Make Gauguin and Melville your guides to the South Seas

In France, the uncertain traveler can map a course merely by following his taste buds or consulting the Michelin red guide. In Italy, a little knowledge of Renaissance art will get you a long way. In Belgium, so often torn by battle, a military history text is as good as a map. Ah, but what of the Pacific? How does one make sense of those trackless, mysterious waters? I turn to the Muses, those artists and writers from Melville down to Michener who journeyed into the great ocean and left signposts - their houses, their words, their pictures - for the rest of us to follow.

If there is a logical point at which to pick up the artistic trail, it is on the island of Tahiti, 4,000 miles and 8 hours by plane southwest of Los Angeles. Near Papeete in the coastal village of Punaauia stands the splendid Museum of Tahiti and the Islands. Among its cultural and historic displays is a section ''A Writer's Paradise,'' explaining how Melville, then Pierre Loti, Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Segalen, and Rupert Brooke chose the French islands as backdrop for their work.

Melville, the first South Seas visitor to use the islands as material, fled the harsh life of a New England whaler and came ashore in the Marquesas at Nuku Hiva northeast of Tahiti. For a month in 1842 he and a shipmate lived among the cannibalistic but warm-hearted Typee tribesmen - a visit that inspired his first novel, ''Typee.'' Lewis Mumford, the critic, once marveled at the book's carefully researched historic content and also observed that it ''belongs to the morning of the imagination'' and makes one want to go visiting tropical islands.

Indeed you can visit Melville's Marquesas by flying up from Papeete with Air Polynesie at 5:30 or 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. Here, on the island of Hiva Oa , you can also pay respect to Gauguin, who is buried in the village of Atuona. This and other stages of Gauguin's Polynesian period are colorfully described on Tahiti at the Musee Gauguin, on a wave-lashed point 30 miles down the coast from Papeete.

French Polynesia also attracted Rupert Brooke, who spent some of his happiest and most productive days of a 1913-14 wander year on Tahiti; Matisse, who in 1930 stayed at Le Stuart Hotel in Papeete, a 20-room house where even today lodging can be had for just $12 a night; W. Somerset Maugham, who toured the South Pacific with a friend during World War I, stopped in Tahiti to research Gauguin - inspiring ''The Moon and Sixpence'' and carried off a wooden door bearing a Gauguin painting, which the author auctioned off at Sotheby's 45 years later for $37,400. Stevenson spent time at Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas (Jack London later rented the very same clubhouse on a Pacific voyage aboard his yacht Snark), but it was Samoa where Robert Louis Stevenson left his mark.

Stevenson lived his last six years in the Pacific in search of a favorable climate. He was disappointed to find the Marquesans and Tahitians so civilized, moved on to Honolulu where he came to rue the presence of horsecars, mail steamers, and telephones, and finally headed for Samoa in his yacht Equator with his wife, Fanny, and extended family. Apia, then in the efficient hold of the Germans and today the capital of independent Western Samoa, hasn't changed greatly in 90 years. Its graceful waterfront is still lined with white-frame colonial-style houses, churches, and trading companies, and jungly green Mt. Vaea looms above the city.

It was on the slopes of Vaea, three miles back of the harbor amid 400 acres of heavy brush, that Stevenson built his house Vailima. Now it is the residence of Western Samoa's prime minister, as gracious and serene as ever, still what Robert Louis Stevenson called ''my beautiful shining windy house.'' You reach Vailima at the end of the Road of Loving Hearts, which the admiring Samoans cleared and built for the frail, deep-eyed man they called Tusitala, teller of tales. Because he was 4,000 miles removed from literary company, the teller of tales wrote countless letters - the equivalent of a novel a year - to stay in touch with Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, Kipling, and dozens of others. In his four Samoan years he also wrote 700,000 words of copy, finishing three novels, ''The Wrecker,'' ''The Ebb-tide,'' and ''Beach.'' When he died on Dec. 3, 1894, at Vailima, the Samoans carried Tusitala to the top of Mt. Vaea to his chosen burial place.

Literary pilgrims of all ranks have made the climb to Stevenson's tomb, among them Rupert Brooke and Somerset Maugham. Brooke, who wandered all over the Pacific just before World War I and an early death, got plenty of material out of Honolulu where in 1913 he stayed at the newly built Moana Hotel (still standing on the beach at Waikiki). His sonnet ''Waikiki'' tells of the murmurous soft Hawaiian sea, the stab of a ukelele. When was the last time, I ask you, that someone wrote a paean to Waikiki?

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