French Polynesia Folks and Tradition

We have been standing ankle-deep in a lagoon off the island of Raiatea when my information, Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, noticed a pod of dolphins taking part in about 300 ft offshore.

The sky had spat rain for the 45 minutes since we might arrived at Taputapuatea, a posh of seaside marae—huge, rectangular platforms hewn from stone a thousand years in the past—and we had the place largely to ourselves. The entire time, Pariente, considered one of French Polynesia’s final conventional navigators, stored circling again to the idea of mana. He was mid-soliloquy when the frolicking dolphins appeared. He smiled in satisfaction, as if the creatures had confirmed the sacred energy of this spot.

In historical occasions, Taputapuatea, Pariente stated, “was just like the Jerusalem of Polynesia.” For hundreds of years, chiefs, monks, shamans, and college students gathered there for spiritual ceremonies, political negotiations, and grasp courses in navigation. Canoe after canoe had pulled into the shallows the place we stood after journeying throughout the ocean—from Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the south, Easter Island to the east—all returning, like so many sea turtles, to their ancestral house.

Pair of images from French Polynesia, displaying native Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, and the foyer on the Le Taha’a resort

From left: Native information Tahiarii Yoram Pariente close to his household farm on Raiatea; the reception space at Le Taha’a resort incorporates a standard outrigger canoe. | Credit score: The Ingalls

Within the 1770s, warriors from Bora-Bora, 34 miles to the northwest, sacked Taputapuatea. The marae sat in disarray till the Nineties, when archaeologists started reassembling the stones. In 2017, Taputapuatea was declared a UNESCO World Heritage web site, and restoration continues to this present day. “You would take a look at all this and say, ‘It is simply stones, sand, and a very good story,'” Pariente stated. “However it’s important to admit that it is a fantastic story.”

As we skirted a low stone wall marking the sting of 1 reconstructed marae, Pariente invited me to think about clusters of smart males, some sharing tales within the shade of fig timber, others making choices. “There was no ceiling,” he stated. “The sky is the ceiling.” Although Taputapuatea had lain ruined for thus a few years, Pariente believed the location had by no means misplaced its mana.

There was that phrase once more: mana. In all places I went in French Polynesia, folks stored mentioning mana. Look ahead to it, they stated. Anticipate it. However what was it?

“It is tough to elucidate,” they stated.

Pair of images from Moorea displaying a scenic lookout and a statue

From left: The view from Belvedere Lookout on Moorea; a statue at Painapo Seashore on Moorea. | Credit score: The Ingalls

Their makes an attempt to outline mana have been all the time as opaque because the waters surrounding the islands are clear. But their emphasis represented one thing essential: the revival of Polynesian customs after centuries of colonial-era repression. The English missionaries, the French authorities, the Tahitians who adopted overseas ways in which had been framed as superior—all had conspired to hazard traditions from tattooing to cooking to celestial navigation.

At this time, the previous methods are returning in new types. Cooks, artists, farmers, and storytellers are reinvigorating a tradition as soon as threatened by dilution, even erasure. They’re wrestling with what it means to be Polynesian. They usually’re reminding guests that that is greater than a one-dimensional postcard paradise dotted with overwater villas. It is any person’s house.

Nonetheless, the place would I discover mana? They’d simply shrug and say, “You will realize it while you really feel it.”

Till A.D. 300, no people lived on these islands. A number of millennia in the past, seafarers are stated to have set off from Taiwan (trendy Polynesians share important DNA with Taiwan’s Indigenous folks). They slowly hopscotched throughout the ocean—to Fiji, then to Tonga and Samoa, finally settling in what’s now French Polynesia.

Although different elements of the nation are higher identified—Tahiti, the biggest island and the one one with a global airport, and Bora-Bora, which some locals name “the American island” due to its recognition with U.S. vacationers—Raiatea has all the time been the archipelago’s cultural and spiritual coronary heart. Raiatea was as soon as referred to as Havai’i—which, roughly translated, means “homeland” or “dwelling of the ancestors.”

