Tahiti conjures up a glamorous image of waving coconut palms, beaches like powdered sugar, water as clear as Perrier and a red sun dropping behind a volcano's silhouette -- some of the most dramatic scenery in the South Pacific.
The equally dramatic prices may make an even greater impression on visitors: $300-a-night hotels and $1.50 for soft drinks or coffee.
Fortunately, the traveler on a budget can leave behind the expense of Tahiti for the delights of an unusual island an hour away, where the loudest sounds are the flying fish splashing in a lovely lagoon. Rangiroa, 215 miles northeast of Tahiti, comes much closer to the romantic Robinson Crusoe ideal of the South Pacific. I discovered terrific food, cozy lodgings, gorgeous skyscapes and friendly locals -- plus a curious shark or two -- all for less than $25 a day.
Rangiroa is an excellent illustration of the two secrets to enjoying French Polynesia, a vast area of the eastern Pacific centering on Tahiti, 4,092 miles southwest of Los Angeles. They are: Get off the beaten track and stay with local families.
It is well worth the effort, because French Polynesia can empty your wallet faster than you can say Papeete, its bustling, traffic-congested capital.
Rangiroa drew "oohs" and "ahhs" from the tourists on our Air Polynesie flight even before we landed. Below the whirring propellers of our small craft was an extraordinary vista.
Unlike a volcanic island with rugged peaks, Rangiroa is an atoll -- a coral necklace 42 miles long and 14 miles in diameter. The narrow ring in the open sea rises only a few yards above sea level and encloses a vast lagoon. The far side of the lagoon, where the atoll is uninhabited, was not visible even from our bird's-eye view at 1,000 feet.
Below we could see a sweeping arc of coral about a half-mile across separating a midnight blue ocean and its surf from the lagoon, a lighter kaleidoscope of jade, turquoise and aqua denoting various depths. The shallows were an impossibly delicate lime color.
The tiny village of Avatoru, with a few dozen red-roofed houses with a Mediterranean flavor and a single road, appeared below. It was surrounded by thick, unbroken stands of coconut palms, breadfruit and banana trees, their emerald shades startling against bright white sands.
After landing at the airstrip east of Avatoru, I approached a Polynesian woman with her hair in a chignon. I had not arranged lodging in advance, and I asked her in French if she could direct me to any of the families listed in my guidebooks or tourist board publications.
Maria Belais happened to run Chez Teina, a place not listed in any of my sources. It proved to be an undiscovered treasure. Maria offered a bungalow with a woven palm roof and three meals a day for $24. It sounded reasonable. It turned out to be incredible.
What Maria didn't mention was that the meals were prepared by a chef from Lyon and were served at a picnic table beside the lagoon. She also left out the fact that her family provided free boat trips (which would have cost $18 at the nearby hotel) to swim with Rangiroa's sharks.
All this I discovered from other pleased guests after arriving at Chez Teina. Maria drove me there in her white pickup on a road with overhanging palm fronds, away from Avatoru to the eastern end of the islet.
Six tourist bungalows and family dwellings stood surrounded by palms, several miles from the village. They nestled beside the lagoon near a deep channel where the awesome Pacific rushed in and out of a break in the atoll in impressive, cresting swells. The compound was a minute's walk from the ocean pass and five minutes from the ocean proper, where you could stroll for hours without seeing a soul.
I always seek out family-run accommodations wherever I travel, and I found it hard to understand why anyone would opt for staying at a hotel on these idyllic out islands where families so readily open their homes to visitors. Our bungalows were plainer than those at the nearby $180-a-night hotel, but still cozy. The setting was equal or better; guests could take part in the daily routine. And Chez Teina had Francois Caramelli, who was rumored to outcook the hotel chef regularly.
Francois, a slender 27-year-old, was already a veteran of restaurants in France, Germany and Papeete. He had the half-dozen guests at Chez Teina in raptures over his poulet dijonnais (chicken in mustard and bread crumbs) with sauce piquant, lobster, a fresh long silvery fish, a stubbier red fish (rouget), Chinese fried fish with soy sauce, pasta, asparagus with homemade mayonnaise, lychees and choux pastry with chocolate and cream.
These dishes were served at a picnic table beside the lagoon, where the noise of the splashing schools of flying fish (marara in Polynesian) sometimes drowned out conversation; or at a dining bungalow with an open front and pandanus roof, or on my bungalow porch. Bologna sandwiches would have tasted marvelous in such an idyllic setting.
