The flavours and fragrances of French Polynesia provide a heavenly feast for Sally Hammond.
'If you'd come for dinner," says our pareo-clad hostess, pointing towards the tables on the sand near the kitchen, "you could have eaten where Bill Gates had his 50th birthday party."
But it's OK. We are quite happy to be here for lunch on this tiny private motu, a reef island off Moorea. Seated at a rustic table a couple of metres from the water's edge, we're about to deal with a huge platter of speckled, ruby red coconut crabs.
Before we start to hammer open the claws forget regular crab tools, we are each equipped with a small mallet and a block of wood to get at the sweet flesh Maire, wife of chef JP, shows us an even greater delicacy.
"Before we prepare the crab, we feed it on coconut for days," she says, cracking open a section. "When we cook it, this the crab's liver becomes foie gras!"
Spread on crusty French bread it turns out to be just like the real thing but with the hint of coconut, as you'd hope. Anyway, who cares? We never knew crabs had livers until this moment.
Which just about sums up Tahiti or, more correctly, French Polynesia, that scatter of 118 islands in archipelagoes sprawling across the South Pacific. They are distributed over two million square kilometres as big as Europe. And then some.
This is a place of surprises, after all. This is France with a Pacific accent. Baguettes on crystal-white beaches. Pate in paradise. Foie gras under the coconut palms.
Yes! I could get used to this, I think, as I delve into another crab claw.
Many others have thought the same. These islands are peopled by castaways who planned a short visit and stayed a lifetime. English, Chinese, Americans, Australians and, of course, Polynesian and French have each brought a dish or two, creating one of the tastiest cuisines in the world.
Famous people have come too Bligh of Bounty fame, collecting breadfruit saplings to take to the West Indies, Robert Louis Stevenson verifying his vision of Treasure Island and Gauguin. He came to paint, he said, but seducing the island maidens seemed to be higher on his agenda.
Some might say food in the Pacific lacks the pizzazz of South-East Asia. But the trick is to breathe differently. Inhale the subtle scents rather than expect to be assailed by spices. Here it's the spritzy tingle of local limes and ginger. It's rich coconut and the heady fragrance of vanilla or tiare, a sort of magnolia, which turns up in anything from leis to ice-cream and massage oil.
Every visitor is draped with a garland of these small white flowers immediately on arrival in French Polynesia. Best to tuck one behind an ear as well, to show your dating-status. Technically it's on the left for taken, right if you're still looking. Our married friend shrugs when I point out he has inadvertently advertised his availability. It's a bit like that here on these islands, he whispers.
One day on Tahiti we visit the market in Papeete, French Polynesia's capital, called by some an outer suburb of Paris. The huge hall is French-ish but the Polynesian influence is alive and well. On one side there are tables selling every kind of shell ornament and carved nick-nacks, as well as pareos, those filmy, flowing, one-length-covers-all sarong-like garments.
The rest of the place is where Tahitians come on Sundays to collect the ingredients for their massive after-church feasts that are often traditionally covered and baked in a pit in the ground.
Polynesia's rich volcanic soil means these islands can grow almost anything. There are 300 different types of bananas alone, as well as avocados, coconuts, papaya, breadfruit (uru), taro, sweet potatoes and cassava, the starchy mainstays of Polynesian meals. There are prickly pineapples and those tiny green acidic Tahitian limes.
Then we find ourselves among gleaming banks of fish, so fresh they almost wink at us, and mounds of crabs and local lobsters still twitching. This is where the locals come for the red tuna often used in poisson cru, Tahiti's contribution to the world's menu.
Simple, healthy, tasty ... this is raw fish that has been briefly "cooked" in lime juice then swiftly tossed with slivered raw vegetables before being doused liberally with fresh coconut milk. It's sensational but don't think that's all there is to it. The "recipe" is fiercely argued over by every family, every restaurant. Each has its own favourite, so we spend several days tasting variations and return the healthier for it.
Dining on these islands is varied. Every hotel and resort offers plenty of options ranging from casual to fine dining. Le 5 Sens at The Radisson, beachside north of Papeete, is just one example where food is prepared and plated with a flair that any capital city in the world would be proud of.
It would be a mistake not to venture into Papeete itself, or take up the offer of a free shuttle bus to your restaurant of choice on Moorea. There are plenty of top-end restaurants throughout French Polynesia where the discreet service and sophisticated menu makes the roar of traffic on the Champs-Elysees seem a more probable background than the sound of waves crashing on a coral reef.
Le Coco's restaurant on Tahiti is one example, with fine, adventurous food, described poetically on the menu. The service is faultless.
On Moorea, we dine at Restaurant Le Mayflower on lapin terrine and saumon en croute and pinch ourselves that we are in the Pacific not an arrondissement of Paris.
The snakes in this Eden are the exchange rate and the added costs of importing product from across the world. In short, the cost of dining is not cheap. For a good meal you may expect to pay as much as, or more than, you would in the most expensive places in Sydney.
This is where the many creperies, pizzerias, cafes, sandwicheries, patisseries and, to some extent, the bistros and bars come in. Papeete is well-served with these and each evening it also has the roulottes food vans dispensing mammoth servings of burgers, steak and fries, Chinese, crepes and seafood.
Open late and located on Place Vaiete, right on the waterfront, you can sit outside in the tropical evening with a crepe and a bottle of local Hinano beer or a cidre, for hours if you wish.
Finally, it is time to wipe our crab-sticky fingers and leave our idyllic island picnic spot.
For sure Bill Gates had a bigger party than ours. His meal, we are told, was timed to coincide with an ultra-bright sunset over the silken lagoon waters. But it doesn't matter. With our bellies full of crab and its exotic foie gras, we feel like millionaires anyway.
The writer and photographer were guests of Tahiti Tourism.
Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com.au) offers three one-stop flights a week to Papeete via Auckland.
Maiau Beach, Motu Moea private island, Moorea. Phone +689 70 78 58, see www.maiaubeach.com. Lunch and dinner by arrangement. The Manini Beach lunch (which includes lagoon tour) is about $200 a person. Call for bookings and boat transfer information.
Le 5 Sens, Radisson Plaza Resort, PK 7, waterside, (Plage Layfayette) Arue, Tahiti. Phone + 689 48 88 10 or + 689 48 88 46. Entrees 3200CFP ($47), mains 4000CFP.
Le Coco's Restaurant, PK 13, waterside, Punaauia, Tahiti. Phone 58 21 08. Lunch and dinner daily. Entrees 3550CFP, mains 4350CFP.
Tahiti Tourism, phone (02) 9233 4920, see tahitinow.com.au