Tahiti; 'The last paradise on earth'

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.''

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.

With lunch over, it was time to pay one of said islands a visit. Being proper hosts, the Goches give their guests a chance to test their sea legs by sailing in gentle lagoons before taking to open water, where the Danae flies at speeds in excess of 11 knots. At the end of our first day, we anchored in a lagoon off the thinly populated island of Tahaa, a popular retreat for officers stationed on Tahiti at the French naval installation, the major component in the islands' economy.

It was easy to see why the early explorers thought they were in the Garden of Eden, for there is something ethereal and yet voluptuous about the way the South Sea light intensifies the deep pastels in sea, land, and sky. The color is so overpowering as to seem unreal, like those static, painterly cumuli that cling to the island peaks. Distant Bora-Bora off the starboard bow was a shimmery, purple mirage. How can anything be so beautiful, you wonder, and then your eye zooms in on a motu, everybody's fantasy islet, a few acres in size, its arching coconut palms beckoning in the wind.

Shortly before dinner, Richard, the Goche's playful younger son, ran us over to the motu in a dinghy. There we snorkeled in a coral garden, buoyed by the tropical waters, which it was explained, have a higher-than-usual salt content. We poked sticks in a quicksand pit and watched Richard coax tiny sandcrabs out of their seashell houses by emitting a high-pitch whistle.

That night, following a sumptuous meal of chicken roasted in lemon-coconut sauce, we went topside to watch Richard and his older brother Dominique night-fish. The Goche teen-agers have grown up on the Danae, and they seem as much a part of the sea as the school of dolphins we spied our third day out. The dolphins were frolicking in a lagoon just as advertised in our Islands in the Sun tour brochure. This evening, the boys donned scuba gear, strapped knives to their calves, and then plunged into the water, flashlights in hand. For a while the play of the flashlight beams created eerie underwater patterns. Then darkness. The boys had dived deep to harvest fishing nets before sharks could make a meal of their catch.

Sharks! Nothing to worry about, said Claude, in a voice as reassuring as Maurice Chevalier's. Maybe sometimes a younger white- or black-tipped shark, unschooled in maritime protocols, will get a little curious, he told us, but nobody in the islands could remember when anyone was attacked.

That was fine by me. Anything less would have upset my notions of paradise. It would have diverted my attention from deeper matters, such as fiu, a disposition among the islanders, remarked on by travelers from Cook's time on, to tune out inexplicably when a conversation bores them -- even to the point of walking away.''If you please them (islanders) now, it doesn't mean you'll please them in an hour,'' Claudine attempted to explain. Then she added: ''Once you've lived in their country for awhile, you think you know them. It's your first mistake.''

Claudine avoids such pitfalls because she has come to accept the idiosyncracies of the island culture as one more of life's mysteries. Besides, as mistress of the Danae, she has more practical problems to deal with, like getting on with the routines of her 16-hour day. ''I work hard,'' she says, ''but I like what I'm doing.''

At the moment, she is in the galley singing sweetly to herself. And what a feast she is creating. There are fresh clams in a butter sauce flavored with tarragon, lemon, and curry; a mold of ground bonita, shrimp, and raisins; and two delicious legs of New Zealand lamb and coconut fritters for dessert. She looks up from her work to comment, ''We're lucky, you know. We're living in the last paradise in the world.'' Chartering The Danae III

Charters of the Danae III may be arranged through Ted Cook Tours Inc., (Yacht Danae III) Dept. MB&S 12814, Lafayette St., Newport Beach, Calif. 92663. Toll-free phones: 800-854-3413; in California, 800-432-7080; direct, 714-675- 8100.

A nine-day, per-person package tour, including six days aboard the Danae III plus meals, four nights in Tahiti, air fare from Los Angeles, and ground transportation starts at $1,690. Flying time from Los Angeles to Papeete, French Polynesia's only major city, is approximately 7 1/2 hours, or 2 1/2 hours farther than Hawaii. And remember, there are other pluses: The islanders frown on tipping, and there is no sales tax.

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