James Ruggia | August 14, 2015 3:00 PM ET
Eyeing Tahiti from the Decks of the Bounty
If you happened to be in the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church in the London borough of Lambeth last March, you might have heard the sound of someone spinning in his coffin. That would be one William Bligh, the famous South Sea sailor who’d been at Captain Cook’s side when he was killed in Hawaii in 1779, and who has gone down in the annals of Hollywood (not history) as the cruelest sea captain of all time.
Bligh may have been startled from his eternal sleep when the same United Kingdom that drove the mutinous Fletcher Christian into the outlaw sanctuary of Pitcairn Island announced the establishment of the world's largest fully protected marine sanctuary around the Pitcairn Archipelago. Hopefully, multitudes of marine life will find the same sanctuary there that Christian found on Pitcairn in 1789.
The lore of Tahiti never wanes. Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson left a rich treasury of images and stories that continue to call travelers to the islands. One of the first interviews I ever conducted was with the late Ted Cook (no relation to the captain), who founded the original Islands In the Sun. He told me about arriving in Tahiti his first time in 1964 with a tie around his neck and a brief case in his hand and found himself just hours later with his pants rolled up standing in the surf, his tie crumbled in his pocket and his brief case wedged in the sand with crabs clattering all over it. Ted never left. It’s that kind of place.
In the infancy of modern tourism, a contemporary of Ted’s, Harvey Olson, the president of the once mighty and long since fallen Olson Travel World, said, “Travel is about dreams. If you want to sell travel, you’d better know what those dreams are.” All these years and market profiles and focus groups and branding seminars and statistical analyses later, the game remains the same: You’ve got to understand the traveler’s dream. Therefore, destination marketing mavens scan niche market impulses with the intense concentration of seismographs, listening for the first tremors of a new desire among travelers.
No destination has had to live more within the parameters of the dreams of its visitors than Tahiti, a.k.a. French Polynesia. Tahiti, more than anywhere, has been defined by the perceptions of outsiders who insist that it maintain its traditional role of a paradise far beyond the borders of the regimented urban and suburban lives that its potential travelers live.
Count me among the dreamers, dreaming my own Tahiti even though I’ve been there four times. In many ways the very roots of my own particular obsessive wanderlust run right through Tahiti. That obsession began rattling my cage at an early age and movies were definitely major rattlers. None more so than the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, which pitted Marlon Brando against Trevor Howard in its classic matchup of Christian versus Bligh.
Every 20 or 30 years, Hollywood restages that battle. We’ve had Charles Laughton versus Clark Gable (1935) and then Anthony Hopkins versus Mel Gibson (1984). In each new film the character dynamics change, Hopkins even managed to make Bligh sympathetic. The depiction of Tahiti or as Olson might put it “the dream of Tahiti” also changed.
Gable’s Tahiti, like Tarzan’s Africa, is little more than a backdrop heavily draped with patronizing colonial attitudes of childlike peoples carrying the bags of those civilized men who themselves were carrying the “white man’s burden” through heathen lands. Brando’s Tahiti is populated by people more fully drawn, though still seen as pure innocents wandering the islands of love. Gibson’s Tahiti shows that our perceptions had evolved to the point where the king of Tahiti is portrayed as a full human being concerned about his daughter and the well-being of his people and worried about the political consequences of betraying Bligh and the British Navy by helping Fletcher Christian. He even is portrayed as a contrast in power to Bligh, ruling with a fatherly concern, as opposed to Bligh’s reign of terror.
Last year, Tahiti Tourisme began a campaign to refresh the dream and to differentiate from other island destinations marketing the familiar picture postcard beauty of the Pacific islands. In seeking to reinforce a deeper mystique rooted in Tahiti’s longer engagement with Western travelers and history, the destination is emphasizing Tahiti’s powerful legacy in the history of discovery itself. Tahiti, the campaign stresses, is a place that must be discovered to be fully experienced.
Within that notion of discovery of an island is the implicit deeper grain of self-discovery and freedom from the normal lives we lead with their almost machine-like routine. Though no one wants to admit it, there are real lives being lived in Tahiti also. Surely there are times when people thank God it’s Friday.
There are 118 real islands and atolls to be discovered, beyond the handful of islands that are so firmly in the crosshairs of main line Tahitian tourism. The most popular islands: Bora Bora, Moorea and Tahiti (the island), are just fragments of what can be discovered within French Polynesia, whose wide cast net of archipelagoes includes the Australs, the Gambiers, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, covering an area as large as Western Europe.
We go to Tahiti hoping to see through those same infatuated eyes that lovers look on their lovers with.
It works. Even with all of its luxury hotels, Bora Bora’s beautiful profile from the sea still stands in contrast with the skylines of New York or Chicago as starkly as Fletcher Christian’s devotion to the young Princess Maimiti does to William Bligh’s devotion to the Admiralty’s flogging allowance for the maintenance of Royal Navy discipline.
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