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Society Islands

Society Islands

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Time stood still: Locals like to tell visitors that Huahine, in the Society Islands group, is just like "Bora Bora 30 years ago".It does feel peaceful and uncrowded as I drive around the one road that links the islands of Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti.

Living is easy if you rent a self-contained cottage and take advantage of the car and four-person motorboat that is part of the deal.

The runabouts are moored at the edge of Maroe Bay, a stone's throw from the cottages.

It's a breeze to explore the bay at leisure, drop a line over the side, putter around the lagoon and pull up at one of the motu islets for le picnic.; cult: Stowing away on a tramp steamer is a romantic notion best confined to old black-and-white movies.

A far comfier version of the South Seas dream is to book a berth on the cargo ship Aranui 3.

It leaves Papeete every three weeks, making a regular run to the Marquesas (Ua Pou, Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa islands) and Fakarava and Rangiroa in the Tuamoto archipelago.

While the crew unloads vital supplies and hauls big sacks of copra on board, passengers take four-wheel-drive trips, visit historic sites and make a pilgrimage to Paul Gauguin's grave.

On board are a dining room, bar, pool, gym and laundry service.

�Close encounters of the wet kind: I can't believe I am letting a stingray slide over my bare legs as I wade in crystal-clear waters.

Some tourists have even been known to partake in group hugs involving small rays, which swim up and envelop you in their silky wings.

Shark feeding is now officially banned here, but hand-feeding of rays is still on the agenda for most lagoon tours.

The boat anchors in the shallows, the guides jump overboard with a bucket of fish, and passengers, wearing snorkel and mask, join the feeding frenzy.

The odd friendly shark cruises past for leftovers.

In Bora Bora:

In Moorea:

�Ski and easy: I release my inner hoon on Bora Bora's bluest of blue lagoons.

Actually, I am just a pillion passenger holding on to jet ski guide Wazza -- as we nickname him -- as he zooms ahead of a line of Aussies.

I wave at my friends, who are following the regulation 200m behind me, grinning like crazy as palm-fringed beaches and swanky resorts flash by.

After an hour we anchor in the shadow of cloud-swathed Mt Otemanu, which dominates Bora Bora.

On a little beach, Wazza and his cousin Coco scurry up palm trees to knock down coconuts and make short work of a pineapple with a machete.

There are jet ski tours available off several islands in French Polynesia but Bora Bora takes the crown for its sheer beauty.

Shooting the pass: Dive aficionados love to use the term "big fauna" to refer to sharks, manta rays, turtles and huge (and scary) marine life.

Facing these denizens of the deep in their hundreds is de rigueur in Rangiroa, where shooting the pass -- being sucked through Tiputa Pass on the incoming tide from ocean to lagoon -- is the big thrill.

Divers plunge in at just the right time and whoosh through the break in the reef, along with huge schools of fish and very big fauna waiting to snap them up.

Snorkellers can view the underwater smorgasbord from a less turbulent point.

Landlubbers sit on the terraces of their pension accommodation watching the boats and frolicking dolphins battle the incoming tide.; �

�En plein air: As a picnic spot, Ile aux Recifs (Isle of Reefs), with its remoteness, clear blue water and excellent snorkelling, is hard to beat.

A little lagoon within the huge Rangiroa Lagoon, it's an hour's boat ride from the main town of Avatoru.

Black-tipped reef sharks, unaware it's illegal for anyone to feed them, wait for leftover barbecue morsels.

But the main attraction is the coral outcrops, or feo, rising above the water; these formations, which protrude up to 6m, are indeed an eerie sight.

Put on reef shoes, wade out from the beach, clamber over the reef to the ocean side and there you'll find a haphazard row of funky-looking coral stretching for about 90m with little pools in between, just perfect for snorkelling.

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�Flip out: On the island of Moorea I watch newlyweds get all cuddly with dolphins in an enclosure attached to the InterContinental Resort.

The dolphins Aito, Hina, Lokahi and Kuokoa learned their aquatic tricks in the US Navy and at a Hawaiian aquarium and now live happily in the Moorea Dolphin Centre, providing special encounters, including a three-hour "be a dolphin trainer for a day" program.

�Vine romance: Who but a Frenchman would even think about making wine in the middle of the South Pacific? Dominique Auroy, wine connoisseur and 40-year resident of French Polynesia, grows grapes in a vineyard in the Rangiroa lagoon: latitude 14 degrees south.

A 10-minute boat ride whisks passengers to a tiny motu where vines grow in crushed coral soil under greenhouse tunnels, watered by drip irrigation.

At the wine cave on another island, I taste the Vin de Tahiti rose and red, which are on a par with any of the varieties we routinely quaff in Australia.

The sunny conditions here reap two harvests a year and more than 50,000 litres of red, dry and sweet white, and rose.

�Elite cruising: Who wouldn't want to sail into the sunset with Nomade Yachting Bora Bora? This is cruising at its most luxe, but you can safely leave the tux and sequinned gown at home.

The identical Australian-built vessels Tu Moana and T'ia Moana are glamorous to a fault; they cruise the Society Islands with just 60 pampered passengers apiece.

Spend languid days kayaking to remote islands, breakfasting on private beaches as gentle waves lap your feet, and lounging on teak decks under the stars.

A special treat for passengers is a visit to a private motu cinema where the 1928 classic film Tabu, set in Tahiti, is projected on to a sail cloth strung between palm trees on the beach.

�Sail away: Sitting on the bowsprit and lying in the widow's nets of the huge sailing ship Star Flyer, I can well understand why true sailors can't bear to be away from the sea.

As one of 200 passengers flitting on a journey between Papeete, Moorea, Bora Bora and Tahaa, you can choose to chill out sipping cocktails one day, and the next help to hoist the sails on this four-masted vessel as it pulls out of port at dusk.

Star Flyer will cruise these warm waters, alternating with sailings in the Tuamotu Archipelago, until February 2010.

Sailors preferring something a little smaller, which doesn't involve sailing, may like to book with Archipels Polynesian Cruises.

Its eight-person catamarans sail between Huahine and Bora Bora on six-night voyages.;

�Caroline Gladstone is one of the authors of Tahiti & French Polynesia (Fodor's, $36.95); Qantas and Air Tahiti Nui fly thrice a week from Australia to Tahiti (via Auckland).

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