Love at first sight

By design ... Tahitian-style tattoo.
By design ... Tahitian-style tattoo. Photo: AFP

Hot, sweaty and unmarried, Dugald Jellie soaks up the charms of a tropical paradise.

This is not a honeymoon. Never mind that we step from the aeroplane to be garlanded in fresh hibiscus and pink bougainvillea. Or that a man in a white linen jacket says, sotto voce, to his skinny blonde wife: "You don't need many clothes here." They've just been married in Australia and now they have eight days in the turquoise fantasy of Bora Bora, which means seven nights of wearing not much.

True love is collecting matching bags from a carousel in paradise. It's a regular affair at Faa'a International Aeroport, on the coral necklace of the largest of the Society Islands, halfway between Australia and Peru and a refuge that for lovers has always burned like a dream. The perfect tropical island? This could be it.

Tattooed Polynesian men in straw hats and brightly coloured sarongs serenade newlyweds at the arrivals hall, singing and playing guitars and ukuleles. Passports are stamped. It's a sultry 27 degrees at 9.24pm, I'm hot and sweaty, unmarried, with a flower behind my ear and only now realise I've packed not one Hawaiian shirt.

Tahiti has this effect. It's love at first sight and the fashions are fruity.

"It is the true utopia," supposed Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to visit this heart of the 35 isles and 83 atolls of what is now known as French Polynesia. He chanced on the landfall in April 1768 when looking for Terra Australis Incognita. "Nature has placed the island in the most perfect climate in the world, had embellished it with every pleasing prospect."

I could not disagree. Not when a blue lagoon cocktail with pineapple garnish and a swizzle stick is served as I lie on a banana lounge under the gentle shade of a coconut palm. This I could hardly call work.

Nor when two young Polynesian women with frangipanis in their hair ask me to dance. They jiggle hips and grass skirts to the beat of jungle drums; all bare skin and long black hair and with breasts trammelled only by polished coconut shells. Locals call this bra a tape'a titi.

Bougainville had stayed 10 days. He ate mangoes and pigs and plantains. Lovemaking was rife. He considered it a Garden of Eden, renaming the land Nouvelle Cythera after the mythical Greek isle where Aphrodite, goddess of love, rose from the waters. "I will always remember you with delight," were his parting words.

Heat and humidity are the first conclusive evidence that we have arrived elsewhere five hours and 50 minutes from Auckland in the cultural eye of Polynesia.

"The landscape, with its violent, pure colours dazzled and blinded me," were painter Paul Gauguin's first impressions. He came in 1891, stayed two years and returned in 1895, sailing from Marseilles via Sydney.

On my first night in Papeete, I meet a 26-year-old Swiss nurse named Oliver. He had stepped ashore recently from sailing a 14-metre catamaran from the Galapagos to the Marquesas islands, the northernmost of these five great archipelagoes. Warm rain tumbles outside. We drink after midnight at the Piano Bar, a renowned mahu (transvestite) nightspot. He was 24 days at sea.

I find bearings instead from a map. Tahiti's a dot in the vast Pacific, a place author Herman Melville had called "the tide-beating heart of Earth". It's the best known of all isles in this French territory, strewn like confetti above the Tropic of Capricorn.

Melville had visited in 1842. "I felt an irresistible curiosity to see these islands," he wrote. He jumped ship also in the Marquesas after seeing the Galapagos, was rescued by an Australian whaleman, imprisoned in Tahiti, then set out for Honolulu. All before Moby Dick.

I visit, likewise, for reasons of curiosity. I had heard the stories: of Captain Cook's men trading spike nails for sex; of Fletcher Christian returning as a mutineer on the Bounty; of women said to be as beguiling as a lullaby. Seafaring tales are of love and desire and happiness, in wild tropical gardens skirted by coral.

"The country had the most beautiful appearance it's possible to imagine," wrote the master of HMS Dolphin, which in 1767 put Tahiti on the map. Reports of its existence sparked sensation in Europe, fuelling philosophical speculations about the "state of nature" and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage".

And the tease endures. On these perfumed shores I think myself that noble savage: primitive man set among all the holidaying possibilities of an earthly paradise. I skinny dip at night under winking stars. Lounge about in budgie smugglers. Consider a tattoo. Drink pina coladas.

About 210,000 tourists arrive here annually (twice as many visit Fiji; Hawaii gets 6 million a year), most flying from the US (33per cent), France (22per cent), elsewhere in Europe (17per cent), Japan (11per cent) and Australia (5per cent). Peak season is June to November. About a fifth are cruise ship passengers. Most travellers pack a Hawaiian shirt. They're the resort crowd those who wear better white pants than me, speak better French, have a better tan and a better pair of cozzies. One Italian has pineapples and strawberries printed on his bathing trunks. His wife's in an apricot-pink G-string that goes places I never need know about.

Paradise isn't always private and love is a luxury item. High-season rates for the ultra-deluxe beach villa with private pool at the Four Seasons Resort at Bora Bora, for instance, top $8746 a night, plus taxes, service charges and gratuities. Some romance is more expensive than others.

"It's the most beautiful place in the world," the French manager of Tahiti's Maeva Beach Resort says when asked about the attraction of these isles of love. Here, rooms are $390 a night, including taxes. Sunsets are priceless.

But it's now also harder to get to. French Polynesia's tourist numbers have dipped 30per cent since the worldwide plunge in the bourse, with two recent hotel closures and direct flights from Australia cancelled early this year. Paradise is now reached via Auckland. "We always wanted to come and thought we'd never get another opportunity," says Adrienne Koenig, 25, from Bunbury, Western Australia, who nurses her swollen left knee beside a resort pool. She's on honeymoon and had scraped her leg against a sea anemone when boogy-boarding a left-hand barrel reef break off Tahiti's west coast.

