Take me to Tahiti

Honeymooners who choose to go to the South Pacific usually make for Bora Bora or Moorea. They are missing out on the main attraction, says Mark Rowe

Honeymoon couples usually do two things as their aircraft leaves Tahiti. They argue, tempers frayed by the disappointment that accompanies the end of their dream trip. But they also glance below at the rain-soaked, green land with its peaks, high-level plateaux and steep valleys, and wonder why they failed to spend any time on one of the most beautiful Pacific islands of all. For everyone who visits French Polynesia must go through Tahiti, the largest of the 118 islands that make up this vast archipelago.

Honeymoon couples usually do two things as their aircraft leaves Tahiti. They argue, tempers frayed by the disappointment that accompanies the end of their dream trip. But they also glance below at the rain-soaked, green land with its peaks, high-level plateaux and steep valleys, and wonder why they failed to spend any time on one of the most beautiful Pacific islands of all. For everyone who visits French Polynesia must go through Tahiti, the largest of the 118 islands that make up this vast archipelago.

All but a handful stay only as long as it takes to make their connecting flight to the islands of tourist legend, Bora Bora and Moorea. It is quite baffling. Admittedly Bora Bora carries a certain cache and is undeniably beautiful but a Pacific idyll it is not: pollution and over-development have seen to that.

As for Moorea, the fabled "Bali Hai" island from the musical South Pacific, well, it too is ineffably gorgeous when viewed at sunset from Tahiti. But keep your distance, for that view is the best thing about Moorea, an island sunk beneath the weight of commercialism where every piece of land boasts either a string of black pearl shops or a prominently planted privé sign. Then there was the surly hotel service: we arrived at the Sheraton Moorea with rucksacks rather than suitcases and the head receptionist curtly informed us we were only staying there because he "didn't have a choice" of the kind of guest he could allow on the grounds.

Stay in Tahiti, you'll have more fun, I was told, and get a glimpse of how Bora Bora was 30 years ago. We took the clockwise route down the eastern coast and were soon driving around twisting lanes cut into mountainsides plunging to the sea, where there was barely room for cars to pass. Tahiti is in effect two islands, Tahiti Nui, or big Tahiti, and Tahiti Iti, little Tahiti, which are linked by an isthmus, creating a top-heavy figure of eight. Much of the terrain on Tahiti Iti is too rugged for vehicles and ultimately the two coast roads tumble into the sea. A footpath continues the battle with nature for a few miles before the sheer, Eiger-like Te Pari cliffs intervene. Those looking to circumnavigate this island must ultimately take to an outrigger canoe.

The further we got away from Papeete, the bustling Tahitian capital, the more bucolic the landscape became. We passed derelict churches covered in moss and foliage and the occasional field of cows that recalled Normandy. Across the isthmus we waved at a group of boys walking along, one of them strumming a ukulele. We stopped to buy a watermelon

Clouds would suddenly descend over Tahiti Iti, then lift just as swiftly, adding to the immense remoteness of it all. All this beauty is beguiling. Captain Cook nearly met an ignominious end here in 1733 when his two ships sailed dangerously close to the reef while its love-hungry occupants entertained the local ladies. Many others have been entranced over the years. The island is said to be a hang-out for the few remaining nature men; ideological refugees from the 1960s, who live naked in the inaccessible hills and sleep on the ground with their heads pointing north. Today these ascetics, who once made their living from beachcombing, are rarely, if ever, seen. Some islanders say they have died out but one hopes not.

Late in the afternoon we pulled in at our hotel for the night, Fare Nana'o. Fare is Tahitian for house and nana'o means sculpture: it is a well-named, for the buildings are made entirely of wood and natural materials, apart from the ceramic lavatories. Rather than cutting wood into planks and nailing them together, their makers allowed the natural bend of the tree trunks to determine the shapes of the walls. The hotel consists of self-catering units, a big advantage given the costs of restaurant food in Tahiti. Some of the rooms are tree houses. It is a world away from the ubiquitous five-star luxury of French Polynesia. The rooms, all detached, are framed around a small bay. Sitting on the patio we watched fish flick back and forth. A little further out in the reef boys dived for crabs, throwing their catches into a bucket some 30 feet away on shore.

That night an unseasonal tropical storm blew up – we could almost read in the flashes of lightning and the white curtains blew like the sails of a South Seas clipper. The gale had the welcome effect of blowing away the mosquitoes that had pestered us all evening. During what passes for winter in these quarters, another wind, the maraamu, turns the ocean wild. Huge waves crash on the outer reef, attracting the world's top surfers.

