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Enchanting Tahiti

As I stepped off the plane into Faaa airport on Tahiti, I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. No! I really am in Tahiti! I repeated this simple ritual at least once each day. Even after a particularly uncomfortable night in a pension in Bora Bora, I opened the plywood door to a turquoise bay and lush, tropical gardens, and the aches and pains of the terrible bed faded away. After dreaming of Tahiti ever since I saw “South Pacific” as a child, it was difficult to believe that it was truly a dream come true.

The water really is turquoise, and it’s the same temperature as the air. Filled with every imaginable tropical fish and coral, it’s like being part of an enormous aquarium — with the sharks outside the reefs! The beaches are clean and sandy. People paddle through lagoons and bays in kayaks. Trade winds rustle through palms. Everyone wears flowers in their hair. When you arrive, you will be given a flower to wear too.

The geography of the Society Islands is spectacular. Remnants of volcanoes covered with brilliant green foliage rise dramatically to jagged, angular peaks. Deep bays ringed with coral reefs provide anchorage for everything from enormous cruise ships, inter-island ferries and cargo steamers, to schooners, sail boats and tiny kayaks. Tiare, plumeria, hibiscus, and much more bloom year ‘round. Everyone is warm and friendly, and why not? They live in Paradise. For me, the bonus was the food. As Tahiti is French, there are freshly baked baguettes and croissants for breakfast, incredible French pates, cheeses and pastries, apples and other produce from New Zealand, fish fresh from the water, and lots of tropical fruits. Heaven!

I was in Tahiti for my ongoing research on vanilla’s journey around the world. I also collected stories, interviews, recipes and photos of vanilla in the islands to share with you. I hope my offering will pique your interest and perhaps you too will find your way to the South Pacific. It’s worth saving for as it’s an adventure you’ll never forget. While my focus is on the vanilla, I’ve given you a few tidbits about travel and activities in the Islands to get you in the mood for daydreaming.

The History of Vanilla in Tahiti

Although the French brought vanilla to many of their colonial outposts in the late1700s, vanilla wasn’t an early import to Tahiti. It wasn’t until 1848 that the vines arrived from Manila, Philippines. They came via Admiral Hamelin on the frigate “La Virginie” in 1848, twelve years after Charles Morren, a Belgian scientist, figured out the secret of hand-pollinating the vanilla orchid. The newly transported vines were planted in the Garden of the Governor in Papeete, gardens you can still visit today.

The vanilla pods were small and fat, most probably a cross between Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla pompona. They were the first of what is now called Vanilla tahitensis, a distinct species, quite different from Vanilla planifolia or Bourbon vanilla. Vanilla planifolia was later brought by the Rear-Admiral Bonnard from the Paris Botanical Gardens. And Captain Gilbert Pierre brought more planifolia vines from Mexico in 1874. By 1880 vanilla was well established in the territories. Over time, cross-breeding of plant stock created five different varieties of Tahitian vanilla.

Until recently, the majority of the Tahitian crop was exported to France. Most vanilla traders in the United States weren’t interested in Tahitian vanilla as it has very little natural vanillin, and a distinctly different flavor. Then, in the early 1980s, Marc Jones and Peter Stone, two entrepreneurial young Americans with a yen for adventure, decided to promote Tahitian vanilla to the American marketplace. Their efforts caught the attention of creative chefs who were taken by its fruity, floral flavor and fragrance. The only drawback has been its price, but now that all vanilla prices are about the same, it’s a great time to sample Tahitian vanilla for a taste of Tahiti.

Tahitian Vanilla Today

Fifty years ago vanilla was an important agricultural crop in Tahiti. Native Tahitian families were the primary vanilla growers. Some Chinese immigrants, who arrived in the early part of the twentieth century, became growers, while others processed the green beans their families grew or that were purchased from other farmers. French families were active in the industry as well. Vanilla was grown on Tahiti, Huahine, Raiatea, Moorea and Tahaa. Slowly the industry shrank, as the children of growers and processors chose less labor-intensive ways to make their living, until finally there were barely five tons of dried vanilla produced each year.

