TAHITI: TINY ISLANDS OF BEAUTIFUL FRENCH POLYNESIA OFFER AN ESCAPE FROM THE CONVENTIONAL IN A LAND WHERE THE PAST BLENDS COMFORTABLY WITH THE PRESENT. My top priority in a vacation is to escape the ordinary. Tahiti is escapism at its finest. Dreams of isolated grass huts, turquoise blue water, palm trees and brilliant sky are the reality on the tiny islands of French Polynesia. In Tahiti, the distinction between fantasy and reality is so blurred that you almost have to pinch yourself to make sure you haven't drifted into the Land of Nod.

My wife, Heidi, and I recently joined three other couples at this exotic retreat. When we first discussed it, the idea seemed a little indulgent. But after giving it at least five seconds of careful consideration and our "you only live once" attitude, I pulled the plastic card out of my wallet and made the commitment.It's funny how you rationalize extravagance. You talk about how hard you worked last year and how much you need the break; how much time you've spent doing the ordinary and how much you deserve to do something extra ordinary; and how you owe it to yourself.

Pretty soon the vacation sounds like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The rationalizations, which I highly recommend, worked for us.

When people refer to Tahiti, they're referring to 115 islands in the South Pacific officially known as French Polynesia.

After an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles, we landed in Papeete on the island of Tahiti and then flew to the small island of Huahine (pronounced who-a-he-nee). After catching a ride on the hotel shuttle, we checked in and walked down the beach to our grass hut.

The huts are simple yet elegant. Bamboo and coconut leaves are woven together to form the walls and roof. The shower, sink and a small refrigerator seemed luxurious.

Stepping outside to a view of the ocean, we smiled at having escaped the ordinary.

Tahitians are proud of their heritage. One of the fiercest-looking people I have ever met was in the lobby of the Hotel Sofitel Heiva on Huahine. Tatoos ring his neck, arms and body. Teardrops are tattooed below his eyes. His hair hung to the middle of his back and he wore a "pereo" wrapped around him like a loin cloth. (A "pereo" is a large square of fabric.) His upper body was immense. He was playing the guitar and talking to a couple of hotel guests.

Later, I met him when I was checking out a windsurfer. He introduced himself as "Charlie." His smile was so engaging that it was impossible to do anything other than mirror one back.

He was reading a book that looked familiar. "It is kind of like the Bible. It is written in Tahitian," he said while holding up a copy of the Book of Mormon.

I thought to myself, "You just never know."

Charlie was anxious to show us fishing spots, canoe techniques (he is a world-class outrigger), jewelry he made and baskets he wove. At night he explained more than you thought you ever wanted to know about coconuts and what they mean to the Tahitian culture.

He then took us outside under a full moon and we made bets how long it would take him to climb a 75-foot coconut tree.

Suddenly, he let out a blood curdling scream and climbed the tree in five seconds flat. He sent a coconut down at our feet with a thud that shook the beach.

Charlie's talents continued to amaze us. He speaks seven different languages and teaches traditional dancing and weaving.

He reminded me why the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau idealized the "Noble Savage" and preached living free, healthy, honest and happy. According to Rousseau, by civilizing men, we ruined mankind.

Not a hard philosophy to believe while visiting Huahine.

Even though it seems like you would be content sitting on the beach reading and snorkeling indefinitely, after a couple of days we got a little restless.

We stepped out of fantasyland into adventureland.

We rented mountain bikes from the hotel and crossed over the mountain to the other part of the island. Biking is an ideal way to see the island. We passed ancient fishing traps and open-air structures built for religious rites and ceremonies called "maraes."

Polynesia is thought to be one of the last areas on Earth to be settled by humans, and there is a pleasant feeling of living in the past while cruising through the lush countryside.

Our destination was Hotel Hana Iti, 14 miles away. The hotel is like the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse at Disneyland. But each of the 16 tree huts at Hana Iti make the Disneyland version look mundane. We had read a story about it last year in Architectural Digest, and it seemed unbelievable. It was even more amazing in person. With rooms at $800 per night, we settled for a great lunch and a swim and rode back to our hotel. We were happy to have visited one man's dream for the afternoon.

Next we spent several days on the island of Moorea. A good friend in Salt Lake City had just returned from a week in Moorea and advised us to simply stay there and not go anywhere else. "Why leave paradise?" he reasoned.

Moorea is unbelievably beautiful but slightly larger and more populated. Huahine is small enough that when we left, it was like leaving family.

On Moorea we hiked to waterfalls, shopped, explored, snorkeled while feeding sharks and generally had a great time.

One night we had a French dinner on an outside deck at a restaurant on Cook's Bay while watching the sun set behind the volcanic mountains and the sea glimmer at our feet.

I think that will stay at the top of my most memorable evenings the rest of my life.

French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin was a successful stockbroker in Paris in the middle of last century. He became obsessed with art to the point he lost his fortune and left Europe for Tahiti in 1891 to escape "everything that is artificial and conventional" in life. While in Polynesia, he painted bold, bright, paintings with simple composition that seem still a part of life in Tahiti. You see reproductions of his work in almost every shop and on many articles of clothing.

I can relate to Gauguin's wanting to leave behind everything artificial and conventional. For a week, we did that in Tahiti. Hopefully, we learned enough to simplify our lives at home.



Tahiti facts

The currency is the French Pacific franc. Francs are hard to obtain except in the islands, so don't waste time trying to find them. I've found that the best way to get money while traveling in a foreign country is a banking card to use with ATMs. The charges and exchange rates are generally less than banks or hotels. Tahitian and French are the main languages, but English is understood in hotels, shops and restaurants.

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There are two seasons: November through March the climate is warm and moist and averages 80 degrees; April through October the climate is cool, dry and breezy, and averages 76 degrees. The water temperature averages in the low 80s.

The cost of a trip for two varies widely depending on how luxurious your accommodations are. Huts over the water, for example, are generally more expensive than beach huts. You and your partner can eat like kings for about $50 a day.

The tab for an eight-day bare-bones package for two begins at $1,698 including airfare from Los Angeles.

- Tom Smart

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