Pair of images displaying rock mounds and vanilla beans on the island of Tahaa

From left: A re-created marae, a Polynesian sacred web site, on Tahaa island; vanilla from Fare Vanira, on Tahaa. | Credit score: The Ingalls

From Raiatea, navigators took settlers north to Hawaii, southwest to New Zealand, and southeast to Easter Island, guided by the celebs, sea creatures, and currents. “Folks fixate on the celebs as a result of they’re so seen, however there are various extra layers of knowledge,” Pariente stated. “On a cloudy day, overlook in regards to the stars. You want the wind, the birds, the swells, and religion in your ancestors, who traced paths earlier than you. It is all a part of the database.”

Lately, the database is never handed down. Pariente wasn’t reared with it. Born to a Raiatean mom and a Tunisian Jewish father, he spent most of his childhood in France, studied in Australia, and solely returned to French Polynesia in 2008, at which level he started studying from elders locally, lots of whom act as cultural custodians. He estimates that in all of French Polynesia, there are solely 5 different folks “with whom I would exit on the ocean and belief my life,” he stated. Potential apprentices rapidly disappear when he offers them their first project: to sit down in the identical spot and watch the sky for some time, each night time, for one 12 months. “Not trying, however watching—actually watching. Then comes the exploring.”

We received into Pariente’s truck to circumnavigate Raiatea, an extinct volcano that rises 3,337 ft from sea degree. He defined that what my untrained eye noticed as unspoiled tropical forest was really ample proof of colonization and degradation. Raiatea and neighboring Tahaa (the place my base was the authentically Polynesian Le Taha’a resort) are blanketed by tall, leafy timber resembling big broccoli: the Moluccan albizzia. Within the Thirties, French agronomists launched the fast-growing legume as a result of it enriches the soil. “The concept was to make superfood soil for farming,” Pariente stated. “But it surely took over.”

Pair of images from French Polynesia displaying overwater bungalows on the Sofitel Moorea, and an aerial view of the island of Bora Bora

From left: Overwater bungalows on the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Seashore Resort, in French Polynesia; a view of Bora-Bora island, en route from Tahiti to Raiatea. | Credit score: The Ingalls

As albizzia proliferated, native species pale, together with a flowering tree referred to as the mara, the popular nesting web site for now-endangered Tahitian flycatchers. “Mara wooden is de facto good for making canoes,” Pariente added. “However the timber develop slowly. You plant them not in your youngsters however in your great-great-great grandchildren.”

One steamy morning, I visited the tattoo artist Patu Mamatui in his studio within the previous Chinatown of Papeete, French Polynesia’s ramshackle capital, on Tahiti’s northern coast. Some tattoos on Mamatui’s elaborately inked physique have venerable motifs: the tiare flower, also referred to as Tahitian gardenia; a scroll sample from the Marquesas Islands; the wind. Others are much less conventional. On his left hand, a compass is ready amid stones “as a result of stone is for eternity.” Throughout his knuckles are the letters T A H I T I A N. “Collectively they inform my story,” he stated. “Whenever you see this, what number of generations have you ever seen? My dad and mom. My grandparents. My grandparents’ dad and mom.”

In historical Polynesia’s primarily oral tradition, tattooing served as a visible storytelling machine, an embodied chronicle of 1’s id and place in society. However the early European arrivals deemed the artwork kind barbaric and sought to discourage it. Most of these older generations had no tattoos. English missionaries, seeing the follow as heathen, tried ethical suasion. The French colonial authorities deployed legislation: within the title of recent hygiene, they banned conventional ink, which was made out of candlenut ash and coconut water.

Pair of images from Papeete, Tahiti, displaying rainbow-colored avenue artwork on the aspect of a constructing, and a portrait of tattoo artist Patu

From left: Work by the road artist Okuda San Miguel in Papeete; tattoo artist Patu Mamatui outdoors his studio in Papeete’s Chinatown. | Credit score: The Ingalls

“We have been like sheep,” Mamatui stated, unleashing a hearty “baa,” adopted by a burst of laughter. “They tried to erase our ancestors, however the gods discovered a manner.” Within the Eighties, tattooing was the primary conventional artwork kind to expertise a widespread revival, using the dual waves of Polynesian delight and new, extra hygienic know-how. Mamatui and his brother are each famend tattoo artists, and as we speak, it is uncommon to see a twentysomething Polynesian with out at the least one tattoo.

