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Brando, Gauguin and I Do Tahiti
(2015 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Dominick A. Merle

When I was a kid,  actor Marlon Brando (1924–2004) was my superhero. I aped his walk, mumbled his talk... even scratched myself a little more than usual.

I imagine young garçons growing up in France around the time of artist Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) felt the same about him, even though poor Paul wasn’t famous until after he died. Still, I can visualize them donning berets, grabbing their easels and heading out to the nearest landscape.

So what do Brando and Gauguin have in common besides fame?

They fell in love with French Polynesia, resided here for long periods of their lives and created some of their best works here. Throughout French Polynesia, you will hear many claiming “Brando slept here” and “Gauguin sketched here.” They remain the most famous residents who ever set foot on these exotic islands. Brando’s secret hideaway is now an upscale resort (The Brando) on the tiny island of Tetiaroa where he prepared for his memorable roles in Mutiny on the Bounty and The Godfather. Gauguin, who spent most of his Polynesian years on the main island of Tahiti, where he created his finest masterpieces, died and was buried on the Marquesas Islands. That was his secret hideaway.

I came here to find out if there was one for myself, in case I ever became famous.

Perfect Hideaways

Perhaps it’s here, on Paul Gauguin islet (Motu Mahana), a tiny sliver off the small island of Taha’a, often called the “Vanilla Island” for its numerous plantations of “black gold.” Motu Mahana is the private islet of the M/S Paul Gauguin cruise line, which I am taking on a hop on, hop off tour of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

White sand, tri-colour waters striped like a flag in aqua and two shades of blue, lush foliage, world-class snorkelling and other water sports, a sumptuous grilled buffet and floating bar—what’s not to like about Motu Mahana?

How about Huahine Island, where we began our cruise, a former whaling port and one of the richest archaeological sites with more than 30 maraes (ceremonial temples) restored? And Huahine’s “sacred eels,” which have ear-like fins along their sides and cold blue eyes. Why sacred? Take your pick of the many legends.

Polynesian Fantasy

Bora Bora, of course, needs no introduction. We leave the M/S Paul Gauguin for a three-stop lagoon cruise, opening with a snorkel in a coral garden. The sea is a light blue, as clear as drinking water, and the colours, shapes and sizes of the fish seem almost a fantasy.

The second stop involves swimming with stingrays as large as kitchen tabletops. The rays are tame and we are able to pet them as we would a dog. However we do notice a few blacktip reef sharks lurking in the distance.

We finish the day with a Polynesian feast on a private island. On the menu are suckling pig, chicken, manioc, spiny lobster and assorted local vegetables. The suckling pig, chicken and vegetables were cooked in a traditional “earth oven” made with volcanic rocks and covered by banana leaves.

Numerous other Bora Bora excursions on our itinerary include a 30-minute ride on an aquabike underwater scooter, an underwater walk wearing a helmet connected to the boat’s air supply via an air hose, helicopter rides and cultural tours to vanilla farms and “black pearl villages.” We also see a few “Brando slept here” beach cottages on stilts as well as one cottage Marlon gave to his actor/friend Jack Nicholson before his departure.

While Bora Bora would be a tough act to follow in any part of the world, the next stop, Paul Gauguin islet, described earlier, is more than up to it.

Bali Hai?

And so is our next port, Moorea, in the very heart of this sparkling island chain. Its natural beauty, jagged peaks, lush greenery and deep blue waters may well be everyone’s dream of Polynesia.

Moorea’s most famous peak is Mouaroa, better known around the world as Bali Hai. But is it?

James A. Mitchener wrote Tales of the South Pacific in 1946, which soon became the basis for the all-time hit musical South Pacific. Mitchener wrote about a perfect little island paradise known as Bali Hai. After the book, musical and movie, many islands throughout the world jumped up and shouted, “I am Bali Hai!” Bora Bora and Moorea were among them. But Mitchener had not visited Moorea before writing his book. And when he finally did, he said it was exactly what he had in mind when he created Bali Hai.

Earlier in our itinerary, we had stopped in at a bar/restaurant on Bora Bora called Bloody Mary’s, named after the Polynesian woman who sang that haunting song in the musical, where a plaque designated the site as the official Bali Hai. I’m sure other such plaques are scattered around the world.

So maybe Bali Hai is not an actual place, but only a state of mind. In any case, the peak of Mouaroa on the island of Moorea seems to “call you” and hold your attention, just as in the song.

So the answer to my quest, despite being pampered at sea and mesmerized by these islands, could I pull up stakes and reside here like Marlon and Paul?

Probably not. But I’m sure glad I dropped in.

Travel Planner

Air Tahiti (airtahitinui.com/us-en) offers daily service between Los Angeles and Tahiti, with convenient connections from Canadian gateways.

The M/S Paul Gauguin (pgcruises.com) accommodates more than 300 guests and the all-inclusive fares include gratuities. On-board facilities feature three dining rooms, a pool deck, a grand salon for entertainment, special classes, lecturers, a lounge, disco and casino.

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