By Jeff Chu
Photographed by The Ingalls
Mar 9, 2022
WE WERE STANDING ankle-deep in a lagoon off the island of Raiatea, in French Polynesia, when my travel guide, Tahiarii Yoram Pariente, spotted a pod of dolphins playing about 100 meters offshore.
“That’s mana,” he said.
The sky had spat rain for the 45 minutes since we’d arrived at Taputapuatea, a complex of seaside marae—massive, rectangular platforms hewn from stone a thousand years ago—and we had the place largely to ourselves. The whole time, Pariente, one of French Polynesia’s last traditional navigators, kept circling back to the concept of mana. He was mid-soliloquy when the frolicking dolphins appeared. He smiled in satisfaction, as if the creatures had confirmed the sacred power of this spot.
In ancient times, Taputapuatea, Pariente said, “was like the Jerusalem of Polynesia.” For centuries, chiefs, priests, shamans and students gathered there for religious ceremonies, political negotiations and master classes in navigation. Canoe after canoe had pulled into the shallows where we stood after journeying across the ocean—from Hawaii to the north, New Zealand to the south, Easter Island to the east—all returning, like so many sea turtles, to their ancestral home.
In the 1770s, warriors from Bora-Bora, 55 kilometers to the northwest, sacked Taputapuatea. The marae sat in disarray until the 1990s, when archaeologists began reassembling the stones. In 2017, Taputapuatea was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and restoration continues to this day. “You could look at all this and say, ‘It’s just stones, sand, and a good story,’” Pariente said. “But you have to admit that it’s a great story.”
As we skirted a low stone wall marking the edge of one reconstructed marae, Pariente invited me to imagine clusters of wise men, some sharing tales in the shade of fig trees, others making offerings. “There was no ceiling,” he said. “The sky is the ceiling.” Though Taputapuatea had lain ruined for so many years, Pariente believed the site had never lost its mana.
There was that word again: mana. Everywhere I went in French Polynesia, people kept mentioning mana. Watch for it, they said. Wait for it. But what was it?
“It’s difficult to explain,” they said.
A steadying essence.
A spiritual force.
Their attempts to define mana were always as opaque as the waters surrounding the islands are clear. Yet their emphasis represented something important: the revival of Polynesian customs after centuries of colonial-era repression. The English missionaries, the French authorities, the Tahitians who adopted foreign ways that had been framed as superior—all had conspired to endanger traditions from tattooing to cooking to celestial navigation.
Today, the old ways are returning in new forms. Chefs, artists, farmers and storytellers are reinvigorating a culture once threatened by dilution, even erasure. They’re wrestling with what it means to be Polynesian. And they’re reminding visitors that this is more than a one-dimensional postcard paradise dotted with overwater villas. It’s somebody’s home.
Still, where would I find mana? They’d just shrug and say, “You’ll know it when you feel it.”
UNTIL A.D. 300, no humans lived on these islands. Several millennia ago, seafarers are said to have set off from Taiwan (modern Polynesians share significant DNA with Taiwan’s Indigenous people). Using the stars (and presumably their guts) as guide, they slowly hopscotched across the ocean, with travel to Fiji, then to Tonga and Samoa, eventually settling in what’s now French Polynesia.
Though other parts of the country are better known—Tahiti, the largest island and the only one with an international airport, and Bora-Bora, which some locals call “the American island” because of its popularity with U.S. tourists—Raiatea has always been the archipelago’s to Easter Island, guided by the stars, sea creatures, and currents. “People fixate on the stars because they’re so visible, but there are many more layers of information,” Pariente said. “On a cloudy day, forget about the stars. You need the wind, the birds, the swells, and faith in your ancestors, who traced paths before you. It’s all part of the database.”
These days, the database is rarely passed down. Pariente wasn’t reared with it. Born to a Raiatean mother and a Tunisian Jewish father, he spent most of his childhood in France, studied in Australia, and only returned to French Polynesia in 2008, at which point he began learning from elders in the community, many of whom act as cultural custodians. He estimates that in all of French Polynesia, there are only five other people “with whom I’d go out on the ocean and trust my life,” he said. Potential apprentices quickly disappear when he gives them their first assignment: to sit in the same spot and watch the sky for a while, every night, for one year. “Not looking, but watching—really watching. Then comes the exploring.”
