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Ultimate Retreat to French Polynesia

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Photo: Jessica Sample

I’m naked—and alone—walking over an exposed bed of coral under scorching sun. The open Pacific slams into the reef a few feet to my right. The wind rips past my ears. I turn inland and (gingerly) thrash barefoot through dense underbrush, beneath palm and tiare trees. A hundred yards later I break out and the turquoise lagoon is waiting. I step into the placid water up to my knees. There is no wind on this side of the atoll. When I take another step, a blacktip reef shark, about four feet long, darts from behind a coral outcrop to my left; it’s close enough that I feel the water displace on my legs as it swims off. That I don’t jump out of my skin—or do anything except laugh and say “Cool”—coupled with the fact that I’m naked and tromping around like nature boy, lets me know that my time in French Polynesia is having the desired effect.

I had come to the South Pacific to escape. For most of my life I’d harbored this fantasy—disappearing to a remote island, vanishing without a trace. When I saw the movie Cast Away (filmed in Fiji), the only thing I couldn’t understand was why Tom Hanks wanted to get off the deserted island. And I’m not the only one: in this age of the “black-hole resort,” where high prices are paid for the privilege of no Internet, phone, or TV, there’s a growing awareness that the more hyper-connected we are, the more we have to fight for any true connection. Personally, I find it increasingly difficult to hear myself think, or even to slow down enough to try—and the more I consult my iPhone, the more difficult that becomes. So I decided to check out.

Strung out nearly halfway between South America and Australia, covering an area roughly the size of Western Europe, the 118 islands and atolls of French Polynesia have been the stuff of dreams since explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville wrote in 1771 that the local women possessed the “celestial form of that goddess Venus.” When Paul Gauguin arrived almost a century and a quarter later to paint the scantily clad natives, the deal was sealed.

But when I arrived in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, located on the island of Tahiti, it was anything but the paradise I had imagined. Moldering buildings, exhaust-choked streets, and hungry-looking natives greet the visitor. Seedy shops selling black pearls—French Polynesia’s number one export—cluster beside tattoo parlors. Clothes hang from drooping lines in a halfhearted attempt to dry in the heavy air. Of French Polynesia’s 270,000 residents, nearly two-thirds live on Tahiti, most of them crowded into and around Papeete.

One block in from the sea at the Marché Municipal, lazy chaos reigns. The morning’s catch is on display beside giant papayas and red taro root. Old women with flowers in their hair sell pain au chocolat; Chinese men hack up grilled pork and serve it to a long line of customers. A man with tattoos covering every visible inch of his body, including his face, swipes the top off a coconut with a long machete and hands it to me and I drink its sweet water.

Once night falls, the hip crowd congregates at the Chocco Latte Lounge, in the Hotel Tahiti Nui, on Avenue de Prince Hinoi. Young ladies wear a uniform of extremely short, clinging black dresses; stumbling in impossibly high heels, they huddle and talk only with one another, while young men slouch in corners. Techno music blares. A few blocks away, down by the dock, a dozen roulottes, white minivans modified into rolling kitchens, have set out plastic chairs and tables and the air is thick with smoke from their overworked grills. Under fluorescent lights a relaxed and mangy crowd mingles. I wolf down greasy pommes frites at midnight.

There’s a decrepit charm to the city, and I find myself lingering longer than expected. But perhaps the best thing that can be said about Papeete is that it’s where you catch the ferry to Moorea, 11 miles across the Sea of the Moon. The remnant of volcanic mayhem, where jagged peaks and spires plunge into densely foliated and impenetrable valleys, heart-shaped Moorea is where Polynesian dreams begin to come true.

“The idea of time, it is very foreign here,” Philippe Guéry tells me under passion-fruit and mango trees on the edge of Opunohu Bay, one of the two deep and shockingly lush inlets that dominate the island’s northern coast. The age-old lament of “island time” holds true in French Polynesia, but with a distinctly French existential shrug of the shoulder. “The concept of tomorrow, in a way, it does not exist,” Guéry says. He and his wife, Corinne, came to Moorea from the Basque region of France six years ago and have no intention of going back. “Why?” he spreads his arms wide by way of explanation. It’s a little farther along Opunohu Bay that I see three young and improbably beautiful women with dusky skin and long, loose black hair wade into the water under a star-fruit tree, their brightly colored sarongs rising around them and floating to the rippling surface as they laugh and gently splash one another. Around the bend in Paopao, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the community gathers and fills the pews. Women in hats and men in floral shirts sing and pray and then loiter outside for a Sunday chat. By the water, beside the long canoes, I watch and am eventually pulled into a game of pétanque. Men drink Hinano (the local beer), fish smokes on the open grill, and a mother dances with her small daughter to French pop music playing from someone’s boom box.

