PARADISE: Leaving It Is as Blue as Polynesia's Waters

By Newbern, Kathy M.; Fletcher, J. S. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

PARADISE: Leaving It Is as Blue as Polynesia's Waters


Newbern, Kathy M., Fletcher, J. S., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The most frustrating thing about a week in French Polynesia is the lack of words to describe the blues of the water. Travelers on a ferry to Moorea see the water change from nearly navy to sapphire, and at shore's edge, to turquoise.

Approaching Rangiroa by cruise ship, we cross over from depthless clear cobalt water to enter Tiputa Pass. Dolphins swimming alongside break through our lapis lazuli-colored wake creating frothy-white aquamarine foam.

While we snorkel off Bora Bora, our air bubbles travel up through a topaz sea.

Flying over Moorea on our way home, we see the varied shades of blue below us are even more striking against the visible sandy bottom, then rocky coral and finally darker ocean depths.

The second most frustrating thing about a week in these islands is that it ends. Watching Moorea grow smaller as our plane flies away, it is easy to understand how these islands inspired Paul Gauguin's famous art works and James Michener's creation of Bali Hai.

This is the South Pacific - the South Pacific - the stuff of travel dreams.

From the bustling capital of Papeete, Tahiti, and the tropical beauty of tiny Bora Bora to the emerald-green mountainous Moorea to the rustic, primitive nature of Huahine and the natural underwater fish show off sparsely populated Rangiroa, the 115 islands of French Polynesia (often called Tahiti collectively) continue to lure about 166,000 travelers each year, about 48,000 of them from North America.

By comparison, Hawaii gets about as many visitors in 10 days as French Polynesia sees in a year. Tahiti-area hotel rooms total only 2,800 - the size of a Las Vegas megahotel. While French Polynesia covers 1.5 million square miles of ocean (about the size of Europe excluding Russia), the total land area of its islands is only 1,544 square miles.

The islands are situated on five archipelagoes: the Society Islands, Marguesas Islands, Tuamotu Atolls, Mangareva Islands and Austral Islands. The total population is about 200,000 people, smaller than Richmond and about a third of Washington's.

Nearly a fourth of the visitors are, understandably, French, since Tahiti became a French colony in 1880 and a French overseas territory in 1957. It has been internally autonomous since 1984.

At 402 square miles, Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and is almost halfway between Australia and California, and, consequently, is a popular destination for Australians, New Zealanders and Japanese.

Tourism from all those countries, however, was down considerably during our trip late last year due to boycotts against France's underground nuclear testing in the region. "It's terrible," one hotelier said of the slump in tourism, noting that his resort can host 700 guests, but had only 250.

Our question over tourists' safety brought this response from a worker at Cook's Bay Hotel in Moorea: "Don't worry about the nuclear testing. It's so far away - 600 miles from here. The same thing's going on in Nevada, 300 miles from Los Angeles."

"The testing is so far away," said one cab driver. "We only see it on CNN."

We saw no evidence of the rioting that the protests sparked in Papeete last year, except for a few hand-drawn messages of protest along the roads. We did notice, however, an armed soldier on duty atop the small Faaa International Airport, armed military police throughout the airport, and plenty of military vehicles and personnel with riot gear on the highways and parked at the Hyatt Regency Tahiti. On the outer islands, however, it was business as usual with no evident military presence.

The safey issue settled, the next concerns about visiting Tahiti could be the distance and expense. Our advice is simple: Do it.

True, it takes a bit more commitment to get there from our East Coast instead of West, but the approximate 14 hours are worth what's waiting at the other end. …

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