When I was a kid, my father took me fishing. Now it was my turn to take him to Tahiti, my idea of paradise. (Part one.)
For years, my 83-year-old father wanted to take an exotic trip, something that would require a passport — maybe Costa Rica or somewhere in Mexico. He read books about different destinations and talked about places he’d like to see, yet stayed at home in front of the TV. Despite being in great shape, he didn’t want to travel by himself, nor did he want to be part of some blue-haired senior-citizens group.
It finally dawned on me that we could go together, just the two of us. I was happily single, so there was no “other half” or boyfriend to tag along or to object to being left behind. It was the perfect opportunity to spend precious, one-on-one time with my dad. And if we were going to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I wanted it to be extraordinary: French Polynesia, land of towering, jagged-toothed volcanic cliffs, lush tropical vegetation and turquoise lagoons filled with Technicolor fish.
When I called to ask if he’d like to go to Tahiti, he thought I was joking. Tahiti was far beyond what he’d even dared to read about in his library books. “Mark it on your calendar, Dad. We’re going!”
We arrived in Tahiti at midnight. The moment we stepped off the Air Tahiti Nui jet, we hit a thick wall of humidity. My sweater and jeans, great for the flight, instantly felt smothering. Greeted with gardenia leis, I noticed the handsomeness of the Polynesian people, men and women alike, with their high cheekbones, white teeth, smooth coppery skin and large almond eyes, many blue or green — a sign of visiting Europeans over the centuries.
Our hotel, the InterContinental Tahiti Resort, gave us a room far from the open-air lobby, but it was nice to stretch our legs after the eight-hour flight. Dad wanted to stop at the bar for a beer and had his first introduction to the popular native brew, Hinano. I could hear the faint sound of surf, but the darkness made it impossible to see beyond the lights of the hotel grounds. When I asked our bartender if the ocean was nearby, he smiled and said, “I promise you, it’s very close.”
I awoke at dawn and rushed to the balcony. The sunrise was purple-pink and laced with golden clouds that glowed on the horizon — and the ocean was right there, brilliant turquoise, just like a postcard. The intensity of the colors was overwhelming, and the scent of growing things was intoxicating — the leaves, the flowers, the ocean, the earth, all one big Garden of Eden.
We had one day in Tahiti before departing for nearby Moorea and decided to take a jeep tour of French Polynesia’s most populated island. Our private guide, Hervé Maraetaata, was from the rugged Marquesas Islands, about 850 miles northeast of Tahiti. He came with his teenage son and drove us to the market in Papeete so I could buy a sun hat; to Belvedere Lookout, one of the highest points on the island; and to a public beach favored by the locals.
Fluent in French and Polynesian dialects but not so much in English, Hervé told us he moved his family to Tahiti so that his children could get an education. He said he never learned to read or write. I asked about the intricate tattoos on his right arm, left leg and a tiny one that curled under his earlobe. “This is my passport,” he said. “It tells where I am from, about my family and my profession.”
He said the tattoo on his arm showed he was from a warrior clan. The small one that circled his ear said he was a climber — one entrusted to move the dead to caves high in the volcanic cliffs. “We used the caves when the missionaries would no longer allow us to place our dead in the banyan trees,” he said, explaining that his people believed the spirits of the dead became part of the tree.
He also told us how the missionaries forbade native dancing and insisted that women cover themselves in clothing from the neck to the feet, despite the tropical heat. As hot as I was in my shorts, T-shirt and sandals, I imagined how harsh a punishment that must have been.
When we got back, I took a swim in the freshwater eternity pool that overlooked the bay between Tahiti and Moorea. I would have been fine eating dinner at the hotel, but Dad insisted on taking a taxi back into Papeete to try out the roulettes (food wagons) on the wharf. These rickety vans serve up everything from fresh grilled fish to chow mein eaten at picnic tables. I was glad we came, because the food was delicious and cheap.
The next day we departed for Moorea, Tahiti’s sister island just 12 miles away, taking a 30-minute catamaran ride over water that was an impossible shade of blue. A shuttle bus from the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort picked us up at the dock and delivered us to our next destination.
The Sofitel offers both garden cottages and over-the-water bungalows perched over coral gardens. Our bungalow was stunning, with high ceilings and a huge sliding glass door that opened out onto a deck with breathtaking views. A big mosquito net enveloped the beds, but it was mostly for show because I never saw any mosquitoes there. The flooring was polished wood and included a section of glass that allowed us to look straight down at the coral garden below. It was so beautiful, I feared I might be dreaming.
The lagoon outside our bungalow was safe and quiet for people and fish alike. There is no fishing allowed, no motorized boats and no jet skis. It was completely tranquil, languid and hypnotic. It felt perfectly fine to do nothing but let the soothing splendor wash over us.
It was the first time my Iowa-born father had seen such wonders. He’d never even been to Hawaii, and the only place he’d seen tropical fish was in an aquarium. I loved watching him as he looked out onto the jagged mountains draped in greenery or took photos of the fish from the edge of our bungalow’s private deck. We were both mesmerized by the otherworldly beauty of this place.
After supper that night, we came back to our bungalow and sat outside on the deck. We lay down on the lounge chairs and gazed up at the thickest blanket of stars we’d ever seen, a different night sky from what you see north of the equator.
After our tour of Tahiti with Hervé, we decided a private guide was the best way to see the islands so we hired the charming and rotund Joel Hart (who confessed a passion for Chicken McNuggets and chocolate shakes) to give us the scoop on Moorea. He was happy to divulge all, dishing nonstop as he took us on a circle tour of the island in his, thankfully, air-conditioned Hyundai.
He told us how “France raped Polynesia,” how the bacteria in “rat piss” kills more Polynesians than anything else, and how Moorea has many fatal traffic accidents, a high incidence of alcoholism and a high suicide rate. Suicide in paradise?
“You’re basically stuck on the island for your entire life,” he said with a shrug, “so yes, it’s beautiful, but there aren’t a lot of options. People can get depressed.”
After three days, it was time to say goodbye and depart for our next island: Taha’a, known as the “vanilla island” and home of the best vanilla in the world. Could anything be more beautiful than what we’ve already seen?