Drops in the ocean
Saturday 11 October 1997
Largest of the Windward Islands, one of the Society Islands, and part of French Polynesia, Tahiti is simply the best known island in the south Pacific. Land of Gauguin and Mutiny on the Bounty, it is shaped like a crepe pan with a stubby handle, or a flatfish with a blobby tail, depending on whether you emphasise the French or Polynesian culture. It became a French protectorate in the middle of the last century, when Britain failed to help the formidable Queen Pomare. Descendants of the royal house still live on Tahiti as ordinary citizens.
Once this was the land of dark-eyed girls in grass skirts; nowadays the "primitive simplicity" which first attracted Tahiti's adopted son is mainly found in the Paul Gauguin museum on the south-east side of the island. Down here is the South Pacific of legend; palm trees, blue water, coral reefs. And don't miss the fresh fish on sale by the roadside; a beach barbecue beats anything you can eat in any of the fancy restaurants.The capital, Papeete, will appeal if you like France. Here the breakfast baguettes are fresh, and the traffic will make you feel you are on the peripherique. But instead of Paris-Match, a black pearl makes a more authentic souvenir.
From the minute your jumbo jet touches down in Raratonga in the middle of the night, you know you are in paradise. The island's whole population will be there to serenade you with local songs and garland you with flowers. This feels like the end of the world - which in a sense it is; it's only just east of the International Date Line, so yesterday goes on longer here than anywhere else.
This is the largest of the Cook Islands; it is lush, volcanic, with brightly coloured birds and an overpowering smell of jasmine. A bus will take you around the island; if you want to get into the interior, you can walk to a high point known as the Needle, which can be a nerve-racking trip, particularly after heavy rain.
There are plenty of opportunities for snorkelling and other water sports, but if you want to feel like a real Cook Islander, spend a morning at the cultural village. Here you will discover 101 uses for a coconut, from mosquito coils to fishing nets. If you want to see how to cook with it, though, go to the Flametree restaurant to eat some of the most delicious food in the Pacific.
The local pronunciation, "Kiribas", may tell you that this group of islands was once known as the Gilberts. This is one of the remoter parts of the world, completely inaccessible from anywhere you might want to start out from. The group totals 33 atolls and islands, including Kiritimati or Christmas Island. The capital is Tarawa, a wishbone-shaped conglomeration of coral islands, threaded together on the southern side by a road running along the lagoon. The gaps along the northern shore mean that to get from one end to the other you will have to get your feet wet.
This is the ultimate peaceful retreat, but there is a price to pay for being far from the madding crowd. The simple life can be primitive - the sun and the mosquitoes are vicious, sanitation is basic, and if you get ill, don't expect to find a well-stocked chemist.
The variety of fish caught around the islands is magnificent, although supplies of other food are limited. Any meal should be washed down with the local toddy - sap from the coconut palm - either drunk as it comes, or boiled and fermented for a few days to make it reassuringly alcoholic.
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