We got into Pariente’s truck to circumnavigate Raiatea, an extinct volcano that rises 1,017 meters from sea level. He explained that what my untrained eye saw as unspoiled tropical forest was actually abundant evidence of colonization and degradation. Raiatea and neighboring Tahaa (where my base was the authentically Polynesian Le Taha‘a resort) are blanketed by tall, leafy trees resembling giant broccoli: the Moluccan albizzia. In the 1930s, French agronomists introduced the fast-growing legume because it enriches the soil. “The idea was to make superfood soil for farming,” Pariente said. “But it took over.”
As albizzia proliferated, native species faded, including a flowering tree called the mara, the preferred nesting site for now-endangered Tahitian flycatchers. “Mara wood is really good for making canoes,” Pariente added. “But the trees grow slowly. You plant them not for your children but for your great-great-great grandchildren.”
ONE STEAMY MORNING, I visited the tattoo artist Patu Mamatui in his studio in the old Chinatown of Papeete, the ramshackle capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti’s northern coast. Some tattoos on Mamatui’s elaborately inked body have venerable motifs: the tiare flower, also known as Tahitian gardenia; a scroll pattern from the Marquesas Islands; the wind. Others are less traditional. On his left hand, a compass is set amid stones “because stone is for eternity.” Across his knuckles are the letters T A H I T I A N. “Together they tell my story,” he said. “When you see this, how many generations have you seen? My parents. My grandparents. My grandparents’ parents.”
In ancient Polynesia’s primarily oral culture, tattooing served as a visual storytelling device, an embodied chronicle of one’s identity and place in society. But the early European arrivals deemed the art form barbaric and sought to discourage it. Most of those older generations had no tattoos. English missionaries, seeing the practice as heathen, tried moral suasion. The French colonial government deployed law: in the name of modern hygiene, they banned traditional ink, which was made from candlenut ash and coconut water.
“We were like sheep,” Mamatui said, unleashing a hearty “baa,” followed by a burst of laughter. “They tried to erase our ancestors, but the gods found a way.” In the 1980s, tattooing was the first traditional art form to experience a widespread revival, riding the twin waves of Polynesian pride and new, more hygienic technology. Mamatui and his brother are both renowned tattoo artists, and today, it’s rare to see a twentysomething Polynesian without at least one tattoo.
Other traditions have not fared so well. From my hotel near Papeete, the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, I drove southwest along the coast to the village of Punaauia to meet Virginie Biret. She is one of the last practitioners of tifaifai, a Polynesian quilting technique. Tifaifai is itself a hybrid. When the London Missionary Society evangelists arrived in 1797, they brought cottons and linens that hadn’t existed on these islands. The missionary ladies’ discarded dresses were quilted into the first tifaifai—early upcycling.
Polynesian women introduced Indigenous motifs—turtles, stars, flowers—and interpreted the missionaries’ Bible stories in their quilts. Biret herself ranges widely for inspiration. She showed me several pieces based on Paul Gauguin’s paintings—a reclamation of his depictions of Tahitian women. Despite the form’s flexibility, few young people have shown interest in learning it, and Biret believes that the youngest surviving tifaifai artisan is now in her forties.
FROM LEFT: Paintings by the street artist Okuda San Miguel in Papeete; artists Seth Globepainter and Hell Ton John collaborated on this mural in Papeete.
Though some stores in Papeete stock lovely quilts that resemble tifaifai, most are machine-made, often overseas. “Tifaifai is not just fabric that you sew quickly. Each one has its own story. You have to have heart when you make it,” Biret said with a sigh. So every morning, she trundles across the courtyard to her workshop, trying to sustain the craft, one careful stitch at a time.
Biret’s Gauguin-inspired tifaifai came to mind later that day back in Papeete, where I met the artist Yiling Changues. Changues, who works primarily in pen and ink, lived in Paris for a decade. “I was confronted with how people see us as islanders. It’s the archetype of the vahine,” she said, referring to the voluptuous, often naked young Polynesians of whom Gauguin was so enamored. “I want to challenge that.”
Changues’s drawings often recontextualize Polynesian women, reinstalling them in their natural environments. She positions their bodies behind large philodendron leaves or veils them with the sea. “Nature is part of us. I only realized that when I was in a city like Paris, where there is almost no nature at all,” she explained.
ONE AFTERNOON, a guide with a strong surfer-dude vibe named Teremoana Chave took me into Tahiti’s mountainous interior, up the Papenoo Valley and into Tahiti’s highlands. As Chave identified the various plants and their uses, the blurry walls of green on either side of the pockmarked road gradually gained definition. There was hotu, the fish-poison tree; fishermen crushed their toxic seeds, he said, then scattered them in the lagoon to stun their catch. There was surette, or Tahitian gooseberry, which resembles a tiny yellow pumpkin. “Great for making jam,” he said. There were grand mapes, the 20-meter-tall Tahitian chestnut trees that stand along the road like sentinels.