Fortunately, there’s a resurgence of vanilla growing, encouraged by the government, which has invested money in the industry and assists growers with loans and technical advice. There’s a new generation of vanilla growers, including some who are growing high-tech crops in a shade-house environment. Most of the vanilla is grown now on the islands of Tahaa and Raiatea, with some farms still on Huahine and Moorea. In 2001, thirty-five metric tons of green beans were produced on the islands, seven tons of dried vanilla were exported, and four tons were sold locally. The goal is to increase the crop to about twenty-five metric tons of dry vanilla per year.

Using Tahitian Vanilla

I personally like Tahitian vanilla in cream desserts, in anything with fruit, as a flavor in seafood and fish, and with fresh vegetables. Its cherry, licorice and floral notes make it quite unique.

Tahitians love vanilla. Families spice their rum with vanilla, which they then use to flavor beverages and as an extract to flavor their foods. They use vanilla in rice puddings, crème brulee, banana poe, fresh fruit dishes, and with mahi-mahi or chicken in a cream sauce. And they make a flavorful and potent vanilla Planter’s Punch. In the old days Tahitians used vanilla in medicine as they created all their treatments from the world around them. The green beans were used as a poultice to draw out skin infections, and they used the juice of the green bean as an antidote to scorpion bites. The introduction of modern medicine has eliminated the use of vanilla for anything other than good food and perfume nowadays, with the exception of using it as a nerve tonic.

Travel to Tahiti

There are several airlines with regular flights to Tahiti, including Air Tahiti Nui, Air New Zealand and Air France. Planes now fly into Tahiti daily, usually flying at night and arriving at Faaa early in the morning. It’s an eight hour flight from Los Angeles. European flights have a layover in California. Tahiti is nearly directly south from the Hawaiian Islands and is in the same time zone, but it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, so seasons are reversed. The cheapest airfares are between February and June. Shop for the best rates as the airlines are fiercely competitive.

Peak Season for travel is during the summer, with a secondary season during the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere. If you are going during peak season, it’s wise to make reservations well in advance, whether you plan to stay in a luxury hotel or simple pension. According to the locals, the best time to visit is March, April and May. The weather is quite pleasant, cyclone season is over, and there are fewer tourists.

Rainfall is abundant in the Islands, averaging four meters (13 feet) annually. The major rainfall is during the summer cyclone season from November through January. Rainfall varies island-to-island and even on individual islands. Temperatures in the summer are generally in the 80s and 90s (30s C); the winter months are cooler and windy. I traveled in August and needed a sweater or light jacket in the early morning and late evening, especially in the outer islands. Overall, the temperatures are pretty steady, with no cold snaps or major heat waves, and the trade winds keep the air fresh.

Hotels, Pensions and Campsites

There are organized tours and packages to the Islands if you want as hassle-free a trip as possible. There are also cruises that offer inter-island tours, providing lodging and meals so all you need to do is relax and enjoy the trip. Lonely Planet has an excellent book on Tahiti and French Polynesia, which I recommend for anyone visiting the islands. Part guidebook, part listing of restaurants, accommodations, airlines and much more, it’s very useful.

If you’re an adventure traveler or on a tight budget, I recommend pensions. Some are better than others; many are no frills, and some offer a variety of accommodations. It’s worth contacting the pension in advance if hot water is a necessity, as some don’t have it. On Huahine, the water is shut off from 8:00 pm to 5:00 am at times, and almost all pensions have shared bathrooms.

