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Here's why Tahiti should be your next travel destination

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 19-09-2017 Mark Stratton

© Provided by Evening Standard Limited Tattooed, with long hair and naked barring a pareo loincloth, Teuai Lenoir looks every bit the Polynesian warrior. Our 4x4 excursion into the mountainous Papeno’o Valley to explore forests and waterfalls demonstrates a wilder side to Tahiti beyond its reputation for luxurious stilt villas and five-star cruises.

A current marketing campaign for Tahiti and her fellow French Polynesian islands encourages visitors to embrace this South Pacific paradise’s “mana”.

This ancient philosophy relates to the inner-power Polynesians feel through pagan ancestry and bounteous nature. Throughout 10 days of island hopping, I hoped to experience mana myself by connecting with local culture to explore a pre-Christian history where human sacrifices were once de rigueur.

“My mana comes from the rivers, trees and my tattoos,” explains Teuai. “It’s a strong energy and feeling that your ancestors are with you.”

He says 19th-century missionaries destroyed their ancient customs and forbade dancing and tattooing, which originates in Polynesia. Teuai’s body is adorned with symbols of his mana: birds, waves and canoes, all inked traditionally (prepare to wince) by sharpened seashells and shark’s teeth. 

My accommodation on Tahiti, French Polynesia’s largest island, oozes mana. Marc and Rita Dauphin’s coastal hideaway at Teahupoo can only be reached by boat. Their six bungalows (with no TV or internet) have wide patio doors and overlook a coconut-fringed coral lagoon. “Welcome to Tahiti 20 years ago,” says Rita, wearing a white tiare flower tucked above her ear.

Over two days I connect with natural Tahiti by snorkelling corals shaped like brains and hiking into forests dominated by mape trees with giant buttress roots. But it’s the mouthwatering traditional ma’a cuisine that affirms Polynesians’ bond with Mother Nature.

“From November to April we call this season Matari’i i Ni’a (abundance), when the mana is strong,” says Rita. Marc’s poisson cru (locally caught raw tuna seasoned with lemon juice and coconut milk) is divine; their fresh produce is homegrown or naturally wild, from free-range chickens and huge avocados to juicy mangoes and breadfruit that is delicious fried as chips.

French Polynesia’s strongest mana, however, resides in its remoter archipelagos such as the Marquises Islands. I fly east to the island of Hiva Oa, marvelling at the vivacity of the Pacific’s blueness below, where Polo mint-shaped atolls enclose turquoise lagoons.

Such rich colours were mana to Paul Gauguin’s troubled soul on Hiva Oa, where the post-impressionist lived and painted until his death in 1903. 

© Provided by Evening Standard Limited I browse the Gauguin Museum in Atuona, which features reproductions of his abundant portraits of voluptuous Polynesian women, but I’m more amused by a local anecdote. Apparently the penniless Gauguin offered his artwork in lieu of payment to shopkeepers — but they mostly burnt them after he died, believing them to be worthless.

Next morning the unlikely named Pifa O’Connor (his ancestors fled Ireland’s potato famine) drives me along a spectacular coastline where fingers of lava-flows trap chocolate sand beaches. At one vertiginous sea-cliff, human sacrifices were sent plummeting to the afterlife as late as the 19th century. “The mana I sense is strong,” Pifa says. “But the sacrifices and cannibalism my ancestors practised wasn’t cool.”

Such goings-on occurred at a site at Puamau. These places are called ma’ae — this one has centuries-old terraces hosting stone tiki, phallus-shaped representations of the original Polynesians. It’s rare to see five standing in situ.

Pifa doesn’t doubt the tiki’s aura. “One was removed from an outer island to a museum in Tahiti and within a month everyone who touched it died,” he says. On Nuku Hiva, a short flight by 17-seater Cessna, I encounter similar supernatural shenanigans. “I hired a Tahitian lady to work for me,” says 74-year-old Californian Rose Corser, who opened a museum after arriving by yacht in 1972. “But she left after two days saying Nuku Hiva’s mana was too strong for her.”

Rose’s museum is in Taiohae, where most of the island’s 3,000 inhabitants live. Her artefacts support Nuku Hiva’s reputation for fearsome warriors, including a sharpened stone used for removing enemy heads. I stay at Pension Koku’u, a three-room homestay offering the experience of living and eating with a Polynesian family. The owner, Al-vane, exudes a strong mana. Thickset and bald, he looks slightly Marlon Brando, although more Colonel Kurtz than Streetcar. He walks barefoot to “feel the earth’s energy” and when preparing a local speciality of goat in coconut sauce rips off his shirt to demonstrate a Haka in his kitchen.

Another haunting ma’ae at Kamuihei is almost lost amid rainforest. The island’s most sacred tree, a 600-year-old banyan with tangled deadlocked vines, shades petroglyphs engraved with turtles. The turtles acted as messengers to a Polynesian ocean paradise called Havaiki. My guide won’t touch them — too powerful. I’m inclined to agree.

Details: Tahiti

Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.co.uk) flies to Tahiti via Paris from £1,500 return. Air Tahiti (airtahiti.com) offers internal flights. Pension Reva Teahupoo (reva-teahupoo.org) offers two-person bungalows for £74. Pension Koku’u (pensionkokuu.marquises.sitew.com) has doubles from £47pp, half-board. Visit tahiti-tourisme.co.uk for more information. 

Related: Bradley Cooper & Irina Shayk's Tahiti Vacation (Provided by Wochit Entertainment)

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