What a marvel the sun lounger is - half seat, half bed, sometimes with mattress, sometimes with wheels and invariably arranged around an infinity pool facing an azure ocean. It was the theme of our six days in Tahiti and its islands.

Flanked by eating halls and sleeping rooms, the open space this piece of furniture inhabits is the tourist's marae. We quickly learn the protocol. Go to the attendant's hut to get towels. Scan for a vacant lounger and saunter over to lay claim. Adjust to your preferred semi-recline position. Lie back, relax. Mark your territory with towels or clothing.

Ah, this is the life - luxury. But as I laze, sipping a hideously expensive cocktail at the Radisson Plaza Resort in Papeete, I'm troubled, not because a group of middle-aged women are splashing about in a French aqua-aerobics class - "change jambe ... un-ah, deux-ah, trois-ah ... " - I'm pondering something our tour guide Lehi said earlier: "It's false, not the real Tahiti."

He was talking about this, the tourist perspective, largely from a lounger by the pool in a resort that could be anywhere.

I run through the day's events - Papeete traffic jams, a walk around the town taking in the markets, a church, and the pearl museum.

It was all quite interesting, as was the Museum of Tahiti, but apparently not the real Tahiti. By far the best part of our half-day paradise tour was the conversation. Lehi and his friend Topa were happy to talk about anything.

No, they weren't in favour of independence. Without the French who would pay for the infrastructure? Lehi had a bad experience as a child swimming with sharks, so he doesn't like it when sharks are around. Topa, however, loves the exhilaration of sharks. Both of them have resisted pressure to take over the family pearl farm - a hard, and not very satisfying, job, they said.

The perfect Papeete tour, said Topa, would involve some hiking through the rainforest - next time he would take us to a special place with a waterfall. In fact, next time we were to come and stay with them both, hang out and experience Tahiti the friendly way.

The following morning, watching Papeete recede from the deck of a commuter catamaran, I become unnerved by my insignificance. The volcanic islands jutting from the vastness of the Pacific seem so small in the middle of an ocean that expands to empty horizons all around. I am a speck.

It's good to set foot on Moorea and even nicer to be greeted at the Moorea Pearl Beach Resort and Spa with flower leis, fruit juice and cold hand towels. Our room isn't ready so we head to the pool.

The Pearl's sun loungers are the deluxe kind - wooden slats with luxurious white towelling-covered mattresses. Moorea is home to colonies of over-water bungalows, and the Pearl's look idyllic. But we are given a garden suite. Never mind.

By now I'm on the alert for the authentic Tahiti. We quickly learn resort food is obscenely expensive, so we wander down the road to the local supermarket, where prices are slightly less paralysing, to stock up on supplies.

That afternoon we watch an authentic Tahitian wedding. It's a great spectacle. He stands in a white pareu on the shore. She is called by a shell horn and arrives by canoe. There is a ukulele trio, coconut fronds, and a priest in traditional headgear. Vows are exchanged as the priest breaks a coconut and its water spills over the couple's clasped hands.

They don't seem to mind resort guests gawking and while she makes a pretty good attempt at the obligatory Tahitian dancing, he demonstrates a complete absence of rhythm.

We forgo the 6600PF ($114) a head Polynesian buffet in favour of the charming-looking Restaurant Le Sud about five minutes' walk away. The open-air dining is lovely, but the mosquitoes are ferocious.

But we enjoy some authentic Gallic disdain - that look that speaks of civilisations of suffering, of mocking and with an edge of malice - because we order just two thin pizzas, two glasses of wine and a sorbet. The bill comes to 5150PF ($89).

The next day we are picked up by boat from the resort jetty. Our guide Robert welcomes us to Moorea, "Le Lizard Jaune" which he says is Tahiti's most beautiful island. "Americans say Bora Bora - not so. This is the most beautiful, but that may be because it's my island."