There are a couple of pluses to pensions. I stayed in several, as I island-hopped, and discovered that the people who stay in them are from all over the world, are usually on extended trips and are adventurous. I met people who were crewing on sailboats, marine biologists, honeymooners, and holiday travelers. Most were European, so a variety of languages were spoken. Pensions usually offer a Continental breakfast and have cooking facilities, another plus for budget travelers. At one pension in Tahiti I cooked with several couples and ate magnificently — and inexpensively. Make sure there are markets close to your pension so you can easily get the basics for meals or snacks.

I didn’t camp on the islands, but I met several people who did. There are designated campsites, with restrooms and sometimes showers available. On the outer islands, it’s more private but without facilities. Some places offer tents.

A few of the places I stayed were notable. The first is Le Meridien Tahiti: www.lemeridien-tahiti.com. This is a luxury hotel, built on the beach on the island of Tahiti. They have another hotel on Bora Bora. Rooms are spacious and very comfortable; there are also private bungalows built over the water, which are charming — and pricey. There is a large fresh-water swimming pool, resembling a natural lagoon, complete with a sandy bottom. The property is beautifully landscaped with indoor-outdoor dining for breakfast and dinner, and a lovely out building next to the water for lunches and afternoon dining. Snorkeling and diving gear and small boat rentals, are available. Le Meridien has some of the best croissants and breakfast rolls I have ever eaten. They literally shatter when you bite into them, with crisp, buttery shells, and delicate centers. Hotel prices vary with the season and there are often special rates, so it’s worth investigating online: www.lemeridien-tahiti.com

I stayed one night on Huahine, a very pretty, small island. Chez Guynette (known affectionately as “Club Bed”) is a pension on the main street in Fare, the main town on the island. There are private rooms with bathrooms and a dormitory with a communal kitchen. Proprietors, Marty and Moe Temahahe are what make Chez Guynette special. Marty’s an American who left home as a teenager to see the world. After years of life on a sailboat in many ports of call, she settled in Huahine. Moe’s a local. Both are charming, and went out of their way to help me meet and interview local people who had information on Island history and vanilla. You can find out more about Chez Guynette via chezguynette@mail.pf.

My travel plan was to spend two nights in Raiatea and then head to Tahaa, the vanilla-growing island. However, I ran into some obstacles. The ferry that connects the two islands doesn’t run on Sundays, the day I was due to travel to Tahaa. Then I met a wonderful family who planned to visit friends in Tahaa on Sunday and offered to take me with them.

Sunday morning I wakened to pouring rain, which didn’t let up for two days. The family was traveling in a small boat and had no transportation on Tahaa. My pension was several miles over muddy roads from their destination and I was carrying two cameras, a computer and suitcase. As my only option was to hitchhike in the storm with all my equipment, I decided to forfeit my visit to Tahaa and remained on Raiatea.

This wasn’t an easy decision, given that Tahaa is the vanilla growing region. But what helped to sway me was Pension Tepua and Joe and Guylaine, the proprietors. Pension Tepua is a combination of small rooms and dormitory for the pension, and individual bungalows that are large enough to accommodate several people. It’s built on a cove right on the water, is quiet, and has a very good restaurant. In many respects it’s more like an auberge than pension. It offers affordable comfort at a fraction of the cost of the luxury hotels.

As I was traveling during peak season, finding accommodations was tricky. In many cases, I took whatever I could get. However, when Joe met me at the airport, he said they had a bungalow available so I upgraded from the tiny room I had reserved. After several days without adequate electrical outlets, sleeping on thin foam mats on wooden frames, and using communal bathrooms with only occasional hot water, it was a much-welcomed luxury to take a hot shower, then spread out my research materials, work as late as I needed, and sleep comfortably.

