Travels in Tahiti

Despite urbanization, much of Tahiti’s former beauty still remains. In the interior of the island, tropical forests ascend into the central mountains, and some of the forest trails end in lovely tall waterfalls, whose pools of clear fresh water are surrounded by lush vegetation. One of the best views on the island is from the overlook on Taharaa Point, which Captain Cook had once named “One-Tree Hill” for the large Banyan tree a few yards uphill from the lookout point. From here, the view across Matavai Bay toward Moorea (Tahiti’s sister island) is spectacular, framed with palm trees, Bougainvillea, and breadfruits. Matavai Bay was the place where the British explorer Samuel Wallis first anchored when he visited Tahiti in 1767, the first European to land on the island. The bay was also a favorite anchorage of Captain Cook, as famously depicted in a painting by William Hodges (ship’s artist during Cook’s second voyage of 1772-1775).

     Not far from Taharaa Point is Point Venus, named for Captain Cook’s observations of that planet during his first voyage of 1768-1771. Cook set out to observe the ‘transit of Venus’ across the face of the sun (which astronomers at England’s Royal Observatory in Greenwich predicted would occur in 1769). The transit would be timed in three different parts of the world, and it was hoped that this information would allow the distance from the earth to the sun to be calculated. (Unfortunately, contemporary scientific instruments were not accurate enough to achieve this, despite Cook’s efforts.) Today, Point Venus is a popular beach and picnic spot. There is a lighthouse (built in 1867), tree-lined paths to walk along, several souvenir shops, and a (very un-Tahitian) hot dog stand. A look around reminds one how much things can change in two and a half centuries.

     Another lovely spot on Tahiti is the Gauguin Museum, situated on the southeast of the island near the peninsula of Tahiti Iti (“Little Tahiti”). There is a scenic view over the bay toward the peninsula, whose green hills slope downward toward the coast. The artist Paul Gauguin lived and worked here in the 1890s, and the Tahitian-themed images he painted during this time did much to influence Western views of this island. The museum’s buildings encircle a wide expanse of grass, on which sit several tiki (traditional carved statues) and a memorial to Gauguin. Few of the artist’s original paintings are on display, but the exhibits provide a good description of his life on Tahiti, including a reconstruction of the house in which he lived.

Although only 40 minutes by high-speed ferry (the Arimiti 4, spacious, air conditioned, and populated mostly by Australian tourists), a visit to the neighboring island of Moorea is like a journey back in time, to what Tahiti once was like. Like Tahiti, Moorea is a high island, with volcanic peaks and a green carpet of vegetation, and fringing coral reefs. Now mainly geared toward tourism and agriculture, Moorea is a quiet island, where the pace of life is slow. The scenery here is even more breathtaking than on Tahiti. Strolling down the nearly empty roads lined with coconut palms and frangipani, with the mist-covered mountains rising in the distance, you really do feel like you are in the midst of a tropical paradise. I was amazed by the picturesqueness of the landscape. It seemed that almost every view could have been a painting, a perfect harmony of colors and contrasts: the shadowed greens and browns of the volcanic hills, the intense blue of the sky with its patches of white clouds, the clear lagoon with its shades of green and turquoise. Flowers and fruit grow in abundance along the roadsides—bright red hibiscus, pale fragrant tiare and frangipani, bananas, pineapples, breadfruit.

Bread Fruit

The breadfruit has an interesting history. This large, round, light-green fruit is native to French Polynesia, where it is known as uru or maiore. The fruit, which has a grainy texture, is a staple of Tahitian cooking. It is not really sweet, and is more comparable to a starchy vegetable like a potato. The bark of the tree is used to make a thin cloth called tapa. The breadfruit was first described by Cook’s naturalist Joseph Banks, who suggested transporting it to the West Indies to feed the enslaved Africans on plantations there. Captain William Bligh (who had accompanied Cook on his second voyage) set out to convey the plants, on his infamous voyage of 1787 aboard HMS Bounty. That ended rather badly (Bligh was set adrift in a small boat by his mutinying crew for 41 days, until he finally managed to make landfall in Timor), but Bligh made another attempt and successfully delivered the trees in 1791. Ironically, the slaves thought the fruit tasted bland, and it never really took off as a staple crop in the Caribbean.

On the way back to the ferry terminal, my travel companion and I spotted a humorous contrast to the lush surrounding vegetation: a cell phone tower disguised as—what else?—a palm tree. It was good for a laugh, but in a sense it also gives one pause, a sign that 21st century life is fast encroaching in this region.

     There is at least one place in the Society Islands that still seems very far removed from the 21st century, and that is Tetiaroa. It is an atoll—a low-lying ring of coral islets (called motu) surrounding a shallow central lagoon. Although only 40 km from Tahiti, Tetiaroa seems about as remote as an island can be. The entire small atoll (55 km in circumference; 7 km in diameter) was owned by the reclusive actor Marlon Brando until his death in 2004, when the only hotel on the atoll was permanently closed. Regular transport to the island also ceased, and now the only way to get there is by chartered boat. We went by catamaran, leaving from Papeete harbor at 7 a.m. The two and a half hour sail was brisk and refreshing, spent sipping black coffee and chatting with the mostly French crew, one or two of whom were casting fishing lines from the stern and reeling in the occasional catch.

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