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French Polynesia: a paradise that caused a mutiny

French Polynesia is the real-life setting of one of the best-known sea-faring adventure stories – the real paradise of spectacular scenery and welcoming people that lay behind the discontent of the crew and caused the mutiny aboard the 'Bounty' in 1789.

April 4, 2012
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They'd travelled half way across the world to Polynesia to find breadfruit plants for the British empire which were to be planted in the Caribbean to help feed the slaves there, but the long and dangerous voyage took ten months – far longer than planned. If the crew of the Bounty could simply have loaded the seedlings aboard and left immediately, the mutiny may never have happened. Instead, after the arduous outward voyage, they had to wait nearly a further six months to safely transplant the young plants if these were to survive the onward journey. And those months were spent in the closest equivalent to Paradise on earth: the beautiful islands of French Polynesia, with their gentle climate, palm-fringed beaches and welcoming native women. Which is where things got 'complicated'.The sailors became accustomed to the easy island life, to the spectacular scenery of shining lagoons and volcanic slopes carpeted in lush green vegetation. They fell in love with the islands, and, too, with the natives – Fletcher Christian even married a local woman. So it's not surprising that once the season turned and it was time to set sail again, the crew were reluctant, to say the least. Once back on the high seas, they mutinied, and set Captain Bligh and 18 loyal men afloat in a small boat – which fortunately carried them safely to land in the Dutch East Indies – and set sail again for what they now thought of as their home in the South Seas.

Those are the bare bones of what happened in 1789, a tale that has inspired numerous stories and books as well as three major Hollywood screen adaptations. In the first, (1935) Clark Gable as Mr Christian faced Charles Laughton as a tyrannical Bligh – a maligned and misrepresented character as in reality the Captain was both an honourable man and a great sailor. The latest remake (1984), starred Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, while in the 1962 adaptation, Trevor Howard played the Captain to the unforgettable Mr Christian of Marlon Brando, who married Maimiti on screen and then later made the actress Tarita his third real-life wife.

Some things have changed in the South Seas, and the natives no longer run half-naked to greet each newcomer, but the Society Islands remain very much the unspoiled paradise that cinema and fiction have branded in our collective memory. 

Tahitidescribed by Bligh as "the finest island in the world" – is the largest of the archipelago, and home to Papeete, capital of French Polynesia. Following the coast north east from Papeete takes you to Arue, where the former home of James Norman Hall, adventurer, soldier, fighter pilot and author of the most famous novel about the Bounty is now a museum. After looking around, take a walk up to the Tahara look-out for a stunning panoramic view of the neighbouring island of Moorea and the Bay of Matavai, where many of the 1962 movie scenes were filmed.

Farther on, on the black volcanic sands of Point Venus you'll find the monolith commemorating the place where the Bounty crew first set foot in Tahiti. The Point was named by Captain Cook who had  travelled there earlier as part of a scientific expedition studying the transit of the planet Venus. It is here that the Bounty cast anchor for months, although the Tahitian families who come to picnic each weekend to a backdrop of splashes and the strumming of a ukelele, and the surfers who come seeking the waves of Mahina pay little attention to the historical legacy, nor to the lighthouse built by the father of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island.

Following the coast road round eastwards, you reach the turn-off to the Papenoo valley where the uru grows – the breadfruit tree the mutineers had travelled so far to find. Accessible by off-road vehicle, active visitors can also choose to enter the valley by bike, or on foot, whether the plan is to spend a few hours exploring or take a couple of days and travel right across to the opposite end of the island, camping en route among the gullies, lava caves and the sacred places or maraes where the ancient Tahitian people performed their rituals.

Cook Bay, on the nearby garden-island of Moorea also served as setting for some of the scenes of the 1962 film, as did Bora Bora, the best known of all the isles and islets of the Society archipelago. But the atoll most closely associated with Mutiny on the Bounty, or at least with one of the actors in the film, must surely be the tiny atoll of Tetiaroa, some 50 kilometres north of Tahiti, bought by Marlon Brando, who fell head over heels in love with the little ring of coral and its beaches where the sand is as pale and fine as flour. After his death in 2004, his executors granted development rights and at the end of 2012, the long-awaited luxury eco-hotel The Brando is due to open.


Getting thereAlthough different air companies operate flights into Papeete, it is usually cheaper to buy the flights and accommodation as part of a package which may also include excursions to other islands.The luxury travel company Plenia offers an all-inclusive cruise of Polynesia and the South Pacific  aboard the Paul Gauguin for a maximum of 332 passengers with prices starting around 2,300 € (about £2,000).Best time to visitAs the Bounty crew discovered, the islands are gorgeous year round – as long as you don't need to wait for the breadfruit plant transplanting season!Getting aroundCompanies such as Air Tahiti operate scheduled flights between the islands as well as excursions and charter flights. Cars and motorbikes can also be hired.Where to stayUntil The Brando opens its doors on Tetiaroa at the end of 2012, Tahiti boasts plenty of hotels from top class chains: Radisson, Intercontinental, Le Meridien, Sofitel and the Manava Suite Resort, or you can book independent family-run hotels and holiday homes via the web Tahiti-pensions.Where to eatAs well as in the restaurants of the hotels, try some of Tahiti's recommended restaurants such as L'O a la Bouche (tel: 689-452976), Pink Coconut (tel: 689 412223) and Le Coco's (tel: 689- 582108).Don't miss…Rent a car to tour right round the island of Tahiti. If you have a little more time, cross to Tahiti Iti, the smaller and less known part of the island or combine the trip with a visit to some of the other islands in the archipelago, such as Moorea, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine, or the spectacular atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago.Learn more:French Tourist Board 

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