Stepping out of the aircraft at Faa'a airport in Tahiti is like being wrapped in a warm moist towel. With a year-round temperature of about 26 degrees Celsius it's a great escape from the New Zealand winter.
Tahiti is the given name of the largest island in French Polynesia, which covers more than 100 islands spread across thousands of kilometres of ocean.
Its clear blue waters, multitudes of tropical fish, great beaches and rugged mountains make for a stunning combination that has attracted adventurers, artists, writers and film stars. Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Jack London and other writers were inspired to put their experiences on paper, and Paul Gauguin – the artist who craved fame but never achieved it until after his death – left numerous works depicting local scenes. In later years, Marlon Brando bought an island here, though it brought him little in the way of happiness.
Today this fascination with the islands plus a plethora of luxury hotels, some the forerunners of the over water bungalow – watching the fish through a glass panel in the floor is known locally as Tahitian television – have turned Tahiti into a haunt for the rich and famous.
Papeete, with a population of about 150,000, is the capital, yet nose-to-tail traffic, night clubs, restaurants and a combination of modern and old-fashioned shopping have not robbed it of a laid-back, easy-going atmosphere.
Taxis are quite expensive, the best method of travel being by Le Truk. The ones I travelled on were modern and driven at breakneck speed. Fares are very cheap, but I was told that they don't run after 5.30pm.
Stroll down the busy waterfront pavement lined with open-air restaurants and you'll hear the sound of ukulele, guitar and drums, and some very harmonious singing from locals wearing colourful shirts, floral hats and big smiles.
Not to be missed is the Public Market, where you can purchase anything from fruit and vegetables to raw fish and musical instruments. It's a great place to stop for an ice cold drink or coffee and a baguette.
Crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing, you'll find the traffic stops without fail and at a respectable distance. On the beach, lines of brightly coloured canoes drawn from the water lie like sunbathers on a sandy shore. Across the water, Tahiti's sister island Moorea appears wraith-like through a windblown mist, jagged mountains giving it an unforgettable dinosaur-like profile.
The Place Vaiete is a large paved area alongside the beach, where six nights a week, Sunday apparently being the exception, the proprietors of Les Roulottes – it means The Caravans – will put out chairs and tables plus strings of coloured lights to create a romantic atmosphere, and serve mouth-watering food at a very reasonable price.
Almost in the centre of town at the Place Notre Dame, the Cathedral, a cool calm oasis to visit, has paintings of the crucifixion and some interesting stained glass windows.
Tahiti is virtually two islands: Tahiti Nui (big) and Tahiti Iti (small), the two being joined by the narrow Taravao isthmus. A round-the-island tour will normally take in only Tahiti Nui, which has 116 kilometres of sealed road.
A safari tour of the mountainous interior by four-wheel drive can reveal precipitous hillsides and waterfalls that seem to drop from the sky. Take swimming togs and a towel for a plunge into a picturesque pool.
No trip to Tahiti would be complete without a visit to the other islands and the closest of these is Moorea, 20km west and a 30-minute ride on the ferry. Stunningly beautiful and with white sandy beaches, the island is less crowded than Tahiti and the calm blue waters of the lagoon are ideal for swimming, snorkelling, boating and diving.
Cruising around the islands is an option and you can choose from a variety of ships. The Aranui 3 is first and foremost a freighter that services the Marquesas but takes 200 passengers on a fascinating 14-day adventure. There are about a dozen islands in the Marquesas but only six are populated. Totally different to most Polynesian islands, they are isolated, wild and beautiful with a fascinating history and a lifestyle that has changed little.
The ship also calls at the Tuamotu Islands, classic South Seas atolls where the local industry is farming black pearls.
For an even more adventurous mode of travel you can opt for a sailing ship.
With its superb climate, Tahiti is a destination for all seasons and whichever way you choose to travel you're sure to enjoy the experience.
The writer travelled courtesy of Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime and Tahiti Tourism.
- © Fairfax NZ News