Dawn in French Polynesia. The tip of a slowly stirring sun winks shyly above the gun metal, pre dawn hue of the placid Pacific, tinting the horizon a faint shade of blush pink. From my balcony aboard the Paul Gauguin, I can see a pair of five man canoes streaking past our flank; their wakes gleam briefly on the water before disappearing out of sight. A hundred yards away, a small container ship sits at anchor. Black against the reddening sky, she looks as perfectly preserved as an insect in amber. The steaming hot coffee is invigorating.
I was awake at this ungodly hour because my body clock was basically shot to bits for the first few days after arriving here. A thirty hour journey via Paris and Los Angeles was followed by an overnight stay at Tahiti’s exquisite Inter Continental hotel. By this stage, we were eleven hours behind the UK in time. But what followed was worth the journey a dozen times over.
The Paul Gauguin is as small, perfect and exquisitely formed as any of the great impressionist’s finest works. Gauguin the artist- like Fletcher Christian and his Bounty mutineers before him- was hopelessly bewitched by this unfeasible, tranquil floating paradise. And I was already perilously close to falling under its subtle, hypnotic spell, too.
Over the course of a week, we sauntered between one jaw dropping show stopper of an island after another. It was like being awake in some incredible, vivid dream. The full impact of Polynesia only sank in-pun wholly intentional- after I had been home for about a week.
The beaches alone are a huge, compelling draw. Acres of spun sugar sand as pristine as a Guards parade, shelving gently into electric blue, milk warm water so vibrant that it almost hurt the eyes to look at it.
After a few days, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to wade through the welcoming surf, savouring a beer and chatting casually to other fellow strangers in paradise. Mind you, with the Gauguin carrying only a tidy three hundred and thirty passengers, nobody stayed strangers for very long.
Above our heads, an armada of idle, soporific palm fronds waved in the breeze like lines of hula dancers. Lush, dense tracts of fauna in a hundred shades of green tumbled down almost to the edge of the water. Huge, almost ethereal cloud formations whispered across a cobalt blue sky like fleets of ghostly galleons.
Ashore, winding tracks led to small, rustic settlements, where roosters strutted and crowed until the early morning hours, and sometimes even later. Smoke from inland fires hung in the air as if it had solidified; the breeze was almost non existent under the mid afternoon sun.
Polynesia was immortalised in South Pacific, the post war Rogers and Hammerstein epic that became legendary. One of the songs is dedicated to the brooding, mystical monolith that the locals called ‘Bali Hai’.This is, in fact, Mount Otemanu. And, despite being the stuff of Hollywood legend, Otemanu is all too real.
My first sight of it was awe inspiring. We dropped anchor in the star kissed embrace of Bora Bora’s stunning lagoon at around ten in the evening. Coming out on deck, I found myself quite literally face to face with Otemanu, no more than a hundred yards away.
Brooding, jagged and massive, it loomed blacker than black against the soft, velvet canvas of the night like some benevolent deity. Above it’s peak hung a perfect, pearl white moon as big as a battleship.
I was up again at dawn, face to face with the great brute as the sun began its sluggish climb in the brilliance of a picture perfect day. The great black mass was now fifty shades of deep, verdant green. Early morning mist surged and rolled down through it’s wooded slopes and valleys like so many ghostly tidal waves. It was an incredibly beautiful moment.
As the sun climbed, so the shadows on the mountain shifted, and a different aspect of Otemanu revealed itself. All things considered, it was not at all hard to understand the amazing effect this remote, idyllic icon had on people like Paul Gauguin. No wonder he lingered here for years.
Of course,Polynesia is perfect for scuba divers. The coral and sea life could be classed as a vast underwater theme park in its own right. And the entire area has long been the stuff of dreams for many honeymooners. It remains so to this day.
If you want lots of nightlife, with casinos, late night bars and fabulous floor shows, then this might not be your cup of tea, The languid, more laid back sense of pace and style is a huge part of Polynesia’s sublime, surreal charm.
It will call you back. And, if you have half an ounce of romance in your soul, you will have to answer that call.
God knows, I will.