Tahiti: Heady blend to intoxicate body and soul

By Paul Rush

The verdant, colourful and exotic island of Moorea works its magic on Paul Rush.

A local woman on Moorea with a dramatic head dress. Photo / Paul Rush
A local woman on Moorea with a dramatic head dress. Photo / Paul Rush

From the moment I arrive, I am overwhelmed by the wild exuberance of plant life on Tahiti's little sister island, Moorea. Lush green foliage extends from the balmy beaches through coconut palm stands, up to craggy volcanic peaks hidden by wispy clouds.

Two aspects of the wonderful tropical plant life stand out for me. First, the postcard picture colours; the lagoon is luminous turquoise, graduating to light jade and aquamarine out in the bay. Then there is the bright profusion of tropical flowers. The striking colours are everywhere; flowering bougainvillea, ubiquitous hibiscus, heliconia and bird of paradise mixed with the intoxicating perfumes of frangipani and jasmine.

The flower theme continues when I meet my Circle Island Tour guide, Rikko. He's wearing the queen of all Tahitian flowers behind his left ear - the fragrant gardenia known as "tiare Tahiti". He offers to place one above my right ear, to signify that I'm available and yearning for love; I politely decline.

Rikko tells our group that he is a white Tahitian with a Swiss grandfather, an Austrian grandmother, a Tahitian mother and French father. "I'm international," he says. "I worked in the Bali Hai Hotel for two years and I have a lot of American girlfriends, that's why I speak English so well."

He lives in a big home on the hillside above tiny Maharepa Village with his partner. "We have 16,200 people on Moorea," he says. "The population is increasing fast as we have heaps of rain and people stay home too much."

Rikko is very particular about passing on the warnings about wearing flowers. "Be careful as our people wear a flower to the discotheque to find a boyfriend or girlfriend. Place a tiare in both ears and it means you're married, but not enough, you need to find another one. If a wife finds out there's big trouble - broken dishes!

We stop the bus to view the sculptured beauty of Cook's Bay, deeply indented and nestled beneath a sharply chiselled shark-toothed peak called Rotui. The verdant growth on the hillsides is intermingled with pineapple and coconut plantations. Majestic volcanic peaks rising up into the sky are reminiscent of James A. Michener's mythical island of Bali Hai. Parts of the movie South Pacific and the 1984 version of The Bounty were filmed here.

Romantics tend to compare Moorea's shape - which is much like a butterfly or an isosceles triangle - to a lovelorn heart.

The villages we pass on the coastal road comprise small homes with iron roofs and neat, well-kept gardens. I'm impressed with the general neatness and cleanliness of Moorea. Rikko insists it's the world No1 island and I'm not about to argue with him.

We pass through the sleepy village of Vaiare: it's actually the busiest town on the island. At Haapiti we visit a vanilla factory, to learn the secrets of extracting vanilla, gardenia and coconut for cosmetics and perfume.

The Tiki Village Theatre at Papetoai entertains us royally with a thrilling traditional song and dance show. I have to confess I'm captivated by the tamure dancers. Their hips sway rhythmically at a dizzying pace as if they are double-jointed. Their voices rise ever higher in song; their feather headdresses wave seductively in unison.

It's a spellbinding performance made even more potent by the draughts of noni juice I'm imbibing as I watch the beautiful maidens. We have been warned of the reputation of noni juice for - ahem - enhancing masculinity.

It's the sort of heady, erotic experience that would make any blue-blooded able seaman go back to his ship and incite mutiny.

I think I've fallen in love with Moorea. I want to return. Rikko will put a tiare in my left ear and a vahine on the right arm. Such are the fleeting dreams of paradise.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui offer direct flights from Auckland to Papeete with frequent connections to Moorea by air and local ferries. It is a 10-minute flight to Moorea or a half-hour catamaran ride. Cars, scooters and bicycles can be rented and four to five hours should be allowed to fully enjoy the 62km trip.

Further information: See tahiti-tourisme.co.nz.

The writer travelled to Moorea with assistance from P&O Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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