Tahiti

This turtle-shaped island, crowned by Polynesia's two highest peaks and skirted by black velvet beaches and pink coral reefs, is the largest of the 118 islands that comprise French Polynesia. The legendary name "Tahiti" not only identifies this island but also the group of islands that make up French Polynesia.

Papeete, the bustling capital of Tahiti, is one of the most romantic ports of call in the South Pacific. Once a sleepy port town, today its harbor is busy with cargo freighters, copra ships, luxury liners and ocean-going yachts, its streets humming with cars, motorscooters and colorful open-air buses called le truck. There are sidewalk cafes (perfect for people-watching!), shops overflowing with French fashions, shell jewelry and handicrafts, and a wide variety of restaurants serving Tahitian, French and Asian cuisine.

Starting at the Tahiti and Her Islands Museum is a good strategy for newcomers. Here the customs, history and art forms of native island peoples, as well as the story of European colonization, are well told. European art came here big time when French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) took up residence in 1895. The Gauguin Museum is a must. Gardeners from other climates will especially enjoy the exotic colors and plant varieties in Papeete's Botanical Gardens and the Marae Arahurahu (an ancient Tahitian outdoor temple).

But nothing tops the indoor municipal market, Le Marché, as a way to see local life up close. Come to the market with an appetite, and you will go away delightfully satisfied with tropical fruits, vegetables, and, of course, good breads, French and Polynesian. Fresh fish, to cook at your bungalow or just to admire for their color and variety, abound here. Upstairs, go craft shopping or buy a brilliantly colored pareu (sarong).

Along the wharf, roulottes (rolling restaurant/food carts) tempts visitors with more street food at bargain prices. Typical fare includes stir fry, curry, roast pig, and flaming crepes.