French Polynesia is a very long way to go to catch a fish, but David Profumo discovers
all sorts of pleasures that make it a true heaven on Earth
By David Profumo
One gets fed up in advance with places being labeled as paradise. Ever since the explorer de Bougainville (‘I thought I was transported into the Garden of Eden’), this has been a sobriquet for Tahiti, which, down the years, has become a gallimaufry of clichés—grass skirts, Captain Bligh, ukeleles, Gauguin, free love, taboo, tattoo and bougainvillea itself—so that when we visited the Pearl of the Pacific this May, I felt sure it would disappoint. It didn’t.
After about a day in the air, we disembarked at Papeete, a comely Tahitienne garlanded us with gardenia, two bell-hops with loincloths and butterscotch torsos hopped into the baggage buggy as we were swept to our commodious Intercontinental room and, Maeva!, our second honeymoon was under way.
French Polynesia comprises 118 islands in an area larger than Western Europe. The first destination in our whistlestop tour was Rangiroa, the world’s second-largest atoll, famed for its copra and black pearls and the site of Tahiti’s only vineyard. Although it’s generally expensive, not all of Polynesia is five-star opulence: we stayed at the Mai Tai, which was affordable rather than chic and perhaps rather too full of Renault dealers from Toulouse and their sullen partners to be exactly soigné, but it soon acclimatised us to the slow pace of island life. This is called ‘coconut time’ (the nut will fall when it’s ripe)— I like the attitude
Rangi is a centre for surfing and diving and we spent one morning ‘drift snorkelling’ through the Tiputa pass—your group links hands like sky-divers and the current wafts you over an aquatic ballet of rays, napoleons, bird wrasse and squirrelfish. I snorkel ineptly—making a sound like Popeye snarfing spinach—but it was entrancing, especially the final flipper tour of the coral garden where the legendarily clear waters form a ‘lagoonarium’.
The following day, I had a fishing date with genial Ugo Angely, who sped me out to the far rim of the atoll in search of bonefish. First cast onto the azure flats, I hooked one, but it was promptly chomped by a blacktip shark.
After six hours’ wading under the searing sun (with a five-minute baguette break at noon), I was walking like the Tin Man, but we explored several mangrove creeks that even Ugo had never visited. At dusk, soothed by Hinano beer, I watched outrigger canoes racing along the beachfront.
This is an entirely maritime culture. Settled in about 200bc by Polynesians following the flight of birds and appraising the water pressure on their navigator’s scrotum, centuries of harmonious Tahitian culture were rudely interrupted by Europeans bringing the usual firearms, booze and intimate infections. The strict code of hospitality was misconstrued—when Capt Cook arrived in 1769 to observe the Transit of Venus, his sailors acquired ‘the sweets of love’ in exchange for nails, which were prized for making fish hooks.
Since then, there have been plenty of beachcombers, libertines and broken travellers, but the ever-courteous islanders remain their own finest natural resource. (The French aren’t much liked, their colonial penchant for nuclear detonations perhaps having something to do with it.) One Tahitian visitor who did have positive ideas was Marlon Brando.
During the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty in the 1960s, he fell for the exquisite little atoll of Tetioroa, once a retreat for the Polynesian royal family until they gifted it to a Canadian dentist in settlement of his fees (the islanders have historically rotten teeth—5,000 pairs of dentures were made for the extras in the film, to fabricate those Hollywood smiles). Brando also fell for his leading lady, Tarita, and they set up a hideaway on Tetioroa. It’s now an impeccably luxurious resort, The Brando; we flew in by private plane and enjoyed three sybaritic nights there.
Our villa had its own media room, pool and outside tub overlooking a white-sand beach. The chef hailed from Le Grand Véfour in Paris. I was treated to a tour of the eco station that powers this enterprise, with solar panels, copra-oil burners and a pioneering air-conditioning system that draws ocean water from 3,150ft down. It was like peeking behind the scenes at Jurassic World. I duly retired to ‘Dirty Old’ Bob’s Bar for a Love Fizz cocktail.
There is wonderful fishing here, too, and the guide is Brando’s charismatic son, Teihotu. Just after dawn, rods rigged, I sat on my cooler box and listened to the surf trundling like a distant locomotive. Then, Teihotu scooted up in his launch and we headed out to a shoreline fringed with coconut palms, where, at once, I spotted a giant bonefish and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He was reckoned at 9lb and the next at 12lb—a personal best. I have seldom had such fun.
Later, we chased giant trevally at Rumble Rocks: these oceanic bruisers are the bashi-bazouks of the fly fishing world and are prodigiously powerful. During our stay, I managed to land three (one estimated by research scientist Alex Filous as weighing 45lb) and it was peerless sport. On my round trip of 25,000 miles, this was the fish I had come for. At Dirty Bob’s, we had a snootful that night, with extra Rumble Rocks.
After this, I felt sure Bora Bora would prove an anticlimax, but it, too, was idyllic. With the slightly puzzled air of a sleepy fishing community that woke up one day to find itself the exotic honeymoon capital of the world, the main island remains relatively ramshackle, beneath the soaring, jungled peak of Mount Otemanu, but there are some outstanding tourist resorts on the outlying motus, including the very swish Intercontinental Thalasso Spa. We had an over-the-water bungalow, where, sipping a Papa Doble by the light of a golden cuticle moon, a chap could remember what this romantic fuss was all about.
The novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote dyspeptically: ‘These are supposed to be the earthly paradises, these South Sea isles. You can have ’em.’ Thanks—I think I will.
David Profumo flew courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui (economy class fares Paris-Los Angeles-Papeete from £1,450 return; www.airtahitinui.co.uk). He fished at The Brando as a guest of Fly Odyssey (contact Mat McHugh:enquiries@flyodyssey. co.uk) and stayed with the Pacific Beachcomber Group (www.hotelmaitai. com/www.thebrando.com) and the Intercontinental chain (www.ihg.com/intercontinental/ hotels/gb/en/bora-bora/bobhb/ hoteldetail). For all further information about tour-operator rates, visit tahiti-tourisme.co.uk.