The storm-proof Fare Nana'o is the work of Monique Meriaux, who left Paris for Tahiti in 1982. Her friend Eric Lenoble, who came from France around the same time, offered to lead us on a guided walk the next day along the southern, road-free part, of Tahiti Iti. Those Britons who think the French an up-tight nation should meet Eric, for it is hard to imagine a kinder, more gentle and laid-back person. The stress-free existence of 19 years in this landscape had clearly seeped into his every bone and pore. He knew his nature, too. As we slithered along the path, accompanied by a pair of immaculately if rather inappropriately dressed French newly-weds, we inexpertly grasped vines in the manner of Johnny Weismuller and Eric provided a running commentary. Here was the hibiscus, a flower red in the morning and yellow by sunset; there was the hinano, the flower of the pandanus tree, which is used to make beer. Hermit crabs, disproportionately small shells on their backs, scuttled into holes by the path. When the track dropped down to the sea we spotted several flying fish. Lunch, by a bay with huge crashing waves, consisted of rabbit pâté, baguette, rocket and mint tea. Only a bottle of trusty Bordeaux was missing. It seemed an odd place to be reminded of Provence but then this was, after all, French Polynesia.

French Polynesia is one of the most expensive tourist destinations in the world. The substantial costs of transporting goods half way across the globe is partly responsible for this, while high taxes are applied to just about everything but a few basic foods such as sugar and rice. But there are ways both to enjoy paradise and keep the debt collectors from the door.

Hotel prices can be high, with medium range hotels starting at £70 while the luxury hotels come in at £120 a night and rapidly climb up to £300 or more. Make sure your flight/hotel deal is as inclusive as possible; even airport transfers (most international flights to Tahiti arrive in the middle of the night) can cost £20 per person, each way. Excursions cost from £35.

All this means that it is not uncommon for visitors to splash out on a hotel and then find they cannot afford to eat there. Lunches can be reasonable (sandwiches £7, main meals £10) but dinners, particularly Polynesian buffets, can kick in at £60. Room service can be less pricey but at one hotel in Bora Bora even the soup cost £9. It is quite easy to spend £100 per person on food a day.

But breakfasts are usually good value. For £10 you get a buffet of croissants, cheeses, pains au chocolat, yoghurts and a tropical platter of jackfruit, pineapple, mango, papaya and watermelon. Snaffle all you can for later – the staff often encourage you to do so. You should also forage further afield. Tahitians can often be a little broad in the beam and they are not earning French expat salaries; cheap and wholesome food is out there. Tahiti has a Continent and other supermarkets where prices are surprisingly competitive. A ready-cooked pizza slice, salad and a bottle of wine transported back to your hotel balcony create the same feel-good effect as they would in the south of France. Papeete also has an excellent market where fruit, fish and meat can be bought quite cheaply. Or buy the ubiquitous casse-croût – a sandwich stuffed with cheese, ham or tuna.

Be sure to visit one of the roulottes, kitchens on wheels that pull up along Papeete's waterfront and serve cheap comfort food such as chicken and chips and spring rolls. Roulottes are starting to pop up around the corner from major hotels in some of the outer islands. There is no subtle way to smuggle a 14in take-away pizza back into a five-star joint but Tahitians appear to be very relaxed about such things.

Transport in French Polynesia can make even London Underground seem good value. Taxis are extortionate, but a number of islands have a local Le Truck bus service. These gaudily painted wooden vehicles belch exhaust fumes and present something of a fire hazard but they are reliable. The most comprehensive service is in Tahiti, where 60p will take you pretty much anywhere you need to go.

The Facts

Getting there

Air France flies from London Heathrow to Tahiti via Paris four times a week. Flightcentre (0870 444 5500) offers return flights for £726. at a sleepy row of stalls where the signs were in Tahitian rather than French and were served by people who wore simple clothing of T-shirts and pareux, the wrap-around skirts worn by both sexes. The mountain landscape was extraordinary. The ridges were so fine they could have been carved out by a giant razor blade yet the dense forest on these 5,000ft wonders created the impression of a snooker-table green velvet you could almost reach out and stroke.

Being there

Rooms at Fare Nana'o cost from £50. Tel: 00 689 57 18 14; email: farenanao@mail.pf; www.farenanao.com. For guided walks with Eric Lenoble call 00 689 56 48 77. For further information contact the Tahiti Tourist Board in the UK (020-7771 702; email tahiti@cibgroup.co.uk; www.tahiti-tourisme.com). Air New Zealand flies four times a week from London to Tahiti. Prices in January start at £725 including taxes and a free stopover in Los Angeles.

Rooms at Fare Nana'o from £50 (00 689 57 18 14; e-mail farenanao@mail.pf; www.farenanao.com). Eric Lenoble offers guided walks (00 689 56 48 77). Tahiti Tourist Board in the UK (0207-771 7023; tahiti@cibgroup.co.uk; www.tahiti.tourisme.com).

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