Farther round Cook’s Bay, I find Ron Hall, a native of southern California who came to French Polynesia back in the 1970’s to crew on actor Peter Fonda’s yacht. Fonda went back, Hall didn’t. “No wonder there was a mutiny,” he says, referring the famous uprising that occurred on the HMS Bounty in 1789 (two film versions of the mutiny were shot on these islands). “Would you have gone back to Manchester?”

There’s an easy welcome on Moorea, and riotous beauty, but there are fences and locked gates as well as several large resorts with the obligatory overwater bungalows, and when I get caught in a traffic jam behind a garbage truck, it’s time to move on. “The modern world has arrived here. They’ve gotten to us,” Hall tells me with a shrug. “You need to head out to the Tuamotus. You’re at nature’s mercy out there, on the edge of the world.”

Sounds perfect.

Rising barely 10 feet above sea level at their highest point, the 78 atolls that make up French Polynesia’s Tuamotu Archipelago are palm trees, sand, and that’s about it. Small coral islets—motus—string themselves out like beads on a necklace and encircle vast and tranquil lagoons, while the open Pacific pounds the outer reefs. It’s in the lagoons of these tentative claims at land that most of the world’s black pearls are farmed; in their ocean passes that some of the sea’s best scuba diving is done; and in their coral-rich soil that there is exactly one winery.

Sébastien Thepenier, from Burgundy, in France, arrived on Rangiroa—220 miles northeast of Tahiti and the largest atoll in the Tuamotus—to become the head winemaker for Vin de Tahiti in 2002. “It is crazy, completely,” he confesses immediately. “When I arrived, I did not know if we could do it. That first year we produced five hundred liters. But this year, thirty thousand.” Thepenier, with his thick glasses and serious manner, seems more like a college professor than a winemaker. He takes me by boat out to the motu where his 24,000 vines grow over 17 acres. It’s an incongruous sight—rows of neatly ordered vines abut a forest of shaggy palm trees beside the lapping lagoon under a blistering sun. “It is not an easy choice, but it is a beautiful life,” he says.

The other oasis of sophistication on scruffy Rangiroa sits on the bank of the Tiputa Pass, one of two deepwater channels that funnel life in and out of the massive lagoon. Denise Caroggio, an elegant grande dame in pearls and full makeup, arrived in Papeete from Paris in 1979 and found her way here nearly 15 years ago. “When I first arrived,” Caroggio leans close, her blue eye shadow perfectly applied, “there was one plane a week. After two days I called Air Tahiti and said there was an emergency and that I needed to get off.” She laughs and looks out across the churning pass from the deck of her chic, seven-suite pensione, Les Relais de Joséphine. “Then I fell in love with this spot, this pass. All life has to go right past my backyard.”

The majority of Rangiroa’s 3,000 residents live in the village of Avatoru—the main metropolis of the Tuamotus, with its two banks, post office, and handful of stores. There is one paved road, and in the evenings I ride my bicycle under the few dim streetlamps, past simple homes, some with satellite dishes affixed to corrugated-metal roofs, while blue light flickers out from otherwise unlit windows. The air is pungent with the smell of tiare, the white, star-shaped flower that keeps French Polynesia smelling like perfume. Inside one of the island’s five churches, a choir practices, voices carry across the open water of the lagoon.

Back at Les Relais de Joséphine, my simple, elegant, thatched-roof bungalow furnished with reproductions of French-colonial antiques is steps from the pass. I lie in my four-poster bed, the sliding doors open wide, and watch dolphins leap from the water ahead of the incoming tide as it races to fill the lagoon at dawn.

Aside from the charms of Caroggio’s salon, and the overwater bungalows at the glamorous Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa, Rangiroa’s appeal is a raw one. “It’s what Bora-Bora was twenty years ago,” Kia Ora manager Gerard Garcia tells me. “It’s still pristine here, still remote.” But when I see a cruise ship sailing through Tiputa Pass, I know Rangiroa is not isolated enough for my needs. One hundred and fifty miles to the southeast, I find the spot that is: Fakarava, population 700. Dogs sleep in the shade of ironwood trees; snails twice the size of my fist inch across the crushed-coral road; the sun burns down. “There’s a lot of quiet here,” Margareth Burns assures me from behind the register of the island’s bakery, Boulangerie Havaiki (where I get the single best croissant I’ve ever tasted outside of Paris—10,000 miles away). The island’s sleepy Tetamanu Village guesthouse also runs a dive center.

A small boy, just leaving the island’s lone school on his bicycle, overtakes me on the road and the race is on. Laughing, we pedal hard until he leaves me in the dust next to a lagoon-side outdoor restaurant with brightly colored furniture and hanging shells. Cecile Casserville, a former ski instructor from the Alps, opened Teanaunua 10 years ago with her Moorean partner, a sarong-clad Adonis named Enoha Pater. “We have been all over the Tuamotus, and there is something special here. You feel it right away, no?”

