"Tahiti today is like Hawaii was 30 or 40 years ago," said a friend who knows the area well. "But, like Hawaii, you have to go to the outer islands to find the real flavor of the place."

It was dawn when our UTA jet landed at Papeete's Faaa Airport after an 8-hour flight from Los Angeles. From high above, the Pacific was a crazy quilt of turquoise, emerald green and cobalt blue. We board a motor launch, the "Keke II," for the 90-minute trip to Moorea, 12 miles away.

Both Air Polynesie and Air-Tahiti run an inter-island shuttle service that cuts the Moorea trip to only 10 minutes, but when you're looking for the traditional, unspoiled Polynesia, the water route is the only way to go.

Hardly more than fly specks on a map, the Society Islands of French Polynesia lie midway between Los Angeles and Sydney, about 2,400 miles southeast of Honolulu. The islands were first discovered by 16th-and 17th-century Dutch and Spanish explorers. They were followed by the English, including Captain Bligh and his shipmates on the "Bounty," a century later. A Frenchman, de Bougainville, claimed the islands for France in 1768. And, since 1957, they have been an Independent French Overseas Territory.

At first glance, Moorea typifies the idyllic South Seas retreat, with quiet palm-finged beaches and awesome mountain peaks rising from the sea like ancient towers. After landing, we headed for the Kia Ora Hotel, a sprawling complex of 75 thatch-roofed bungalows, of fares, with a huge open-air dining room. The "Vaitame," a 2-masted schooner docked at the hotel pier, has been converted into a disclotheque and le tout Moorea goes there every night to drink, dance and listen to rock music.

The hotel's staff is relaxed, friendly and smiling - but not too efficient - and that's a key to the Polynesia character. As a tourism official explained, "It's only recently, with the growth of hotels on the islands, that many people have begun to work for a living. And some still aren't sure they really like it." So you learn to relax and adjust to "Tihitian time."

You learn other things, too. As Barbara Wilson, an American ex-schoolteacher now working so for a travel agency in Papeete, explains island mores: "You eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty and make love when you want to."

About half of the population in French Polynesia is under 20 and only one couple in five is legally married. According to Barbara, you're either celibataire (single), married (living with someone) or married-married (with the knot legally tied). The Polynesian's extended family usually includes several generations. And it is not uncommon for brothers and sisters to range in age from 3 to 30.

Probably because it is so close to Papeete, Moorea is the most developed of Tahiti's sister islands. It boasts seven resort hotels, plus several other smaller inns. There's the Aimeo, the island's oldest hotel, famed for its view of Cook's Bay and a weekly tamaraa or Tahitian feast; a swinging Club Med and the Bali Hai. The latter is a link in the chain of island properties developed by the Bali Hai Boys, three Californians who came to Tahiti more than a dozen years ago "to escape the rat race." Since then, they've become busier and more prosperous than ever, with three hotels and a 400-acre farm. The farm provides 40 per cent of the eggs and a large share of the vegetables consumed in the islands.

Moorea is one of the most beautiful islands we've ever seen, with crystal waters, spectacular scenery and first-rate hotels. But it was still not the unspoiled haven we were seeking. So we pushed on to Bora Bora, about 150 miles north or Tahiti. Surely there, as Gauguin had said of Tahiti in the 1890s, we would find that "Civilization is falling away from me."

No less an expert than James Michener has called Bora Bora "the most beautiful island in the world." Dominated by the peaks of Mt. Temanu (2,379 feet) and Mt. Pahia (2,162 feet), it is almost completely encircled by a coral reef. Americans built Bora Bora's air-strip - the first one in the islands - during World War II when a U.S. Navy base was located there.

After landing at the aiport, on its own little island, we climbed aboard a motor launch for a 45-minute cruise across the lagoon to Vaitape, the island's only town. From there it was just a short ride over a bumpy road to the Hotel Bora Bora.

