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."
A motu is nothing more than a small island. Tahitians gazing north see the motu of Moorea. Even Bora Bora, only 20 miles around, isn't much in the way of size, but from its shore, another 33 smaller motus spill across the horizon. There's Motu Mute to the north, paved with the island's landing strip; Motu Toopua to the west, home to the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort; Motu Mahihai to the northwest, a haven for swimming and snorkeling.
Near the pass into the lagoon, there's Motu Tapu, where Club Med and other hotels stage picnics and barbecues. Groups can come ashore for those events or take advantage of the island's abundant opportunities for snorkeling, snoozing and sunning.
But the best motu fantasies are private ones. As in a party of two.
"Motus are the ultimate South Sea experience," says Larry Dunmire of Balboa Island, Calif. Mr. Dunmire and his companion flew from Papeete, Tahiti, to Rangiroa, part of the Tuamotu archipelago and the world's largest atoll. From there, they boarded an 18-footer for an hour's ride to Kia Ora Sauvage, Polynesia's most coveted motu experience.
On a sleepy motu rimmed by the colors of the Rangiroa lagoon, five simple, thatched-roof bungalows tuck into the palms' shade. A sixth hut is set aside for dining.
That's it. Sweet and soft breezes, a brazen blue sky, ubiquitous water. It's life stripped to the essentials -- a thatch roof over your bed and fresh fish on your plate.
"Our four days there showed me what living is all about," said Mr. Dunmire.
Days tiptoe past, broken only by mealtimes of salads, fruit and fish. What to do with all the hours?
"You have to love tranquillity," says Mr. Dunmire, "because there's nothing but silence. Snorkeling was fantastic. We paddled an outrigger to explore other motus. We fed small sharks. We read. We got to know the other people. We listened to waves breaking on the reef, a quarter-mile out. Our music was the terns in the palms and the palms in the breeze. It was glorious."
But how about a motu that's all yours -- no bungalows and no crew to rescue you after you've emptied the picnic hamper?
"My husband, Ed, and I spent three years sailing the South Pacific," says Eileen Gaiser of Ventura, Calif., "and we never saw such beautiful motus as we did in French Polynesia."
In the northern Tuamotus, their odyssey came to a five-day standstill, becalmed by choice on a deserted motu of Manihi.
"We struggled a full day, from absolute break of dawn until evening, to sail into the lagoon," says Ms. Gaiser. "The coral heads were lethal and thunderstorms dumped buckets on us so that we couldn't see to navigate. But we made it and spent five days, just the two of us."
No lights; no footprints in the sand; no sounds other than the music of the spheres -- birds, the sea and the wind. Just two people in an elemental landscape.
"Our days were magical," says Ms. Gaiser. "We walked the atoll's rim. We scuba-dived. And we drank coconuts until my husband rebelled: They're hard as rocks unless you have a very sharp machete."
Motus have a way of encouraging vacationers to say "time out" to the world. As poet Edward Rowland Sill wrote: What would the great world lose, I wonder
Would it be missed or no
If we stayed in the opal morning
Floating forever so.
For more information on motus
Kia Ora Sauvage is an hour by boat from Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu archipelago. A two-night stay is from $360 low season to $430 high season per person, including boat transfer, room and all meals; extra days are $150-$185 a person. Call (212) 575-2228.
Paul Emil Victor, a former French explorer, rents bungalows off Bora Bora on Motu Tane; no meals. Guests are ferried daily by boat to Bora Bora for provisions. In Bora Bora, (689) 67-74-50.
Most Society Islands hotels offer motu-picnic excursions. Bora Bora Lagoon Resort's picnic on Motu Tapu or Motu Roa includes shark feeding for $75; From Bora Bora Hotel, a three-hour, round-trip sail to Motu Aratai and picnic is $70.
IF YOU GO . . .
The newest luxury hotel in French Polynesia is the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort. Its 82 rooms line a quarter-mile beach on Motu Toopua, an island that's a seven-minute boat ride across the lagoon from the town of Vaitape on Bora Bora. Rooms from $470; call (800) 432-2672.
