When the French post-impressionist Paul Gauguin fled a life of poverty in France for Tahiti in 1895, he discovered dramatic volcanic landscapes and an ancient way of life that was to inspire his greatest work.
Enraptured by the beautiful women (he had left his wife and five children back in Europe and married a local girl aged just 14), he created paintings of verve and brilliance.
Tahiti, most famous for Fletcher Christian’s Mutiny On The Bounty (Marlon Brando, who portrayed the rebel, was so smitten he ended up buying an atoll) has become popular for pearl fishing and as a starting point for cruises.
Turquoise waters: The lush island of Moorea (above) in French Polynesia
But on the tiny flat atolls, and inland on lush, verdant islands such as Moorea, Nuku Hiva, Bora Bora and Huahine — volcanic beauties made up of lagoons and cloud-covered peaks — islanders hunt, fish and live in a way that has altered little for centuries.
All this lay ahead of us, as my partner Oscar and I boarded the Oceania Cruises ship, Marina, on Tahiti, to join 1,200 other guests on its Pure Polynesia cruise of seven remote islands.
After taking two long haul flights to get there (London to Los Angeles, then another to Tahiti’s capital Papeete), we were desperate for sunshine. And we got it, together with balmy temperatures of about 27c.
The Marina has seven restaurants, including a French, and Italian, and the prestigious, La Reserve, where groups can savour seven degustation courses. We spent one evening there alongside 12 others and lively local dances (think Maori haka) proved a blissful interruption to the endless food.
On the ninth foor of this 15-storey behemoth (considered a medium sized ship) our verandah stateroom was a sanctuary — and the personal service incredible.
I even had a sandal, with a freshly split sole, repaired by staff who arrived, in minutes, with a silver tray holding a tube of glue.With such on-board luxury (one guest was so enamoured with the Lalique staircase he had it copied for his home) there was no need to leave the ship — and some guests never did. Older couples — the women often with that slightly surgical, windblown look — were often content to do the on-board cooking courses, walk the deck, or relax in the spa.
One American woman I met (most of the guests were from the U. S.) had been on this trip five times and preferred to stay aboard with her book. Another chap in his 70s — a fabulously eccentric Salvador Dali look-alike artist, with his jeweller wife — simply enjoyed the fabulous food and what he termed ‘the chance to get away’.
But oh, what they missed: adventurous 4×4 journeys into volcanic craters; snorkelling in crystal clear waters with sharks, sting rays and vividly coloured fish within arm’s reach; sunset catamaran cruises and culinary immersion trips — where we had the chance to meet islanders and experience how they grow and cook their daily meals.
Taro vegetables, coconut milk, vanilla pods, bananas, fresh fish chicken and goat, and mango.
There were temples, too, where not so long ago, human sacrifices were carried out to appease the gods. The missionaries quickly put an end to that. There is the sometimes cheaper option to be independent onshore, too.
On Moorea, one of the many islands discovered by Captain Cook, Oscar hired a scooter, after we hitch-hiked to the shopping centre from the port (our chauffeur was a missionary English teacher), driving along roads dotted with waving locals, captive pigs and wandering chickens.
Set sail: Oceania Cruises ship, Marina (above), which Jo Knowsley boarded from Tahiti
At the end of the two-hour ride around the island’s coastal road, a French barmaid and her rescue dog gave us a ride back to the port in her beaten up convertible so we wouldn’t miss our afternoon four-wheel drive trip into the interior. It was typical of the hospitality we encountered throughout.
Everyone was relaxed and friendly. Many of the tall, handsome locals, all speaking French, still wear the ritual tribal tattoos of their ancient past.
Over 13 days, we visited dense rainforests and glimpsed pieces of forgotten history — like the World War II cannon high in the sculpted mountains of Bora Bora, where 7,000 American GIs whiled away three years waiting to battle a Japanese invasion (it never came) while siring hundreds of blue-eyed children.
‘I could get used to this,’ said Oscar, who usually hates to spend more than a night in one place. ‘You’re travelling with your own view,’ he explained. ‘And each night, after an onshore adventure, you never have to worry about where you’ll sleep or eat.’
A cruise like this is a little like window shopping, offering a snapshot of places to which you may return. But, with each glimpse, gloriously memorable.
Oceania Cruises (oceaniacruises.com, 0345 505 1920) offers the 12-day Pure Polynesia cruise from £4,819 pp including flights, on-board speciality dining, six shore excursions, drinks and $600 shipboard credit per room.