Sipping drinks under a tarp on the southwest coast of Tahiti, my wife and I had a crisis of confidence.
Rain beat on the blue plastic above our heads and spattered the lagoon to our left. The restaurant had a total of four patrons at lunchtime, all of us slightly chilled. The sky was gray, the water was gray, and so was my wife’s face.
We’d chosen French Polynesia for our honeymoon because it seemed alien and romantic — remote specks of green in the expansive blue of the South Pacific. Likely, we would visit only once in our lives. Getting there would take a full day, but the reward, we imagined, would be miles of snorkeling, breezy hotels and sunup-to-sundown sunshine.
We flew on a Sunday morning into Papeete, the territory’s largest city. A $30 cab ride took us from the airport to our first resort, a few miles down the coast in Puna’auia. After we checked in with a succinct, unsmiling clerk and paid for a mediocre $40 breakfast, the first drops of rain started to fall.
The next day, the clouds burst. Ditching our hopes for the beach, we rented a car and spent most of the day driving the 72-mile circumference of the island to get the lay of the land and see waterfalls.
If you’ve been to a tropical place when it’s raining, you know that what’s charming in sunshine can look sad in a downpour. The greens aren’t so green, and the water is not blue. We watched as rainwater gushed down from the mountains, churning red plumes of soil into the gray ocean, which looked like Lake Superior in November.
As the rain relented and clouds set in, we drove through Papeete, where the sidewalks and roads were busy, and the colonial buildings looked dingy.
It was an uninspiring afternoon, punctuated by our own clipped diplomacy regarding the rate at which the windshield wipers were wiping. We needed information. So we began tentatively questioning the hotel staff on the subject of weather.
“December and January are the rainy season,” said Jeremy, the guy who ran the pool area. “But the weather has been strange.”
It was March. That night, as clouds covered the moon, we huddled in our room and briefly contemplated an escape to Mexico.
Then we realized that the only way forward was to brush aside doubt and to hope for vindication. So we did. And we were. Vindicated, that is.
The next morning, the sun came out. Throwing open the curtains, I felt like I was stepping into the Technicolor of “The Wizard of Oz.”
There was the beach, white in the sunshine, and the bright blue lagoon framed by waving palm leaves and the coral breakwater a mile out. We rushed to the beach and spent all day there, still worried the rain would return.
But the sun kept shining, and we fell into a lazy rhythm of snorkeling, kayaking, napping on the beach and lunching on the balcony.
Octopus and angelfish
Most mornings we carried our snorkeling gear into the water, strapped in and drifted toward the forest of coral that covers the lagoon’s floor. We wove our way through mazes of what looked like giant heads of broccoli and cabbage.
Black and yellow angelfish with extravagant top fins cut diagonal lines across our path in two and threes, graceful and aloof. Neon parrotfish bulled through coral alleys clouded by butterflyfish. Red rockfish darted into the shadows and stared.
When one of us saw something big, we’d surface and shout at the other.
My wife cornered an octopus that tried to hide by changing color, and occasionally we saw a little reef shark in the distance. The water was cool, silent and lit by moving beams of sunlight.
Eventually, we’d return to lie on an empty beach.
By Wednesday we were red bronze and squinting at the ocean as the sun went down. A breeze caught the branches of an old tree, and the elegant French tourists and their grandchildren murmured beneath the sound of waves crashing on the reef and the radio in the bar next to the pool. Silhouettes moved back and forth on the beach. A man and a boy rowed past on a paddleboard, rippling the fiery sheet of glass the lagoon had become in the stillness.
Moving to Moorea
If you drew a straight line from the middle of Australia to Peru, French Polynesia is pretty much exactly at the midpoint. It’s part of the French Republic and feels European, except that it’s on tropical islands that are thousands of miles from the nearest continent. TV ads were for vacations in Indonesia, and ESPN showed replays of rugby games. We met Australian liquor salesmen trying to expand their territory, a cruise ship full of elderly Japanese tourists, and French students visiting relatives.
Noisy and bustling, the island of Tahiti is “the summit of a mountain submerged,” as the painter Gauguin put it, a straightforward landscape and the commercial and government hub of the territory. But Moorea, 10 miles to the northwest across the Sea of the Moons, is mysterious, its mountains shards of green wrapped at the top in cloud. Bora Bora — flat, pristine and expensive — is 150 miles farther.
On Thursday, we took a day trip to Moorea by ferry and rented a car. Shaped a little like a heart (don’t think for a minute this was lost on us) with two bays on the north coast, the island has a ring of sharp mountains around a valley of orange, avocado and grapefruit groves and pineapple fields. It was quiet.
Along the west coast we saw cattle grazing and rolled through neighborhoods with grass streets where old Frenchmen cut their lawns.
We stopped at a narrow beach where four women sat with cutting boards and buckets of wet leaves, cleaning parrotfish and tossing guts into the clear shallows. Green rollers pounded the reef a mile out. A dozen stingrays and a little shark drifted in the water, competing with a half-dozen seagulls for the spoils.
“It’s not dangereux,” called one of the women in her best English, as we stood there dumbstruck, two shamefully unilingual honeymooners from a landlocked place.
One of the women walked a toddler into the water to show us it was safe. The rays fled from the child’s feet, kicking up sand as they pivoted, their tails wagging like erect bull whips as they shot away.
See? Not dangereux.
The other three women hardly looked up, and absently tossed fish guts into the air for seagulls to snatch.
Later, we drove to the island’s east side, where we lay on towels and watched white ships crawl across the horizon to Papeete.
We decided to move to Moorea for the rest of the honeymoon.
Show of culture on the beach
We joined two other couples on two-person catamarans that took us into the lagoon, a caravan led by a guide in a small motorboat. Everywhere the water was teal or aquamarine, the beaches studded by palm trees like a postcard of the tropics. At one point, we stopped and anchored next to a deep channel and all got out. Peter, our guide, used fish guts to attract stingrays and black-tipped reef sharks, and soon they were swimming all around us. The tan sharks, 3 or 4 feet long, all had the same frown frozen on their faces. Black or gray with soft white underbellies, the rays glided past our legs like cats.
Peter stopped us at a little island he called “his office,” and offered a bowl of fresh pineapple and cold lemonade. As a boat of elderly tourists from Japan zipped by, he stood in the shade and smoked a joint.
That night there was a feast on the beach and a powerful show of dancing and singing by Tahitians in traditional island garb — exactly what you might expect, except fresher and more arresting. It was all flower necklaces and grass skirts, gyrating hips, macho men swinging machetes and everyone singing jubilant, proud songs in unison. The leader was a woman probably in her 40s who danced like Beyoncé, called out orders to her colleagues like a drill sergeant and looked as though she were strong enough to easily kill a man. “Look at her butt!” my wife kept saying.
Our last morning we hopped an early-morning ferry from Moorea to Tahiti, and its larger airport. The front of the ferry was the quiet section, where people slept for the 30 minutes across the water, most of them high school students headed for Monday morning classes in Papeete.
My wife closed her eyes and fell asleep. Off to our right, a teenager with a backward baseball cap — looked like a nice kid — was trying to talk to a pretty girl his age. She was smaller than him but seemed in charge. Her schoolbag resting on her lap, she was friendly but noncommittal.
Good luck, buddy, I thought. Maybe one day you will honeymoon in Minnesota.