Different traditions haven’t fared so effectively. From my resort close to Papeete, the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, I drove southwest alongside the coast to the village of Punaauia to satisfy Virginie Biret. She is among the final practitioners of tifaifai, a Polynesian quilting method. Tifaifai is itself a hybrid. When the London Missionary Society evangelists arrived in 1797, they introduced cottons and linens that hadn’t existed on these islands. The missionary girls’ discarded clothes have been quilted into the primary tifaifai—early upcycling.

Polynesian ladies launched Indigenous motifs—turtles, stars, flowers—and interpreted the missionaries’ Bible tales of their quilts. Biret herself ranges extensively for inspiration. She confirmed me a number of items primarily based on Paul Gauguin’s work—a reclamation of his depictions of Tahitian ladies. Regardless of the shape’s flexibility, few younger folks have proven curiosity in studying it, and Biret believes that the youngest surviving tifaifai artisan is now in her forties.

Although some shops in Papeete inventory pretty quilts that resemble tifaifai, most are machine-made, typically abroad. “Tifaifai is not only cloth that you just sew rapidly. Each has its personal story. You must have coronary heart while you make it,” Biret stated with a sigh. So each morning, she trundles throughout the courtyard to her workshop, attempting to maintain the craft, one cautious sew at a time.

Biret’s Gauguin-inspired tifaifai got here to thoughts later that day again in Papeete, the place I met the artist Yiling Changues. Changues, who works primarily in pen and ink, lived in Paris for a decade. “I used to be confronted with how folks see us as islanders. It is the archetype of the vahine,” she stated, referring to the voluptuous, typically bare younger Polynesians of whom Gauguin was so enamored. “I need to problem that.”

Pair of images from Papeete, Tahiti, displaying chef Maheata Banner, and a crimson and white mural painted on the aspect of a constructing

From left: Chef Maheata Banner at her Papeete restaurant, Black Backyard; artists Seth Globepainter and Hell Ton John collaborated on this mural in Papeete. | Credit score: The Ingalls

Changues’s drawings typically recontextualize Polynesian ladies, reinstalling them of their pure environments. She positions their our bodies behind massive philodendron leaves or veils them with the ocean. “Nature is a part of us. I solely realized that once I was in a metropolis like Paris, the place there’s nearly no nature in any respect,” she defined.

One afternoon, a information with a powerful surfer-dude vibe named Teremoana Chave took me into Tahiti’s mountainous inside, up the Papenoo Valley and into Tahiti’s highlands. As Chave recognized the varied vegetation and their makes use of, the blurry partitions of inexperienced on both aspect of the pockmarked street progressively gained definition. There was hotu, the fish-poison tree; fishermen crushed their poisonous seeds, he stated, then scattered them within the lagoon to stun their catch. There was surette, or Tahitian gooseberry, which resembles a tiny yellow pumpkin. “Nice for making jam,” he stated. There have been grand mapes, the 60-foot-tall Tahitian chestnut timber that stand alongside the street like sentinels.

Chave knew none of this when he turned a tour firm driver in 2007. He was employed for his near-fluent English—visits to household in Utah had given him a vaguely American accent. Inside weeks, he grew uninterested in the handful of tales he’d been taught throughout coaching. He began learning—botany, archaeology, historical past. “In class, we discovered in regards to the Center Ages, the Hundred Years’ Battle, this king and that king. We’re French residents. However that is probably not our historical past. I spotted how a lot we had misplaced our id as Polynesians. I needed to educate myself.”

Pair of images from Tetiaroa island, displaying the doorway to a restaurant at Brando resort, and a coconut crab sitting on a log

From left: The doorway to the Brando’s restaurant, Les Mutinés; a coconut crab on Tetiaroa atoll. | Credit score: The Ingalls

Eight years in the past, at age 37, Chave received his first tattoo. He stated his father was dismayed, however he needed to mark his constancy to his ancestors. His most significant tattoo is a shark, the image of the clan of Teva. Amongst his forebears was a Boston-born whaler named Ebenezer, who jumped ship in Polynesia, and a sailor named Richard from England. However one other, a great-grandmother, was a translator for Queen Pomare. “That is who we’re,” he stated. “That is who I’m.”

Most French Polynesians I met, all of blended heritage, have little quibble with cultural intermingling. They acknowledge the islands as a contemporary mélange. On high of the Polynesian base, you will discover layers of French and English affect in addition to a Chinese language inflection, because of the hundreds of plantation employees introduced right here within the nineteenth century.

