THE LATE-NIGHT, non-stop UTA airline 747 departed from Los Angles and sped across the Pacific. Eight hours later, with the moon still disguising dawn's arrival, it touched down at Faaa Airport in Papeete Tahiti.

We were 2,800 miles southeast of Honolulu, on the largest of the 14 islands in this part of the South Pacific. It was a little after 5 in the morning, but the airport was jammed with dozens of people waiting for smaller aircraft to take them a few hundred miles away to one of the islands at sunrise.

Tahiti is a fortunate escapee of travel statistics. Last year 4.7 million tourists visited Hawaii. In the same period barely 95,000 people discovered the Society Islands of French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is a part.

The low figures for Polynesia may reflect a geographic ignorance on the part of some vacationers, worried either about the distance of the islands or the expense. But surprisingly, the flight to Tahiti takes only two hours longer than the Los Angeles-Hawaii run; and the air fares are becoming less expensive.

Increasingly, those who have had the vision to go beyond Hawaii are doing it in style in Tahiti, outside of the main city of Papeete and on the many islands of French Polynesia.

One of the most innovative and rewarding ways to see the islands is by chartered sailboat, in my case an incredible 58-foot steel-hulled ketch.

To reach the Danae III, the boat that would take us around the islands, required another boat trip. At 5 p.m. we reported to the main dock in Papeete. The pier was alive with people, all clamoring to board an interisland freighter.

The air was saturated with the pungent, almost intoxicating aroma of coconut copra being processed at the dockside plant. The passengers, mostly Polynesian, waited to board the ship, one of those aging freighters whose previous names and owners can be seen hiding on the side of their hulls under countless coats of thick red and white marine paint.

The ship is called the Taporo now, and makes the overnight run between Papeete and the leeward islands of Polynesia, Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora, carrying a menagerie of valuable cargo: pineapples for Raiatea, a small tanker truck for Bora Bora, dozens of roosters for Huahine and 400 assorted passengers.

The Taporo's weekly 100-mile trip across the Pacific cost only $8. For an additional fee ($12), 20 of the lucky passengers got to sleep in open berths. The rest did what they could on mats placed over the old wooden slats of the cargo deck.

The ship always carries a diverse group of people. Entire Tahitian families going back to their islands, French schoolgirls on vacations and Americans on their way anywhere but home. People like Ken Shoemaker, a 44-year-old San Franciscan who hasn't returned to the States in 25 years, on his way to the Bora Bora yacht club with his backpack and guitar to wait out the storm season before heading to the Cook Islands.

Shoemaker, who boasts master's degrees in both engineering and journalism, has worked his way around the world doing neither. He's been a diamond miner in South Africa, a shepherd in Australia, a spearfisher on the Nile and a maitre d' at a lesbian bar in San Francisco.

Now he's discovered the Pacific, and his work, when he gets it, is as a sailor delivering yachts to customers from Micronesia to Sydney. Shoemaker is part of a growing subculture of Americans throughout the world who go from ship to ship, still in search of the endless summer.

"French Polynesia isn't a bad place to look for it," he laughed knowingly. "I know the ship you'll be sailing on. There's no better way to see the island."

The ship left at dusk and moved out into the gentle swells of the Sea of the Moon. It was a clear night, and the moon silhouetted the old single-engine vessel as it rolled ever so gently. Shoemaker brought out his battered guitar, and headed toward the bow to attempt some solo strumming.

Inside, other Tahitians brought out their instruments. Soon, the passengers as well as the crew were singing choruses of local folk songs to get us through the night.

At dawn, we docked briefly in Raiatea--long enough to leave the Taporo and find the Danea III, which had been waiting for us.

Shoemaker was right. The Danea III was a beautiful 42-ton ship, outfitted with every conceivable necessity for great chartering, and owned by Claude and Claudine Goche, veterans of the islands. The Goches arrived in Papeete from West Africa 18 years ago on their 29-foot wooden ketch, Danae II. Tahiti was just one of their stops on a long-planned family journey around the world.

But their circumnavigation was never completed. They discovered Tahiti, and they stayed.

In September 1971, after years of chartering and hard work on the smaller boat, the Goches built, then launched Danae III at the Papeete yacht club. And with their two boys, Dominique and Richard, they've been chartering the ship ever since.

The ship holds six passengers in comfort. Most of the time is spent on deck, helping to rig the sails, eating, sleeping and seeing the Society Islands the way they were meant to be seen.

An hour after we arrived, the sails were up and we were moving inside the reef from Raiatea to the leeward side of a small, sandy island (called a motu) off the coast of another island, Tahaa.

Tahaa is 137 miles northwest of Papeete, an island of rugged, green hills, palm trees and amiable people. Beyond, the green volcanic peaks of Bora Bora jutted on the horizon. Most tourists don't stop at Tahaa, and the people are truly glad to welcome visitors. They waved from the shore as we glided by.

There were many motus around us, forming a coral necklace of lush, green islands. It was an idyllic setting, and with the exception of some French channel markers protruding infrequently from the sea, the scene perpetuated the improbable myth that nothing had indeed changed from the time when Captain Cook first saw these islands.

"Tahiti has changed a lot, but not the islands," said Claudine Goche as she prepared to serve a lunch of melon stuffed with fresh crab, shrimp salad and imported cheeses. "The jet planes now are coming in, and there's been rapid development. When we came in 1961 they were heralding the arrival of the 707. Now 747s land every day." But, she added, "the real French Polynesia is out here in the leeward islands. They are still virtually undiscovered. What Hawaii was, Tahiti is."

To be sure, we were the only boat at anchor that night, and every night thereafter. The nighttime sky was blazing with activity--clearly discernible shooting stars, as well as the Southern Cross--even a fast-moving satellite streaking past it all.

The next day we sailed for Huahine, an almost magical island 100 miles south of Tahiti. It is small (population 3,140) and quiet. Its people aren't concerned with world politics (or even Tahitian politics). It is a simple, remote existence that embraces Huahine, which is actually two islands connected by a small bridge. Together, the two are just barely 20 miles in circumference.

Like most of the other islands we visited, Huahine had no locked doors. There is simply no crime there. (Hyperbolic press releases would have trouble with this island. The truth is hard to surpass.)

You can live well on the island. A five-minute walk from the port village of Fare leads to the Bali Hai hotel and its 24 thatched bungalows and quiet lagoons. (There's regular air service from Papeete).

There are no boat yards or repair facilities on most of the islands, so the Goches have equipped the Danae with two engines, two radios, two dinghies and, perhaps most important, two generators. Claude Goche even has installed his own small machine shop below decks.

Each day was spent under the large red, white and yellow sails, idling along at 6 knots, passing islands and remote villages where the only concessions to the 20th century are the corrugated steel sheets that cover churches, an occasional gas-powered generator and a gendarme--the police representative, as well as the reminder, of the control of the islands by the French government. History here is marked not by events, but simply by the passing of time.