It took us the best part of 1,000 years to catch up with them and when we finally did, it was with the anthropological equivalent of the Big Bang. In the second half of the 18th century, the French explorer, Bougainville, happened upon what he took to be a sexual utopia in the South Pacific. Tahitians, according to his Voyage Autour Du Monde, were living a bacchanalian fantasy of free love, unregulated by European Judaeo-Christian standards of morality. Hospitality to French sailors included not just feasts but a plentiful supply of willing young girls. A more Rousseauist than Rousseau image of the nubile savage seemed to have finally found an objective correlative.
Revisionist history has done nothing but try to blow holes through Bougainville's original vision of the pagan paradise. It is probable that the Tahitians were under the impression that they were bartering women for iron nails and other items in the French ships. The more down-to-earth Captain James Cook, following in Bougainville's wake and at last putting Hawaii on the map, was the first revisionist, pointing out that no Polynesian could possibly have looser morals than a sailor. Having sailed around the Tahitian islands in the company of a mixed bag of Europeans, I can confirm that little has changed. Cook was a universalist who believed that we are all one beneath the skin and that Hawaiians, Tahitians and Englishmen offer only minute variations on a common theme of humanity. Cook died for his beliefs, since the Hawaiians killed and cooked him when they figured out he wasn't after all Lono, god of recreation, as they had at first supposed, and was merely another human, and one who couldn't swim or surf at that.
The 19th-century evangelist who came after the sailors was zealous in rooting out otherness, buttoning up everyone in frock coats, regardless of climate, and outlawing hedonism. By the time Gauguin reached Tahiti, Bougainville's tropical Eden was dead on the vine and his paintings are a nostalgic tribute to a lost world.
In the 20th century, we have been trying, in the face of a rampant mono culture, to claw back a sense of the exotic, and meet real aliens without flying saucers. Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles of Oceania paddles the Pacific in a kayak looking for therapy on account of his broken marriage back in England. And finding it ultimately in Hawaii, where he would eventually relocate and marry a Hawaiian. Bougainville, to some extent, lives again.
But - at the risk of shattering cherished illusions - not everyone finds the same satisfaction. A recent Lottery jackpot winner complained that, although he had scored five times on holiday in Corfu, he drew a blank in Hawaii. "If you're coming to Hawaii," one Hawaiian once advised me, "bring your own date." In many ways, the Puritans did their job well here.
Fortunately, some of the old traditions live on in downtown Honolulu, at the Rock-Za club, where the art of exotic dancing is taken very seriously, and the customers study form as seriously as if they were gynaecology students revising on the last night before finals. Surfing is another Dionysian return to nature, the erotic transposed to waves. Although at the right time, you can surf just about anywhere in the Pacific, from the West Coast to New Zealand, and including Tahiti and Fiji in between, it is only on the North Shore, a 12-mile strip of sand, half Shangri-La, half Wild West, an hour out of Honolulu, that the entire culture is dedicated to the ritual celebration of wave power. March marked a mellow mid-point between the extreme hunky swells of winter and the relative torpor of summer (when diving comes into its own).
March is also ideal for keeping tabs on the humpback whale, in many ways similar to surfers, who swim south from the Arctic and hang out in Hawaii for most of the winter to feed, frolic and fornicate. Of all mammals, they probably come closest to living out the Bougainvillean dream.
But the Dionysian, as Cook discovered, is no picnic: love and death go together like a T-shirt and shorts. The big difference between whales and surfers is that the whales die when they hit the beach, the surfers die when they don't.
In 1978, the Hokule'a, a double-hulled canoe, set out from Honolulu to re-trace, in reverse, the itinerary of the first Hawaiians. The boat never made it back to Tahiti; it capsized in a storm off Maui. Eddie Aikau, legendary big-wave hero and lifeguard at Waimea Bay, the holy of North Shore holies, paddled away on his 12ft rescue board for help. It was 20 miles to land. He was never seen again. Eddie is the Elvis of surfing and his immortal soul is widely believed to have transmigrated into a whale.
If you're going to drown, at least you drown warm in Hawaii. It's a good place to die. And to be born again, whether as whale or whale-watcher or wave rider.
How to get there
Honolulu is most easily reached from Britain via the continental US: change at Chicago from Birmingham, Glasgow or Manchester, or at one of the West Coast airports when travelling from London. In March you could pay around pounds 450 including taxes, through discount agents. To combine it with a trip to Tahiti, the best airline to use is Air New Zealand. Accommodation on the North Shore, Oahu: Backpackers Vacation Inn, 59-788 Kamehameha Highway, Haleiwa, HI 96712 (tel: 001 808 638 7838); Turtle Bay Hilton, PO Box 187, Kahuku, HI 96731 (tel: 001 808 2938811); Turtle Bay Estate Condominium (tel: 001 808 293 0600)