The English word "tattoo" is from the Polynesian "tatau" and this is how the wound looks: speckled and inky blue. "The pattern is kind of cool," Adrienne says. "But it is itchy."

We talk flower girls, table decorations and the bridesmaids' dress colours (lilac and aqua). Her husband, John, 26, says they're spending two weeks in the Society Islands, which includes three nights at Hotel Novotel on Bora Bora. "We didn't want to go somewhere cheap. We wanted somewhere special."

It's a recurring theme in my eight days in the tropics. Never before have I heard so many wedding stories, seen so much new love, nor had such earnest discussion about bomboniere. It's not easy being a single bloke among all this pre-booked romance. On arrival, I had crossed the "vacances/holidays" box on the disembarkation card, as do about 80per cent of visitors. Another 28per cent, when asked the purpose of their trip, mark "lune de miel/honeymoon", confirming the two aren't mutually exclusive.

"Around 70per cent are honeymooners," says Philippe Claverotte, a charming Frenchman who, 14years ago, married an Australian he met in the Whitsundays. Both now manage Sofitel's Marara Beach Resort. It's a luxury hotel on the beryl lagoon of Bora Bora, with a view from the bed I couldn't imagine more idyllic.

"Bora Bora is the dream of many people," Claverotte tells me. "Some come on second marriage, second honeymoon. Many are coming also for anniversaries."

I stay three nights and wish not to leave. Days are filled with pleasures: swims in the tepid lagoon, French pastries for breakfast, bicycle rides, paddles in the canoe, papaya juice, reading on the beach. The weather is a balm. Hibiscus are in bloom. I find myself transfixed by the colour of the water and by a French-Canadian in her canary-yellow bikini.

"Most honeymooners stay three or four nights," Claverotte says. "A lot of this time they spend in the bed."

A young and single Joseph Banks arrived at Matavai Bay on April 13, 1769, as Tahiti's first tourist. An ebullient gentleman of independent means, he set out on James Cook's grand tour with four servants, two greyhounds and much excess baggage. In this new land he tasted new foods, tried surfing, got a tattoo, collected souvenirs, slept with local women, fell in love.

"[The] groves of cocoa nut and bread fruit trees [were] loaded with a profusion of fruit and giving the most grateful shade I have ever experienced," he penned in his journal. He thought the scenery "the truest picture of an arcadia ... that the imagination can form".

Cook had ventured here to make meteorological observations and chart the coast of this island shaped like a top-heavy hourglass. He stayed three months. Tahiti was the first great object of his westward journey in search of the Unknown Southern Continent, a landmass that would prove to be Australia.

When the Endeavour sailed from here, its ship's company included a Polynesian high-priest navigator named Tupaia. He was to act as Cook's pilot through the broken isles of the South Pacific. "I do not know why I may not keep him as a curiosity," wrote Banks, seemingly intent on collecting everything.

These archipelagoes were peopled long ago by migratory eastward voyages from the East Indies ancient travels undertaken by seafarers who read the stars, the winds and currents, along ocean paths linking known landfalls from the Solomons to Fiji and Samoa.

Tupaia travelled westward with Cook, explaining the summer winds and reading breezes from the shifting curve of the Milky Way. Ten months later, he was to be in the small landing party that encountered "several of the natives and a few hutts" at Botany Bay.

"I ordered the boats to lay upon their oars in order to speake to them," Cook wrote. "But this was to little purpose for neither us nor Tupia [sic] could understand one word they said."

It's a curious historical footnote that a Tahitian was one of the first foreigners to make contact with the first Australians.

"Did you once play football for Richmond?" asks a ruddy-faced man on the tarmac as we board a twin-prop at Papeete for the 50-minute hop to Bora Bora. They're my team but I'm unsure if it's a compliment or insult. He's middle-aged and from Melbourne, lives in Middle Park, is on honeymoon and drips with perspiration.

The wedding was two weeks ago. "We wanted to enjoy the flowers," says his new wife, Francesca. "And I needed to get my son off to boarding school."

Fresh nuptials have everyone in a narrative mood. Never before have I holidayed among so much canoodling and hand-holding and so many tables for two. It's a bit like Valentine's Day every day. Love is in the air. Everybody is happy.

I snorkel with women in two-piece bathers and at night toss in bed in the warm bosom of this enchanted world. It's not romance: I can't work out how to adjust the air-con and I never am comfortable sleeping alone on a king-size bed in a thatch-roof bungalow above a limpid coral lagoon. It's an exotic pleasure best reserved for two. With champagne. And frilly knickers.

Now it's 4.47am and I've cowrie shells around my neck as I check in luggage, soon to leave this holiday idyll. Stars twinkle above. The arrivals hall fills as we wait to depart, people coming and going on a continuous loop of leisure. Most are in short sleeves. A young blonde woman trundles her wheelie bag wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Happily married."

It makes me smile. A third of all marriages in Australia end in divorce.

There is no certainty. Honeymoons don't last forever, not even in paradise.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Sofitel Luxury Hotels and Air Tahiti Nui.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Tahiti Nui charges $1436, including taxes, from Sydney flying to Auckland with Qantas and then Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete. Melbourne passengers fly Emirates to Auckland and then Air Tahiti Nui to Papeete for $1398 including taxes. Fares are return.

Staying there

The Accor hotel group has six resorts in French Polynesia, including four Sofitel luxury hotels on Moorea, Bora Bora and Tahiti. Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort rooms from $227; Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort from $484; Sofitel Bora Bora Marara Beach Resort from $452; Sofitel Bora Bora Motu Private Island from$558. See sofitel.com or accorhotels.com.au.

More information

Tahiti Tourism, phone 1300655563 or see tahitinow.com.au.

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