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Tahiti, Pearl of the Pacific

August 30, 2007 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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Bungalows and pearls (below)-- real Tahitian gems
God truly must have formed Tahiti and French Polynesia and placed coral necklaces around them. They are too perfect: Bright morning sunshine, calming breezes, turquoise lagoons, spectacular waterfalls, towering mountains, lush fruit and vegetable fields, and friendly people. Who could ask for more?

Indeed, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora -- to name just three of these 118 volcanic and coral islands -- are a state of mind. Even 100 years ago, artist Paul Gauguin knew a good thing; he was willing to spend 63 days on a ship that set sail from France to reach the earthly paradise of Tahiti.

Today, the islands are more accessible. You can go nonstop from New York's JFK airport to Tahiti in slightly more than 12 hours on Air Tahiti Nui. Your plane probably will be full of honeymooners and vacationers seeking an uncrowded tourist destination.

The island itself boasts verdant pathways through striking island vegetation, cool breezes and calm people.

Yes, I found a synagogue, and there are Jews living on the island. Services are held Friday evenings at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday mornings at 8:30 a.m., in the synagogue at 17 Rue Morenhout in the heart of the cosmopolitan capital, Papeete.

According to Dr. François Poul, whom I met one morning earlier this month at the shul, 200 people show up on Yom Kippur, though most of the year on Shabbat, only about 20 attend the Orthodox-Sephardic service. A school functions on the first floor of the two-story building, and last year, a Bar Mitzvah even took place.

Synagogue members say that anti-Semitism doesn't exist, and I believe them. "Polynesians," said one such member, "believe in God, and understand that everyone has his or her own religion."

A Cook's Tour
The first Jew probably arrived in 1769 with Captain James Cook, according to the Virtual Library.

Alexander Salmon, a Jew who also moved to Tahiti, later entered the Tahitian royal family when he married Arrioehau, a Polynesian princess.

The first real Jewish community was established in the 1960s with the arrival of Algerian Jewish refugees. More came later from France, such as the 48-year-old Poul, who stayed after military service. The community lacks a rabbi now, though, for a number of years, one flew here from Australia, a six-hour flight, for the High Holidays.

There is no kosher restaurant on the island, so people eat fish or import kosher meat from France, which is expensive and time-consuming.

Shopping on the island is super, especially for pearls -- pearls, pearls and more pearls, by the thousands, at all prices. Stop at the Pearl Market, at 25 Rue Colette, which claims to have the largest choice in the world of top gem necklaces. You can customize your own jewelry from a selection of more than 200,000 loose pearls and mountings -- all within three price ranges of products: prestige, elegance and charm.

Even in Tahiti, let alone on the nearby islands, the most popular rentals remain "overwater bungalows," a perfect haven for lovers: thatched roof, a spacious, luxury bedroom, a sitting room to look through a partial, glass-bottom floor to observe multi-colored fish swimming below, luxurious bathroom and private balcony.

You can also stay in secluded hotel resorts, such as the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti.

Scenic beauty, blue lagoons and emerald green waters inspire swimming, snorkeling and fishing. High, rugged mountain peaks enhance the mystic quality of these South Pacific wonders.

Many tourists opt for Bora Bora, Moorea or Raiatea. Honeymooners -- who also arrive on the islands by cruise ship -- use Tahiti only as a stopover. But Tahiti flaunts its own charm, including its Papeete population of 80,000.

Motor 45 minutes from Papeete, past the peaks and slopes of the island, and you arrive at the Gauguin Museum, a one-story building in a lovely setting. Gauguin -- perhaps more than any other artist -- successfully captured the sun-splashed colors, dream-like atmosphere and pervasive serenity of this island. Gauguin lived in Tahiti from 1891 to 1893 and from 1895 to 1901.

Robert Louis Stevenson spent time on Tahiti. James Norman Hall (co-author of the Bounty trilogy) is buried here.

In Tahiti, visit roulottes -- a type of mobile diner where tourists mingle with locals who sit at long picnic tables and order hot meals from colorful food vans (it calls to mind tailgating at football games). The food includes Chinese and Polynesian dishes, steak, chicken, fish, French fries, desserts (definitely be on the lookout for the Belgian waffles with Tahitian bananas).

Visit the colorful downtown market and take in the fresh vegetables, souvenirs, some pearls and lots of snacks. Receive and wear with pride the tiare, a tiny white gardenia that is Tahiti's national blossom.

For information, go to: www.tahiti-tourisme.com.

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