PAPEETE, Tahiti -- On the open deck of the Tahitian Princess, under the stars, two little girls from the island of Raiatea, Melelina, 4, and Lanilei, 7, were performing their traditional dance, the tamure, for the ship's passengers. Unlike the gentle hula of their fellow Polynesians in Hawaii, the Tahitians' tamure is fast and fiery. Melelina and Lanilei had mastered every intricate step.
Wearing elaborate crowns of leaves and flowers, bras of tiny coconut halves, and Polynesian "grass" skirts (made of shredded tree bark), the small dancers were enchanting. From time to time, they would flash shy smiles at us. I wanted to take them home.
We learned from their mothers, who were watching from the sidelines, that this was school vacation time on Raiatea. That's why the youngsters were allowed to stay up late and perform on the ship at 10 p.m. It was clearly a treat for them, but no doubt an even bigger one for us.
"The passengers love having the children come on board and dance," said Chris Nichol, cruise director on the Tahitian Princess, during the ship's one-day visit to Raiatea. "The minute a 4-year-old walks on stage, the passengers say, 'Aaah' -- a great collective sigh," said Nichol, a Briton, who is also a star singer on the ship.
Despite the spellbinding beauty of the islands with their dramatic volcanic peaks, jewel-like lagoons, and silken white-sand beaches, what we loved most in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands were the people who lived there. Robert Louis Stevenson, who cruised the South Pacific in his schooner in the late 1800s, called the Polynesians "God's sweetest work." More than a century later, we agreed completely.
The Polynesians are friendly and fun-loving, but they are also a proud people, proud of the culture they pass from generation to generation. There is no question that some, and probably many, do not relish their islands being French Polynesia, but that does not translate into even subtle hostility toward visitors. We were warmly welcomed everywhere.
At the famous market in Tahiti's bustling capital of Papeete, a city totally unlike any other place on the tranquil, laid-back islands, I bought a gorgeous flower wreath to wear on my head.
The wreath -- tightly woven of orchids, plumerias, bougainvillea, and other tropical blossoms -- was a work of art, priced at $10. (On the other islands, you could buy one for $5.) I paid for it, set it on my head like a crown, and said "merci" to the elderly Tahitian woman who had made it.
She shook her head. Not "merci," she was saying in gestures. "Mauruuru," she corrected me emphatically, but with a big smile ("mauruuru" being "thank you" in Tahitian). I got the message.
No one on the islands, even in Papeete, pressed us to buy anything. But there were clearly two things you couldn't escape as you traveled from one idyllic isle to the next: black pearls, locally farmed and the number one buy in French Polynesia, and anything to do with Paul Gauguin, the artist who lived there most of the years from 1891 until his death in 1903 and became a legend -- and a commercial commodity. Shops large and small sold T-shirts with "Gauguin prints," stationery with renditions of his paintings, art books, and other Gauguin-themed souvenirs.
Our 10-day cruise on the 670-passenger Tahitian Princess of the Princess Cruises fleet started in Papeete, the ship's home port, calling on Moorea, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Raiatea, Huahine, and Bora Bora before returning to Papeete. It was a visit to paradise, to the islands the world most romanticizes, and the small (by today's standards), intimate Tahitian Princess was an ideal choice for taking us to the dreamscape destinations.
From our private balcony, on which we were served fresh tropical fruit and smoked salmon or omelets each morning, we saw cavorting dolphins at dawn one day. We saw many motus (tiny islets) and, toward the end of the trip, the peaks of Bora Bora -- dark and mystical -- suddenly rising before us, just as they must have loomed before the startled eyes of explorer Captain James Cook, the painter Gauguin, and writer and novelist James Michener.
Although we had traditional assigned seating at dinner rather than the new "eat when, where, and with whom you wish" mode of shipboard dining, we particularly enjoyed our table mates (including a young Hollywood film producer and his beautiful wife, a former ballerina). We liked, too, being served nightly by the same waiter, who quickly learned our preferences and quirks.
The food was unusually, consistently good: escargot Bourguignon or perhaps shrimp flambeed in brandy, followed by such entrees as broiled lobster, beef Wellington, Hawaiian mahi mahi or red snapper with a Thai ginger-garlic-cilantro sauce. The ship, which cruises in the South Pacific year round, also has two alternative restaurants, Sterling Steakhouse and Sabatini's Trattoria.
