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Travel: When you're cast away in paradise.

Byline: Cathy Mayer

The three sharks circled us as we floated in the crystal clear waters of the South Pacific - fortunately they were more interested in the fish we were throwing to them than in us.

Swimming with reef sharks, and rays, their friendlier flat-fish-like relative, has to be one of the highlights of visiting French Polynesia. While there's plenty to do on land, snorkelling, diving and sailing off the coasts of the islands is a magical experience.

Better known by the name of the main island Tahiti, French Polynesia is a picture postcard version of paradise, and the French influence has left its mark on the sophisticated and comfortable hotels.

Divided into five island groups, 80 per cent of the population live in the Society Islands, which include Tahiti and Bora Bora, and these are the main tourist destinations.

For the real South Pacific atmosphere though, it's best to leave the busy modern capital city and head south to explore the rest of the main island. Travelling down the coast, the Museum Of Tahiti And Its Islands gives you a quick feel for local culture and history. Detailed maps show you the tiny islands scattered miles from anywhere, as well as the fragile wooden canoes which the islanders used to cross the vast empty ocean.

Some of the most fascinating objects though are the statues or tiki, ranging from tiny intricate carved figures to huge stone or wooden sculptures of stylised humans.

The Polynesian people and their lives have been fascinating Europeans for years - French artist Gaugin spent years travelling around the area painting the local inhabitants. So a short stop at the Gaugin museum, to see reproductions of his work, is worthwhile.

There's plenty of five-star luxury around the capital, with hotels such as the Tahiti Beachcomber. After a taste of the high life, we opted to get back to nature at a hotel near Tahiti Iti, or small Tahiti, the southern part of the island. A great base for walking and a complete contrast to the commercialism of Papeete, Fare Nana'o is a set of six bungalows by the water's edge.

Totally carved from wood, there's an overwater bungalow, as well as a treehouse accessible only by ladder. It's not for those who need their mod cons - you need a good supply of mosquito repellent - but the spectacular setting makes it almost impossible to do anything but relax.

The nearby island of Bora Bora is visited by thousands of honeymooners every year, and it's not hard to see why. For the ultimate luxury stay at the Hotel Bora Bora, or take your choice from the Meridien, Beachcomber and Pearl Beach chains.

You can stake a claim to your own patch of beach, with beachfront villas, but nothing beats an overwater bungalow - with your own ladder down to the sea, you can practise your snorkelling before breakfast or swim at sunset and spend the rest of the day relaxing on your balcony.

Most hotels have pools, but these come a poor second to the turquoise sea, so clear that you can see for around 100ft on a calm day, with coral reefs packed with brightly coloured fish, eels, octopi and clams.

Floating above the blue and pink corals, huge shoals of yellow, blue and iridescent fish swarm around you, almost close enough to touch.

If you want a break from relaxing and swimming, you can visit one of the many pearl farms. Some of the best in the world come from this area, and black pearl or oyster shell jewellery is a great souvenir. But the best souvenir of all is a chance to see the island traditions come to life.

The missionaries who visited the islands in the 18th century wanted to ban the traditional dancing, and when you see a display it's no surprise.

Fortunately they failed, and you get to watch beautiful girls dressed only in grass skirts, flowers and coconut shells beckoning to you as their hips sway to the sound of the drums.

As everything is done with a smile, and usually a welcoming flower garland, the danger is, that like Gaugin, you'll never want to leave.

Travel Facts: Cathy Mayer travelled to Tahiti courtesy of Air New Zealand and Tahiti Tourism. Air New Zealand flies from London Heathrow to Tahiti via Los Angeles. Pacific Class fares start from pounds 689 plus taxes depending on travel dates. From Tahiti you can explore the other Pacific Islands on the Air New Zealand Coral Route with the South Pacific Airpass starting from pounds 246. Call Air New Zealand Reservations on 0800 028 4149 or check out the website at For specialist tour operators to Tahiti, contact All-Ways Pacific Travel on 01494 432 747, ITC Classics - Worldwide on 0870 751 9310 or Transpacific Holidays on 01293 567 722.

For further information on Tahiti and Her Islands visit or call Tahiti Tourisme on 020 7771 7023.

Bungalows at Fare Nana'o start from around pounds 30 a night.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 16, 2002
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