Getaway to French Polynesia is vacationer's way of saying 'time out' to the world

SOUTH PACIFIC IDYLLS A

October 16, 1994|By Susan Kaye Laura Barnhardt of The Sun staff contributed to this story.

Tahiti is seven hours' flying time southwest of Los Angeles, across the equator and then some. Add in nearly six hours for the transcontinental hop from Baltimore and that's a long way to travel for a beach vacation.

Even so, visits to French Polynesia's islands by Maryland residents were up 54 percent in 1993 from the year before, with a total of 602 Marylanders visiting last year.

"One Tahiti booking was from a woman whose requirements were to go far away and get away from it all," said Donna Davis, assistant manager at Cruises Only Inc., a Baltimore travel agency. "But usually, the people who go there have been to the more common destinations two or three times and are looking for something new."

Debbie Dean, a Laurel resident, fits that description. She travels at least once a year, usually to the Carribean, but last February booked a Club Med vacation on the island of Moorea.

"Tahiti was the most beautiful place we've been," she said. "We had our own hut a little off the beach. It was very rustic. It had a thatched roof and was made from wood.

"It rained a few hours every day and we'd just sit on the porch and watch it," she said. "You'd look out and see the water and the palm trees and then off in the distance, magnificent mountains. . . . It's very peaceful and tranquil. You don't have to do anything."

"I've been to some islands, like Hawaii, where I just had the feeling if I looked over my shoulder, I'd see the bulldozers right behind me," she said. [Tahiti] was a different experience. . . . We definitely want to go back."

Tahiti is only one of the 115 French Polynesia islands that stretch over 1.5 million square miles of the blue Pacific. But because it's the largest of the islands, and because all overseas flights land there, its name has become a synonym not only for the Society Islands, which it belongs to, but for all French Polynesia.

The Society Islands are by far the most visited of the five island groupings of French Polynesia. Since most flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti land after midnight, travelers usually stay overnight in Papeete, Tahiti, before continuing on. Moorea and Bora Bora are the other islands within the Societies that are the most developed for tourism. Commonly, a trip to Tahiti includes stays on all three of those islands, or revolves around a Wind Song cruise along with a resort stay. Even Club Med offers packages to both its Bora Bora and Moorea properties.

"The only negative we hear about Tahiti is that it's expensive," says Ms. Davis, of Cruises Only. Unlike Hawaii, where for the last couple of years bargains have been around every corner, it's hard to come up with a single one in Tahiti. Forget about finding a hotel that throws in a rental car for free. Don't even bother to ask for a special that gives four nights for the price of three. Hotel rates are high, as are dining-out prices.

Nevertheless, travel to Tahiti will likely become even more popular with the release this month of "Love Affair," a second remake of the 1939 movie of the same name (the first remake was "An Affair to Remember"). This latest version, starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, was filmed on the island of Moorea, which is visible from Tahiti, and from aboard the Aranui, the largest inter-island freighter in French Polynesia. The cargo ship hauls supplies and dried coconut meat over a thousand miles on 16-day trips from Tahiti northeast to the Marquesas Islands, carrying up to 40 passengers along with its cargo.

Lounging at a resort, sailing in style or boarding a freighter are three options for a French Polynesian getaway. And there's still another: Throughout the South Seas, hundreds of small,

deserted islets called motus surround the larger islands like beads of a necklace. The resorts and the Wind Song cruise ship offer picnic and snorkeling excursions to these islands, but the ultimate fantasy is to while away tranquil days on a motu, living out the Robinson Crusoe dream in a thatched palm hut.

Making the most of a motu

Here I am, travel writer Susan Kaye, on what James Michener calls the most beautiful island in the world. White sand lapped by a turquoise sea, papayas for the picking, coconuts at my feet. Yet I'm haunted by the pearly string of motus -- small islands -- that encircle Bora Bora's placid lagoon.

In this gigantic waterbed called Polynesia, motus hold the allure of the siren's song. Some could be strolled in two minutes flat. Others would fill an hour of a lazy afternoon. Just inches above the sleepy lagoon, they drowse in a golden aura of coconut palms, honeyed breezes and powder-sugar beaches.

From my vantage, they seem a paradise, although since they aren't sprayed for insects, the experience on some more closely resembles "Lord of the Flies" than "Blue Lagoon."

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