Every time I write of Tahiti I find myself using the cliche – Tahiti, Mon Amour. But Tahiti is my love. A place that I have returned to more times that I can count. A place to which I shall return again and again.
We had landed at Faaa airport in Tahiti at two o’clock in the morning. The air was warm and heavy with the scents of tropical flowers and fruits. Vahines in pareus had put garlands around our necks. The bus was taking us from the airport to the main town of Papeete. There was a full moon.
On our right was the dark bulk of Tahiti. On our left, the sea – a silver tray in the moonlight. In the centre of the sea, the black high mass that is the island of Moorea. Along the harbour walls were moored the island traders and the yachts. Ahead were the flickering lights of Papeete. The Australian lady behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Excuse me, if this was the Parramatta Road, would this be about Homebush?’
Thankfully most travellers to Tahiti have a little more romance in their soul. I am at one with Maurice Baring who wrote: ‘Tahiti is the whole thing; the real thing; the thing that one has dreamt about all one’s life; the thing that made Stevenson leave Europe for ever. All tellers of fairy tales, and all poets from Homer downwards, have always imagined the existence of certain ‘Fortunate’ islands which were so full of magic and charm that they turned man from his duty and all tasks … and held him a willing captive.’
Tahiti is, indeed, the Fortunate island. It is so damn beautiful it hurts your eyes. True, Tahiti has changed, is changing.
No longer is Quinn’s on the waterfront the bar for ramping, stamping, tearing, swearing sailors, French legionnaires and misfits. (Was it not there that a legionnaire, taken with le cafard, smacked a wine bottle against the side of my head because, as he later explained, I reminded him of someone he disliked? It was).
And LaFayette, the most notorious night spot of the Pacific, no longer runs from late night to dusk with a non-stop demonstration of the hip-snapping tamure – a dance which is, indeed, a vertical expression of a horizontal desire – or features fights on the hour, every hour.
Yes, some of the sweet simplicity of the islands and the vahines is now missing, but this is still Tahiti. The island of Gauguin, of Nordhoff and Hall, of Melville and Somerset Maugham, of Pierre Loti and of, yes, Marlon Brando. A Fortunate isle which is the most romantic spot on earth.
No longer can you clamber on a slow steamer and work your way to Tahiti through a pattern of islands. Instead, fly direct to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. The cheapest way to visit Tahiti is by package tour. You need a visa.
Please note that there is no tipping in Tahiti. Tipping is considered offensive by Tahitian standards and customs and you will look an illiterate boor if you insist. Do not tip.
Bring certain essentials with you for in Tahiti, where everything is imported over a long distance, they can be expensive. The essentials are sunblock – and a lot of it, insect repellent and at least three swimming costumes and a pair of reef sandals so that you do not cut your feet on dead coral. You need bring no formal clothes and, indeed, hardly any clothes at all. This is not a formal dressing up sort of place.
The weather is never less than perfect. The scenery never less than stunning. There are, in theory, two seasons. From April to November it is said to be cooler and drier and from November to March warmer and wetter. I have never noticed this.
In the past I always stayed on the island of Moorea opposite at the Bali Hai simply because of the insanity of the then owners Muk, Jay and Kelly.
On the lawn of that splendid hotel I played frisbee with Art Buchwald and James Michener and lost. And then sat with a bucket of banana daiquiris and listened to Shel Silverstein sing mad, bad songs and then danced the tamure through the night.
I was younger then.
The Bali Hai Hotel is still there as both a time share establishment and a hotel.
Kelly has gone but the place is now run by Rose, a most splendid person,with Muk and Jay around there somewhere. If you stay at the Bali Hai try and get an over-the-water bungalow, well worth the extra money. The hotel used to have an advertisement – If you are coming to Tahiti and are not booked into the Bali Hai someone has made a terrible mistake. One of the few advertising campaigns with which I ever agreed.
The Hotel Hyatt Regency Tahara’a probably is the most upmarket hotel and is visually stunning; built on a cliff face. A bus takes you down to the beach for water sports. I also have stayed at what was The BeachComber and is now the InterContinental Resort Tahiti and has amazing views of Moora. The Puunui hotel is on Tahiti Iti, the small extension at the end of the island which tourists rarely visit. It has spectacular views and is near the golf course.
Purely in theory to get around there is le truck which is unscheduled, disorganised, impossible to predict but great fun. Most visitors never venture although it is an amazing experience for this is the basic form of transportation on Tahiti and may very well get you to where you are going, eventually. These open-sided trucks start from the market in Papeete. Taxis are ruinously expensive and should be avoided. Around midnight the prices double. Most hotels provided regular bus shuttles. Hire cars are widely available and are good value.
The French influence in Tahiti is all pervasive.
The serious restaurants range from good to very good. Your only problem may be getting a table, especially on Sunday lunchtime when tout Tahiti goes out to eat. Wine is a silly price and can range from rotgut to sublime.
Restaurants where I have eaten and which I can recommend are L’Auberge du Pacifique, Le Rubis, and Les Trois Brasseurs. The local French population is serious about food and standards generally are high and the prices match this. At some stage try a Tahitian tamaara’a feast. But it is not a gourmet experience. Do not eat at your hotel. It is too damn expensive. Wander into town when you want breakfast. It will be half the price and twice as good.
In the evening there is a site on the waterfront – cooked food stalls called les roulottes. Inexpensive, good food, very Tahiti. Not expensive certainly compared to hotel food prices.
What else do I do when I am in Tahiti?
Hire a car and drive around (the road does not go all the way around the island). Go up into the singing mountains. Visit the Gauguin museum. See how accurately he portrayed the beauty of the place and the people. Visit poor Pierre Loti’s pool. See the only memorial to a member of a royal family – the Pomare dynasty – that incorporates a bottle of Benedictine. Sit at a sidewalk cafe in Papeete and watch the passing parade. In ten minutes you will see a dozen of the most beautiful women in the world. Noel Coward did this and hated it. In this, as in much else, he was wrong.
Go out to the lagoonarium – oh, horrid word – at Punaauia and see the fish life of the Pacific. Take the ferry to Moorea – about 45 minutes on the Moorea ferry. While on Moorea go horse back riding on the Rupe Rupe Ranch or ride underwater in an aqua-submarine and pretend you are a fish.
One of the great attractions of Tahiti is the staggering beauty of the islands and the even more staggering beauty of Tahitian women. Because of fiction, because of Mutiny on the Bounty, because of folklore, because of the unbelievably sexy dance, the tamure, there is a worldwide myth that they are morally loose and available. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. Act with respect and decorousness and all will be well. Push your luck and you will be in for a bad time. Tahitian girls are gorgeous, proud, smart and sophisticated and not into falling for holiday making visitors. For certain sure.
That still leaves the dancing.
In 1820, article 23 of the law of the Leeward Islands was passed. It stated clearly that ‘all lascivious songs, games or entertainments are strictly forbidden’. A law, thanks be to all the gods, eventually totally ignored. The true nightlife of Tahiti, of Papeete, revolves around the tamure, a dance which has no equal. The Tahitians love music, love to dance, love to celebrate. Papeete reflects this. Especially on a Friday night when the town is wild. There is a tradition in Tahiti that you should wear a flower behind your ear. Wear one and go out on the town.
Club Bali Hai Moorea
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