Tahiti: Lush mountains, glorious beaches and paddling with sharks in the paradise that entranced Captain Cook

Edwin Smith visits Tahiti and finds that away from the resorts, the surfing and the boutique hotels, the islands are as unspoilt as when Captain Cook first landed there 250 years ago.

The waves crashing against the rocks below create a cooling mist as we wend our way beneath the shadow of palm trees and along a tricky coastal trail. We’re on the remote southern part of Tahiti, where there are no roads and the only real method of transport, apart from hacking through the undergrowth, is to skirt round the lush, mountainous landscape by boat.

The nearest major landmass is New Zealand, about 2,500 miles on a south-westerly heading. To the east, you’d have to go almost twice as far before making landfall in Peru. I start to imagine myself as a member of Captain Cook’s crew, some of the earliest Europeans to set foot here almost 250 years ago.

‘I often adopted what P. G. Wodehouse called ‘the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French’’

Cook first came to Tahiti – or King George’s Island, as it was back then – in 1769. He’d been commissioned by the Royal Society to record the transit of Venus across the Sun, but was also hoping to find the hypothetical ‘southern continent’, Terra Australis.

It’s staggering to think what it must have been like to travel here before an accurate map of the world had ever been drawn. Even more staggering to consider that the first Polynesians to come here are thought to have crossed the Pacific in wooden canoes in AD200.

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Cooks Bay with Moua Puta mountain in the background

Cooks Bay with Moua Puta mountain in the background

Tahiti came under French control in the mid 19th century. During my stay, I often adopted what P. G. Wodehouse called ‘the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French’. A broader consequence is that the islands are in receipt of significant investment from the French government.

The Four Seasons on Bora Bora and The Brando resort (named for Marlon Brando, who bought it after scouting locations for Mutiny on the Bounty in 1960) on the private atoll of Tetiaroa have given the region a reputation for upscale luxury, but other nearby islands are also admirably served by more traditional guesthouses, from informal, family-owned pensions with no air conditioning, right up to establishments that more closely resemble boutique hotels.

The best example I encountered was the spectacular Vanira Lodge, where hillside bungalows with private balconies and hot tubs look out onto the verdant green slopes of volcanic mountains, which appear to slide into the sea below.

The lodge is owned by the impeccable Parisienne Karine Lavalle, who teaches sunset yoga classes, the lodge is popular with surfers (including 11-time world champion Kelly Slater), who come for its proximity to Teahupo’o, the acclaimed surf break.

The wave has claimed the lives of five people since 2000, so we watched from the safety of a boat one morning as former professionals, experienced locals and serious surf tourists stood up in the barrel that formed as a 10ft-high wall of water reared up over the reef below.

For those who don’t fancy risking life and limb amid tons of water crashing down on razor-sharp coral, there are other places to have a go. I caught a few (smaller) waves alongside smiling locals at Papara, a beautiful black-sand beach further up the coast.

‘After an hour of hard paddling to rhythmic chanting from the stern, we hauled the boat ashore and hugged one another, exhausted, but content.’

At 28 miles across and with a population of 190,000, mostly living in and around the capital of Pepeete, Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and very much its hub. However, it’s just one of 118 specks of land floating in the Pacific, covering an area the size of Europe. Many of them are accessible via the short, regular flights from Air Tahiti.

We island-hopped to Huahine, which, with a population of just 6,000, is sufficiently remote to have been selected by Barack and Michelle Obama for a post-presidency holiday. Here, we made a trip to a pearl farm, perched on stilts a little way out to sea, and saw how the distinctive, iridescent ‘black’ Tahitian pearls are grown within the shells of black-lip oysters.

Afterwards, we carried on to a lagoon, where we sat at a half-submerged table and had a lunch of poisson cru, a ceviche-like dish of fresh fish cured in lime juice and coconut milk. Brightly coloured fish schooled around our ankles as we ate.

On the atoll of Rangiroa, we took a boat out to one of its tiny islets. There, we paddled with black-tipped sharks and ate homemade coconut bread, which was cooked on an open fire by descendants of a Tahitian family who laid claim to the island before the Europeans came – and have held onto it ever since.

Tahiti - Tropical island above and underwater

Back on Tahiti, there was just enough time to take a trip in an updated version of the traditional va’a, the canoe that is so integral to Polynesian culture. After an hour of hard paddling to rhythmic chanting from the stern, we hauled the boat ashore and hugged one another, exhausted, but content.

Waiting for my flight home, I stumbled upon a line from the journal of the French explorer Bougainville, who came here before Cook, in 1768: ‘Farewell happy and wise people, may you always remain what you are. I shall never recall without a sense of delight the brief time I spent among you, and as long as I live, shall celebrate the happy island of [Tahiti].’

Two and a half centuries later, the words still ring true.

Air Tahiti Nui is the national carrier to the French Polynesia serving four stations: Los Angeles, Paris, Auckland and Tokyo. The flights from London to Los Angeles are available with airline partners, connecting with up to 14 weekly flights from Los Angeles to Papeete with Air Tahiti Nui. In addition to the world-class hospitality, champagne and luxury chocolates can be pre-ordered. Priority pass and lounge pass are also available. Rates start from £1,699 for economy class return flights. All taxes included – www.airtahitinui.co.uk.