French Polynesia — Gods’ Earth

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Huahine island is dotted with ruins of sacred marae — ancient temples used by Polynesians who performed various rituals. (c) Tim McKenna

The lesser-known islands of Tahiti offer up authentic Polynesian culture and traditions.

Barely visible from space, the 118 islands and atolls that make up French Polynesia are clustered into five archipelagos (Society, Tuamotu, Marquesas, Austral and Gambier), the largest of which are the Society Islands. Isolation has kept them barely touched by modern civilisation, with an unworldly beauty that beguiles all those who set foot on their shores.

Warm smiles, the soothing lilt of ia orana (hello) and a garland of fragrant tiare welcome me at Fa’a’ā International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. After such a long journey, a stroll around the colourful Papeete Market gets the blood flowing again and preps the appetite. At Maeva Restaurant upstairs, I tuck into a local favourite, e’ia ota, a refreshing ceviche of fresh tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime juice, and a side dish of fried breadfruit or uru, traditionally baked in an underground oven or hima’a. This root crop was introduced to the West Indies to feed slaves during two expeditions led by Captain William Bligh, first aboard HMS Bounty, the events of which inspired the classic film Mutiny on the Bounty.

Ancient Polynesians once navigated the pristine waters in wooden outrigger canoes. Now they hop from island to island by ferry, or revel in eye-popping landscapes during dramatic take-offs and landings along the narrow runways lying close to the sea. My search for genuine Tahiti takes me to more secluded but equally seductive Taha’a, which shares a lagoon with its big sister, Raiatea. In Taha’a, time stands still, traffic jams are unheard of. Exploring the coast involves several stops to literally ‘smell the flowers’ — hibiscus, frangipani and camellia — and drink the juice of a young coconut picked and chopped by my guide, Aru. Emerald peaks dense with jungles and vegetation create a tableau reminiscent of Jurassic times; I almost expect a pterodactyl to suddenly swoop down. Aru assures me there are no dangerous predators here.

Taha’a produces a substantial share of French Polynesia’s vanilla, hence the nickname ‘Vanilla Island’. The vanilla tahitensis variety produces larger beans with more seeds, creating a delicate flavour and floral note that set it apart from other varieties. But the archipelago’s most prized contribution to the world is its black pearls cultivated from black-lip oysters, and a visit to a family-owned farm to learn about pearl cultivation is indeed an eye-opener, and helps sustain the local industry.

Legends and rituals are intricately woven into Tahiti’s identity. The nearby island of Huahine is believed to have been split in two with a spear thrown by the god Hiro during a competition with other gods. Linked by a short bridge, these two mystical islands are endowed with secluded bays and lagoons, waterfalls and dense mountain ridges. My guide, Poe, takes me around the island dotted with ruins of sacred marae — ancient temples used by Polynesians who performed various rituals, including human sacrifice, to worship deities for protection and a bountiful harvest. Halfway through the tour, Poe parks alongside a stream, brings out a bucket of meat and jumps into the knee-high running waters. In no time, about a dozen fat, metre-long eels slither around her calves, waiting to be hand-fed. These blue-eyed eels are considered sacred and are not consumed by locals. However, spear fishing for other ocean varieties is still practised today by men of all ages.

Christianity may have taken over, but the power of the deities still resonates among the Polynesians. On the island of Tahiti, the tatau (tattoo) is believed to have supernatural powers, a gift from the supreme creator god Ta’aroa. Legend says this practice was passed on to man by his sons, Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō, who then became the patron gods of tattooing. In the old days it represented a man’s ancestry, rank in society, territory or heroic deeds. They are still considered sacred today, so it’s not unusual to see a male native covered in tattoo from head to toe.

Perhaps the most enduring of French Polynesia’s traditions is Ori Tahiti. This dance form embodies the Tahitian spirit and played an important role in native life for generations — until the arrival in the 19th century of Protestant missionaries who considered the ritual indecent, eventually persuading King Pōmare II to ban its practice. Fortunately, the more open-minded French colonisers were no party poopers, and the 1950s marked Ori Tahiti’s revival, whereby women in grass skirts shake their hips to the hypnotic rhythms of drums and percussion instruments, while men show off their prowess with ferocious tribal moves. Today, the younger generation reconnect with their heritage through Ori Tahiti, a celebration of life culminating in the Heiva I Tahiti festival, a pulsating spectacle of dance, music, arts and sports, held in June and July each year.

Polynesians believe in the all-encompassing mana, the ‘life force’ that drives their spirit. And while the ethereal beauty and natural bounty of French Polynesia continues to attract many visitors, these gentle, friendly islanders are determined to preserve ancient traditions alongside their precious environment. Leaving this magical archipelago behind, I take a piece of Tahitian mana with me, safe in the knowledge the gods are watching over these fragile islands.

The Brando, Tetiaroa Island
The Brando is a swanky eco-retreat borne out of the late Hollywood actor’s vision to create the world’s first post-carbon island resort using innovative technologies. It took several decades to attain his goal, and the results are pretty impressive — there are no overwater villas and air-conditioning systems recycle cold water from the sea. It is indeed a shining example of sheer luxury based on principles of sustainability. www.thebrando.com

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