When my breath had slowed to a pant and my heart ceased racing, I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked out on an incredible sight. One thousand metres below, in a sea of mottled greens and coral lagoon blues, spread the island of Moorea. Further out, I could see other small French Polynesian isles popping out of the Pacific.
I had reached the highest point of the saddle between Moorea's peaks of Tohiea and Mouaroa after a three-hour "pineapple raid" – the local term for a mountain hike. The journey had started at what was definitively sea level: the white beach directly in front of the small family pension called Fare Edith where I was staying. A hike up to Le Belvedere led to a narrow trail over rich black soil, passing beside pineapple fields, through thick rainforest and onwards, up to my new, exalted position.
French Polynesia is one of those tropical island destinations, in an exclusive alphabet that starts with Antigua and ends with Zanzibar, that British travellers seem to find particularly seductive – even though the costs of getting there and staying there can be astronomical. That will be especially true around 11 July this year: on the day the World Cup final takes place, a total solar eclipse will swerve across the South Atlantic. For about three-and-a-half minutes, the Society Islands – of which Moorea is part – will be close to the "path of totality". Tour operators are stuffing already pricey resorts with the astronomically inclined, sending accommodation costs into the stratosphere.
However, at other times, you can visit Moorea and its neighbouring island of Tahiti without spending a fortune: lodging in local pensions is a good option and is likely to open doors to a culture and people that package holidays often neglect.
Fare Edith wasn't the cheapest on offer, but here a four-person air-conditioned bungalow with kitchen costs just £100 a night. Edith and her family took me in as one of their own – and the incredible surfing, diving and trekking made my stay all the more rewarding.
The Society Islands lie deep in the Southern Pacific Ocean, a cluster of extinct volcanoes lying about halfway between Australia and South America. This remoteness adds to the archipelago's allure, but the primary attraction lies in their beauty: warm blue waters contrasting with lush tropical landscapes.
Honeymooners come here, as do the ridiculously rich. I was neither, but am a keen surfer, diver and walker, and the Society Islands offer some of the most idyllic venues for all of these sports.
I divided my time between three atolls: Tahiti, Huahine and Moorea. After a few days on Moorea, I slipped effortlessly into Tahitian time, which entails following the lead of locals and spending hours on the very basics of life. Luckily in this part of the world, the bare necessities alone can make you very, very contented indeed.
After my pineapple raid and a much-needed swim, I was joined for dinner by my guide, Joel Hart. "I'm one-eighth German, one-eighth English, a quarter French, and half Tahitian,"he said. "My grandfather was an English aristocrat who was the first European to settle the Marquesas Islands, while my father became a successful property holder. I was his 16th child, at age 72, with his third wife."
Joel's family history is linked to that of French Polynesia as a whole. The islands have been populated by local Polynesians since about 300AD, but the spread of French Catholic missionaries in the early 19th century, and France's wish to protect them, saw it named first as a protectorate in 1842 and a colony half a century later. For Tahitians such as Joel, a Polynesian heritage and way of life has mingled with 200 years of French rule to produce a unique cultural blend.
"It's sometimes difficult to pinpoint who we are," said Joel. "We rely on the French government for economic survival and we've absorbed the French education and bureaucratic systems. And yet the Polynesian aspect of our heritage is fiercely independent."
Joel recommended I visit Pineapple Beach, a beautiful white stretch of sand with its own bar-restaurant just metres from a coral lagoon. My arrival coincided with the bar owner hosting an ahima'a, a Tahitian feast where a whole pig, fresh fish, chicken and local fruit and vegetables are placed in a large underground oven – in effect, a hole in the ground filled with hot coals – and cooked slowly for about eight hours.
Soon, I was among the tattooed locals and happy tourists indulging in rum cocktails and slow-roasted pork. One local, Michel Bourez, informed me that his tattoos (which covered about a third of his substantial muscular body) were a link to when all Polynesians wore them: "Back then they signified your place in the tribe hierarchy, but these days, after being banned by the missionaries for hundreds of years, they've come back into fashion as a way of expressing our identity and island heritage."
A dance troupe provided the entertainment, with 12 beautiful local women performing dances that I was told were designed to (a) welcome visitors (b) pray to gods (c) challenge an enemy and (d) seduce a mate. Whatever the intention, the dances were a compelling mix of power and rhythm.
Just 50 metres from the beach, the snorkelling and diving was first class, with an underwater rope trail guiding swimmers around the shallow coral lagoon. Twice a day, a local guide stands in the lagoon and feeds about a dozen manta rays as you watch. Later, I shared a beer with two Australian surfers who raved about the cheap surf hostel up the road called Mark's Place, where the primary forms of transport on offer were hired bicycles and a kayak.
Meanwhile, Angela and Tristan, a couple in their late twenties from Ireland, had taken the Tahiti budget living lifestyle to a whole new level. They had a pitch at Nelson Camping, a cabin and campsite based on (another) pretty white coral protected beach a few kilometres away near the town of Haapiti. "As it was a fairly expensive flight, we thought we'd save on accommodation and put some of our money into the diving expedition and activities," Angela said. "It's 1,400 French Pacific francs [£10] a night to camp – and in a place like this, you want to be outdoors and in the ocean anyway."
A 30-minute plane ride took me to the more northerly island of Huahine, one of the least developed islands in French Polynesia. It's rarely visited by the honeymoon set, and the lack of resorts with the £600-a-night glass-bottomed huts means it has a raw, untouched feel to it. Here I stayed in Fare Maeva, another family-run pension perched on a secluded white sandy beach and coral-flecked lagoon. The accommodation consisted of rows of cabins, with a double bed in one room and some lounge furniture, a TV, fridge and basic kitchen in the other. Fare Maeva is by no means luxurious, but it's certainly comfortable, especially as it has its own ocean-front pool which is within splashing distance of the Pacific.
