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Tranquil Tahiti: Where the tastes of France, Polynesia and China meet

A week in Tahiti serves up an enticing mix of French, Polynesian and Chinese cuisine against a backdrop of majestic mountains, lush foliage and brilliant blue lagoons.

By Fiona Ralph
It's the unique mix of cultures which makes French Polynesia so fascinating – and the food so delicious.
French is the official language of the country, but Tahitian and French greetings are common, and croissants jostle for space on the breakfast table with coconut bread and papaya.
At times the combination of French, Polynesian and also Chinese influences can lead to unexpected outcomes – the casse-croûte chow mein, for example, is a local speciality consisting of a baguette filled with Chinese noodles.
We get the chance to try this carbs-on-carbs concoction, along with 'pai banane' and 'pai ananas' (banana and pineapple pies), at the snack outlet of Golden Lake, the only Chinese restaurant on the island of Mo'orea.
We're on a Tama'a Street Food Tour (tama'a means 'to eat') run by Mo'orea Food Adventures, which was launched by chef Heimata Hall earlier this year.
Born and raised on Mo'orea, to an American father and Tahitian mother, Heimata left the French territory to study business in San Francisco and then went to culinary school in Hawaii before returning home to show tourists the best dining spots hidden away on his island.
A vegan lunch served by chef Evy Hirshon includes baked bananas, breadfruit chips and an eggplant variation of poisson cru.
His mission is to fill us up – after tucking in to chow mein baguettes, we check out the streetside delights of Allo Pizza (where Italy meets French Polynesia), nibble dumplings served with mustard at Chinese bakery Snack Rotui, try po'e, a dessert of guava and banana in coconut milk, at local favourite Moz Cafe, and sample freshly roasted mape (aka the Tahitian chestnut) on the side of the road.
As if we haven't eaten enough already, for dinner we taste our way through Le Mayflower's menu, a restaurant close to Fenua Mata'i'oa, the boutique hotel where we are staying. The tarte au citron we have for dessert is to die for.
The Tahitian pastries are as good as any in France and we devour them whenever possible – at dinner, afternoon tea and of course breakfast when we enjoy our daily croissants with pineapple, guava and banana jam.
Fenua Mata'i'oa specialises in picturesque platters to start the day. As well as croissants, pains au chocolat and other pastries and fresh bread, there's pineapple, grapefruit and papaya, plus a cooked breakfast if you so desire, all accompanied by spectacular floral arrangements, lagoon views, and the watchful gaze of the many resident cats.
Fish is the star attraction at lunch and dinner in Tahiti, served in a variety of ways – grilled tuna or swordfish with taro or uru (breadfruit) chips; barbecued kebabs with pineapple and capsicum; salty tuna carpaccio; poisson cru (raw fish with coconut milk).
If you don't feel like fish, you can head to vegan chef Evy Hirshon's home on the island of Tahiti, where she serves 'poisson' cru with eggplant instead, alongside a rainbow of fresh produce.
Fish is the star attraction at lunch and dinner in Tahiti, served here as poisson cru (raw fish with coconut milk).
But it's not just food that people visit these islands for.
You've seen the pictures – the scenery is stunning, with dramatic mountains and the clearest turquoise waters. And then there are the Instagram shots of stingrays gliding over people, sharks circling in the background.
We get the chance to experience this thrill for ourselves on a snorkelling tour with Captain Taina. Maiau Taina has been guiding tourists around Mo'orea's lagoons for 16 years and is passionate about looking after the ocean and its inhabitants.
She rescues turtles and releases them in the protected marine reserve near her land, and spends hours cleaning the nearby sacred underwater sculptures, all the better for visitor viewing.
After showing us the sights in her glass-bottomed boat and demonstrating how to harvest giant clams, she whips up a delicious barbecue lunch before teaching us how to make poisson cru.
Maiau Taina runs Captain Taina tours on Mo'orea, where snorkelling with turtles, stingrays and sharks are highlights.
Titouan Bernicot is another Mo'orea local working to protect his island home.
The 21-year-old grew up on a remote pearl farm and is happiest when fishing, diving or surfing. After witnessing bleached coral for the first time, Titouan decided to do something to help preserve the reefs.
His non-profit organisation, Coral Gardeners, was launched two years ago from his parents' home. By replanting dead pieces of coral onto nursery tables, then successfully transplanting them onto damaged reefs in collaboration with local scientists, this initiative is slowly bringing life back to the reefs.
Titouan now travels the world raising awareness of reef preservation, and is about to launch a Hawaiian chapter of Coral Gardeners.
He has a new office in Mo'orea with a dozen full-time staff, where tourists can adopt a piece of coral or plant their own (they've had 3000 coral adoptions so far, with a 90 per cent transplant success rate).
"The scenery is stunning, with dramatic mountains and the clearest turquoise waters."
Although there are five archipelagos and 118 islands in French Polynesia, we spend the majority of our time on just one, Mo'orea, a 45-minute ferry ride from the main island of Tahiti.
While Tahiti, Bora Bora and Mo'orea have a number of international resorts, many of the smaller islands are more charmingly laid-back.
Huahine, northwest of Mo'orea and a 40-minute flight from Tahiti, where we spend two nights later in the week, has a magical, faraway feeling with winding roads draped in a canopy of trees.
Said to be named for the pregnant lady that the island's mountain ridges resemble, Huahine is actually two islands connected by the bridge over Mārō'ē Bay.
The best way to explore Huahine is to take a four-wheel drive tour, such as Poe Island Tour, and mission up, down and all around. Local guide Poerava Amo Lamberty – Poe for short – is full of knowledge and laughter, and she brings the history and traditions of Huahine to life.
We visit historic marae, get a bit too close for comfort to giant blue-eyed sacred eels, check out a vanilla plantation and pearl farm, then go off-road along the beach.
Huahine is best explored on a four-wheel drive trip with Poe Island Tour.
In the afternoon, we head to Poe's house, where her cousin cooks up local delicacies, including vanilla-infused fish (vanilla is one of the country's most famous exports and features in many savoury and sweet dishes) and raw fish 'Poe style', before teaching us how to husk coconuts, make leis and perform the art of 'ori Tahiti (Tahitian dance), which we discover is best left to the experts.
After a full eight-hour day in the jeep, a sunset swim is a welcome relief back at Relais Mahana, our beachfront resort.
We segue from the ocean to dinner, eating barefoot in the sand with a spectacular view of Avea Bay, which we explore via paddleboard the next day.
Sunset at Relais Mahana resort on Huahine.
Before we fly out we're treated to an open-air mud bath and massage at the home spa of Marie Christine. The Frenchwoman made the island her home 21 years ago and imports mud from Rotorua to pamper her clients' skin.
Hopping in the open-air, flower-filled bath with my travel companion and colleague, we joke about finally getting the chance to experience the romantic vibe the country is known for – and vow to bring our partners next time.
The writer and photographer travelled to Tahiti with Tahiti Tourisme on Air Tahiti Nui. For more information see tahititourisme.nz
Photography by Tanya Wong

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