French Polynesia comprises 118 islands in five groups spread over a large section of the central Pacific south of the equator. Here in these remote ocean waters are the islands of imagination and dream made real. Thatched roof huts resting on stilts above a light blue lagoon, warm breezes with a tang of salt, fresh fish with sweet papaya chutney, bright flowers tucked into long dark hair. The dream exists. The reality exists.
There's plenty to do or not do on the islands. Lie on the beach, float in the lagoon, snorkel across the reef, scuba the drop off, hike into the mountain, or ride a horse to the local market. Watch the Hawaiki Nui three-day canoe race from one of the four islands it includes. Check out the September surfing contest on Tahiti, where the sport originated. Participate in or gawk in amazement at the Moorea marathon in February. Or you can do the nothing you've been intending to get to for years.
Papeete, on Tahiti, is the capital and major port. It's a shipping and market town with yachts and ferryboats and a colorful atmosphere. But for most visitors, it's a transit point for resorts and hotels elsewhere on the island or for connections to outlying destinations.
Nearby Bora Bora is often proclaimed the most beautiful island in the Pacific. Rangiroa, in the Tuamotu island group west and north of Tahiti, is the second largest atoll in the world and a world destination for divers. Paul Gauguin spent his last years on Hiva Oa, farther north in the Marquesas. Thor Heyerdahl lived on the neighbor island Fatu Hiva for 18 months and wrote a book about it. You can even stay (for a short time, mind you) on Tetiaroa, Marlon Brando's private island.
The earliest Polynesians arrived in outrigger canoes from islands to the west two to three thousand years ago. Their remarkable navigational skills took them across great expanses of open ocean to find tiny volcanic islands jutting out of the water and flat atolls gathered around blue lagoons.
The green-clad mountains laced with waterfalls and the shallow-water reefs laden with fish provided sustenance for the spirits and the bodies of the early Polynesians, just as they do today for the North Americans and Europeans who are 80% of the islands' tourists.
When they first came upon the islands of Polynesia in the latter half of the 18th century, Europeans found in the beauty and free behavior of the people the ideal of the "noble savage." The stories told in Europe of the sexual openness of Polynesian women and the incomparable splendor of the islands led early visitors to believe they had found paradise.
Today's dream of remote sand beaches, warm ocean waves, tropical breezes, and lush foliage is still the attraction and the reality of French Polynesia, and more than one web site will demonstrate that the beauty of the people is as extraordinary as ever.
As traffic in whaling and trade throughout the Pacific increased in the 19th century, so did visits to the islands. With the trinkets and goods of the sailors came diseases, for which the islanders had no immunities, and weapons, in which they had great interest.
Then came the missionaries. First were Protestant proselytizers, who came with the British, and then Catholic priests, who arrived with the French. New diseases and internecine conflicts had depleted native populations, and religious authority now attacked traditional Polynesian activities and beliefs. By 1842, the French had turned out the British and the islands became an overseas territory of the Republic of France.
As she did with all of her colonial possessions, France sought economic advantage from the Polynesian islands. Chinese laborers were imported to work plantations, where cotton and vanilla beans were grown for export. Copra (dried coconut meat for coconut oil) and mother-of-pearl were major profit industries, as well.
The remoteness of Polynesia allows the islands to sit at the edge of most world events. Too isolated to be directly a part of the world wars of the 20th century, Polynesia did send soldiers to fight for France in both conflicts. So remote are the Austral islands that the one gendarme there received news of the beginning and the end of World War I on the same day.
World focus did turn to Polynesia in 1963, however, when French President DeGaulle moved nuclear testing from the Sahara Desert to Moruroa and Fangataufa in the Tuamotus islands. Protests forced testing to go underground in 1981. New testing in 1995 brought rioting to Tahiti and international obloquy to France.
Nuclear testing had brought money to French Polynesia, though, and the "permanent" suspension of tests in 1996 threatened to remove military and government spending from the islands. A Progress Pact between the territory and the French state that was initiated in 1991 led to a commitment from French President Chirac in 1996 to maintain the same amount of spending in Polynesia that had accompanied the years of the tests. Consequently, French Polynesia GDP has increased 4% or more every year since 1997.
Recent social movements to regain Polynesian values and a renewed interest in cultural anthropology, traditional religion, and language have increased Polynesian studies around the world.