Home alone in paradise
The trouble with paradise is everyone wants a piece of it.
Whether it's for a holiday, a landmark event in one's life (a wedding, a honeymoon) or an escape from the rat race to find a more simple life, the reality is the more beautiful a place is, the more people want to be there.
It's happened to Bali, Phuket (in fact large swathes of Thailand's beaches) and even in more difficult-to-reach places such as Tahiti and Bora Bora in French Polynesia.
This latter collection of islands in the South Pacific has been labelled paradise since the 1700s.
It was the French that created the myth. As Paul Theroux writes in his epic travelogue The Happy Isles of Oceania, the arrival of Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville and his crew in the islands was greeted by a naked young girl paddling out to meet them in a canoe and, without a hint of modesty, climbing on board a ship filled with 400 lonely French sailors.
"In that moment the myth of romantic Tahiti was born," Theroux writes.
So, I wonder as I wade out to snorkel crystal-clear waters just a few steps from my bungalow, the whole beach to myself, why aren't the tourists hordes to be found in French Polynesia's Huahine?
The small island is only a short 35-minute flight from Tahiti's largest town and French Polynesia's capital, Papeete, and features stunning scenery, beautiful lagoons, beaches and great diving and snorkelling.
And yet, the tourism boom that has invaded the other islands of French Polynesia is not apparent here. There are, in fact, only three resorts on the island, and none of these are at the five-star level of the uber-expensive big-name resorts of Bora Bora or Moorea.
It's not like there have not been attempts. There was a Sofitel here, but now all that remains are a few pylons out in the lagoon from the former overwater bungalows.
Another high-end resort, I'm told, was badly damaged during a storm and, as the owner was uninsured, was taken by the banks and now sits derelict.
I've just arrived in Huahine after a few days on Tahiti and the contrast between this island and the better-known tourist traps of French Polynesia is striking.
Although there are only three resorts here, the two I visit appear mostly empty.
The main township of Fare consists of a tiny strip of shops and cafes where the locals come to buy groceries or grab lunch.
There is little in the way of souvenirs and certainly no touts.
The name Huahine translates roughly as "woman", but the name is derived from the geographical features of the island, rather that the historic penchant of French Polynesians for nudity and uninhibited behaviour.
The shape of the island's prominent mountain, which resembles a woman reclining, gives the island its name.
Just 75 square kilometres, Huahine is actually two separate volcanic islands (Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti - large and small), joined by a bridge across the lagoon.
One reason I'm given for the lack of tourist development on Huahine is that the locals just aren't that interested in it.
Many of the 6000 residents still live traditional lifestyles, fishing and growing a small amount of crops for themselves and to sell.
Perhaps this independent streak is inherent in the Huahine locals' culture. While Captain Cook was the first to European to visit in the island in 1769, it was the French who saw fit to colonise the region.
But, while the rest of the archipelago became a French colony in 1880, the islanders of Huahine resisted, remaining independent until 1888.
As a French colony, the myth surrounding Polynesia as a paradise only grew. But as Paul Attalah, a tour guide and anthropologist on Huahine points out, French Polynesia was never a true paradise.
There were wars, human sacrifices and other unsavoury acts.
Huahine is considered an important archaeological site and the island's historic Maeva Village has largest concentration of pre-European marae (communal or sacred sites) in all of Polynesia. Paul takes us through the site, explaining the history as we go and placing it into a much larger context, piecing together how the history of Huahine ties into the inhabited history of the entire Pacific Ocean.
It's hard to believe now this island was once considered crowded by Polynesian standards, as there is a sense of isolation here. I visit the only over-water bungalows on the island at the Royal Huahine. It is accessible only by boat and neighboured by only a few local shacks. Truly it is place to get away from it all.
My actual accommodation is a little more basic, at the Relais Mahana. It is a little run-down, but nonetheless charming.
It is here I hole up in my bungalow on the beach, relaxing during the day while occasionally popping into the water to snorkel and try out my relatively new underwater camera on the fish and coral.
There is little else for me to do, but that's exactly why people come here.
There are few other guests, though it is not a particularly busy time of year. The weather is changeable, as the tropics tend to be.
Hot and sunny, but the occasional thunderstorm rolls in, with accompanying downpour.
Outside of the Relais Mahana there are just a few houses and one restaurant a short walk up the road.
I pop by in the afternoon to find out if they are open that night, to find the owners and staff relaxing on the shore, enjoying afternoon tea.
They are indeed, open, so I return in the evening for a delicious meal of fish with vanilla sauce (Huahine is a major vanilla bean producer).
But I do appear to be the restaurant's only customer, in a room that could easily seat 50 or more.
While I pay at the restaurant I hear a strange, unfamiliar noise coming from outside.
"What the devil is that?" I ask myself, before realising... it's just a car, travelling down the nearby road.
After a couple of days in this land of Polynesian peace and pace, I've already forgotten the sounds of the city.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tahiti Tourism and Air Tahiti Nui.
GETTING THERE Air Tahiti Nui flies Auckland to Papeete three times a week. See airtahitinui.com.
Domestic airline Air Tahiti flies from Papeete to Huahine several times a day. See airtahiti.aero.
STAYING THERE Relais Mahana offers beachfront and garden bungalows from 22,200 French Pacific francs (NZ$297.45) a night for two, including airport transfers and breakfast. See relaismahana.com.
Royal Huahine's garden bungalows start from XPF34,000 a night for two including breakfast and taxes. Over-water bungalows start from XPF47,800 (NZ$455.55).
TOURING THERE Paul Attalah's Island Eco Tours offers half-day driving tours around the island, taking in major historic sites, XPF6000 (NZ$80.39). See islandecotours.net for details.