TAHITI/Around the World in 72 Days

Bora Bora lies only a few hundred yards away, almost within reach of my chair on the promenade deck of a cruise ship, as we meander close to the shores of the Society Islands. . . . Mysterious dark clouds form over mystical purple peaks to the accompaniment of the sound of distant tropical rainstorms. . . . Lush bougainvillea, mango, and coconut palm trees hang among thatched-roof over-water cottages. . . . Smiling Polynesians wander lazily along the perimeter road in pareos (sarongs) chicly wrapped for a French couture look. . . . I don diving goggles and flippers to plunge overboard from the shallow-keeled vessel and snorkel a few inches above the coral reef, then visit with the natives. . .

It's not a dream, not a fantasy; it is reality. And it's all free! Well, sort of free. Not only am I really here, but this is only the first leg of a 76-day journey around the world -- a journey that includes a whole series of exotic places. Soon I'll be lolling on the veranda of a bamboo cottage on the edge of a river in the hills of Bali, chugging through Rajasthan in a majarajah's sleeping car, and chasing white rhinos on an elephant through the Nepalese jungle.

But I mustn't get ahead of myself. A friend, an architect/photographer who travels often on business, has earned a TWA ``Frequent Flight Bonus'': two economy-class round-the-world TWA-Qantas tickets. If I agree to take time off and accompany him, the extra ticket is mine. Instant agreement.

We start planning a luxury three-week vacation built around exotic places neither of us has visited before and where we might never go if we had to buy our own tickets. No skimping on hotels, we decide, since we've had our share of Europe-on-$5-a-day travel on past holidays.

First, the decision is to travel west, since the TWA rules demand that we travel in one direction, never backtracking. So it will be New York to Los Angeles; Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti. After deciding to make Tahiti our first stop, we discover an eight-day cruise through the outer islands. Add another week. Then, since it will be rainy season in Papua, New Guinea, we decide to go to Bali by way of Sydney. We hear of a marvelous little hotel in the hill town of Ubud, Bali. Another extra week. And then we learn about the Palace on Wheels, a majarajah's train through Rajasthan, India. We add eight more days. Before long, the three-week holiday has been stretched to 10 weeks. After all, we reason, this is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.

So what started out as a 21-day jaunt ends up as a 76-day series of exotic adventures. We leave on Dec. 5, 1984, and return Feb. 16, 1985, all ``exoticked'' out. The trip has turned out to be the costliest ``free'' trip ever -- around $10,000 each. But we feel richer for the startling experience of a succession of vastly different cultures -- and at least $10,000 worth of dinner-party conversation. Tahiti

After long and uneventful flights to Los Angeles and Papeete, we arrive at the Faaa airport at 4:30 a.m. We are greeted by Tahitians in wraparound sarongs (called pareos in Polynesia), who place flowers behind our ears as a small native orchestra plays and sings Tahitian songs. On the wall behind them is a sign, amazing in any French-speaking country. It reads: ``Tipping is not the custom in Tahiti.''

Waiting for us after we are waved through customs is the car and driver our travel agent had booked from New York. We are decorated with leis and driven about 10 miles on a good road to the Hotel Tahara'a, which turns out to be a spectacular structure built into the hillside. Each room, reached by an elevator that goes down from the top-floor lobby, has a terrace overlooking Moorea. Although the regular rate at the Tahara'a is $135 per day double, we are paying only $85 on a Qantas stopover package booked by the travel agent. It includes the airport transfer to the hotel and a transfer from hotel to harbor three days later, where our cruise ship, the Majestic Tahiti Explorer, is docked.

We take a nap and have a snack. Then we head off on a circle tour of the island of Tahiti ($28 per person for an all-day trip in a private car, including lunch). We follow the island's main road, which runs along the shoreline. There are very few, if any, roads into the interior, which seems much more lush with tropical vegetation than does the perimeter. Most of the native homes are tin-roofed shacks; several recent hurricanes have destroyed the colorful thatched roofs, and they have become too expensive to replace. According to our guide, the tin roofs on Moorea were painted aquamarine when the Australian movie ``The Bounty'' was shot here, because the blue disappears when photographed.

