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The Island of Tahiti, that paradisical Pacific dot, once as hard to get to as the interior of Khrushchev's office, is about to open for all the world's travelers. The black sand beaches soothed by the South Pacific; the towering, treeless, James Hall-haunted mountains in whose green broadloom folds low-cruising clouds find refuge in the 6 o'clock sunset—all these wait in the palmy valleys. All these, and the fabled Polynesian women, with their Gauguin hair, their ale-brown skin, their French accents, their torrid upa and their loving ways.
Tahiti has long been secluded by governmental restrictions and isolated by incredible ocean distances, but within the fortnight the first of a series of charter flights will leave from Honolulu for the yacht-lined harbor of Papeete, 10 or 11 hours away and only a day out of San Francisco.
And for those who prefer a more leisurely pace, before another full-blown moon has been hung the new white ships of the Matson Lines will steam from the California coast into French Oceania, beginning the first regular steamship service to Tahiti.
For those who take the charter flights—the only direct cloudbound service from Honolulu—the flight to Paradise and back will take nine days and cost a flat $1,000 a man. Hawaii-Tahiti Air Cruises, Ltd., a Honolulu syndicate which thought up the idea, will only accept males. It is an edict of the French authorities, they say, who intimate that transporting women to Tahiti is like fetching diamonds to Kimberley.
I was aboard the survey flight recently. In company with a party of 50, I flew by chartered DC-4 from Honolulu overnight to Canton Island, then made a dog-leg to Bora Bora, a lonely volcanic isle where 5,000 troops lived during World War II in what military types recall as pure, Polynesian, don't-ever-send-me-home-Colonel elegance.
From the landing strip on Bora Bora we went by skiff to the three-decker flying boat of Sir Gordon Taylor, up from Australia on charter, and covered the 170 miles to Papeete in an hour. The party was lodged in the Grand Hotel, sometimes also known as the Faugerat, which advertises 30 rooms, each with modern private bath. If the truth be known, all rooms don't have baths, and after 7 p.m., when the desk clerk goes home, the room keys are scattered on a counter in the lobby so guests can find them easily. In the interest of security a large sign is also placed on the counter alongside the keys, enjoining guests to lock their valuables in the safe. The Grand has just added a rooftop restaurant staffed by waitresses in pareus (yes, Uncle, they do wear something on top) who also do the upa between courses.
Tahiti's best hotels are just outside town. Les Tropiques, on a seven-acre coconut plantation overlooking a blue lagoon, is two miles from Papeete. It can currently house 32 guests in thatched bungalows, each of which comes with private bath and private patio. It is also the only hotel with hot water. The tariff is $5 per person without meals. Don the Beachcomber, the Honolulu restaurateur who has an active interest in Les Tropiques, will soon increase the capacity to 66 and change its name to The Beachcomber's Blue Lagoon. After all, meals are served on the lagoon-side terrace, looking toward Mooréa, and a firm, long pier stretches out into the water to a swimming float anchored on man-made Sun-Baking Island.
Two miles on the other side of Papeete is the Royal Tahitian Hotel, built on the lands of King Pomare, a monarch who was so fond of Benedictine that the Tahitians crowned his tomb with a replica of a Benedictine bottle. The Royal Tahitian is truly in Tahitian style—bungalows are woven together with strips of pandanus and topped with coconut thatch. Red Tahitian cloth, of the sort worn for pareus, hangs as draperies. A pandanus-covered jukebox plays Tahitian records, and a pandanus-covered refrigerator chills bottles of Pouilly Fuissé, Mumm's Cordon Rouge and French Meteor beer. Dinner costs about $2.50, rooms are $6 a day for two and out front the Royal has its own black sand, coral-free beach ringing the bay where Charles Laughton once postured imposingly as the fierce Captain Bligh in Nordhoff and Hall's Mutiny on the Bounty.
Chez Rivnac, about 10 miles out, has 11 bungalows, a white sand beach, charges about $3 for a room, about $2 for dinner. Besides all this, Matson Lines has taken an option on a cliff-top site about five miles out of town looking away to a magnificent vista. The company had hoped to put in 25 units to start with, plus a swimming pool, but lately it is in jurisdictional employment difficulties with the local government.
In downtown Papeete a French sailor in khaki shorts and a red pompon on his head pedals down the Rue du Maréchal Foch, one hand on the handle bar and the other holding a string of fish. In the fish market the pêcheurs lounge on the damp cement floor while matrons in crisp white dresses sniff the brilliant blue parrot fish hanging from the railing on strips of purau bark. A Chinese in a white pith helmet chugs by on his Vespa, and the lei stringers squat on the sidewalk, flowers spilling out of their baskets woven of fresh green palm. The signs say CHONG FAT—TAILLEUR—NEW STYLES and AH YOU—CAFE—ICE CREAM—MARCHANDISE GÉNÉRALES.