Sailing on a romantic, masted clipper ship is the perfect way to discover the delights of French Polynesia, from lush valleys to deep lagoons and sparkling waterfalls
In French Polynesia, business suits aren't the done thing. Here, even the newsreaders wear flowers in their hair and 'dressing up' extends about as far as wearing a crown of flowers to the supermarket. In the popular imagination, the legacy of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1958 musical, South Pacific, still looms large - to those of us in the British Isles, this is still the land of 'Bali Ha'i' and 'Happy Talk'.
Lying on a sun lounger on the deck of the Star Flyer, a four-masted clipper ship that offers a year-round itinerary of seven-, 10- and 11-night voyages around 'Tahiti and her islands', I had to admit that this was as close to paradise as I'd ever got.
Think of an image that sums up a tropical idyll, and you'll find it in this group of islands - the Society Islands - situated halfway between California and Australia. There are lush valleys, crystalline lagoons, palm tree-fringed islands and sparkling waterfalls, azure skies, turquoise seas and locals playing unhurried games of chess down by the ferry quay. Even the names of the various islands, from Bora Bora to Moorea, sound as if they've been whispered by the warm South Seas breeze itself.
Independent travel in French Polynesia is expensive (even a small bottle of water can cost up to £2), so an all-inclusive cruise, which takes in several islands, is an affordable way to see this part of the world. My seven-day cruise with Star Flyer, part of the Star Clippers group of masted sailing ships, was perfectly suited to the laidback ambience of the South Pacific.
Forget cabaret shows and art auctions: the Star Flyer is an altogether different prospect that's more like a luxury yacht than a cruise liner. The ship is compact, with just 85 cabins and a maximum of 170 passengers, and informal - there's no emphasis on dressing for dinner, no strict seating arrangements, and entertainment comes in the form of deck discos, singalongs and amateur talent contests.
You can be as active or as chilled-out as you want to be - climbing the mast or helping to raise the sails (there were a lot of sailing enthusiasts on board), or simply reading a book until dinner.
After flying to LA from London, I spent the night in Pape'ete, Tahiti’s capital, before boarding the following day. Soon, I'd flung off the shackles of Western culture, including most of my clothes, and was padding around the ship barefoot, in a traditional pareo, a colourful sarong-like garment worn by both women and men.
Star Clipper is a European cruise line and there was a mix of cultures onboard, with French, German, American and British accents mingling at the ship’s open-air tropical bar. As well as the main meals of the day, with delights such as local maki maki fish and suckling pig for dinner, there were snacks and buffets around the clock, culminating in a midnight feast.
And then there was the scenery. You can stare at it for hours and still not feel like you're drinking it all in.
Tahiti is the largest and most populated of the Society Islands and is as close as you'll get to that 'bright lights, big city' feel (ie not very). The dockside area in Pape'ete is filled with neon-lit bars and internet cafes, but it's also where local families, wearing flower leis, gather on weekend evenings to gossip, mingle and eat at the outdoor cafes. The market is a great place to buy juicy local fruits and shell jewellery, while art lovers will enjoy the island's Paul Gauguin Museum.
The main village in Huahine, by contrast, is sleepy and sensual, with a main street than can be strolled down in just a few minutes. With a population of less than 6,000, this compact island is a favourite with surfers and backpackers.
Another day, another taste of paradise… The sacred isle of Ra'iatea is said to be the cradle of Polynesian culture and is also home to the tiare apetahi flower, one of the world's rarest blooms. Inland is where the interest lies though, so sign up for an excursion to take in the lush foliage of the interior.
Island excursions can be organised on board and cover everything from lagoon trips and scuba diving to dolphin-watching trips and visits to the archaeological remains of marae (traditional temples).
Coming back onboard after a day spent on an island, my fellow passengers would be laden with trinkets, having stocked up on black pearls, local vanilla, carved tiki figures and a must-buy of the area, a bottle of fragrant monoi oil.
As laidback as the other islands is Taha'a, home to pearl farms and vanilla plantations, while Moorea, where Star Flyer made two stops, offers up Opunohu and Cook Bays, with their abundance of pineapple plantations and whale-watching opportunities.
And then there's Bora Bora - its very name suggests romance and an almost mythical charm. In the 1770s, Captain James Cook christened it the ‘pearl of the Pacific’ and these days, it's where many of the most striking images of Polynesia originate, such as over-water bungalows, craggy volcanoes, dense forests, beautiful deep lagoons and high-end hotel resorts.
With so much natural beauty, there has to be a downside, right? Well, the mosquitoes are fierce and during the hot, humid Polynesian summers (November-April, when the temperature averages 32°C) monsoon-style storms can whip up within seconds and die down again just as fast. But that's a small price to pay for the chance to explore this genuinely far-flung taste of paradise.
Air Tahiti Nui flies to Tahiti from France and various cities in the US and can be matched up with flights from other airlines such as British Airways from the UK.