In front of each home is what looks like a rural mailbox, but which we are told is a breadbox. The French subsidize bread and butter, so both are plentiful in French Polynesia. Bread (a French baguette) is delivered to the boxes twice a day.

We visit a Gauguin museum, which displays many prints of the artist's work but no originals. Of major interest there is a replica of the ramshackle studio in which Gauguin worked during his years in Polynesia.

Other sights include the landing site of explorer Captain Cook, several waterfalls, and a blowhole in a cave near the beach, through which the tide spills noisily. We see palm trees with metal bands around the middle of the trunks to prevent rats from stealing the young coconuts, we are told.

The hotel restaurant serves a kind of Tahitian version of nouvelle cuisine -- fish marinated in coconut milk, vinegar, and lemon juice, fresh fruit garnishes on most dishes, and fruit sorbets for dessert. Prices are a bit higher than in Paris these days. A continental breakfast buffet of tropical fruit and juices, croissants, French bread, and jams is $6 per person.

Le truck is what the buses, which run along the perimeter roads, are called. They are refurbished pickups with cushioned benches along the sides, fitted with huge, blasting stereos that play mostly Tahitian rock music.

It's a 20-minute ride to Papeete, a strange mixture of South Pacific, Parisian, and suburban village elements. In the midst of the honky-tonk bars, street vendors, native marketplace, and outdoor caf'es, there are chic boutiques, ice cream stands, good French restaurants, and modern shopping malls. An ancient Chinese junk is anchored on the shore road.

There are only two main streets, one along the harbor and the other 50 yards back. We walk through the whole town in one hour, including a stop for citron presse (fresh lemon juice with ice, sugar, and water). Then lunch at a French restaurant overlooking the harbor, where native fish in coconut milk, a souffl'e, and a poire tart come for $15 per person.

The people in the streets are a mixture of French residents, Tahitian locals, and businessmen, yachtsmen, and tourists. Papeete is not overrun with tourists. It seems more like a bustling honky-tonk town, recently cleaned up.

There are some interesting facts about the language: In the native tongue, all vowels are pronounced. So, Papeete is pronounced Pa-pay-ay-tay, and Moorea is pronounced Moh-oh-reyah. The language is very graphic. For instance, the word for cat translates literally as ``the dog that sits on the roof.''

On our last night in Papeete, we book dinner at a fine restaurant in a remote location, Le Belvedere. A bus picks us up at the hotel and drives madly up a mountain trail through thick jungle growth. An hour later we arrive at the restaurant, which has a gorgeous view of the harbor; the full meal comes to around $17 per person.

Next day at noon, our package transportation comes to the Tahara'a to pick us up. We are garlanded with shell leis and deposited at the main Papeete dock, where the Majestic Tahiti Explorer awaits. Cruising the South Pacific

Majestic? Better call it ``the teeny-weeny `Love Boat.' '' This little vessel is somewhere between a windjammer and a luxury ferry. Its shallow draft allows it to sail right into lagoons and permits bow landings right on the beach. A warning: That same shallow draft sometimes makes for a rocky trip, since there's very little rudder to stabilize the craft.

After checking the cost of hotel rooms and meals, it's clear that the cruise ship is a good buy, costing about $150 per person per day, less than the price of food, lodging, and travel on our own.

The 152-foot ship, which has a cruising speed of 12 knots and accommodations for 88 people, is only half filled for our early December cruise. As we board from Papeete's main dock area, almost all of the 20 crew members are visible, welcoming passengers aboard and guiding them to staterooms.

In the travel supplement Friday, Aug. 9: The voyage through the Society Islands in French Polynesia; a visit to Sydney; going native in Bali.

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