It is indeed beautiful. Moody clouds over craggy outcrops are a spectacular backdrop as pods of spinner dolphins chase our boat through transparent waters of the lagoon.

Lunch is on a motu - an island on the ocean edge of the coral reef. Julienne a hungry stingray glides into the shallows with her friends demanding food. "There you go," soothes Robert, dealing with Julienne and shrieking tourists at once.

A frigate bird swooping overhead wants to be fed too. Lunch begins with a demonstration of how to make the perfect poisson cru - fresh raw fish, lime, onion, carrot, cucumber, capsicum, salt and coconut cream squeezed on the spot. Deliciously authentic.

For breakfast the next day we go to a cafe where we get a cooked breakfast for three for 3100PF ($54) rather than the 3200PF ($56) a head for Pearl's continental breakfast. Then it's off to the airport and an hour or so later we touch down at Huahine.

Besides a less well-developed infrastructure, Huahine differs from Moorea in smell - lush, flowering vegetation smothers everything and a gorgeous ripeness hangs in the air.

The Pension Mauarii does not have a pool. The sun loungers are a bit rickety and the mattresses rumpled and stained, but they face the ocean on a flattish piece of sand just above the beach which gives a true infinity vista.

Taking care not to step on sea squirts makes going for a swim more real too. Our wooden garden hut has its own bathroom, a wooden floor, coconut-thatched gabled roof, varnished tree branches for the four bedposts slung with mosquito netting and a whirring ceiling fan. The bathroom has a chest-high stone wall and circular-tile shower base set into a coral scoria floor with a conch shell for a tap spout. Rustic as hell.

The accommodation here is cheaper than the resorts and closer to nature. But although the restaurant on the beach edge is enchanting, the food prices are still hard to swallow.

Poisson cru 1700PF ($29) is the cheapest dish, and crab with wine sauce, one of the more expensive, is 3500PF ($61). We also have to buy water at 300PF ($5) for a 1.5-litre bottle. A 330ml Hinano beer is 400PF ($7) and a gin and tonic 600PF ($10). The food is adequate but it's far from cordon bleu.

Actually, paradise is a myth says Paul Atallah, archaeologist, anthropologist and owner of Island Eco Tours. On his 4WD tour around the island we feed giant eels in a stream, snorkel in a coral garden beside an abandoned resort, try out our stuttering French on some local kids, visit a pearl farm, and take in a restored Tahitian marae.

Atallah tells of first contact with Captain Cook, human sacrifices on the marae altars, and warfare and orgiastic partying. It is quite a contrast with the view that Tahiti was home to the noble savage and an island paradise where bread really did grow on trees.

He is similarly frank about the Tahiti of today and the challenges it faces - the artificial economy propped up by the French; the idea of the islands as a playground for only the very rich, mainly French tourist; exorbitant food prices and the need to develop a more sophisticated cultural face for tourism.

He's talking about something more real than the cultural show we get at Pension Mauarii that evening, when we are shown - with good humour - the many and marvellous uses of the coconut tree.

On our last night we are back at Papeete at the Sheraton waiting for a late flight home.

On the shoreline, coloured spotlights turn coconut palms blue and yellow and we watch a blood-red sunset from white couches fluffed up with mountains of pillows accompanied by cocktails and a DJ's eclectic mix - Tahitian dub, perhaps - beside a screen-show of Japanese cartoons.

Strangely, it feels like paradise.

Getting there

Air Tahiti Nui flies direct three times a week from Auckland to Tahiti. Return airfares start from $1147.

Where to stay

Papeete: Radisson Plaza Resort; Sheraton Hotel.
Moorea: Pearl Resort & Spa.
Huahine: Pension Mauarii.

What to do

Paradise Tours, Papeete - a range of half and full-day tours.
Moorea Mahana Tours - the full-day circle island tour is recommended.
Island Eco Tours, Huahine - Paul Atallah will give you a day to remember.

Tahiti information

See website links below.

* Chris Barton travelled to Tahiti courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.