Tahiti: Flower power in the Pacific

By Paul Rush

It's easy to fall in love with the island of Bora Bora and learn the language of fragrant blooms, writes Paul Rush

Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Photo / Getty Images
Bora Bora, French Polynesia. Photo / Getty Images

Step off a cruise liner or aeroplane onto the world's most beautiful island and you could fall into a trap for the uninitiated traveller.

A Tahitian maiden will drape a colourful lei of tropical flowers around your neck and also place a tiare bloom behind your ear if you smile sweetly at her. I have found that this seemingly harmless gesture can attract a lot of interest from beautiful young local women on the streets of Vaitape on French Polynesia's lustrous jewel of Bora Bora island.

There's a quaint custom here of conversing through flowers - and a bloom behind the right ear means you are single, available and looking. Behind the left ear means you're taken and behind both means you're married, but still available. Wearing a flower backwards means "Follow me". When you see a young vahine with flowers in her hair, it means she's desperate and you'd better hurry up.

In my research on Bora Bora I didn't spot a government advisory on this subject, so I had to learn by trial and error. I received a lot of attention from beauties coiffured with flowers, like those portrayed in vivid colours on Paul Gauguin's canvases, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy travelling: to chance upon the sublime and experience something new and surprising.

It fell to a vivacious, ebullient tour guide called Anewa to tell me the local customs on a circle island tour of Bora Bora. "Our language of flowers is mentioned in Captain Cook's 1769 journal. He refers specifically to our national symbol, the cape jasmine or tiare Tahiti, which is the favourite for hair decoration."

I'm fascinated by the profusion of frangipani, sweet gardenia and bougainvillea everywhere. Hibiscus blooms as large as dinner plates come in rich scarlet, saffron, soft pink and tangerine. Flowers are a significant feature here, part of the Tahitian aesthetic, which prizes colour, sensuality and feminine grace. The act of tucking a bloom behind your ear is as natural as brushing your hair.

Setting out on a Circle Island tour from Vaitape, we soon pass the prestigious yacht club and the Farepiti Wharf, a legacy of American wartime infrastructure, which serves as the deep-water port for local trading vessels. Ferries run from here to the small island of Motu Mute, where Bora Bora Airport is located.

In Faanui Bay, where gentle trade winds rustle coconut palms, we stop to view Mt Papoti, whose jagged summit is wreathed in kapok clouds. Anewa is effusive in her praise of Bora Bora.

"Captain Cook baptised our island as the 'Pearl of the Pacific'," she says.

"It's completely surrounded by a coral reef formed from a collapsed volcano."

I ask what makes the island so special and Anewa says it is the strikingly vivid colours; the azure and turquoise of the lagoon, the velvety greens of the forest, the brooding purples and blacks of the sheer-faced volcanic peaks.

One point of difference is the necklace of sand-covered motu (islands) within the reef, where luxury hotels stand on stilts in the lagoon over sheltered transparent waters. These over-water bungalows entice sun worshippers and A-listers to come and indulge in a dream holiday where room service comes to you by canoe.

We visit a pareo-dyeing factory to learn about this very practical garment. A mouth-watering spread of breadfruit, taro, papayas and bananas is laid out on giant leaves for us to sample. Then a young woman garlanded with flowers brings out a range of vibrant, psychedelic hand-painted pareo. Anewa demonstrates a dozen ways of draping and tucking the cool, lightweight garment over the body. It's a very practical mode of dress for the tropics and a great space saver.

Our final stop is the island's famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant and Bar, which has hosted stars from Willie Nelson to Nelson Rockefeller. Celebrities love this place for its South Seas character with coconut palm stools, an open-air dining room, thatched roof and a floor of sand to wiggle your toes in. Coloured lights and floral arrangements create a tropical ambience. "You haven't seen Bora Bora until you've been to Bloody Mary's" is a common saying here.

Back on board the cruise liner, I stand at the rail and look out at the fairy-tale world of Bora Bora. Its lush tropical beauty extends from the turquoise lagoon to the jagged volcanic peaks that rise like Gothic cathedrals out of the ocean - a scene straight out of the imagination. It is simply breathtaking. I enjoy my last view of paradise for a few moments longer until it fades into a silhouette on the distant horizon.

I finally take my pure, undefiled tiare flower from behind my ear and cast it into the Pacific Ocean. It's a symbolic act that says I will return one day and absorb the sights, sounds, fragrant smells and joie de vivre of the most beautiful island in the world.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has regular flights from Auckland to Papeete, Tahiti, with connecting Air Tahiti Nui services to Bora Bora.

Bora Bora is 260km northwest of Tahiti and the flight takes 45 minutes. Circle Island bus tours depart daily. Scooters and bicycles can be hired to make the easy 32km circuit.

Online: Tahiti Tourisme, P&O Cruises

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

- NZ Herald

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