It was also just a 10-minute bike ride from the island's main town of Fare, a slightly grubby but still exotic port serving the large harbour. Fare has local art and craft shops, surf and kayak hire, internet cafés and cheap bar/restaurants. It also provides a cheap base from which to explore the island.
I took the €75 island boat tour offered by Huahine Nautique, a boat operator located on the harbour's edge on the outskirts of Fare.
Huahine is so tiny that my all-day excursion circumnavigated the whole place. There was enough time to take in an incredible snorkel in Maroe Bay (a gentle current propels divers through schools of sparkling reef fish and bulbous coral heads while the boat tags along behind); a trip to a natural pearl farm; a look at the island's marae, an ancient ceremonial ruin that served as an open-air sanctuary; and, finally, to Huahine's natural aquarium. This is an offshore coral garden where local guides feed fish every afternoon. I held on to a rope attached to the shallow reef and found myself among a feeding frenzy of rays, tropical fish and – rather terrifyingly – thrashing reef sharks.
The highlight, though, was lunch. My boat driver Barca pulled into a pristine white sandy beach on a motu (an outlying sand island) that came complete with picnic tables secured in the water. In minutes he had filleted some white tuna, washed it in the sea, then marinated it with fresh lime and sea salt. He added coconut milk by passing freshly hacked coconut through a muslin sieve, then came some chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion.
As a final flourish, cold Hinano beers were produced and Barca accompanied my meal by twanging and twinkling expertly on his ukulele and singing traditional Polynesian songs. I ate it all with my feet dangling in the warm ocean – and it was easily the most enjoyable lunch I've ever had.V CAfter lunch, I went for a walk around the motu. Two bays later I stumbled upon a local group of 20 or so women and children sitting in the water and shucking enormous fleshy clams that were being delivered in boatloads by the burly Tahitian males. I sat down with the villagers and, despite my atrocious French and non-existent Tahitian, offered my services. I then spent an hour shucking the sweet clams into a big bucket, while they worked and gossiped, generally just having another routine day in paradise.
The next few days were spent exploring the island by land, first by Le Truck (the local bus) and then by moped. It was a chance to check out the remaining beaches and take a closer look at the thousand-year-old Ahu, the ceremonial stone placed at the centre of the marae. Then I was ready for the flight back to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti herself.
I have to confess to a measure of disappointment about Papeete. There is an early morning market (Le Marche), which has good fish, vegetables and local crafts for sale, but the town itself is just a small, grubby port. Rather than stay for too long, I rented a car and drove towards the town of Teahupoo, pronounced Cho-poo, and meaning "the end of the road", which is exactly where it is, about 100km from Papeete.
For centuries Teahupoo was a traditional fishing town, far removed from the Tahiti tourist brochures. However, once it was found to boast one of the best – and most dangerous – surfing waves in the world, it was thrust into the surfing limelight.
The Billabong Pro is held here every May, which means this small village is now swamped with aspiring surfers. This jamboree has created a window of opportunity for anyone owning a bed in the area; a host of pensions and homestays now operate in the village.
"It's nice to meet people from other places," said Papa Teva, the owner of Vaiani Pension, where I stayed. "And the surfers and visitors are usually very friendly. We treat them like family and open our home."
Papa Teva's house is perched on the water's edge; visitors can feed fish and rays from their bungalow balcony. It's cheap, too: an impressive €65 a night with breakfast and dinner included. And if surfing isn't your thing, there are amazing hikes up to the waterfalls in the nearby hills. These are covered in a lush jungle canopy, though regular tracks by locals and visiting hikers have left obvious thoroughfares. It's also possible to hire a fisherman's boat for the day, or rent a canoe, or go horse riding in the stunning jungle and beaches further to the south.
My last day in Teahupoo summed up French Polynesia perfectly. Papa Teva invited me out for an afternoon's fishing, and after three hours we returned with some big tuna and mahi mahi. I helped Mama Teva clean and fillet the fish, then retired to the balcony to catch the epic sunset with a cold Hinano. When that natural wonder burned itself out, I sat down with Papa and his family for our self-made feast. There were no waiters, no white tablecloths, and no fancy wines. But we were eating a fantastic meal in one of the most beautiful places on earth, with local people that had welcomed me into their home. In that moment, I felt as though I had found the real Tahiti.
Travel essentials: Tahiti
* The main approach from Europe is via Los Angeles, which is where Air Tahiti Nui (0844 482 1675; airtahitinui.com ) stops en route from Paris. You can either fly from Heathrow and connect at LAX for the Tahitian capital, Papeete, or get a flight from one of many UK airports via Paris. Fares start at around £1,250 return.
* For family pensions visit tahitipensions.com , a booking facility with options across Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia.
* Fare Edith, Papetoai, Moorea (00 689 56 35 34; fareedith.com ). Doubles from €110 including breakfast.
* Marks Place, Maharepa, Moorea (00 689 56 43 02, marksplacemoorea.com). Doubles from €85 including breakfast.
* Camping Nelson, Papetoai, Moorea (>00 689 56 15 18; camping-nelson.pf). Pitch rates: €11 per person per night.
* Fare Maeva, Fare, Huahine (00 689 68 75 53; fare-maeva.com). Doubles from €90 including breakfast.
* Vaiani Pension, Teahupoo, Tahiti (00 689 57 96 16). Doubles from €65 including breakfast.
* Huahine Nautique, Fare, Huahine (00 689 68 83 15; huahine-nautique.com ). A full-day island excursion including lunch and all drinks costs €75.
* Tahiti Tourisme: Tahiti-tourisme.co.uk