Lush, green volcanic mountains towered over us, as the ferry churned its way through the gap in the bleached coral reef, into the translucent calm of Vaiare Bay, Moorea. In 1769 when Captain Cook and HMS Endeavour sailed into the lagoons of these South Pacific islands, it was to the sound of sails flapping in the wind and the creaking of seasoned timbers. They had come a long way. For more than a year they had sailed, charting new highways across the world’s oceans; and when the Endeavour finally dropped anchor in this paradise of stunning scenery, exotic foods and sweet, fresh water, it was to a warm welcome from amorous inhabitants. I on the other hand, had left the cold, wet days of autumnal England one month earlier, jetting around the world in 20th century style, across highways in the sky. They had travelled into the unknown; whilst books, films and a travel agent had ensured I knew something about where I was going and what to expect.
The ferry docked with a reverse-thrust of its powerful engines and I disembarked with its ‘cargo’ of animated, French-speaking passengers. The bustle and noise came with me across the concrete jetty, as I walked towards an old bus and a sign which said ‘le truck’. I boarded, bus voucher in hand and for half an hour clung to my seat as ‘le truck’ lurched anticlockwise around the island’s single, coastline road, disgorging bodies and baggage at various jewel-coloured bays along the way, until we reached Haapiti.
The agent’s brochure had described Moorea Village as a collection of basic-style Tahitian bungalows, with a bar and restaurant, on the water’s edge overlooking the lagoon. It had been recommended. Reception was a small, barren area with dark-veneered walls, ageing cream paint and a solitary ceiling fan that stirred the warm, sluggish air. Behind the counter stooped a once tall European woman with skin like orange peel. As she peered at me over horn-rimmed spectacles, I was immediately reminded of an old school teacher whose wrath I had once incurred. I took a deep breath, smiled and, in my best, school-girl French, told her I had a reservation. She looked down, carefully studying a sheet of paper on the counter-top. Then nodded. With rising confidence I continued, in French.
‘I understand you have a restaurant? Would it be possible to have lunch?’
Madame paused, handed me my key, and then peered over her glasses at the watch on the end of her long, brown arm.
‘The kitchen closes in fifteen minutes,’ was the bristled reply.
Bungalow number five stood beneath shady palms looking out across the lagoon to the coral reef. No time now to explore this tantalizing view, I was in a hurry. On my return Madame appeared and marched me to a table on the veranda of an otherwise empty restaurant.
‘What would you like to drink?’ She asked, thrusting a menu into my hand. The image of a large, gin and tonic with ice filled my mind, to be immediately, if reluctantly discarded, as I first remembered where I was, then asked for a glass of cold, dry, white wine. Madame issued instructions to someone behind me, then continued to hover as I chose from the lunch selection. A simple omelette would suffice. Seconds later my wine appeared and I breathed deeply, releasing the tension which surrounded me. At last I was alone.
As I opened my eyes, I became aware of dried palm fronds above my head. The smell of fragrant flowers on the warm, gentle breeze that floated across my face. The sound of waves breaking on the white coral reef, across the irridescent, clear waters of the lagoon; and the brilliant blue sky beyond. Goosebumps of excitement travelled up my back and down my arms as this shock-wave of visual and sensual delights hit me; followed by a dawning realisation. I was sitting on a ‘tropical island paradise’ and nothing I’d seen or read, had prepared me for the all-encompassing beauty of what these words actually meant. Nothing. Just like the crew of HMS Endeavour, I was captivated.
With a feeling of deep pleasure I lifted my glass and made a toast to Captain Cook. It’s hard to say whether he would be disappointed, philosophical or excited about the ease and speed with which we now travel distances that took him months or even years. In two centuries of travel and adventure, a handful of explorers charting new ocean highways and discovering unknown continents, has grown into nations of tourists experiencing the excitement and challenge of remote, far-flung corners of the world with relative ease. Whilst my welcome here had not been as warm as his, I like to think Captain Cook would agree we have come a long way.