What is it about Tahiti that bewitches writers, travellers, artists and sailors? A cruise on the small luxury ship named Paul Gauguin reveals all.
The promise of a life of hedonistic pleasure was so irresistible that Gauguin turned his back on his job as a stockbroker, his bourgeois existence, his wife and children (and a great deal of debt) to live his idyll. He lived his final years on the island, drinking, womanising, painting and enjoying vivid daydreams courtesy of liberal amounts of morphine until his death in 1903. Gauguin’s home, the Madison de Jodi, or ‘House of Pleasure’, on the island of Hive Oak was also fairly fruitful judging by the number of locals claiming him as an ancestor.
Such is the spell of this paradise that some have literally risked their necks to stay. The most famous of these were the mutinous sailors of the famous Bounty. The ship left England and sailed to Tahiti in 1787 to pick up breadfruit plants and transport them to the West Indies — Captain Bligh was at the helm and he and the crew spent five months in Tahiti (Otaheite).
They lived ashore caring for the potted plants and ‘mingled’ with the natives. The island with its good food, abundance of sea life, coral reefs, balmy weather and of course, the laissez-faire attitude towards sex was Eden for the sailors and officers, accustomed to the rigours of sailing and strict Royal Navy rules.
They were bewitched. Naval discipline broke down and it was hardly surprising that there was a mutiny soon after they were forced to leave. Led by Fletcher Christian, the mutineers put Captain Bligh to sea in a small boat and while some fled to the remote Island of Pitcairn to avoid punishment by the Royal Navy, others stayed in Tahiti only to be collected months later and taken home to be hanged for mutiny.
It’s not hard to see why the crew baulked when they had to leave. The moment you step out of the plane in Tahiti Faa, you’re seduced by its embrace. The air is thick with the fragrance of night blossoms and the haunting sound of Tahitian singers. Within a few minutes of walking through the quaint single flower-bedecked customs post in Papeete, visitors get lei’d by one of the locals. Traditionally Hawaiian in origin, this involves placing a garland of flowers — usually frangipani — ceremoniously round your neck… a licence to loosen up.
Tahiti is the main island and it’s from here, at the port of Papeete, that the m/s Paul Gauguin leaves. Except for the crew, who are a cosmopolitan mix of Croatians (the officers), French, Americans and delightful Philipinos. The stateroom suites come with a very attentive butler, whose studied formality was offset by his charming inability to pronounce the letter ‘v’, that resulted in a solemn explanation of how to use the remote for the ‘TB’ and the ‘DBD’.
From the moment the ship edges away from the quay and the brightly lit waterfront of Papeete, you roll gently with the ship and all it promises.
The seven-day cruise in Tahiti and the Society Islands takes you to Raiti Taha known as the ‘vanilla island’ with its string of little pristine uninhabited satellite islands, or Motus. Motu Mahana is for the private use of guests of the Gauguin, where they’re lavishly entertained at a barbeque on the beach, under the palm trees, unwinding to the soft sound of songs. The ship then moves onto Bora Bora, described by James Michener as ‘the most beautiful island in the world’ and to Moorea, a favourite weekend getaway for the locals. Here too, you can take the tender to a private Motu, which although uninhabited has a temporary bar for the guests.
The ship travels by night and anchors off the islands by day. The pool deck — the best place to relax is quiet, the only movements are that of the waiters softly bearing fresh towels, cocktails, Moet and iced water. If you need a little intellectual stimulation between periods of languidness, there are lectures by itinerant experts who arrive by tender to talk abouta range of topics including the history of the islands, Mutiny on the Bounty, Gauguin and his painting, the black pearl cultivation for which Tahiti is famous, and the lives of the rays and sharks.
For the more energetic, there’s an onboard water sports platform from where you can ski, windsurf or kayak and there are daily excursions to the islands by tender for snorkelling, diving and underwater walks to view the magnificent coral reefs and the life around them. The Drift snorkeling was a firm favourite with guests: A tender takes you to an uninhabited island where the Tiputa channel runs from reef to lagoon. You expend no energy as you drift over the iridescent fish, coral gardens and beds of sea urchins — except an occasional kick to keep you in the channel. For those less adventurous — a glass-bottomed boat floats slowly over the huge coral heads that cluster in shallow areas to watch the parrot and butterfly fish dart between its gardens. Lively bursts of rainbow colours speed to and fro in synchronised choreography just beneath the glass.
Even the seagulls are colourful. They’re petite and sleek unlike our rowdy, often tatty lot at home. As they glide silently over the cyan lagoon, the colour is reflected on their undercarriage, so they look
like startling two-toned tropical birds. The stingrays are different too in that here you swim with them, not as fast as possible away from them. They’re sensuous and affectionate — wrapping their wings around you in an embrace of soft, grey chamois. Their tiny mouths are permanently in what looks much like a cartoonish “O” of surprise …
Les Gauguine — women chosen for their looks and ability to dance — are permanently on board, singing and always playing their ukuleles. Tahitian dance — an unapologetic allegory of a mating dance — shocked, delighted and awed Europeans when they arrived on the islands. There’s no artifice in the alternately sensual and dynamic movements, with a flash of bark skirt in time to the rhythmic beat of the pahu drum. Rippling supple hands tell a story and lithe hips shimmy in seduction. The fragrant flowers the women wear in their long, black hair and their sensuous dancing are the sights and sound that have made Ori Tahiti — or Tahitian dance — famous throughout the world. And sadly, it’s the reason why Tahitian dance was outlawed for so many years.
The pious missionaries, who arrived in 1797, were appalled at the overt sexuality of the moves and dancing was immediately outlawed. But the Tahitians
danced in secret. In the 1950s the renaissance of Tahitian dance began, led by Madeleine Mouua, who restored the dignity of Ori Tahiti as well as its pride of place at the centre of Tahitian culture.
Life on the islands is slow. Except on Tahiti, there are very few cars and locals rely on the hibiscus-adorned trundling buses. There are no bus stops — you simply place a piece of fruit on a large palm frond on the road and wait on the side of the road. While being careful to avoid the land crabs, which move faster than anything else in Tahiti.
They pull anything and everything into their holes — clothing that has fallen from the washing line, food and even hibiscus flowers.
On islands where everything beautiful is cherished, you wonder if the flowers are for dining or decorating purposes. One thing is sure; they taste so good because they eat so good. Before being dished up as a delicacy, the crabs ‘dine’ on coconut milk and papaya. Revenge for laundry theft is best served hot and tender in a home-made paella.
It’s not just the quirkiness of Tahiti, the verdant peaks, crystalline waters, beaches or the plentiful supply of fruit and fish. it’s their collective and primal appeal that drives your almost uncontrollable urge to jump ship and go Gauguin.