In the South Seas: Island Rhythm in Tahiti

In the South Seas: Island Rhythm in Tahiti

This article appears in Volume 18: The
Rhythm Issue

have no rhythm. This was made obvious to me on my first
morning in Tahiti when, having had five hours sleep after spending
the two previous days travelling, I found myself catapulted into
the middle of a traditional Polynesian dance class in which all the
other participants were practising for the regional championships.
While beautiful women in flowing skirts gracefully glided to the
right, without fail I managed to shuffle in the opposite direction,
sweating in my borrowed nylon sarong. Oh, to be a fly on the wall
like photographer Mark, who was bent double on the sidelines, tears
of laughter streaming down his face. It was the perfect initiation
into life in the South Pacific.

As part of my archaeology and anthropology degree, I studied the
extensive descriptions of Polynesia provided by explorers such as
Captain James Cook, who arrived in the 18th century. These faraway
lands piqued the imagination of Europeans – as captured in Paul
Gauguin’s colourful paintings – leading to a wealth of
anthropological literature on the subject. I never thought I’d make
it to the place that, for me, had become an object of fascination
and fantasy. I thought ceremonial “kula” exchange rings and
shamanistic rituals existed only in the pages of well-thumbed
library books.

We had heard that it can be difficult to get off the tourist
track in French Polynesia, as American lovebirds flock to resort-y
islands such as Bora Bora for honeymoons, but we were determined to
dig deeper and find out if those romanticised lands I’d read about
existed. Places that pulsate with crashing waves, beating drums and
the tap-tap- tapping of traditional dotwork tattooing. We were in
search of authentic island rhythm. As such, we were to begin our
journey on the main island of Tahiti, followed by a stay on
precipitous Mo’orea, before making our final voyage to the wild,
unspoilt paradise of Maupiti.

One of the first things that struck me as we walked through the
somewhat gritty Tahitian capital, Papeete, was the beguiling
mishmash of French and Polynesian cultures. It’s a place where
girls adorn their hair with pink hibiscus owers (behind the right
ear if you’re single, behind the left and in line with your heart
if not), while reggaeton wafts through the hot, heavy air, to which
the smell of native vanilla clings. It’s a place where market
traders call out to each other in native Reo Mā’ohi from behind
towering stacks of coconuts and taro – a Polynesian staple. Yet
restaurant chalkboards tout dishes such as moules marinière, beef
bourguignon and crème brûlée, and the shops are full of French
fare; at breakfast we fill up on fresh baguettes with brie and
Bonne Maman jam in preparation for a day of exploring.

Our guide, Hervé, was everything I’d hoped for: a strapping
Polynesian man with grey hair down to his waist, a white flower
placed jauntily behind one ear and tattoos swirling across his
chest and arms. While instructing me to slather my body in a
sticky, saccharine oil “to protect against mosquitoes, the only
predators in paradise”, he explained the chequered history of
tattooing in Polynesia, where it was invented to beautify the body
for dance shows, but stamped out by Christian missionaries in the
19th century. Today the art has been revived by younger
generations; we saw few who weren’t decorated and tried not to gape
at those who were covered right up to and including their eyelids
and ears.

As we trundled deeper into the Tahitian forest it became cooler
and started to drizzle. “The clouds are making love to the
mountaintops and giving birth to water,” Hervé’s friend Moana said
softly. Though not on duty today, Moana, a petite woman with
kohl-tattooed eyes, jet-black hair and a name meaning “wave”, told
us that she was the only mother to have gained the prestigious
qualification of island guide. Throughout the day she opened our
eyes to Polynesia’s rich spiritual realm, stopping to gather sacred
stones, explaining the medicinal properties of plants or
demonstrating how particular trees are planted in formation around
marae (traditional temples) for protection and good health. I was
pleasantly surprised that no other tourists interrupted the lull of
Moana’s storytelling as we meandered through the forest that
morning. While the infinity pools and buffets of large resorts were
just a stone’s throw away, inner Tahiti was a green oasis of

Abandoning the car, we scrabbled down the side of the valley,
Hervé bounding ahead in his Crocs, pausing to point out an endless
array of jewel-coloured fruits, slashing copra (coconuts) from
trees with his machete and fashioning us traditional wreath crowns
from hanging vines. When Captain Bligh and his men arrived here on
the aptly named Bounty in the 18th century on a mission to export
breadfruit to England, the men simply refused to leave and
mutinied, burning their ships so they wouldn’t have to return home.
Mark and I prayed for the modern-day equivalent: our plane not
being able to take o due to some sudden storm.

