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A myth was born when the naval adventurers Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and, to an even greater extent, James Cook explored Polynesia in the late 18th century. In the Western imagination, the Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Austral and Marquesas archipelagos — 118 islands in all, nearly half of them uninhabited — represent a veritable paradise on earth. And the description is not far from reality!
The steep, rugged terrain of Tahiti reveals the island’s volcanic origin. On these precipitous slopes, the tropical heat and rainfall have nurtured the development of lavish vegetation. Moving inland, the coconut palms and iron trees of the shoreline give way to dense forest. In the valleys and gorges irrigated by rushing streams of clear water, frangipani, guava, mango and tulip trees put forth the flowers and fruits that spawned the nickname Tahiti na’ano’a, “Fragrant Tahiti.” Other islands exude an even subtler perfume. In Taha’a, the warm scents of vanilla waft up from the plantations nestled in the valleys. In the distance, the lagoon shimmers with innumerable shades of blue. Under the clear water, the black-lip oysters, Pinctada margaritifera, patiently coat their implanted beads with layer upon layer of nacre. After three years, the pearls are retrieved, revealing a dark rainbow of colors from gray to peacock green, eggplant purple and black. The most precious of all are pure jet black, perfectly smooth and spherical.
Continuing their odyssey eastward, the trade winds encounter another chain of volcanic peaks rising above the Pacific: Fiji. The archipelago’s 322 islands and islets are a heaven on earth for scuba divers, surrounded by clear, warm water in which swarms of reef fish meander among multicolored castles of coral. Further out, the volcanic seabed offers the spectacle of underwater cliffs and canyons, with sharks and manta rays gliding overhead. Even on land, the ocean is an important part of life. Influenced by the large Indian population that arrived in the 19th century, Fiji’s cuisine relies heavily on marine ingredients, with specialties like miti, seafood and vegetables cooked in coconut milk, and kadoka, fish marinated in lime and served in a coconut with a sweet coconut cream. A foretaste of paradise.