The Society Islands. Doesn’t the name conjure up marvelous images of ladies in flouncy hats and elbow-length gloves, men in dinner suits with cigarette holders, limousines and licentiousness? Sorry. The name was another brainstorm of Captain James Cook, the man responsible for countless place names throughout the Pacific. Quite understandable, of course, since he was primarily responsible for charting a lot of these places. Some are tantalizingly evocative—Doubtful Sound, Dusky Fjord, Kidnapper’s Bay. For others, a bit more imagination might have been applied. The Society Islands were so named because, in Cook’s own words, “they lay contiguous to one another.” Now, there’s an inspiration!
Cook was also responsible for the name of one of Tahiti’s high points—One Tree Hill. Apparently it didn’t occur to him that one day that single tree would give up the ghost and it would become “no tree hill”. Then again, it hasn’t occurred to anyone in Tahiti to plant another tree up there either.
Some claim that Cook really intended the Society Islands to honor the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, sponsor of the first British scientific survey of the islands and for whom one of his primary missions was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. This he checked off his list at, you guessed it, Point Venus on the island of Tahiti. The Royal Society’s Latin motto is “Nullius in Verba” meaning “on the words of no one”, which explains why they would send people like Cook halfway around the world on multi-year voyages to witness things first hand rather than rely on the word of others. The Royal Society still sponsors scientific research though by now they must be running out of things to observe first hand.
Paradise Lost… Almost
Papeete is the administrative capital of French Polynesia, which encompasses the Austral Islands, the Marquesas, and the Society Islands. Following the first period of European exploration, the islands suffered through the inevitable period of missionary zeal with its attendant abuses and diseases, until finally becoming a French protectorate in 1889. In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and while the islands are still administered by the French State, Gendarmerie, and French Military, they send two deputies to the French National Assembly, one senator to the French Senate, and they vote in French presidential elections. In 2007, the pro-independence president of French Polynesia, Oscar Temaru, urged the electorate to support the socialist candidate Segolene Royal but Nicholas Sarkozy won the island’s popular vote by a narrow margin.
Since then, except for brief periods of French nuclear testing, Tahiti and the other islands have enjoyed being the world’s best-known vacation paradise. And, with good reason. Towering volcanic peaks, bougainvillea and frangipani-strewn vegetation, exotic fauna, perfect beaches, caressing breezes, unrivaled underwater domains and, best of all, nothing that wants to kill you. The best PR for this paradise has come from an impressive list of international artists—Melville, Stevenson, Jack London, Somerset Maugham and James Norman Hall of Mutiny on the Bounty fame—who all wrote reams of delicious prose featuring pagan rituals, beautiful women and uninhibited partying. Pretty much what’s in today’s travel brochures. Their words were voluptuously illustrated when Paul Gauguin sent his blazing images around the world.
The colorful morning market and waterfront promenade in Papeete are a tempting starting point for an exploration of Tahiti’s abundant charms. From there, the 117-km road around the island winds past monuments and museums, temples and maraes, waterfalls, cliffs, gardens, beaches and more scenic photo ops than your camera has digits. Points of interest include the previously mentioned One Tree Hill and Point Venus as well as the Arahoho Blowhole, Tarava’o Point, Vaipahi Gardens, and the Arahurahu Marae. Wander through the flower bedecked village of Papeari and visit the Gauguin Museum.
But never forget that the best of Tahiti involves water. Whether it’s cascading down a cliff, roaring through a rocky gorge, or pounding onto a secluded beach, the water is here to be enjoyed. Hikers and rafters find fresh water diversions, constantly replenished by tropical showers. Sailors enjoy protected anchorages scattered throughout the islands. Surfers hunt for the best breaks along the many reef lines. Divers thrill to underwater coral gardens, vast tropical marine life, otherworldly volcanic formations and all without the need for a wetsuit in Polynesia’s warm waters. Whether on it, in it or under it, plan to be wet several times during your visit to these magical islands.