Ah, the South Seas! When you hear the name Tahiti, do you think of Gauguin? Or “South Pacific”?
Or maybe you think of honeymoons: despite its remoteness (or perhaps because of that), the archipelago that makes up French Polynesia is in vogue among newlyweds. They all come back with perfect tans and envy-inducing descriptions of glass-bottomed tiki huts, where they sipped pineapple cocktails and watched tropical fish swim underfoot.
With its artistic pedigree and eternal exoticism — not to mention perfect weather, an unvarying, year-round 82 degrees — Tahiti, an island in the archipelago, is both a classic destination and a newly trendy one. Along with more than 100 other islands and atolls, it is technically an overseas outpost of France, ethnically cosmopolitan and home to one of the Pacific’s long-established Jewish communities.
As delightful as it is to visit, French Polynesia is a challenging (and expensive) place — and should you make the journey in person, you’ll understand why. The archipelago lies roughly halfway between Australia and South America, an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles, with no city or land mass of any size nearby.
This remoteness makes things all the more challenging for Jews, who must fly in the amenities that tiny communities inevitably import: kosher food, rabbis, family members. Papeete, located on the island of Tahiti, and French Polynesia’s biggest city as well as its capital, has only about 130,000 residents (and the bulk of French Polynesia’s Europeans, Jews and expats).
But locals focus on the richness of Polynesian life, an array of pleasures that have convinced many this is paradise on Earth. Even among tropical islands, Tahiti and its neighbors Bora Bora and Moorea stand out, with a seascape in a hundred unbelievable shades of blue: turquoise lagoons, deep-azure waves that crash over coral reefs, and bays so pale and translucent you can count grains of sand in waist-high water.
French Polynesia is ideal for people whose idea of a vacation is doing as little as possible. If you insist on sweating, the jagged green mountains and volcanic slopes are there for the hiking; scuba diving and snorkeling in the lagoons of Bora Bora and Moorea are popular pasttimes, as is swimming alongside sharks and stingrays.
But you don’t have to go to this trouble to take in Polynesian nature. A low-intensity jeep ride or “safari” excursion is the most popular way to explore Tahiti’s magnificent, jungle-laden interior and the lagoon-scapes of neighboring islands, with tiny airplanes whizzing you from one island to another. And for every person paddling alongside a hammerhead, there are a half-dozen back at the beach bar, inspecting marine fauna from the safe, sedentary confines of a glass-floored hut.
Many find the greatest thrills are not in the water, but in what comes from it — namely, Tahiti’s fabled black pearls. Pearls of every hue are for sale in boutiques throughout the islands, with the best selection, predictably, in Papeete.
And what about culture? Here in paradise, you won’t schlep through the kind of museum that makes your feet tired and your children whine for the gift shop. Instead, hire a car out to the Museum of Tahiti and its Islands, a low-slung complex whose setting — amid coconut groves on the shore of a lagoon — is as enjoyable as its exhibits on Polynesian life. Visitors learn about native culture, European exploration (from Captain Cook to Christian missionaries), and the evolution of today’s hybrid society.
That culture remains a point of pride on Tahiti, where most resorts host evening shows of traditional Polynesian dance and music. For many, these are like Paul Gauguin paintings come to life, with the women bedecked in local gardenias and vivid colors.
Gauguin, the French artist who famously found love and inspiration on these islands, remains a defining presence. While you’d see more of his iconic works back home in the Met, the Gauguin Museum outside Papeete offers a look at his fascinating expatriate life through letters, pictures and sketches.
Like Gauguin, most Tahitian Jews have roots back in France and the Francophone Mediterranean, and Sephardic Orthodoxy prevails at the pretty stucco synagogue. The community swelled in the 1960s, when unrest back home sent dozens of North African families to this peaceful, tolerant outpost of France.
How much longer this close-knit congregation of about 100 will thrive is a big question, however. Like many far-flung places with small Jewish minorities, Tahiti is in danger of losing its Jews to emigration, as young people increasingly explore their options abroad.
But it seems equally likely that world-weary Westerners will always be drawn to the South Seas, where there are compensations for the lack of urbanity.
Personally? I love anyplace where I can practice my French and savor a good Continental meal, all while basking in January sunshine.