Joe is originally from Portugal, and for years he worked as a long-distance trucker. He speaks at least five languages fluently. As Guylaine speaks only French, she and I communicated through simple French words and a lot of gesturing. They treated me as if I were part of their extended family. Joe drove me in his jeep to interviews, and translated when necessary. When the trip to Tahaa fell through, he drove me across Raiatea to La Vanillere, and stayed with me the entire afternoon and into the evening as we toured the plantation and visited with the growers. As he and Guylaine had only lived in Tahiti for a year, he knew very little about the vanilla industry in the islands. By the time I left Raiatea for Bora Bora, he was both more knowledgeable and a dedicated supporter of the fragrant bean. You can reach Pension Tepua by phone at 66 33 00, fax at 66 32 00, or pension-tepua@mail.pf.

Local Travel

Each island has a primary road that follows the coast. Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora have paved and well maintained roads. Raiatea and Huahine have roads that are partially paved, and partially ground coral, but they are passable. Tahaa and Maupiti have only limited paved roads. All islands have roads into the interior but many of the roads leading into the mountains require 4WD vehicles.

Le Truck is the public bus. It’s a truck with benches that run down both sides of the vehicle, giving it a rakish look, like a cross between a truck, bus, and cable car. Everyone uses Le Truck. Unfortunately, only Tahiti has a regular schedule. However, hitch-hiking is acceptable and safe, and usually you will be picked up right away. There are taxis, which are very expensive, but sometimes they’re the most trustworthy way to arrive on time. Car rentals are available but expensive. If you have reservations at a hotel, pension, or auberge, you will usually be met at the airport or ferry and driven to your accommodations. Bicycles and motor scooters are also available to rent, and are one of the most economical ways to travel locally.

Travel between the islands is by ferry, overnight boat, and airplane. Air Tahiti Nui has a good prop-plane service. Most travelers buy a travel pass as it’s usually cheaper and allows more flexibility. Island hopping takes from 15 minutes to less than an hour by air. Between Moorea and Tahiti it’s easy to use the ferry. The trip takes about an hour, and is inexpensive and comfortable.

Sites and Activities

I’ve chosen a few highlights to share with you here, but there are lots of web sites dedicated to travel in the South Pacific. Again, I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guide to Tahiti and French Polynesia for an overview of the many places you can visit as well as activities, restaurants, clubs and more.

The main islands have lots of special tours. There are 4WD tours into island interiors, where you can visit waterfalls, beautiful mountains and valleys, pineapple and vanilla plantations, and much more. Check with your hotel or pension about local tours.

Needless to say, surfing, sailing, kayaking, swimming and snorkeling are superb throughout the islands. Equipment rentals are available at most hotels and there are special rental shops for those staying at pensions. There are special boat tours, diving and fishing expeditions, and diving classes available, usually through hotels.

Papeete is the capital of Tahiti. It’s a bustling port city with lots of buildings, restaurants, shops and clubs. For dancing and nightlife, this is the place. There are also local historical sites you can tour. As my time was limited, I only spent part of one day in Papeete, so I’m not an authority. I do recommend a visit to the main marketplace. It’s a large two-story building filled with local produce and fish, food stalls, handcrafts, clothing and jewelry. It’s bright, noisy, and lots of fun.

A word to the wise: many of the tourist items sold throughout Tahiti are actually from Indonesia. This is true of the pareu, the sarong-like cloth worn by both men and women. Most of the inexpensive pareu are from Indonesia. There are hand-painted local pareu as well, especially in the outer islands. They’re very pretty, and useful for wearing over bathing suits or as a skirt. I brought home some locally made pareau and turned them into festive tablecloths. If you want to support local crafts, people will be happy to tell you where you can buy them.

I highly recommend taking the time to visit The Museum of Tahiti and Its Islands (Musee de Tahiti et des Iles), located in Fare Iamanaha. It’s reputed to be one of the best museums in the Pacific. I spent several hours in the museum on two different occasions and want to go back again. It offers an exceptional overview of the islands, culture and history, geography, oceanography, and much more. The museum is located on Pointe Nuuroa, one of the most picturesque vistas on the island of Tahiti. You can take a break and sit on the sea wall and watch surfers, walk around the spacious grounds and look at the array of plants grown in the islands, and enjoy a picnic on the grass. On weekends you may see men and boys practicing javelin throwing or even participating in a competition.

