There are no overwater bungalows on Rurutu. No beachfront restaurants offering candlelit dinners, or in-room massages. No butlers delivering your early-morning coffee, no golf buggies to deliver you to your preferred pool.
In short, Rurutu is not your typical Polynesian island. Even its look isn't quite right. Rather than being surrounded by a turquoise lagoon, it has a fringing reef that gives it a wilder, more changeable beauty. Although its shores are scalloped with sandy beaches, what first captures your eye is the cliffs jutting so high that clouds catch on their peaks.
Not many tourists make it to Rurutu. The most northerly island in French Polynesia's most southerly archipelago, the Austral Islands, Rurutu is almost 60 kilometres south of Papeete. Most of those travellers who do come here are drawn by one of two attractions. One is the chance to swim with humpback whales, which regularly pass through here with their newborn calves between June and October. The other is the chance to explore the island's remarkable limestone caves. Eroded into soaring cliffs made of ancient coral, these caves were once used as shelter by the locals.
Each of the island's 30 or so caves are different, some filled with stalactites and stalagmites, others with verdant ferns growing out of piles of rubble. The ceiling of Tupumai cave is decorated with shells and corals; the largest cave, Ana a'eo, has plenty of stalagmites, and a hole in the top through which locals used to talk to their gods.
I came here for the whale watching, and was as thrilled by the experience as I expected, particularly the half hour or so that we spent floating just metres away from a mother and her curious calf. What I didn't expect, however, was to find myself enchanted by the vagaries of life on this quirky island.
Rurutu has just three small villages, Moerai, Avera and Hauti. They used to fight regular wars but now coexist, in a grudging sort of way. I am based in Avera, at the Pension Teautamatea, one of four guesthouses on the island. (There are no hotels.) There are several things to love about Teautamatea, but its greatest asset is Elin.
Elin is perhaps the last person you'd expect to find running a pension on a remote Polynesian island. She's a genial, no-nonsense Welsh woman with a PhD in weevils, who first came to the islands to do research. In quick succession, she met her husband, Viriamu – from one of Rurutu's most important clans – married him, had three children and opened a guesthouse. So much for a career in science.
With her insider knowledge and outsider's eye, Elin proves to be the perfect guide. During a conversation about how the island is changing, she mentions a recent law that means all locals now have to bury their dead in the cemetery. Traditionally, the deceased were interred in the backyard.
"That's where Viriamu's grandfather is," she says casually.
We go for a drive around the island. The lush landscape reflects the island's fertile soil and the frequent rain; "it's the Britain of Tahiti," Elin jokes. In the verdant valleys, torch ginger, papaya, bananas and even tobacco – introduced by the missionaries – run wild. The most common crop, however, is taro, a rather bland foodstuff that, for some inexplicable reason, is adored by locals. Back in the day, wars were started by one village raiding another village's taro crop. Even today, each family's taro plot is immaculately tended. Naturally, taro makes a regular appearance on Elin's menus, but fortunately she takes a creative approach, serving up tasty treats such as taro spring rolls and taro leaf souffle, along with grilled tuna and mango and papaya crumble.
Rurutu has plenty of hiking trails, but not much in the way of cafes or bars. When we find ourselves in the mood for coffee and cake, we head to the main village of Moerai. Our first stop is the local coffee roaster, a one-man operation run by a French expat, Jacques Delbord, who roasts his beans in an old washing machine. To get an eclair to go with the coffee, we pop in at the tiny Patisserie Paatu run by Elise Teinaore. Charmed to find this tiny outpost of civilisation, I ask Elise how she developed a passion for patisserie.
"I really wanted to be a nurse," she says. "However, my two older sisters were already nurses, so they told me I had to do something else."
In Moerai, as in Avera, every house has a neat garden. Where Avera's homeowners use coral and shells to mark their boundaries, Moerai's gardens are surrounded by low whitewashed walls. I remark on the difference to Elin, who rolls her eyes. "Yes, they wanted the whole island to do it," says Elin, but Avera refused. Why? "Because it was Moerai's idea."
While in Moerai, we stop to pay our respects to the island's most important inhabitant. Contrary to what he may think, this is not the former mayor – who still has five flagpoles outside his house, with flags flying to indicate when he is in residence – but A'a, Rurutu's former god.
Alone among the Polynesian islands, the Rurutans decided for themselves to convert to Christianity, even before any missionaries had washed up on their shores. Introduced diseases had struck hard among the island's population, and the pragmatic locals decided their old gods were clearly no longer up to the job. Some of the local chiefs went to a nearby island already equipped with missionaries, to learn more about this strange new god. He clearly passed the audition, as the chiefs returned home and told the community they were converting.
As part of their conversion, the locals literally evicted their old god, presenting the missionaries with a beautiful, once-sacred carving of A'a. The original is now in the British Museum, but you can pop in to say hello to the replica housed in the low-slung town hall. Look for him in the cabinet by the sporting trophies.
Air Tahiti Nui flies three times a week from Australia to Papeete via Auckland, with four flights a week from Papeete to Rurutu. For more information, visit www.airtahitinui.com.au
Room and half board at Pension Teautamatea costs XPF13,750 ($170) per couple per night. See www.teautamatea.blogspot.com.au
The writer travelled courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourisme.