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Tahiti Lives up to its Image as Tropical Paradise

Say Tahiti and a glorious paradise comes to mind, a landscape of steep mountains from which waterfalls plunge hundreds of feet through a blossom-studded tangle of tropical vines into clear pools --- or of white beaches with palms curving toward a turquoise sea.

Few places on earth conjure up such an image at the mere mention of the name. The best part is that the reality of the islands of French Polynesia is pretty close to the image.

James Norman Hall, James Michener and Oscar Hammerstein helped create this vision with Mutiny on the Bounty, Tales of the South Pacific and the lyrics for the musical South Pacific.

Hardly anyone looks out from a hotel room in Papeete at the jagged silhouette of Moorea without hearing in their head the strains of Bali Hai, especially its line “Some day you’ll see her, floating in the sunlight, her head sticking out of a low-lying cloud.” That song is Moorea in a nutshell.

Those with an interest in World War II will recognize names such as Bora Bora, where visitors can still see remains of the allied positions. You can see these islands of French Polynesia (this group is known collectively by the name of its largest island, Tahiti) by short-hop flights, but the easiest way to see the highlights in a neat package is by cruise ship.

All cruises land in Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti, and from there they visit a variety of the others: Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Motu Mahana, off Taha’a. The latter is a largely undeveloped island where cruise passengers can tour a vanilla plantation on a 4X4 expedition into the interior mountains or spend the day snorkeling and enjoying other water sports on a private beach.

A more exotic cruise alternative will appeal to those who prefer a slower pace and want to mingle with locals and a more international mix of passengers. The cargo ship Aranui sails a 15-day circuit in the Tuamotu and the Marquesas islands. Its 34 cabins and 22 berths carry 92 passengers on trips that begin and end in Papeete.

Fifteen ports of call in the jagged volcanic Marquesa islands take them to remote villages where tourist ships never stop, in addition to two other ports of call. Two days are spent at sea. The air-conditioned ship has a pool, bar, dining room and modest shipboard entertainment. Accommodations include suites, deluxe and standard staterooms.

Although the geology and topography of Tahiti and her outlying islands are much the same – the tropical paradise of movie sets and travel posters – each island has its own personality.

Fortunately for travelers, each island is small enough to drive around in a day, so they are fairly easy to explore from a single base on each – from a ship or one of the post-card-perfect resorts. Many who choose to cruise the islands also spend a few days pre-or post-cruise exploring Papeete or Morea at leisure.

Air Tahiti Nui flies direct from New York or from the west coast to Tahiti.

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