At hotel looks typically Tahitian, with thatch-roofed fares, including some built on stills directly over the water. From these bungalows you can watch brightly-colored fish swimming below the surface. From the bungalows you can also hapless boaters.

At dusk, a friend and I set out for a ride in an outrigger canoe "parked" in front of my fare. A friendly German shepherd dog who lived at the hotel paddled alongside. And when out canoe got stuck briefly on the coral, the dog attempted to push the boat with his paw. Then out cannie navigator returned to shore.

Suddenly, the wind shifted, storm clouds appeared and the water began to get choppy. Knowing what a poor swimmer I am, I became uneasy. Just then a wave dashed against the side of the canoe, filling it with water, and we were swept overboard. With my leg entangled in the boat's rope in water over my head, we were obviously in trouble. The only bright spot was the realization that we were not far from the over-water bungalows. We maneuvered to one whose occupants, fortunately, invited this rather damp guest to come in. The German shepherd reappeared at that moment, ready to help get the canoe shipshape. Next day, I learned it was my friend's first ride in an outrigger canoe. It was probably the last one for me.

Besides canoeing, the snorkeling and scuba diving at Bora Bora are among the best in the world. We were getting close to finding the perfect Pacific paradise but, before ending the search, decided to have a look at Huahine, 40 minutes by plane from Tahiti.

There are no telephones on Huahine. It's just a 20-mile stretch of some of the most beautiful beaches and lush green scenery you'd ever want to see. And there's only one hotel on the island, the Bali Hai.

From the hotel, a 10-minute walk along the beach brought us to the village of Fare. The block-long main street consists of a couple of Chinese shops, a small restaurant-bar, a post office, pool hall and the local Air Polynesia office. We arrived just as the twice-weekly interisland schooner was docking. The main square was a melange of barefoot children, pigs, goats and dogs. Huge ripe watermelons were piled on the dock, ready to be loaded aboard the boat.

Huahine was once an important center of Polynesian culture and scores of maraes or temples - piles of huge rocks that one served as sacrificial altars - remain. We saw some of these maraes on the Circle Island Tour, conducted by Novena, a dark-haired Polynesian girl. I've taken guided tours all over the world, but this was the first one devoted mainly to shelling. And it was a refreshing change. We spent nearly an hour looking for seashells on a deserted beach. Using a piece of coral as a mallet, Nonvena deftly created a pendant by pounding a hole in a seashell, which she gave me as a souvenir of Huahine.

Driving back to the hotel, two of the other guests practiced a few Polynesian phrases they had been taught by a local youth. Novena laughed unproariously, explaining that they had learned a basic vocabulary of four-letter words. Where upon, not to be outdone, she taught them a few more colorful phrases.

Huahine looks as if if hasn't changed in 50 years. And that's why it's my favorite Island. There isn't much to do there except to buy a few pareus, those all-purpose lengths of brightly-patterned fabric; enjoy the beach, watch the sunset, learn about Polynesian culture and generally unwind. Huahine isn't exactly a household word and I hope it never becomes one - for the sake of those fun-loving islanders who teach tourists their own special vocabularies.

The Society Islands may have a certain built-in protection against encroaching civilization: They've expensive because nearly everything must be imported.

UTA French Airlines, Air New Zealand and Pan American World Airways serve Tahiti. UTA, in cooperation with Specific Tours,Inc., Newport Beach, Calif., offers the greatest variety of money-saving tours. They range from 10 days in Tahiti and Moorea, beginning at $729 per person double occupancy, to a 2-week deluxe tour of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine and Rangiroa for $1,444 per person, double occupancy. I attended a Pacific Area Travel Association (PATA) out-of-country workshop for travel writers and travel agents - a 10-day, $1,000 trip.

As you can see, Polynesia is not for penny-pinchers. But if you want to find your own Pacific paradise, come on out.The climate is ideal , especially between June and October. Just remember. Bring money.