Though much has changed in the Society Islands since the British frigate H.M.S. Dolphin first sighted Tahiti on June 18, 1767, the English sailors' reaction to what they saw is echoed by visitors today. " 'Tis impossible to describe," wrote one of the discoverers, "the beautiful Prospects we beheld in this charming spot...it abounds with all the choicest Productions of the Earth."
What the Dolphin's crew had stumbled upon was an island group of astonishing beauty and tranquillity, a volcanic archipelago of 10 mountainous islands whose craggy emerald peaks emerged abruptly from the turquoise sea and five atolls ringed by white beaches and coral reefs that contained an abundance of marine life. Flowers grew in profusion: gardenia, frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus. And the island people were both handsome and hospitable.
Two centuries after the Dolphin's voyage, the Society Islands have been transformed by the modern world. A six-lane highway approaches Papeete, Tahiti's largest city and the capital of French Polynesia; there are 50,000 cars and trucks for the island's 100,000 inhabitants; a modern airport serves international travelers. (It takes only eight hours to fly from Los Angeles to Tahiti. The Dolphin sailed for many months to get there from England.)
But much remains the same. The trade winds still blow, the scenery is still stunning, the sea is still teeming with multihued fish, the people are still remarkably friendly. In many ways, Tahiti and the other Society Islands remain the paradise the Dolphin discovered so many years ago.
While a fisherman inspects his net, Kathy Ireland checks out a Bora Bora sunset in a lace suit by Jantzen ($39).
Elle Macpherson wends her way through the water on Bora Bora in an outrigger canoe. Elle is rigged out in embroidered nylon and spandex by Connie Banko ($54).
Against a dawn sky in Bora Bora, Elle (right) is a ray of golden sunshine in her Lurex bikini ($50] and robe ($100), both by Gottex.
Paulina Porizkova, in glittery sequins by Gottex ($100), drifts into a daydream while ornamenting the prow of a canoe in Moorea.
Just down the beach from Moorea's Club Med, Kathy takes shelter in a hut called a fare. Her suit ($53) and pareu ($78) are from Ralph Lauren.
Kelly Emberg (above) adorns one of Tahiti's black-sand beaches in a cotton-Lycra bikini by Ellen Ann Dobrovir ($68).