Life and luxury on a Tahitian reef

“We call this the House of the Sharks,” Manuiti says nonchalantly as we approach the front door of a thatch-roofed cottage resting on stilts about eight feet above the waterline. As we entered I could feel my blood pressure begin to fall in the soft glow of woven lauhala reaching upwards with the vaulted ceiling. It felt cozy and tropical and gloriously Tahitian. I plopped my map of Moorea, Tahiti, onto a French colonial-style hardwood desk. “Ia orana!” Manuiti declared in welcome, although he must have sensed my worry.

“Don’t worry,” he suggested unconvincingly while wiping droplets of perspiration from his forehead. Manuiti stepped over to a portion of the floor that was cut out and into which a glass panel had been inserted to reveal the reef below. Together we gazed down into the water and scanned the fish swimming by. “The sharks are small and black,” he said as if that would make me feel better, “and they won’t bother you.” I still looked worried, but I stuck a few French Polynesian francs into his hand before he went off.

“Maruru!” I said in gratitude to my ichthyologist-slash-bellman as the door closed. I bent over the glass hole again wishing I were looking for Tahitian black pearl mollusks instead of the Son-of-Jaws.

Then I turned and took a flying leap onto a bed mattress so soft it was like landing in a field of marshmallows. I began to feel myself slip into the tranquil, semi-conscious peacefulness of a dream world. The waves. The salty air. The quiet. You have never known the meaning of the term luxury until you have lived on a Tahitian reef.

Imagine being suspended in the air, and the only sound you hear is the hypnotizing swoosh of water crashing in the distance. Nothing else. No cars. No dogs. No airplanes. No birds. Just you and sound of water folding into itself like the entwined fingers of lovers holding hands. At that moment I thought I’d never go back onto land again. “Terra firma,” I said to myself, “Who needs it?” But then I got hungry.

I recalled the docks along Papeete’s waterfront a few hours earlier before I hopped onto a ferry bound for Vaiare Wharf, Moorea. It was only an hour or so across the channel but it seemed so far away. The harbor was filled with people and roulettes (food trucks) and cafés.

There I found the largesse of the South Pacific. There was the succulent flavor of poisson cru, raw fish flavored with coconut milk, vegetables, lemon and spices. There was a cornucopia of tropical fruits: papaya, pineapple, banana, mango and coconut. And where else but a former French colony is fresh bread elevated to an art form? Oh yeah, and cold Hinano beer.

Even though Tahiti and Hawai’i are separated by more than 2,400 miles of open ocean, the native populations of those two distant island archipelagos are family to one another. The island of Raiatea is north and west of Papeete, although it is far less visited (or known) than its sister islands of Bora Bora and Moorea. But Raiatea’s significance to Polynesia cannot be overstated. It is known as the “Sacred Island” because of its history as a cultural center for much of the South Pacific.

The vanguard of Raiatea’s importance rests largely with the ceremonial stone platform known as Marae Taputapuatea. Also referred to as “The Navigators Marae,” it is said that from this spot, ancient Tahitians launched their canoes and ultimately made landfall on the Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 years ago.

While lying on that heavenly bed, I considered the courageous Tahitians who sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean in tiny canoes in search of a new beginning. And there above the calm waters of that tranquil, turquoise lagoon, I thought, unlike them, “I’m never leaving here.”

For more information on traveling to Tahiti, visit www.tahiti-tourisme.com