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French Polynesian island is a jewel of the South Pacific

TIAHURA, Moorea — Everyone in our group had finally arrived dockside and so had the chum. It was time to head out into the lagoon to swim with the stingrays and feed the sharks.

The skipper of our thatch-covered outrigger canoe, a young Polynesian named Tommy, tried to put us at ease. Speaking in halting English for the benefit of the four of us who didn't speak French, he reassures us: "We don't eat people here anymore. But be careful with the sharks; they like white meat."

No one was eaten that day, by the natives or by the sharks, but we all swam with the stingrays and were treated to some good one-liners by the crew, some inspired ukulele-playing and singing by Tommy, and stunning waterside views of what many consider the world's most beautiful island.

Moorea, one of the Society Islands of French Polynesia, is what people's imaginations conjure up when they think of the South Seas: steep, jagged mountains dropping off sharply to white sand beaches lined with palm trees, and aquamarine lagoons fringed by coral reefs. James Michener once described Moorea "as a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature." He won't get any argument from me.

Unlike its big sister, Tahiti, 11 miles to the south, Moorea has largely resisted development pressures and remains pristine and sublimely laid-back. There are no towns, only villages with a sprinkling of small shops around the island's 37-mile circumference.

Moorea draws a manageable 200,000 tourists a year — about half European and a third North American.

As we pulled away from the dock on the Spirit of Moorea, Tommy used his oar to point out the sights: picturesque Cooks Bay, surrounded by steep, lush, multihued mountains on three sides; Mount Moua Roa, whose steep cliffs appear on a Tahitian coin and was the Bali Hai in the film "South Pacific"; one of the 11 passes, or breaks, in the coral reef encircling Moorea that allow boats to pass into and out of the crystalline lagoons; the island's largest mountain, Tohiea, at nearly 4,000 feet.

Between the history and ecology, Tommy would interject some sociology: "We are a peaceful place. We have just 10 cops for 12,000 people. Five are out on water, five are making babies. If you have problem, it's better to make a reservation."

Other sights came into view: Mount Rotui, between Opunohu and Cooks Bay, with its jagged peaks and spires that were the source of inspiration for much Tahitian lore. Opunohu Bay itself, one of the most beautiful bays in the South Seas, still largely untouched by development and the stand-in for Tahiti's Matavai Bay in the 1983 production of "The Bounty," with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.

Behind it, sloping up the mountains on the island's only paved inland road, past pastureland, coconut groves and pineapple plantations, Annette Bening and Warren Beatty were filmed in "Love Affair."

Soon, our guide spotted black-tipped reef sharks — about 4 feet long — and invited us in the water to watch him feed them from behind a rope about 5 feet away. It wasn't exactly like swimming with Jaws, but the theme music from the movie nonetheless reverberated in my mind, and I was thankful when I got back on the boat with all four limbs intact.

Next, we headed west along the coast and soon found about a dozen stingrays waiting for the pleasure of our company. I had been in the water with them twice before, but never by choice. Each time, my life had flashed before my eyes before I made a beeline for the shore.

But after assurances by Tommy that they wouldn't sting, I stepped into the clear, shallow water. Before long, they were swimming next to me, and I was petting their backs and soft, slimy undersides.

Stingrays aren't aggressive and generally will sting only if someone accidentally steps on their tail when it is obscured beneath the sand. The sting can be very painful and sometimes fatal. But I returned from the trip that day with a new affection for a marine species that I had previously feared.

We returned to our hotel paradise, the Inter-Continental Beachcomber, to relax in our overwater bungalow — a cottage built on pilings over water that are common throughout the South Pacific. Among other things, ours had a straight-on view of the lagoon from our bed; the first thing we saw when we opened our eyes in the morning was the sun shimmering on the water. Our room also had a rear deck with a ladder that allowed us to swim and snorkel in our "back yard." At night, you could switch on a spotlight that let you observe the colorful marine life in the lagoon.

Best of all, though, was simply shutting your eyes and letting your aural senses take over. At night or waking up in the morning, you could hear nothing but the gentle lapping of waves, chirping birds and the occasional fish jumping in the lagoon. It doesn't get any better than that.

But after traveling thousands of miles, it's hard to resist the temptation to explore, no matter how idyllic the experience is at the resort. Those who rent a car or a bike and tour the compact island won't be disappointed. It's uniformly gorgeous, with beautiful bays, lush mountains, waterfalls, coconut trees, and multihued hibiscus and pink laurel everywhere.

The view from Belvedere Lookout, often described as one of the prettiest in the South Pacific, is reached by taking the paved inland road. It offers a panorama that includes Mount Rotui rising between Opunohu and Cooks Bays and the valleys below. Another great vantage point is the hilly road above the Hotel Sofitel Ia Ora, which faces Tahiti on the Sea of the Moon — as the sea between Moorea and Tahiti is called. You can see Tahiti clearly, as well as Moorea's white reef line, the navy blue water beyond it and the calm turquoise water inside it in the lagoon.

For those craving more adventure, there is scuba diving, whale-watching, deep-sea fishing, parasailing, four-wheel drive safaris, jungle hikes and helicopter rides over the reefs.

If your idea of adventure is being turned loose in shops with a credit card, the options here are limited largely to local handicrafts and black pearls.

There are more than 1,000 pearl farms in French Polynesia, which account for nearly 90 percent of its exports, and black pearls are sold everywhere.

For those who grow weary of the adventures on land and water, or lazing by the pool or on the beach sipping drinks, Tahiti is five minutes away by air, and Tetiaroa — Marlon Brando's private atoll with miles of empty white sand — is about 20 minutes north by plane.