Travel: Hawaii - A Paradise Found; KEN BENNETT Goes in Search of Paradise and Finds It in Tahiti and Hawaii -Two Island Retreats That Have Become Bywords for Romance and the Warmest of Welcomes

Article excerpt

Byline: KEN BENNETT

ADAZZLINGLY luminous smile floats towards me through the warm early morning gloom: it's the welcoming start of another long day in paradise.

Even before the sun tips over the horizon, the sub-tropical climate wraps a friendly, comfortable cloak around visitors to Tahiti.

A beautiful Polynesian girl hands out buds of fragrant white gardenia from a tray and in the background a trio of string musicians is playing and singing gentle songs of greeting.

No stern-faced immigration officials, here. Papeete Airport seems to have recruited its team on the collective wattage of their beaming grins.

But don't be lulled into thinking that everything is completely laid-back.

In the shake of a grass skirt, I'd been reunited with my baggage, met the airport rep, had a hoop -or lei -of flowers placed around my neck and been whistled off to my hotel.

So fast and smooth, in fact, that I hardly had time to reflect that this luscious island, with Papeete the capital of French Polynesia, now controls 118 islands dotted over an ocean surface the size of Europe.

Spread from the Marquesas Islands in the North to the Austral Islands in the South, halfway between nestle the Society Islands, including the tourist's favourite destinations -Tahiti and Moorea.

More than half of the 240,000 residents actually live in Tahiti with the rest scattered across the other islands.

But luckily the locals all have a basic grasp of English and, as I discovered, three of Tahiti's most famous early visitors were Englishmen.

Captain Samuel Wallis takes credit for being the first European to set foot on the island in 1767, followed two years later by legendary explorer Capt James Cook.

And then, of course, came Capt William Bligh, whose ship The Bounty anchored here in 1788.

The colourful story surrounding the mutiny on board has captured and hearts and minds of filmgoers with a host of British and Hollywood greats lining up to play Bligh and his rebellious first mate Fletcher Christian.

But although Bligh is always portrayed as a cruel martinet and Christian the handsome young hero, it's the captain who's held in highest regard.

Tahitian history passed across the generations records that in 1790, King, Pomare I vanquished his tribal enemies and regained control -thanks to muskets provided by the captain.

Even now, these exotic islands are filled with modern day heroes.

Visiting Moorea by catamaran car ferry (you can fly there, too), I met Eloy -a Mexican giant of a man who organises four-hour jeep safaris into the island's interior costing pounds 22 a head.

Since he emigrated here nine years ago, he has become Polynesia's answer to Crocodile Dundee.

As we bounced and hurtled around the island, he would occasionally stop to cut fresh fruit with his razor-sharp bowie knife. Bananas, lemon, grapefruit, papaya -a rare old cocktail of the very best!

Then, with impressive dexterity, he hacked down a sapling to demonstrate how the bark can be turned into rope or the fabled grass skirts.

All this before zooming off to Cook's Bay where, so the story goes, the Captain introduced pineapples to the island.

But the undoubted highpoint of the safari was to see at close range Mouaroa, whose jagged 2,640-foot peak became the mystical mountain Bali Hai in the musical South Pacific.

Then, on the West coast of the island, we went even further back in time in the Tiki Village which faithfully recreates art and crafts of the islanders' forefathers in wooden huts roofed with palm leaves.

Here we drooled over a marvellous hot buffet of pork, lamb, fish and vegetables all wrapped in green leaves and cooked in an underground oven created by heating up volcanic rocks. Delia Smith, eat your heart out!

Then, over ladlings of wine, we were entertained by a troupe of beautiful hip-wriggling female dancers and their partners. …