The second day Franc,ois shooed the chickens out of the kitchen and let me read his classic French cookbooks and watch him prepare meals. Why he had been working at little Chez Teina the past year was something of a mystery, especially since he told me he hated swimming. The answer seemed to lie in his contented expression as he took the family's boat each afternoon to pick up the mail at Tiputa, a village visible on the far side of the ocean pass. He seemed to also take simple pleasure in chatting with the guests, despite the atrocities we committed on the French language.
When asked how long he was staying, Franc,ois gave a Gallic shrug and a noncommittal smile.
My five days on Rangiroa revolved around snorkeling in the lagoon in anticipation of mealtimes and emerging at the waterside table to admire the latest treat.
Rangiroa offered a delicious irony. One feasted on tasty lagoon fish and then went out swimming with sharks, trying to avoid becoming the next step in the South Pacific food chain.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the six-foot Pacific black tip shark in the lagoon and the ocean passes. In addition, there are white tips, grays, bronze whalers, tigers and nurse, lemon and hammerhead sharks. In fact, the ocean pass at Chez Teina and another to the west near Avatoru are famous among divers and marine researchers for their sharks, as well as for some of the world's most dangerous currents.
Maria arranged for her cousins, Deborah and Simone, to take me out in the pass with the sharks the day after I arrived. None of the "Jaws" phobia for them; the young Polynesians expertly guided the boat to the middle of the pass and jumped overboard. The plan was to drift snorkel, swirling with the current into the lagoon while clinging to the tie rope of the powerless boat as it drifted along with us.
I was last overboard. "Requin" (shark), Simone bellowed over and over, for there were a half dozen ambling on the bottom of the 80-foot-deep channel. The clarity of the water was vastly reassuring, for it seemed les requins could not get close without ample warning.
We passed over a giant manta ray, at least 12 feet across, flapping like a flying carpet. After drifting for perhaps a mile, we climbed back in the boat and steered back up the pass for two more such rides. On our third drift snorkel, we passed over a long ledge of coral and I dove down for a closer look.
Out of nowhere, a muscular six-foot black tip appeared, right alongside me and swimming parallel. He gave me that blood-chilling stare, mouth open.
I had a split second to decide whether to try to scare him off or to believe Deborah's assurance that the black tips were perfectly safe and were not a concern. Numb with shock, I managed to decide, "When in Rangiroa . . ." I quietly swam back up to the boat, and my curious friend wandered off.
I was shaking for hours afterward, much to Deborah's amusement. She did not fear the sharks; in fact, to my puzzlement, she said she liked them. It seems families in Rangiroa and nearby atolls believe a particular shark guards their welfare and can be called upon to avenge a slight. Thus a fisherman will not go out if he has fought with his wife the night before.
After exploring Avatoru and Tiputa, where most of Rangiroa's 1,430 inhabitants live, I had finished my limited checklist of "must" things to do. Reading a book a day, going to Maria's general store in Avatoru for ice cream, collecting shells, daydreaming and wiggling my toes in the sand became perfectly pleasant ways to pass the time.
In fact, the atoll is an ideal place to simply sit and watch the world go by. Rangiroa means "immense sky" in the local dialect, and above the island was a veritable three-ring circus. We could see big black thunderheads miles away and clear blue overhead along with shifting stripes of pink and gold clouds, all of which would be completely rearranged every few minutes.
The picturesque lagoon, with a yacht or two at anchor, had schools of blue, green and orange parrotfish, their beaky mouths audibly scraping as they nibbled the coral. A buttercup-yellow flutemouth hid shyly on the bottom. Hundreds of transparent pipefish darted about near the surface. A narrow strip of sandy beach appealed to sunbathers, who even from a distance could still easily see fish in the clear lagoon.
At night, guests would sit at the water's edge at Chez Teina, after the electricity went off at 9 or 10. It wasn't missed; there was an unbelievably luminous full moon to admire as it rose and etched sharp shadows.
After five days, I said goodbye to Maria, Franc,ois, Deborah and Simone, happy to have met them but secretly relieved not to have met any hungry great whites. The plane ride back to Papeete was special, full of happy, flower-bedecked, tanned Americans, Australians and Europeans, all acquainted by now after lagoon-side encounters and swapping shark adventure tales.
If you visit the outer islands where Polynesians say maeva (welcome), there's no guarantee that a talented chef like Franc,ois will be presiding. But the warm tradition of hospitality is yours for the seeking. Families like Maria's will still be there.