The sun’s first rays touched the outlines of the mountains outside my window, and the whir of a boat engine broke the gentle silence. Aboard the catamaran sailboat Apetahi, its captain, the towering, tattooed Turo, lifted anchor. His coworker, Hinano, worked below decks in the kitchen, a fragrant tiare blossom tucked behind her ear, a ready smile and a cheery iaorana—the Tahitian equivalent of “aloha”—for sleepy passengers climbing up from their cabins. Living from the sea as her forebears have for a thousand years, Hinano was preparing a tender poisson cru from a fresh-caught tuna, seasoned lightly with just-squeezed coconut milk and a touch of lemon.
Today, we were headed Raiatea (pronounced “rah-ee-ah-TAY-ah”), home of Marae Taputapuatea, the most important precolonial temple of prayer in Polynesia. From New Zealand in the southwest, to Hawai‘i in the north, to the Marquesas in the northeast, people have converged on this spot for centuries with their offerings and petitions. Some still do. At this spiritual center of the Polynesian universe, at the foot of the sacred mountain overlooking the sea, I sought an answer to the question that brought me here.
French Polynesia’s more famous islands—Tahiti, with its ‘ukulele-playing airport greeters and grass-skirt stage shows; Bora-Bora and Moorea, with their luxurious resorts and star-studded guest lists—constitute the land of the perpetual honeymoon. Does anything remain of the raw, adventurous spirit of the original Polynesians?
I was, in a way, asking the same question that Paul Gauguin had asked when he came to these islands more than 100 years before to explore what remained of Polynesia’s ancient roots. The French artist came a century after the 1769 arrival of Captain James Cook, who was one of the first Europeans to make contact and whose visit set in motion a period of profound change. Gauguin was disappointed to see that Tahiti was “becoming completely French,” as he wrote to his wife soon after he arrived in 1891. “Little by little, all the ancient ways of doing things will disappear. Our missionaries have already brought a great deal of hypocrisy, and they are sweeping away part of the poetry.”
I hoped to find a different answer. I had set out from Papeete, French Polynesia’s teeming capital, to explore Raiatea and another isle, Huahine (“hoo-ah-HEE-nay”)—two of the country’s remote, lesser-visited places.