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Tahiti; 'The last paradise on earth'

By Jonathan MillerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 1982


Claudine Goche is not boastful, just emphatic. She lives, she says, in the last paradise on earth, in the outer islands of French Polynesia. ''Tahiti has changed a lot, but not the islands,'' she says. ''All the ideas that people have of Tahiti are in the islands.''

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Claudine is admittedly biased on the subject, but she has good reason. She is a confirmed romantic and the operator, along with her husband, Claude, of weekly sailing charters to these unspoiled volcanic isles -- Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora-Bora.

The Goches (pronounced: go-shays), invited me for a four-day sail to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of their charter business, an enterprise providing the fitting climax to a modern-day tale of the South Pacific.

The Goches met and married in French West Africa in the late '40s. Then in 1960, they cast their fortunes to the wind, and with nine-year-old son in tow, sailed off into the sunset in a 29-foot sloop. When they reached the archipelago of French Polynesia, Claudine fondly recalls, ''I had this internal feeling, a kind of interior smile, that here I am home.''

Today, the Goches and their two youngest boys (Dominique, 17, and Richard, 14 ) make their home on a 58-foot ketch, the Danae III. Our itinerary called for a rendezvous with the Danae on the island of Raiatea, following two days of rest and relaxation on Tahiti's sister island of Moorea, birthplace of the Tahitian Bible and written language, and home today to scores of New England-style churches, strangely out of place among the coconut palms.

On our arrival in Raiatea, there was Claudine, smiling broadly and advancing up the quay in the sleepy port village of Uturoa with kisses, leis, and the generous invitation to make her home our home.

It was a welcome offer following our 18-hour overnight voyage from Tahiti. A local air-taxi strike, which had cost us a day's traveling time and effectively eliminated Bora-Bora from our itinerary, had obliged us to book passage on the Toporo, and we considered ourselves fortunate to secure bunks in the semi-enclosed deck area ($11), the choicer cabins ($15) having been taken by other stranded travelers.

Claudine, taking pity on her tired charges, instantly dispatched us to the nearby Bali Hai hotel to freshen up while she prepared lunch. As Raiatea's only tourist-class hotel, the Bali Hai boasts first-rate facilities -- palm-thatched over-water bungalows ($175 a day) and most importantly, a friendly staff -- service-with-a-smile, alas, not being universal throughout the archipelago.

When we returned to the Danae an hour later, Claudine greeted us with a radiant buffet -- platters of pineapple, the islands' tart little bananas, cold cuts and cheeses, baskets of French bread, and a local seafood appetizer, fresh-fish fillets marinated in lime juice, onion, and coconut milk. It was but the first in a series of bountiful meals from Chef Claudine, which we eagerly attempted to work off swimming, snorkeling, and crewing the boat.

Great feasts are a Polynesian tradition, the prodigious appetites of the islanders being legendary. An officer aboard Captain James Cook's Endeavor (1769 ) reports watching with amazement as a Tahitian man downed three breadfruit (the equivalent of 18 large-size potatoes and the object, incidentally, of Captain William Bligh's expedition), two medium-size fish, 15 plantains, and about a quart of unbaked custard -- all at one sitting. And these hearty people, it should be remembered, ate six times a day. Laughs Claudine: ''Tahitians, they eat too much.''

Although Cook's Edenesque Tahiti is said to have vanished within a century of his visit, the inaccessible archipelago remained a dreamy, primitive backwater celebrated for its colorful history and assorted artists (notably Gauguin) well into the 20th century. All that began to change in the '60s when the jet gave birth to tourism.

''Fifteen years ago, Polynesians did not need money for living, just for luxury,'' Claudine explained over lunch. ''Now, they have to go to work to get some money to buy some food. Which is normal for everybody else except for them.''

While change is evident everywhere -- from the roller skaters in Huahine's drowsy port town of Fare to the Reggae music flaring from les trucks, Tahiti's wood-slated busses -- there is no immediate danger that French Polynesia will become another Hawaii. Hawaii sees more traffic in one day than Tahiti's Faaa International Airport sees in a year. While the resumption of Quantas service -- UTA French Airlines and Air New Zealand are the only other regularly scheduled carriers -- will boost tourism overall, it's not expected to disturb the pristine nature of the outer islands.