French Polynesia’s international heritage shines within the cooking of younger Tahitian restaurateurs. At Café Maeva, in Papeete’s central market, I had river shrimp in a beautiful, gently spicy yellow curry. At Le Sully, chef Tereva Galopin, who cooked beneath Christian Fixed on the Michelin-starred Le Violon d’Ingres in Paris, prepares a largely European menu with Polynesian twists—a taro “risotto,” say, beneath roasted squab.

One night, I dined at Black Backyard, the Papeete restaurant of Maheata Banner, who describes her delicacies as “eclectic.” Skilled in San Francisco, she deploys conventional Polynesian components on a globetrotting menu: lagoon fish, coconut milk, and keenness fruit in a ceviche; sweet-potato waffles.

When Banner discovered I used to be headed to the island of Moorea the following day, she informed me to not miss a brand new meals truck referred to as Pura Vida. Coincidentally, I used to be planning to tour Moorea with chef Heimata Corridor, who helped begin Pura Vida through the pandemic.

Corridor, who’s half Tahitian and half American, grew up on Moorea however went to culinary college in Hawaii. After returning house, he started main excursions that highlighted meals vehicles and les snacks, the mom-and-pop eateries that he’d all the time cherished. At a Tahitian-Chinese language snack referred to as Golden Lake, we tried what was maybe a quintessential dish, the casse-croûte chow mein: a toasted baguette overflowing with stir-fried noodles, rooster, and Chinese language sausage. “The Tahitian who put this collectively should have been drunk or stoned or each,” Corridor stated. I come from a household of Hong Kong meals snobs, however even sober, I needed to admit: it was scrumptious.

Pair of images from Pura Vida meals truck on Moorea, displaying the meals truck’s window, and a bowl of poisson cru

From left: Heiana Terooatea, the top cook dinner on the Pura Vida meals truck on Moorea; poisson cru—fish marinated in citrus and coconut milk—from Pura Vida. | Credit score: The Ingalls

4 stops later, after tasting wondrously crispy breadfruit chips, crunchy mango spiced with prune powder, a neighborhood spin on shu mai, and a coconut liqueur so cloying I spat it out, we lastly received to Pura Vida. Chef Nahema Charles grows all of her basil and chili peppers, in addition to tomatoes. What she will be able to’t develop, she sources from Moorea farmers. It was pumpkin season, so chunks of fried pumpkin went into the poke bowl with the tuna. Moorea is famed for its pineapples, so she provides it to the fish tacos.

“We’re attempting to honor what we have now right here,” Corridor stated as we ate, earlier than launching right into a story a couple of latest go to to his grandfather. “I went to his fridge, and there was actually nothing in there. I went to him and stated, ‘Do you want some cash?'” His grandfather checked out him and stated, “I’ve received loads of meals.” Corridor was confused. “However your fridge is empty.” Grandpa pointed outdoors—to the timber, heavy with breadfruit and papayas and bananas, and to the close by river, which abounded with shrimp. “I’ve every thing I would like proper right here.”

After just a few nights on Moorea, the place I stayed on the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Seashore Resort, my closing cease was Tetiaroa, a sickle-shaped atoll made from 12 islets 33 miles north of Tahiti that was as soon as a retreat for Tahitian royalty. The idea of royalty was one other colonial-era import. After the British arrived, Tu, a scion of a mainly household on Tahiti, dealt cleverly with the newcomers. He secured a provide of one thing different chiefs did not have: weapons. Quickly afterward, he united a number of islands beneath his rule and declared himself King Pomare I.

After the dominion fell and France seized sovereignty in 1880, a Canadian named Walter Williams, Tahiti’s solely dentist, secured Tetiaroa’s long-term leasehold. Then, within the Nineteen Sixties, Marlon Brando, who had occurred upon Tetiaroa whereas filming Mutiny on the Bounty, purchased it for a 99-year time period.

Pair of images from the Brando luxurious resort in French Polynesia, displaying a bartender, and a swimmer in turquoise water

From left: Paul Tevaearai, a bartender on the Brando; swimming within the South Pacific off the Brando. | Credit score: The Ingalls

Brando’s household nonetheless holds the lease for Tetiaroa. Solely the westernmost islet, Onetahi, is inhabited. It is house to an expensive resort referred to as the Brando, which opened in 2014. The resort is maybe finest generally known as the getaway the place Barack Obama spent a month engaged on his memoir after leaving the White Home.

