Though much has changed in the Society Islands since the British frigate H.M.S. Dolphin first sighted Tahiti on June 18, 1767, the English sailors' reaction to what they saw is echoed by visitors today. " 'Tis impossible to describe," wrote one of the discoverers, "the beautiful Prospects we beheld in this charming spot...it abounds with all the choicest Productions of the Earth."
What the Dolphin's crew had stumbled upon was an island group of astonishing beauty and tranquillity, a volcanic archipelago of 10 mountainous islands whose craggy emerald peaks emerged abruptly from the turquoise sea and five atolls ringed by white beaches and coral reefs that contained an abundance of marine life. Flowers grew in profusion: gardenia, frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus. And the island people were both handsome and hospitable.
Two centuries after the Dolphin's voyage, the Society Islands have been transformed by the modern world. A six-lane highway approaches Papeete, Tahiti's largest city and the capital of French Polynesia; there are 50,000 cars and trucks for the island's 100,000 inhabitants; a modern airport serves international travelers. (It takes only eight hours to fly from Los Angeles to Tahiti. The Dolphin sailed for many months to get there from England.)
But much remains the same. The trade winds still blow, the scenery is still stunning, the sea is still teeming with multihued fish, the people are still remarkably friendly. In many ways, Tahiti and the other Society Islands remain the paradise the Dolphin discovered so many years ago.
While a fisherman inspects his net, Kathy Ireland checks out a Bora Bora sunset in a lace suit by Jantzen ($39).
Elle Macpherson wends her way through the water on Bora Bora in an outrigger canoe. Elle is rigged out in embroidered nylon and spandex by Connie Banko ($54).
Against a dawn sky in Bora Bora, Elle (right) is a ray of golden sunshine in her Lurex bikini ($50] and robe ($100), both by Gottex.
Paulina Porizkova, in glittery sequins by Gottex ($100), drifts into a daydream while ornamenting the prow of a canoe in Moorea.
Just down the beach from Moorea's Club Med, Kathy takes shelter in a hut called a fare. Her suit ($53) and pareu ($78) are from Ralph Lauren.
Kelly Emberg (above) adorns one of Tahiti's black-sand beaches in a cotton-Lycra bikini by Ellen Ann Dobrovir ($68).
A late Bora Bora sun warms Coco Mitchell, whose nylon-and-Lycra maillot by Mistral ($38)—designed to suggest tropical flowers—generates a few degrees of its own.
Jenna de Rosnay, the women's world speed-record holder in windsurfing, wins further accolades for her bikni made in Brazil by Darling Rio ($24).
As the wind and light diminish, Jenna drops sail and heads for shore in a suit from Viewpoint by Gottex ($44).
Elle (above) high-steps it past a traveler's-tree at the Hotel Marara on Bora Bora. Her lacy nylon suit is from Keiko ($50).
Kathy, in a silky, ribbed suit by Connie Banko ($46), seeks shelter from the sun under some friendly fronds on Bora Bora.
Napping on a catamaran's netting, Paulina is the catch of the day in an aqueous suit made by Gottex ($59).
Wearing a ruffled Gottex suit ($44), Kelly (left) takes refuge from the frothy surf on a black lava ledge on Tahiti, an island that was formed by volcanic activity.
Elle wades through golden ripples that repeat the pattern on her multicolored maillot from Viewpoint by Gottex ($46).
Life is not a bed of roses, but Kathy does just fine on a blanket of frangipani in her Gilda Marx bikini ($31).
In her K√§ti bikini ($46), Elle is oblivious to the attention she attracts from butterfly fish and other fawning fauna.
All that glitters is surely Kelly (above), who cools off at Tahiti's Hotel Tahara'a in a gold-embossed bikini from Diva ($50).
Paulina (right) lights up the dawn on Moorea in an allamanda flower lei and nylon lace. The thong and pareu (no bra is included) are both from Keiko ($45).
Pauline takes leave of all her cares as she basks in a beachside atrium. Her fishnet suit is from Gottex ($68).
Elle can paddle her own canoe, but it's nice to get help from the green-garlanded guys at the Tiipoto Rowing Club. Her suit is by Gabar ($36).
Under the shower go Mataihau Taraufau and spraymate Paulina, in a suit by Gottex ($42), at the Hotel Kia Ora in Moorea.
While watching a dance group do its stuff at the Hotel Bora Bora, Elle, whose swimsuit is by Gideon Oberson ($54), discovers that even the littlest natives are friendly.
Right there over the rainbow loom Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, Bora Bora's prime peaks. Also multihued is Coco's suit from Keiko ($50).