If you’ve wowed your lover with the streets of Paris, the beaches of Nice and the vineyards of Bordeaux, it’s time to take things to the next level. For your piece de resistance, blow them away with a sojourn in Tahiti, in one of France’s most exotic, exclusive and eccentric overseas territories, tresmagnifique French Polynesia.
For starters, even the way the French say 'Tahiti' is hot.
'TA – I – TI'
I can almost hear it now…
Vanilla, Pearls & Wine
It’s no coincidence that here is where the A-listers go, that restaurant menus come in French and Japanese (and sometimes English) and that here is where Marlon Brando bought an entire island to start a commune on. This is also where you find the world’s best vanilla (on the island of Taha’a) and where the highly-coveted Tahitian black pearl is harvested – the world’s most precious underwater commodity.
But perhaps the most mind-blowing example of Tahiti’s Frenchness, is that even on a coral-ringed lagoon in the middle of the South Pacific, the French have figured out how to do the most French thing – to grow, harvest and produce wine. In the scantily-populated Tuamotu Archipelago, next to the Society Islands and Tahiti, the stunning atoll of Rangiroa boasts Vin de Tahiti, a proper vineyard and the only one on an atoll in the world.
Baguettes de Boulangerie!
Everything in Tahiti reeks of quality; European-grade quality. A distinctly French quality, to be exact.
Tahiti holds almost 70% of the entire population of French Polynesia, which is comprised of almost 120 islands and atolls, less than half of which are inhabited. All Tahitians are French citizens and many of the islands’ people, especially in Tahiti’s capital of Pape’ete, were born in France. French is the official language and the local currency is the French Pacific Franc.
Visit the main market in Pape’ete however and you’re without a doubt in the South Pacific, as far from Europe as can be. The morning catch reigns supreme here with freshly caught fish, local fruits and veggies and the plentiful taro root. Local women huddle around piles of picked flowers, threading and hanging fragrant hei of unsold tiare from the ceilings. The only sign of anything French in the country’s largest marche is the boulangerie and their perfectly baked baguettes. Like Cambodia’s perfect French bread, this is the most pleasant of morning surprises for first-time visitors.
Cross the street to a large downtown supermarket though and you’re immediately thrown into aisles upon aisles of colonial flavours. Foie gras, pate et terrine, beaucoup de moutarde and fromage as far as the eye can see, none of which are made in the islands. Everything is imported directly from France explaining its ultra-steep price tag, and you guessed it, quality!
Finding Polynesia (and Gauguin)
If there’s any grit at all in these stunning story-book islands, it’s in Pape’ete. For the lack of a better comparison, it’s what Honolulu is to Hawai’i. Tahiti holds the islands’ biggest port, and with that come gritty port things. Tahiti sounds exotique, but if you’re considering it as a destination, do visit at least a couple of the other islands.
The jaw-dropping travel brochure vistas you are after are in nearby Bora Bora, Rangiroa, Taha’a, Brando’s Tetiaroa and heart-shaped Moorea. You want ever-verdant Huahine and culturally important Raiatea. You want Polynesia. The further from Tahiti you get, the less you feel of France, again, like America’s Hawai’i.
It’s not until you travel to Polynesia's furthest corner, to the volcanic Marquesas Islands, that you are reminded of French culture again, with the grave of French impressionist Paul Gauguin on quiet Atuona.
So, exactly how French is French Polynesia? It’s beautifully French - especially if you like great food. Yet, in the process of integrating this very foreign quality, the Polynesian part of the country’s equation is arguably more intact than in America’s ‘Aloha’ flavour in Hawai’i. Local men still wear flowers in their hair and do most of the things they’ve done for generations the exact same way. They're just able to do it in French, too.