Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

French Polynesia: My fish are better than your fish

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The view from Magic Mountain. Photo / Jill Worrall
The view from Magic Mountain. Photo / Jill Worrall

I'm waterlogged and very happily so. After three days on Moorea I've hardly been out of the water since the aftermath of a tropical storm cleared away.

I've even swum before breakfast - a time of day, I have hitherto experienced while awake only on rare occasions. It's amazing what the lure of pottering around tropical fish and coral will do.

One of the concrete posts of the neighbouring villa seems to be a particularly popular hangout with some of the more exotic and spectacularly coloured fish.

There's no one in the bungalow so I regularly lie floating just below its deck, looking, I suspect, like a pallid piece of marine debris.

I wonder if anyone has ever snorkelled under all the overwater bungalows' glass floors. I'm tempted to try it but am deterred by the thought of an encounter with the likes of the American snorkeller who I spoke to briefly earlier. I tell him about "my fish" but he replies that the fish down his end of the row are much better...

and there are more of them. Of course there would be.

Today though, I have to dry out a little because we're joining a four-wheel-drive island excursion with Teree from Moorea Explorer.

We climb into the open deck of his truck and pick up five French visitors en route for Magic Mountain, a lookout above the lagoon. Teree tells us that after Americans, the French make up the bulk of Moorea's tourists.

There are not so many Aussies and Kiwis - for one thing our exchange rate doesn't enhance this little outpost of France's prices. We'd already encountered the $50 cocktails and $60 breakfasts.

One French couple are champagne makers from Epernay. We discuss wine briefly but move on to the safer topic of the All Blacks' chances in the next Rugby World Cup.

From Magic Mountain we have a bird's eye view of the lagoon, two of the island's resort hotels with their strings of overwater bungalows hovering above the coral.

We descend into the Opunohu Valley and stop beside the Afareaitu marae. This sacred temple site consists of a rectangular platform of volcanic boulders with an altar at one end. Before the arrival of Europeans, bringing with them Christianity, marae were the centres of social, political and religious activities, including human and animal sacrifices.

Further down the road is the island's agricultural school, which attracts students from throughout French Polynesia. We inspect the pineapple plantation, the groves of citrus and the more unfamiliar plants, including soursop trees with their spiky fruit.

Along with tourism, Moorea is famed for its pineapples; many of which end up at the island's juice factory. Here, they also produce tropical liqueurs, which we sample and decide are probably more palatable when used as mixers.

Among the other wares for sale are a surprising array of postcards and calendars featuring bare-breasted young Tahitian women.

The dancers who perform at the island's Tiki Village Theatre are more decorous... sporting coconut shell bras (the women that is) and a spectacular array of skirts, from mini sarongs to flowing grass numbers designed to accentuate their sinuous hip movements.

The young Frenchmen behind us are clearly enamoured with them, but are silenced by the appearance of the male dancers, clad in very little, their skin a swirling art gallery of tattoos and glowing in the light of the flaming torches they then proceed to hurl skywards.

One item features a young woman being carried on the shoulder of a young warrior to be presented to a chief-like figure who then begins to unwrap her from a pareu like an exotic parcel. Whether deliberately or not, this contrasts rather dramatically with the appearance of a group of women clad in neck-to-knee dresses, a style introduced by the missionaries in the 19th century.

For some of the population at least, this stifling - both culturally and physically - of local traditions seems to have been forgiven. as a few days earlier church congregations were celebrating Missionary Day, commemorating the arrival of Christianity.

The show, which features about 60 dancers, musicians and singers, is the grand finale to a traditional Tahiti-style hangi.

Also on the menu, along with chicken, pork, taro and breadfruit is a Tahitian speciality - raw fish marinated in lime juice and served in coconut milk.

While we eat, two of the dancers demonstrate the 101 ways to tie a pareu. I can't remember any of them now, other than the most basic.

And anyway, the pareu, although perfect here in Tahiti, probably is not going to be a winner in Timaru's main street in autumn.

* Jill Worrall travelled to French Polynesia courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme, Air Tahiti Nui and stayed at the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa.

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