The sedate and elegant Hotel Bora Bora introduced the concept rooms built directly over the lagoon when it opened 33 years ago. It has been owned by Amanresorts since 1988. The hotel's bungalows have been remodeled. Call (800) 421-1490.
Two more top-end hotels: Moana Beach Parkroyal, rates from $405 to $558; call direct (689) 67-7373. Sofitel Marara Bora Bora, from $260 to $500; call (212) 575-2228.
All of these hotels' guest rooms are designed Tahitian style, with roofs thatched with pandanus leaves. All except the air-conditioned villas at the Hotel Bora Bora are cooled by lagoon breezes and ceiling fans. Rooms built directly over the lagoon cost up to $160 a day more, but are by far the most popular.
Room rates are subject to a 7 percent tax. If you eat in the hotels and not at the snack bars, plan to spend about $150 to $200 for daily meals per couple.
If luxury and over-water bungalows aren't foremost on your agenda, then Bora Bora's best buy is the 150-room Club Med-Bora Bora, which opened last December. Daily costs break down to $185-$225 a person, including all meals, wine, beer and activities. A seven-night stay, with air from Los Angeles is from $2,240; (800) 258-2633.
When to go
The best time to visit French Polynesia is during its winter, our summer, when humidity and temperatures are at their lowest. Rainy season is December through April; cyclone season is in December.
The resorts' pricing structure reflects marketing more than it does climate. The hotels' high season is July through August and mid-December to mid-January; low season is November to mid-December and mid-January through March; intermediate season is April through June, September and October.
Another vacation option in Tahiti is the Wind Song, a 148-passenger luxury ship that stops at five islands every week of the year, varying its schedule only for two longer voyages over the Christmas holidays. In keeping with the free-as-the-breeze Polynesian lifestyle, Wind Song is casual, with an emphasis on water sports and no jacket-and-tie expectations. A seven-day sailing is $2,995 per person, double occupancy, with port charges and air fare additional. Early bookings result in savings up to 35 percent. Get more information from your travel agent or call (800) 258-7245.
A longer, more offbeat option is the Aranui freighter, which makes 16-day runs from Tahiti to the Marquesas. Cabin fares are from $2,230 to $3,740 per person. Address: 595 Market St., No. 2880, San Francisco, Calif. 94105. (415) 541-0677.
From North America, all nonstop flights to Tahiti leave from Los Angeles. Qantas and Air New Zealand have two flights weekly. )) Other carriers are Air France and AOM French Airlines. Inter-island travel is aboard Air Tahiti or on frequent ferries. Land/air packages for Tahiti are available from about $700 from Islands in the Sun, (800) 828-6877.
The first time you open a menu on these fair isles, the immediate question is, "Why is it so expensive?"
"Any time you stock a pantry on an island resort, you've got a challenge," says Ian Mancais, executive chef at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort.
Fruits are plentiful, as are cabbage and spinach. Fishermen haul up mahi-mahi, tuna and lagoon fish. Beyond that, chefs scan the horizon for their next shipment: grapes and apples from Chile, berries and lamb from New Zealand and Australia, many vegetables, dry goods and most beef from America. Wine, of course, comes from France. Nearly everything is flown into Papeete on Tahiti and then transported by boat to the other islands.
"Basically, by the time we get it, produce is three, four, even five times more expensive than at home," says Executive Chef Rico Oprandi of the luxury Wind Song cruise ship based in Tahiti.
The best bets for Bora Bora restaurants: Bamboo House is considered the top restaurant in Bora Bora; Bloody Mary's has what's regarded as the best daily-catch seafood presentation in French Polynesia. Both restaurants offer free transportation from your hotel. For fine dining at a resort, try the Otemanu restaurant at the Bora Bora Lagoon Resort. (Guests with reservations are shuttled from the town of Vaitape to the resort, but count on a $40 round-trip cab fare from island hotels to the dock.) For casual meals, there's Ben's Snack for lunch, near Hotel Bora Bora, and L'Appetisserie for breakfast and lunch.
For more information
Contact the Tahiti Tourism Board, 300 N. Continental, No. 180, El Segundo, Calif. 90245; (310) 414-8484.