After a sweaty half hour, we heard the rumble of rushing water
and a cool breeze hissing through the undergrowth. Emerging into a
clearing, we were rewarded with a large, emerald-green pool fed by
a powerful torrent of water. I took this as my cue to strip down to
my bikini and plunged in head-first, letting the cool, clear water
wash away any lingering jet lag.

Hervé then took us to his mountainside house for a traditional
lunch of poisson cru – raw tuna mixed with coconut milk, citrus
juice, raw onion and fresh tomato. As I was mopping my plate with
breadfruit, he mischievously grabbed my hand and led me away from
the table to show me his “babies”. The glint in his eye told me I
was not about to meet his children. Upon reaching a stream at the
end of his garden, he began to throw putrid fish into the water and
suddenly I started to hear splashing. Slowly but surely, five
glistening brownish-black masses as thick as my thigh and as long
as a dining table began to slither out from under the surrounding
boulders. I looked on in horror as Hervé cackled and gleefully
informed me that the (much larger) parents of these “baby” eels
inhabited the pool in which we had just been swimming. Fortunately,
before I had time to properly digest this information (and do the
opposite with my lunch) it was time to leave.

The next stop was Mo’orea, a misty, mountainous land just a
30-minute ferry ride from Tahiti. With plenty of activities on
offer, the island plays host to sprawling resorts alongside smaller
guesthouses for those after a more personal experience. Preferring
the latter, we arrived at Mo’orea Lodge, a chic waterfront property
decorated in soft hues of blue and white with separate cottages and
fluttering linen curtains.

We happily filled our mornings here with snorkelling tours and
picnics on surrounding islets, swimming with black-tip reef sharks
and stingrays, quad-biking through the forest and taking a
gruelling hike up to the highest point of the island for panoramic
postcard views of pale-blue lagoon waters, which contrasted with
the dark expanse of navy beyond. However, afternoons were strictly
dedicated to exploring. Foregoing sunset cruises, we spent them
strolling along pristine beaches, canoeing out to the reef or
borrowing bicycles from the lodge and peddling the one road around
the island, stopping to chat to fruit sellers who greeted us with
the hang-loose “shaka” hand gesture that has become associated with
gnarly surfer types who visit in the hope of catching Tahiti’s
legendary wave, Teahupo’o.

Unsurprisingly, the days passed quickly and it was soon our last
evening in Mo’orea. Passing up on a “traditional” ($100 dollar per
person) dance show at a nearby resort, we stumbled across a local
restaurant where we kicked off our shoes to feel the sand beneath
our toes, and between drafty bamboo walls discovered pineapple
champagne (the most glorious example of culture clash) which we
drank late into the night, the ocean roaring rhythmically in the

The next morning that rhythm had transferred to a pounding in
our heads, but there was no time to wallow. After a restorative dip
we were en route to Maupiti, an island so small that its runway
extends into the sea. This became a far less romantic notion when
bad weather meant that our plane was forced to divert to Bora Bora.
We were given the option of staying put or ominously “trying again”
– with the warning that if the pilot wasn’t successful we’d be
heading back to Tahiti for the rest of our trip. There was no way
were we going to miss out on an island that even locals seemed
entranced by, so I grabbed Mark and headed straight to the front of
the queue.

After a precarious flight, we disembarked into a storm of
Tempest-like proportions. Homestays replace hotels in Maupiti, and
we were relieved to find our Parisian hosts, Camille and his
partner Anne-Marie, ready and waiting, armed with warm smiles and
floor-length cagoules. Their house, Le Kuriri, was on a peripheral
island called Moti Tiappa, which has just 25 inhabitants and is
only reachable by boat. Faces stinging from the wind and rainwater
running o the end of our noses, we revelled in the bad weather
which, rather than dampen our spirits, only served to enhance the
feeling that we were journeying to the end of the earth.