In addition to the food, the standouts on the Tahitian Princess were Philippa Healey, a young star of London's West End, who sang arias for us; Nichol, the cruise director/singer, who amazed everyone with his round-the-clock high spirits and energy; the ship's elegant library; and the Lotus Spa. There I had a rejuvenating Balinese hot-stones massage that made me feel as effervescent as Nichol.
The cruise line's ScholarShip@Sea program offered passengers computer classes, ukulele and astronomy lessons, as well as ceramics lessons for those who wished to create a bowl or a plate with their own painting on it, and which the staff would then bake in kilns. My husband painted a pelican on a bowl; it, not the bird was the souvenir, since we saw no pelicans in Polynesia.
We did see stingrays on snorkeling excursions both in Moorea and Bora Bora. The eerie but ultimately endearing creatures swam around us gracefully in a ray ballet, touching us with their "wings" and coming around to take pieces of fish that we gingerly handed them. We were in waist-deep, crystal-clear water and could see the rays in minute detail. I tried not to think that they are close relatives of sharks.
Not everyone on the Princess wanted to avoid sharks, Michael Reimers, the excursion manager, told us. "Of all the islands we visit, Moorea is the best place to see sharks. People sign up on excursions to see them; they come from all over the world to do it. Sharks are fascinating, beautiful animals." To my delight, despite our many hours in the South Pacific waters, we never encountered one.
"Generally, about two-thirds of the passengers on these cruises are water people -- swimmers, snorkelers, or divers," said Reimers, who joined Princess Cruises as a diving instructor. "But there's a lot here for passengers who aren't water people; they can see amazingly beautiful scenery, incredible sunsets; they can go on great circle island tours or four-wheel-drive safaris, see pearl farms or go horseback riding."
In Tahiti, he recommended walking through the famed market and perhaps purchasing some flowers. "And, of course, you have to buy a crepe," Reimers said. We bought a couple, for about $4 apiece. They were very good, but the Tahitian poisson cru -- cubes of raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk -- that we had at an outdoor cafe was even more delicious.
It seemed everyone on board had a favorite island. For Gianluigi Cisotto, the ship's maitre d', it was Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, "because they speak English [in French Polynesia, the islanders speak Tahitian and French], the prices are lower, and it's such a beautiful island." The ship was there on Cisotto's day off, and he rode a bike around the island, which is 21 miles in circumference.
Rarotonga is the largest of the 15 Cook Islands, an independent nation that relies on New Zealand for defense, we were told by our personal guide, Emile Kairua, manager of Island Hopper Vacations. As he drove us around his island, he said, "Rarotonga is definitely having a cultural renaissance. We want to preserve our culture. We have examples of what happened to Polynesians in Hawaii and Tahiti, the mixing [of peoples] and the diluting of the culture."
Kairua showed us a road paved with rocks that was built in the early 1700s. "Westerners were amazed when they came here and saw the paved road," he said. "I went to college in New Zealand and lived there for awhile, then said to myself one day, what am I doing here?' " Today, he is back home and married, with three children and, like most people on Rarotonga, has his own house. Kairua also has his own television station.
Of course, we also had to snorkel in the Cook Islands, where we saw a close relative of Hawaii's state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapuaa; not only are the South Sea Polynesians related to the Hawaiians, but their fish are close kin, too. (Only their striping is slightly different.) Then we went to a nearby palm-fringed motu for a lunch of barbecued tuna and wahoo.
While Bora Bora with its towering, jagged mountains is perhaps the most spellbinding of the French Polynesian islands, Raiatea is considered the most sacred. Tradition holds that the great Polynesian voyagers who found and colonized Hawaii and New Zealand left from Raiatea. This island has Taputapuatea, one of the largest maraes, or open-air stone temples, dedicated to Oro, the god of war, who demanded human sacrifices.
On Huahine, Paul Atallah, an anthropologist and archeologist who was our tour guide, took us to the royal village of Maeva, one of the most important archaeological sites in all of Oceania. Maeva was the seat of power for Huahine, where the royal families lived. Then Atallah drove us to Faie to see huge, blue-eyed eels that live in a freshwater stream and are hand-fed by the locals.
Atallah said that in his opinion, Huahine is the most beautiful island in the South Pacific. We thought it was one of the loveliest, but our list had certainly grown.
Vera Vida is a freelance writer who lives in Cohasset.