For Gauguinesque dreamers the misty dream of Tahiti, fragrant with frangipani and free of the bonds of civilization, is all but over. Last week the alarm clock was ringing and the morning of reality was at hand. The jets were coming. In less than a year's time they will be flying nonstop in seven and a half hours from Los Angeles. Tahiti then will be available to anyone with the price ($752 round trip, tourist class).
The anticipated arrival of the jets, which will fly the flag of Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux, a private French line, plus the hotels that are rising to house the coming passengers, already have begun to curdle the deep, low-cost languor in which Tahiti has always lived. A tract of ocean-front property 300 feet long and about 350 feet deep recently changed hands for $50,000, and after the deal had been made the original owner had shaking qualms that he had sold too low. Unless one is French or a native Polynesian it is almost impossible to buy a personal retreat. On the other hand, it is possible to rent a house or lease land and build on it. Native houses, the cheapest and the most popular kind, built of pandanus, coconut, bamboo and stone—all at hand—cost about $5 a square foot, compared with $14 to $32 a square foot in California. The city power plant dispatches electricity to anyone within nine miles of Papeete, and water is free. Tahitians love water and use it liberally. Says Fred Cole, the California bathing suit manufacturer, who is building in Tahiti, "They always let the faucet run because they like the sound."
Staffing a house is still incredibly cheap by Stateside standards. The housemaid hired by Godefroy de Noaillat, a young Frenchman sent from Paris to oversee the new tourist industry, charges him $25 a month and does all his laundry. Jacques Sutton (pronounced suit-tone), the 26-year-old local manager of TAI, and his wife Francoise pay their maid about the same and recently received from her a magnificent Tuamotuan pearl as a gift. Houses are available for rent at anywhere from $250 to $350 a month, and native food is cheap. Papayas, mangoes, bananas, guavas and thick-skinned native grapefruit are bountiful. Although the French don't make much use of it, milk dispensed by a newly built dairy is plentiful and safe. Beef and lamb are brought up from the grassy plains of New Zealand and Australia, and the fish market downtown in Papeete offers a dazzling daily display of bonito, parrot fish and fresh-water shrimp. The driver of le truck, the Tahitian bus-of-all-service that rounds the island, will accept shopping lists from out-island householders and bring home the groceries on the return trip. For those who would like to come to town for dinner, Chez Chapiteau, a tiny tiled niche on a back street of Papeete, will dish up a platter of escargots or a blood-red gigot wafting bouquets of garlic.
Avis and Hertz already have come to town with little Renaults that rent for $7 a day, mileage unlimited. Though it requires advance preparation to charter a yacht from the fleet that rides the moorings on the Quai Bir Hakeim, adventurous types with plenty of maritime equilibrium can ride one of the trading schooners that sail between the islands.
While the French government wards off dreamy American homesteaders with one hand, it is eagerly beckoning entrepreneurs of all nationalities who want to develop Tahitian tourism. Spencer Weaver, an American who has run up a string of 14 restaurants in Honolulu, is building one of the largest hotels in the South Pacific on the lagoon just outside Papeete.
In the lush lands behind Papeete, a half-French, half-Tahitian named Hiro Levy has opened four units of a 12-bungalow colony called Tiki Tabu. Its restaurant is being set on a mountain plateau, and it is to have a pool and a snack bar. About six miles from town Lotus Village, the first of Polynesia's motels, has 13 units around a pool, will charge about $12 a day, but most of the accommodations are at present taken by TAI crews. American interests are behind the Iaorana Villa, a hotel on the beach about six and a half miles from town and not far from the villa where Gauguin painted. And halfway around the island at Taravao an indefatigable settler from France named Jeanne Winkelstroeter has opened a charming inn called Faratea, which means golden pandanus. She serves lunches that are a delightful amalgam of the best of France and the best of Polynesia. Ten miles farther on, at the very end of the road that runs down into a small bulge of land called Tahiti-Iti, Mme. Winkelstroeter has another small inn called Chez Pepe. From this outpost she sends exploring types on outrigger canoe trips in the care of a pair of Tahitian fishermen. They spear fish to be baked ashore later, along with breadfruit picked from a wild tree. Mme. Winkelstroeter, or, as the Tahitians call her, Mme. Bobby, also has a Papeete travel agency and, across the water in Moorea, the Hotel Aimeo.
If it is true that these are the last days of Tahiti for the romantic, then they are also the first days of Tahiti for everybody. And even though the Martinis are one day served Eskimo-cold and desert-dry on the terrace of the Hotel Tahiti, in the inland dells wild oranges and wild roses will always grow.