However the Brando’s discreet operators would relatively it have been identified for its environmental-sustainability measures—its photo voltaic panels, which offer two-thirds of the resort’s energy; its air-conditioning plant, which cools the property with seawater; its filtration system, which makes use of taro vegetation to cleanse wastewater. It additionally acts as a nature protect and scientific lab. A portion of the income underwrites the Tetiaroa Society, a nonprofit on Onetahi that hosts scientists and college students who come to study French Polynesia’s fragile ecosystems.

The Tetiaroa Society additionally conducts the character excursions supplied to the Brando’s friends. One blustery morning, I boarded a ship with a Tetiaroa Society information, Kealoha Wilkes. We headed for Rimatuu, the islet the place Williams had constructed a coconut plantation. There, as we sought out birds just like the Pacific reef egret and black noddy, Wilkes defined that his work had deepened his respect for nature. “So many people do not even know what we have now right here,” he stated. “Do not all of us need to discover some sort of deeper which means? To grasp the place we match?”

It was raining by the point we received again to our boat. As we motored again towards the Brando, the vessel moved by way of the colour wheel—the turquoise of the shallows, the blues of the deep—till the oncoming storm’s offended grays overtook every thing. Because the wind rose, so did the ocean. “Rain is a blessing!” Wilkes shouted over the thwack of the boat towards the water.

I do not know why, however I threw off the towel that I would wrapped round me, took off my glasses, and turned face-first into the blessing. The road between sea and sky blurred. Water was in all places, rising up, falling down, coming at us sideways—a thousand little acupuncture needles pricking my pores and skin.

Surprisingly, I did not really feel moist or chilly. I did not need to be inside. I did not need to be anyplace aside from precisely the place I used to be, out in a rainstorm in the course of a lagoon in the course of an enormous ocean. I felt alive, invigorated, totally at peace.

Like a lightning bolt, it hit me: This was mana.

Photo voltaic paneled exterior of the Fare Natura ecomuseum on Moorea

Fare Natura ecomuseum on Moorea. | Credit score: The Ingalls

A Polynesian Primer


Black Backyard: Maheata Banner’s globally impressed menu—octopus tempura; fish tacos with house-made tortillas and tuna; duck breast with a shiitake caramel—displays her wide-ranging culinary curiosity. Entrées $24–$29.

Café Maeva: This informal, open-air eatery on the central market in Papeete gives an eclectic menu of pastas, grilled meats, and curries. A spotlight: fries made out of breadfruit. 689-87-21-31-06; Entrées $13–$20.

Le Sully: The bistro menu created by chef Tereva Galopin, who’s half French and half Tahitian, celebrates French method and Polynesian components—particularly the native seafood. Entrées $28–$40.

Teremoana Chave: Although many guests use Tahiti as a transit level, the island is value exploring, particularly the rugged Papenoo Valley within the island’s coronary heart. Chave leads excursions across the island.

Raiatea and Tahaa

Le Taha’a by Pearl Resorts: This resort on a non-public islet off the coast of Tahaa gives comfy overwater villas and glorious native delicacies; attempt the korori ceviche, made out of the meat of the pearl oyster. Doubles from $669.

Fare Vanira: Almost 80 p.c of French Polynesia’s well-known vanilla is grown on Tahaa. Find out about conventional cultivation strategies at this small natural farm run by Joe C Ok Y. 689-89-75-10-85.

Tahiarii Yoram Pariente: Pariente leads customized cultural excursions and has a wealth of native data. reserving​polynesian​[email protected]; excursions $113 for a bunch of as much as 5. 


Pura Vida Moorea: Chef Nahema Charles cooks no matter Moorea’s farmers and fishermen have to supply. On the day of my go to, the carpaccio of tuna, with mango and ginger, was a standout. The kombucha, made in home with native honey, is excellent. 689-87-74-55-76.

Heimata Corridor: Corridor, the island’s finest culinary information, emphasizes native eateries and meals vehicles. .


The Brando: A paradisiacal resort with postcard-perfect standsof swaying coconut palms and stretches of pristine white seashore. Even the smallest of its villas sprawls over greater than 1,000 sq. ft. Villas from $3,725.

A model of this story first appeared within the February 2022 concern of Journey + Leisure beneath the headline A Pacific Level of View.

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