If you have the chance, do attend a performance of Tahitian music and dance. Dance is very important in the culture and symbolism of Tahiti. It’s also an entertaining and charming way to get a glimpse of the complex culture and history of a people who depended largely on oral tradition as a way to communicate and to preserve their heritage.

In the early 19th century, missionaries strictly forbade traditional dancing, and substituted hymns for the traditional songs. Without their music and dance — an integral part of early religion and group ritual — the Tahitians lost an important facet of their culture. In 1895 very carefully monitored dances were once again permitted for special events. Then, in the 1950s, a renaissance of dance occurred, initiated by Madeleine Moua, who created the first professional dance group. Using pictures and information passed through oral history, she attempted to recreate and revive this lost art. The many dance troupes that followed have provided a welcome avenue for sharing music, singing and dance. It’s now taught in the schools and many Tahitian children and young adults perform in troupes in the islands and abroad.

Take the time also to visit the marae, the ancient sacred sites of the native Tahitians. Ask about tours or how to find the marae.

Island Specialties

There are a couple of activities that combine a tour of the countryside and the opportunity to buy local specialties. One is in the pursuit of vanilla. There are tours that will take you to both traditional and modern vanilla plantations on Tahaa and Raiatea, and traditional farms on Moorea. Check with your hotel for more information. In the Globe Trotting section, there’s more information on local vanilla plantations. If you don’t have time to visit a plantation, you can buy vanilla in the marketplace on most islands. Bargaining is not commonplace on Tahiti; expect to pay the stated price in most situations.

Besides Tahitian vanilla, there are other items worth seeking out. Monoi, a refined coconut oil that is made into soap, shampoo, and body oils is the preferred product of the locals. It is also sometimes fragranced with tiare, the local gardenia, vanilla, or other perfumes. Tahitians swear by it for keeping their skin supple and sleek. It’s inexpensive and very nice.

Noni (morinda citrafolia) is a local fruit long known by the Polynesians for its alleged healing properties. It has a strange, pungent flavor and aroma, but the good news is that you only need 1/2 teaspoonful twice daily to take advantage of its medicinal properties. Noni’s popularity off-island is fairly recent, but it’s so much in demand now that it has surpassed vanilla as a popular agricultural crop, as it produces fruits throughout the year and is very easy to grow and harvest. Noni trees grow everywhere; ask someone to point them out to you if you’re interested.

But the real piece de resistance is the Tahitian black pearls. They are beautiful! You can visit pearl farms and perhaps get better prices in the outer islands, but pearls are available everywhere, both set and loose. Although the black pearl is special to Tahiti and originally grew naturally, most pearls are now cultivated. Apparently Queen Victoria was partial to pearls and commissioned one of the finest jewelers in Paris to find pearls worthy of her crown. He came to the islands and, indeed, found the largest natural black pearl ever found, which is set in Victoria’s crown. Once in Tahiti, he saw no reason to return to Europe, instead marrying a local woman and raising a family in the islands. His granddaughter, Dorothy Levy, is responsible for reviving the traditional art of kite flying, as well as preserving the history of much of the islands’ arts and culture.

One last specialty as important as the music and dance and as beautiful as the pearls, is the Tahitian art of tattoo. If you’ve ever considered getting a tattoo, this is a great place to do it! It’s expensive, but the tattoos are unique, with beautiful symbolism incorporated into the designs. I met people who return to the islands regularly to have their tattoos touched up or expanded. The only drawback is that you need to keep fresh tattoos protected from the sun. I was very tempted to have a stylized tattoo of a vanilla orchid, but the lure of the water and the fact that I was traveling from island to island dissuaded me. I very definitely plan to return to Tahiti. Perhaps I’ll have time during my next visit to the islands….

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Patricia Rain

is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.
Patricia Rain
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