Polynesian Dreams French Islands in the South Pacific Beckon Those Looking for an Idyllic Life

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Byline: Kathy Rodeghier Daily Herald Travel Editor


"What is paradise?"

Guide Paul Atallah poses the question as our group tours French Polynesia. To many of us, these South Pacific islands, with exotic names like Tahiti and Bora Bora, are our idea of paradise: a place to bask on palm-fringed beaches, gaze at emerald mountainsides, snorkel in turquoise lagoons and enjoy the company of friendly, beautiful people.

To the first European sailors who landed here in the 1700s, these islands probably seemed like paradise, too. After months of traveling rolling ocean on meager rations, "they got what they wanted and it wasn't hard: food, sunshine, young girls," Atallah says. When the Polynesians attacked their ships with spears, the sailors responded with cannon fire, which the natives had never seen. Mesmerized, they thought these white men were gods and gave them anything they wanted, including their women.

No wonder Capt. Bligh's crew mutinied here.

"But paradise is a preconceived notion," says Atallah, who owns Island Eco Tours on the island of Huahine. An American who studied anthropology at the University of Hawaii, he has lived in French Polynesia for more than a decade. He understands both the ancient and modern Polynesian way of life.

To ancient Polynesians, their islands were no paradise, not when people went around clubbing each other on the head and practiced human sacrifice and infanticide, Atallah says. "This was more Stephen King than Adam and Eve."

French connections

French Polynesia consists of 118 islands in five archipelagos. Most of the population lives on the Society Islands, so named by Capt. James Cook in tribute to the Royal Society of London, which financed his voyage there. Tourism is the biggest source of revenue on the largest of these volcanic islands: Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine and Raiatea.

Yet, compared to Hawaii, which gets 6 million visitors a year, French Polynesia is small potatoes with only 250,000 visitors, 42 percent from North America. One reason: the high cost. Almost all food and many other goods must be imported and incur high duties. Going out to eat is especially pricey.

"It's much like Hawaii" but so expensive, says Howard Hayes, a visitor from Wilmette who paid $90 for the dinner buffet at the Intercontinental resort on Tahiti.

Yet the Polynesian people are not impoverished. As residents of a French Overseas Country with self-governing powers, they enjoy the social benefits of French citizenship: good schools, health care and a minimum wage of $1,400 a month. They don't pay income tax or sales tax; they do receive aid from the French government (including economic support promised after nuclear testing ended here in the 1990s). We didn't see homeless people or panhandlers and peddlers didn't pester us on the street or beach.

"You're in a safe place," Atallah says. "If people offer you a ride, take it. They are just being polite and curious."

About 65 percent of the residents on the islands are native Polynesian, another 5 percent to 8 percent Chinese and the remainder mixed. The natives continue to own their ancestral land and can live on it tax free. Many on the outer islands live a simple life, supporting themselves by fishing or farming.

Sound like paradise? Ask the 60 percent of the residents who are under age 24.

The population has boomed in the past 20 years, a period that brought computers, cell phones and satellite TV to the most developed islands. "A lot of young people don't like the outer islands," Atallah says. "They are searching for the modern world."

They want to go to Tahiti and the capital city, Papeete, where 100,000 of French Polynesia's people live. "To me it's congested, it's polluted, it's Tijuana without burritos," Atallah says. To the young people, Papeete has night life and more people their age. …