on board the ship I watch the sun dip below the horizon and the sky diffuse with the fabulous colours of the great impressionist's palette. Gauguin loved nature and the garlanded vahine he painted "au naturel". His works had flamboyant colours, blinding light and exuberant settings, like the scene before me.

Those colours are still vivid, etched into my memory of this magical island. Like Gauguin and the Bounty sailors, I'm captivated by the seductive blend of France and Polynesia and the beautiful people.


Getting there: Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui have regular flights from Auckland to Papeete.

Circle Island tours leave Papeete daily and take five to six hours to complete the 114km-long coastal road, visiting attractions along the way.

Further information: See tahitinow.co.nz and pocruises.co.nz.

Paul Rush travelled to Tahiti with assistance from P&O Cruises.

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