I nod, savoring freshly grilled tuna Casserville has just prepared for me. “We don’t like cities, cars, noise. This is what we want.” A few feet away in the clear water a five-foot nurse shark circles, waiting for scraps—Pater saunters over and obliges. “But if you want real peace, go south. It is very remote. You will be happy there.”

And then I’m in an 18-foot, open-hulled boat, racing over still water toward an isolated motu in the southern part of the lagoon. Already a wild and insubstantial spot, Fakarava begins to break apart. The motus become more spread out, more inhospitable. Signs of life are few, then nonexistent. After nearly two hours a small dock juts out into the water from a lush motu. As the boat ties up, a few simple buildings are seen hiding among the palms, just back from the coral-bound coast. A deeply weathered man with white hair walks out to greet me.

Eric Lussiez, from the Republic of the Congo, is a man of artistic temperament with a survivor’s demeanor, and he’s created a South Seas paradise of simplicity with Raimiti. On a small and narrow motu he has built 10 cottages, five on the lagoon, and five—a hundred yards away—on the ocean. The first thing Lussiez shows me is how to operate my kerosene lamp. My small cottage, made of palm fronds, has hot running water, a wide bed, and no electricity.

“You are the only guest. You will have quiet,” Lussiez tells me, and walks away.

I stand in front of my cottage and look out over the lagoon. The air is palpably still. Nothing is happening. Then the longer I’m still, the more my surroundings come to life. The aroma of the tiare flower is strong. Frigate birds swoop and dive into the turquoise water. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of silver, nearly translucent fish leap out of the lagoon in unison, and then leap again. A snail inches along beside my toe. This is where I’ve wanted to be—even before I knew of its existence. This place is deeply familiar, in the way only somewhere you’ve never been to before can be.

At dawn, I’m on the ocean side of the atoll, atop a wide bed of coral. There are nearly a hundred primitive towers of stacked coral—cairns—lining the coast. The silhouetted statues are an eerie sight before the sun comes up over the Pacific.

“I built the first one,” Lussiez says when I see him later, “and then guests continued. I hope you will add to the garden.” Lussiez settled in French Polynesia 34 years ago. “I had a restaurant on Moorea for thirty years, and would come here, just for myself. But then.…” He shrugs.

And in his shrug, I understand. Perhaps it’s a result of being so close to the edge of the world, but the paradoxical sensation of so much peace, and feeling so alive, is impossible to ignore.

Late in the day I’m back in the coral garden, stacking a tower high, laying small claim on this moment in this place. The sun hangs. Sweat rolls down my back as I lift and place large chunks of coral and add to my creation. Without really noticing, I slip out of my bathing suit. It’s when my work is done that I turn inland, thrash through the undergrowth and emerge beside the lagoon, where I step into the water and the blacktip reef shark zips past me. I laugh. For an instant I wish I had my camera, and it occurs to me I have no idea where my iPhone is—and then I realize, I don’t care where it is.

It’s going to be very difficult to put my clothes back on.

Also in the South Seas

Kosrae, Micronesia: Often overlooked for more popular islands such as Bora-Bora, 42-square-mile Kosrae is ideal for those who prefer adventure to sunbathing. Search for ancient ruins along jungle paths or dive to see reefs and a pirate shipwreck. The rooms at eco-lodge Kosrae Village ($) are rustic but comfortable.

Laucala Island, Fiji: Set on an exclusive private island, Laucala resort ($$$$$) is located on a 3,000-acre former coconut plantation with an 18-hole golf course, equestrian center, and hilltop spa. The 25 villas are outfitted with plunge pools; the resort’s four restaurants source ingredients from local farms.

Palau, Micronesia: The 586 mushroom-shaped atolls of this island republic are famous for their marine life: the coral reef, with its 1,450 known fish species, is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. At the Palau Pacific Resort ($$), on Koror, guests can snorkel right off the beach.

Pitcairn Islands: Halfway between New Zealand and Peru, the four volcanic and coral specks that make up this British Overseas Territory include the pristine, uninhabited Henderson, a UNESCO World Heritage site. On Pitcairn Island, the Pitcairn Museum has surprisingly impressive exhibits on ancient Polynesian and naval history.

Vanua Levu, Fiji: Hike to waterfalls or picnic on one of the beaches that ring Fiji’s second-largest island. High-profile guests such as Edward Norton and Donna Karan stay at Namale ($$$$), a resort on the Koro Sea with 19 villas and bures, or traditional Fijian houses. —Stirling Kelso

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