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TAHITI: EQUAL PARTS HEAVEN AND TIJUANA

Variety of fish can be seen in lagoon at Moorea. ().
Variety of fish can be seen in lagoon at Moorea. ().

By BILL LUNDQUIST

Remember that John Denver song that begins with, "You fill up my senses …"

I didn't know it, but I'd never had my senses completely filled before my wife and I celebrated our 29th anniversary with a short trip to French Polynesia in early June.

My eyes nearly burned from the sight of verdant green mountainsides and luminescent blue lagoons.

The people themselves were obviously created in the image of God. Compared to young Tahitians, the rest of us are distorted photocopies.

Pictures and films do as much justice to Tahiti as a stick-person drawing does to the Mona Lisa.

The beauty of the islands is so staggering that it leaves most visitors blinking in disbelief at what they are seeing.

Beauty is something one can hear on Tahiti, too. The harmony of the singing is so perfect it grips the soul.

In the absence of human sound, the soft rush of waves across the distant reef is hypnotic. You can hear rain approaching as it hits the coconut palms.

You could be blind and deaf and still have your senses filled to overflowing in Tahiti.

The air is thick and rich with the scent of tiare Tahiti gardenia plants, which are as common there as Douglas firs are in Western Oregon.

We brought back several tiare scented products that smell incredibly fragrant here.

When we opened the bottles there, they seemed practically unscented, so strong was the fragrance of the air itself.

The warm, moist air also caresses the skin in Tahiti, as does the only-slightly-cooler sparkling sea. Even the rain feels delightful on bare skin.

As for taste, Tahiti offers French cooking, along with pineapples that make Hawaiian fruits taste like cardboard.

French Polynesia is so sensual that it can awaken a dormant appreciation of beauty in the most jaded traveler.

I returned to see the Rogue Valley and the South Coast as if for the first time. I had forgotten what a beautiful planet we live on. Tahiti can do that for you.

I promised my wife I wouldn't kiss and tell, but for those of you married 30, 40, even 50 years, can you truly recall exactly what love was like when you first met? Well, you can on Tahiti.

For all those reasons, I would say Tahiti is the one place you must visit. Can you truly say you've lived a complete life without having seen the most beautiful spot on Earth?

Just as one must pay a price to reach the real heaven, however, it is not easy or always pleasant to reach this bit of heaven-on-earth.

A trip to French Polynesia can be horrendously expensive, but it doesn't have to be.

Week-long packages, including lodging and round trip airfare, start at about $800 per person.

No, price is not the reason Tahiti gets only as many visitors in a year as Hawaii gets in 10 days.

There is a reason the word "French" comes first in French Polynesia. This overseas possession of France is more French than Polynesian.

The stereotype of the surly Parisian waiter applies to most, but not all, of the French people in Tahiti.

The Polynesians themselves are still a bit ticked about having their islands stolen from them, and are mostly sullen and withdrawn.

Tourism is being forced on Tahiti by the French government as a way of evening out the trade deficit.

As French-speaking people, Tahitians already have a natural contempt for English-speaking tourists, and the new government policy hasn't helped.

The language barrier is probably worse than it is in Mexico. The travel brochures tell you everyone around the major hotels in Tahiti speaks English, and they do.

The problem is, almost no one understands it. The Tahitians can respond politely, but they have no idea what you need or want. The French, of course, don't care.

For every yin in Tahiti, there is a yang. The lagoons are the bluest and clearest in the world, but are used as both toilets and dishwashers.

They are filled with a myriad of colorful tropical fish, but also with things that sting, bite or burn if you don't know what to look for.

The white beaches look postcard-perfect, but are filled with jagged pieces of dead coral and, away from the hotels, garbage.

The cooking is French, which is to say excellent, but the ingredients may have sat out all day in the 80-degree heat, and the French refuse to actually cook eggs or beef.

The water on most islands is not drinkable, but the hotels will not tell you this. The bottled water is not readily available, and is nearly as bad as the tap water. Water may be absent altogether in the hotels' antiquated plumbing systems.

Still, it's all worth it to feel more alive than you will ever feel again. I can also give you tips on how to enjoy more of the good and avoid more of the bad.

In future installments of this series, come with me to the islands. We will feed the sharks, swim with the rays, walk on the bottom of the sea, and succumb to the come-hither enchantress that is Tahiti.

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