Tiapaa is as close to a desert island as you’re going to get –
unless you fancy commandeering a traditional Polynesian va’a
(outrigger canoe), launching yourself into the South Pacific and
hoping for the best. Simultaneously wild and tranquil, volcanic
black rock meets powder-white beaches and cobalt lagoons fight off
reef- gnashing waves, beyond which, between July and October,
humpback whales glide past on their annual pilgrimage from
Antarctica. With the weather abating and evening drawing in, Mark
and I dumped our belongings in thatched huts and scampered like
excitable children down to the beach, pausing on the shoreline to
gaze out across the ocean in wonder at the fact that the closest
land to us was Chile in one direction and Australia in the other.
Not another person in sight, both of us agreed that – if we were on
our honeymoon – this was how we’d want it to be.

That evening, we gathered around the communal dining table with
our fellow guests for a supper of tuna steak, papaya salad and
potato dauphinoise while Camille, a kindly septuagenarian with a
weather-beaten face and piercing blue eyes, entertained us with
tales from his time sailing the high seas; of a three-month voyage
from India to Polynesia, of pirates, of sinking ships and of untold

Thirsty for our own adventures, Mark and I awoke at dawn to
photograph the sunrise and scout out what we’d nicknamed the “Lost”
island. We set off at a lazy pace, slowly picking our way between
sun-bleached coral, conch shells and washed-up coconuts in front of
a background of low, pink clouds and a mauve sea haze. We walked
separately and in silence, drinking in our surroundings, stopping
occasionally to exclaim when effervescent shoals of fish darted
right up to the shoreline, or to marvel at clams the size of salad
bowls. Daydreaming, it took me a while to notice that the entire
beach appeared to be moving ahead of us. Focusing glazed eyes, I
suddenly realised that hundreds of tiny, white hermit crabs were
scuttling here, there and everywhere, making the whole beach ripple
like a magic carpet. The island was, quite literally, alive. This
was the Polynesia I’d dreamed about; it really did exist beyond the
pages of library books, and we’d finally arrived.

Several cups of strong black coffee jolted us back to our
senses, and Camille whizzed us over to mainland Maupiti, where we
rented rickety red bikes (the first I tried was missing a chain and
had neither breaks nor gears). We made two turns around the
island’s circumference, waving to locals hanging washing outside
pastel-painted wooden houses, stopping to devour citrine-coloured
mangoes until the juices ran down our faces. We found a quiet beach
and swam in bath-temperature water for far longer than is advisable
in the beating afternoon sun. Then with salty, rose-hued skin, we
slowly made our way back to the pontoon.

As we sped back across the water, boat smacking on the waves,
Camille came to an abrupt stop and gestured to a dark mass moving
stealthily along the seabed. Quickly tossing us snorkels and
flippers he told us to jump in, with the simple instruction: “Mind
the tail!” Putting my trust in the kindly Frenchman, I obeyed,
swiftly dropping backwards into the water in an attempt to hide my
trepidation. A giant manta ray at least two metres wide with a
barbed tail just as long was gliding just ahead of me, prompting
Mark and I to gesticulate wildly at each other beneath the surface.
We stayed bobbing there a while, watching little fish dart up to
feed off its gently oscillating back (a complimentary cleaning
service) and trying to forget that tomorrow was our last day.

While our flight back to the mainland was delayed for an hour,
our hopes of living out the rest of our days in paradise were
dashed as we successfully made it back to Papeete the following
afternoon. With time to kill, we settled into a lively port-side
bar where we were soon beckoned to join the table of two locals –
one of whom had full facial artwork. The group was ordering a
pitcher of Hinano beer when a well-known song came on the stereo,
prompting one of the men to begin twirling me about between the
tables. When the tune came to an end, he reached deep into his
pocket and produced a native black pearl, which he presented to me
with a grin. “Island pearl for an island girl”, he said. A pearl
for my dance efforts? Somewhere on my journey from the forests of
Tahiti to the mountains of Mo’orea and the wild
beaches of Maupiti I must’ve picked up some of that island

The Lowdown

How to get there

Return flights from London to Papeete via LAX from £1,500 with
Air Tahiti. Air Tahiti serves 47 islands in French Polynesia, as
well as the Cook Islands.

Where to stay

We checked in to
Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort
Mo’orea Beach Lodge
Manava Suite Resort