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Tropical Moorea brings 'South Pacific' to life

Overwater bungalows, such as these found at the Sofitel Moorea Beach Resort, are common in the lagoons of Moorea. The island is a mountainous paradise, especially lovely to visit compared with touristy Tahiti, 17 miles away.

Associated Press (2001)

Overwater bungalows, such as these found at the Sofitel Moorea Beach Resort, are common in the lagoons of Moorea. The island is a mountainous paradise, especially lovely to visit compared with touristy Tahiti, 17 miles away.

There we were at the foot of this island's remnant of a volcano, which had been a movie star: It served as the inspiration for Bali Ha'i, the haunting song in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.

A view of the volcano crater on this lush Polynesian isle was depicted as "Bali Ha'i,'' part of a fictional island in the screen version of the musical that wowed audiences in the 1950s.

"Straight ahead, over there — that's Bali Ha'i," said our guide, pointing to the jagged, majestic peak we remembered from the movie. But the guide later admitted that he had not seen the film.

The musical is based on a story from James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. In this play and movie, American Lt. Joseph Cable meets — and falls in love with — a young native girl, Liat, while viewing Bali Ha'i.

She is the daughter of the woman nicknamed Bloody Mary, and it is the mother who sings the song. The lyric beckons the young officer to steal away to the mysterious, off-limits island with her daughter.

Moorea was one of six South Pacific islands we visited during a 10-day cruise aboard the sleek 860-passenger Tahitian Princess. Moorea is an unspoiled, mountainous paradise with about 8,800 people living among panoramic ocean and lagoon views. A kaleidoscope of flowers thrives amid valleys where pineapple, coconut, banana and vanilla crops are grown.

Moorea is like a beautiful sister to Tahiti, just a 17-mile ferry ride away.

Tahiti was quite touristy, the downtown streets of its bustling capital, Papeete, clogged with traffic.

We preferred Bora Bora, a masterpiece of dark green volcanic peaks surrounded by jagged reefs and narrow sandy beaches, and we called at Huahine (who-ah-HEE-nee), a laid-back, mountainous, tourist-free retreat of 4,500 where fishing and farming oysters for black pearls are ways of life.

But it was on Moorea where our guide told us, "You'll never be able to pronounce my name or remember it, so just call me Joe."

Joe was 50-ish, a barefoot, dark-skinned and gapped-tooth guide. We settled into the six-passenger open-sided vehicle he called Le Truck — French and Tahitian are Polynesia's primary languages.

Displaying a map, Joe said that Huahine, one of the prettiest and least developed islands, gets more than 200 inches of rain a year. That explains why the area is a reservoir of greenery.

Joe seemed to know every driver or pedestrian we passed, greeting each with a big smile and a thumbs-up.

He's a descendant of island cannibals, Joe said, adding that in days gone by, males would be selected for sacrifice, then eaten raw.

Why did it seem that everyone we saw, including Joe, was barefoot?

"I only wear (shoes) when I go to church or a wedding," he said.

As Le Truck lumbered up and down twisting, bumpy single-lane dirt roads, Joe described island life:

"Most of us work an hour or two a day and fish for the rest of the day."

Didn't he need money? "We eat what we grow or catch."

Disembarking at a hilly farm, Joe paraded us through the area, pointing out ginger and vanilla plants, pineapple, coconut, banana, and star fruit plants. The owner, it turned out, was his uncle, an elderly, craggy-faced man with a welcoming smile.

At a brook, Joe waded into knee-deep water to show off and feed some giant eels chunks of canned mackerel.

"Can you see their blue eyes?" he asked. We could not.

And yes, Joe added, he was once bitten but not badly hurt by one of the 4-foot-long creatures.

The visit to a pearl farm was a learning experience. In a thatched roof structure near the middle of a lagoon, an employee told how the precious black pearl is cultivated:

A white baby pearl, serving as a nucleus, is placed in a clam shell. The closed shells are then strung together and dropped into the water, inviting nature to take its course. After two years, if the pearl farmers are lucky, shiny dark pearls will be found in some of the shells.

Black pearls were for sale there. But we opted to buy a pendant on the ship. It came with a five-year guarantee and an assurance there would be no duty charge because it was designed and assembled in the United States.

Retired newspaper editor Si Liberman divides his time between New Jersey and West Palm Beach.

Tropical Moorea brings 'South Pacific' to life 03/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 6:17pm]
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