On Moorea

THE SOCIETY ISLANDS — There are some opportunities you just can't pass up — a hot dog at the ballpark, an adjustable hat, complimentary T-bone steaks with the purchase of four new tires, a trip to Tahiti.

When a family friend made my visit to that legendary paradise possible, I started reading up on the Society Islands and the famous visitors who had preceded me: Captain Cook, Captain Bligh, Paul Gauguin, Geronimo Clot.

I wanted to travel in the spirit of Cook, a benign adventurer seeking new worlds, and with the vision of Gauguin, a nutso painter seeking a lot of things, some of them artistic.

But research indicated that my Tahitian sojourn might be more Blighted in nature, more Clotilian.

Lessons from history

Bligh's story you probably know. (Bounty, breadfruit, Fletcher, heave-ho.)

Father Geronimo Clot's story you probably don't.

He was the first priest on Tahiti, arriving from Peru in 1774, lugging six jars of wine, a portable altar, his personal chamber pots, vestments of many colors, and "one gross rosaries and crosses" to give to the converted.

After the Tahitians generously built him a house, Father Clot went inside and hid for six months, convinced that the "savage natives" were going to eat him when he ripened.

In fact, they really were laughing at him, because he insisted God was exclusively in that Book he always carried. The Tahitians knew gods were in everything.

Father Clot's bigger mistake, like Bligh's, was refusing to participate in local activities. No swimming, singing, surfing, fishing, diving, dancing or gorging for this friar, and especially no forming what Cook called "friendships by no means platonic" with the natives.

When a Spanish ship arrived, Father Clot ran for the boat, clutching his rosaries, crosses, chamber pots and chastity to his vestments. He hadn't converted a single soul.

Dangers of the deep

It was with this concern in mind that I read of the possible activities for modern Tahiti tourists.

Gorging, OK. Sailing, all right.

But far too many of the available enjoyments require getting into the ocean.

I don't do that.

Beasts live there, me-eating beasts, a fact I learned in 1957 watching Col. John D. Craig on television's "Danger Is My Business." Each week, as John D. plopped his black-and-white butt into another bay, not just schools but whole universities of barracuda, sharks and those eels that are all teeth would swim by. This delighted him, for educational/show-biz reasons, and scared wee little me to pieces.

I don't believe this is an overreaction. In the list of available Tahitian amusements, more than one guidebook lists swimming on the same page as "shark feeding." The implication is that you swim over here, and you feed the sharks over there.

But do sharks read guidebooks? What's to prevent a hungry shark from accidentally wandering into the swimming area? That's an event I intended to watch from way over there.

A picture-perfect peak

For me, "way over there" turned out to be the beachside bar of the Sheraton Lagoon Resort on the north end of the island of Moorea, 12 miles from Tahiti itself, and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Once a gigantic volcano, Moorea has been eroding for eons, leaving green, needle-sharp mountain peaks, wrapped in mist, with slopes that seem to plunge directly into an encircling turquoise blue lagoon.

It looks exactly like that beautiful South Seas island you see in the movies, because it probably is.

Mel Gibson filmed most of "The Bounty" on Moorea; it was the long shot of Bali Ha'i in "South Pacific"; and in Marlon "Fletcher" Brando's "Mutiny," it served as Pitcairn Island, where the mutineers finally settled.

And much of the island's glory can be experienced from that Sheraton bar stool.

Island hospitality

Sitting on bar stools drinking expensive, fruity libations is another thing I usually don't do. But, according to Jimmy, a Sheraton activities counselor, it is a genuine South Seas tourist activity. He realized very early in our conversation that I was going to be one of the Difficult Ones.

Jimmy may be the only activities counselor in the entire Sheraton chain who is a female impersonator. He's a mahu, an old and respected Polynesian tradition — a male who acts like a female and does traditional female work. Most of the tourists who consult Jimmy undoubtedly think he's a helpful, charming young woman — I certainly did. They don't see that beneath the table he has legs you usually find on the underside of a rugby scrum.

"The bar's nice this time of day," says Jimmy, smiling wistfully. And off I go.

"That Captain Cook must have been a snorkeler." This from the man in the dripping swimsuit on the next stool over. I presume he's speaking euphemistically, and offer the historical fact that Cook was the only man on his ship who never did come ashore for a little snorkel.

"No," the guy says, "Snorkeling; you know, with a mask. And fins."

He lifts his leg and flaps a big blue fin at me.

"Every place Cook went, even where they killed him in Hawaii, there's great snorkeling. And I've snorkeled the world."

Beneath the surface

More than 1,000 species of exotic fish live in Moorea's lagoon, being watched endlessly by a species less exotic — human.

Floating face down on the surface, slowly flopping their flippers, they look like giant mosquito larvae, plastic probosci quivering in the air.

But the Sheraton, and many other Society Island resorts, have accommodated those like me who see this as "shark-bait" behavior.

Many of the hotel's bungalows are built over the water, with windows in the floor. So each evening I lie on my face on the glass, watching the piscatorial parade in the clear waters below. This dry snorkeling is a lot more interesting than Moorea's only other evening tourist activity, watching the never-ending, never-interesting Italian soccer matches on ESPN.

In other words, Moorea is not the place for nightlife.

There are good seafood restaurants, although they are often places where the difference between the appetizers and "bait" is negligible. I'm told there's a disco on the south side. But I didn't fly 10 hours to boogie to Waka Tea Maku and His Rhythm Boys' Salute To the Bee Gees.

I don't have to cross Moorea for music anyway, because native combos are everywhere, constantly thumping through the upbeat, ukulele-centric Polynesian repertoire; at the hotel, for arriving ferries, at bars and barbecues on the beach.

One evening I went for a splendid sail outside the reef on the Fetia Ura, a 110-foot schooner. When the professional crew members weren't working the boat, they would haul up on a hatch cover with their instruments to sing happily about something. (The guitarist's tuning machine was rusted tight, so his instrument was untunable. It didn't make any difference, to him, to the music, or to the audience.)

Dancing girls wearing grass skirts and polished coconut-shell bras are also likely to leap out at any gathering of three or more tourists. They seem like nice kids, even if they are just going through the motions that I'll wager made Father Clot nervous. (A local man tells me that the time to really see dancing is in July during French Polynesia's annual amateur contest, when groups of all ages and sizes — not just the gorgeous teens we visitors see — do their stuff, because it is their stuff.)

A place of their own

That's nice to know; that these people have a life and a culture that doesn't always fit neatly into the end of a resort dining room. One of the frustrations of a week as a Moorea tourist is the limited opportunity to experience the local people when they aren't playing their expected roles, but being themselves — hospitable, shy, proud, the men macho without arrogance, the women almost serene.

The early explorers told the folks back in Europe that they had, at last, found Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Noble Savage" in the Society Islands.

They were right about the noble part. Then, as he suspected might happen in his memoirs, Cook began a shameful process that led, in less than a hundred years, to the extermination of 90 percent of the people he had grown to love, and near obliteration of their culture.

But the islanders survived, in a beautiful place they richly deserve. And so did their culture, even if the only manifestations of it we visitors see are 10,000 identical carved tikis in the Papeete souvenir shops, and native dancing in The Opunohu Lounge.

Given what our ancestors did to them, the Society Islanders have every right to want to eat us. But you can see it in their eyes, in the little smiles they get when they watch a snorkeler flop by, or a vacationing real-estate agent come out of the crowd to dance with them.

Gently, sweetly, they are still laughing at us.

Greg Palmer is a Seattle-based writer and television producer who only swims when he absolutely has to.