To the island

WAXING LYRICAL: Moorea is known as the Island of Love.
WAXING LYRICAL: Moorea is known as the Island of Love.

As I down a life-by-chocolate breakfast - hot chocolat and pain au chocolat - on the ferry from Papeete, Moorea looms ahead, dark and imposing. Its tallest peaks snag the clouds and it can look as if the extinct volcano is again venting its power along the jagged edges.

It's like that, Moorea - it can make you all lyrical.

It is known as the Island of Love and for some, it's in the shape of a heart. I see it more as a Christmas angel. Small numbered "angels" or PKs - pointes kilometres - mark the distance along the ring road and when you pass 35 you are back where you started. In most parts, there is room for only one property either side of the road. Beyond that on one side, the hills start and on the other is the lagoon.

WATER SPORTS: Swimming with the dolphins at Moorea Dolphin Centre.
WATER SPORTS: Swimming with the dolphins at Moorea Dolphin Centre.

That is where I meet Mickael Robert, an instructor and guide for Paddleboard Adventures, who is originally from the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. He gently chides me for being a bit behind schedule, but I tell him to blame the ferry captain.

"If you come at 8 there is only you and me and the rays. [That's stingrays, not the sun's.] Now we have the little boats and the jetskis and they are all feeding the rays. I am the only one who does not feed the rays - they just come to me." I think but don't say that if Mickael is usually the first visitor in the morning, the tame rays are probably expecting breakfast.

The board Mickael has for me is plastic and very wide and heavy, but even a paddle boarding novice would have no trouble with stability. Mickael gives everyone a trial close to land until everyone is happy to venture out. Just in case, we're all ankle-leashed to the boards, which also carry life jackets.

The lagoon is like a millpond and the water so clear it is difficult to gauge the depth. "However, Madame, if there was too much wind, I would have to say, ‘Sorry Madame, we cannot go today.' " In safe hands. we manoeuvre through clumps of coral, staying deep enough to avoid catching the boards' fins.

Up ahead there is a gaggle of jetskis and small boats, and as we glide towards them, I feel utterly superior, at one with the ocean - it's that sort of place.

I slip into the water - warm to me, cold to Mickael - which averages 26-28 degrees Celsius throughout the year. I could stand if I wanted to, but I prefer to float with my snorkel.

"Don't swim," I am told, "you make the ‘courants'. Just float and they will come." And they do, first it's the sharks - I know, harmless reef sharks, but it's a first for me and they do have teeth. They are beautiful but the rays are magnificent and feel satiny smooth and somehow soft. "Here comes a big one," says Mickael, "she is lovely." I ask how he can tell she is a she, how up close and personal you have to be to a stingray to find out? Mickael tells me "she" several times as if talking to a child, then it clicks: la raie - in French they are all feminine.

I'm channelling my "Pacific warrior woman" - paddle boarding always does that - but Mickael admonishes me. "Relax, relax, let the courants take you." Alternately following and fighting the courants we go between two motu or islets.

Here, between the motu (which aren't included in the 118 count) there is more snorkelling to be had. Small fish, yellows, browns, oranges and brilliant blues nibble at the largely dead reef and dart around you in a swirl of colour when someone throws in some food. They are close enough to touch, but have more sense.

We paddle around the corner of the top corner of Moorea. "Keep left or it's Bora Bora next stop and that's three days."

My visit to Moorea is a bit of a pressure cooker and the oasis of Legends Resort provides much-appreciated breathing space. The winding drive up is bordered by flowering bushes that include tiare, the creamy white fragrant flower that is the symbol of French Polynesia.

The view on walking into reception takes my breath away and gives me goosebumps. The building is open front and back to catch the breeze and there are wide steps down to the pool, which seemingly melts into the lagoon far below. The edge of the reef is a necklace of tiny white shells, with white caps beyond. A welcoming drink of pineapple juice helps me get my lower jaw up where it belongs.

Legends has 46 two and three-bedroom villas with mine right at the top. Luckily a golf cart is only a phone call away. Walking down the hill is fine but at 29 degrees, no-one wants to climb. A wraparound deck with a spa pool cantilevers out over space. The traditional pitched roof is so high they could easily fit another floor up there. The lagoon is before me, the hill behind and I am surrounded by luxury. I could have died and gone to heaven.

But there is no time. Lunch is a quick icecream - quick because the afternoon 4x4 excursion has arrived. I sit up front with Valentin, who seems to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of things Tahitian.

"It is not hard to live here," he says. "There are fish in the sea and fruit on the trees. Everything grows here. You drop a tomato on the ground and before you know, it you have a tomato plant up to ‘here'." I will see Busy Lizzys growing to waist height, passionfruit the length of a man's hand and greenish grapefruit on steroids.

However, the first stop is Magic Mountain. Valentin says it's a special trip, and it would challenge a mountain goat: up, down, left right, rocks, branches. The top section is on foot and with a rope to hold - it not being good business to lose clients over the edge. I ask about the legend behind the mountain's name, after all, this is a land of legends - about coconut palms, mountains, gods, even roosters. "It's after the rollercoaster at Disneyland."

There is another bumpy ride up to the Belvedere lookout, but it is worth the discomfort. The view could be an aerial shot as I look out across a wide valley to Mt Rotui. Cooks Bay (the captain never stopped there) and Opunomo Bay are on either side and they are the shoulders of Moorea's angel.

Our last stop is the restored Titiroa Marae. Unlike New Zealand, Tahiti's marae is relegated to history. They were rectangular stone centres for meetings, worship of the gods and celebrations of war. It was strictly men-only and the stone walls had no openings and had to be climbed over. Inquisitive children who climbed in were killed, says Valentin.

Back at Legends, I reorganise and arrange for a golf cart to ferry me down the hill for dinner at Villa des Sens, the resort's fine-dining restaurant. Sunset has passed and a line of star-like lights guides me up the shallow steps, where I am greeted by yet another lovely-looking Tahitian woman. Putting flowers in the hair and behind the ears is as routine as cleaning teeth. Even the staff on the commuter ferry to and from Papeete are bedecked with flowers and shells and wear long, elegant muu-muus.

After I order, an amuse bouche arrives on a smaller platter: two small delicious pissaladieres, a shot of gazpacho, and diced chicken en brochettes. I am tempted to do a polite Franglais version of: "OK, that was lovely, I've had enough, I'll just pop off now", but the reality is that it's more than 24 hours since I had a proper meal. I have some delicious and beautifully presented fish with a glass of French vin blanc.

Valentin was not correct in saying that everything grows in Tahiti - grapes do not, they have to be imported and there are many hands and many petrol miles in every expensive mouthful.

The next morning I am due back on the ferry. I am garlanded with delicate shells as I leave Legends and get the driver to stop on the driveway so I can pick a tiare flower for my hair.

Nana (bye) Moorea, and maururu (thank you).

Maureen Marriner travelled courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme.

Sunday Star Times