Chave knew none of this when he became a tour company driver in 2007. He was hired for his near-fluent English—visits to family in Utah had given him a vaguely American accent. Within weeks, he grew bored with the handful of stories he’d been taught during training. He started studying—botany, archaeology, history. “In school, we learned about the Middle Ages, the Hundred Years’ War, this king and that king. We’re French citizens. But that’s not really our history. I realized how much we had lost our identity as Polynesians. I had to teach myself.”
Eight years ago, at age 37, Chave got his first tattoo. He said his father was dismayed, but he wanted to mark his fidelity to his ancestors. His most meaningful tattoo is a shark, the symbol of the clan of Teva. Among his forebears was a Boston-born whaler named Ebenezer, who jumped ship in Polynesia, and a sailor named Richard from England. But another, a great-grandmother, was a translator for Queen Pomare. “This is who we are,” he said. “This is who I am.”
Most French Polynesians I met, all of mixed heritage, have little quibble with cultural intermingling. They recognize the islands as a modern mélange. On top of the Polynesian base, you’ll find layers of French and English influence as well as a Chinese inflection, thanks to the thousands of plantation workers brought here in the 19th century.
For a tasty guide to the global heritage of French Polynesia, be sure to travel around to sample the cooking of young Tahitian restaurateurs. At Café Maeva, in Papeete’s central marketplace, I had river shrimp in a gorgeous, gently spicy yellow curry. At Le Sully, chef Tereva Galopin, who cooked under Christian Constant at the Michelin-starred Le Violon d’Ingres in Paris, prepares a largely European menu with Polynesian twists—a taro “risotto,” say, under roasted squab.
One evening, I dined at Black Garden, the Papeete restaurant of Maheata Banner, who describes her cuisine as “eclectic.” Trained in San Francisco, she deploys traditional Polynesian ingredients on a globetrotting menu: lagoon fish, coconut milk, and passion fruit in a ceviche; sweet-potato waffles.
When Banner learned I was headed to the island of Moorea the next day, she told me not to miss a new food truck called Pura Vida. Coincidentally, I was planning to tour Moorea with chef Heimata Hall, who helped start Pura Vida during the pandemic.
Hall, who is half Tahitian and half American, grew up on Moorea but went to culinary school in Hawaii. After returning home, he began leading tours that highlighted food trucks and les snacks, the mom-and-pop eateries that he’d always loved. At a Tahitian-Chinese snack called Golden Lake, we tried what was perhaps a quintessential dish, the casse-croûte chow mein: a toasted baguette overflowing with stir-fried noodles, chicken, and Chinese sausage. “The Tahitian who put this together must have been drunk or stoned or both,” Hall said. I come from a family of Hong Kong food snobs, but even sober, I had to admit: it was delicious.
FROM LEFT: Heiana Terooatea, the head cook at the Pura Vida food truck on Moorea, and his poisson cru—fish marinated in citrus and coconut milk
Four stops later, after tasting wondrously crispy breadfruit chips, crunchy mango spiced with prune powder, a local spin on shu mai, and a coconut liqueur so cloying I spat it out, we finally got to Pura Vida. Chef Nahema Charles grows all of her basil and chili peppers, as well as tomatoes. What she can’t grow, she sources from Moorea farmers. It was pumpkin season, so chunks of fried pumpkin went into the poke bowl with the tuna. Moorea is famed for its pineapples, so she adds it to the fish tacos.
“We’re trying to honor what we have here,” Hall said as we ate, before launching into a story about a recent visit to his grandfather. “I went to his fridge, and there was literally nothing in there. I went to him and said, ‘Do you need some money?’ ” His grandfather looked at him and said, “I’ve got plenty of food.” Hall was confused. “But your fridge is empty.” Grandpa pointed outside—to the trees, heavy with breadfruit and papayas and bananas, and to the nearby river, which abounded with shrimp. “I have everything I need right here.”
AFTER A FEW nights on Moorea, where I stayed at the Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort, my final stop was Tetiaroa, a sickle-shaped atoll made of 12 islets 53 kilometers north of Tahiti that was once a retreat for Tahitian royalty. The concept of royalty was another colonial-era import. After the British arrived, Tu, a scion of a chiefly family on Tahiti, dealt cleverly with the newcomers. He secured a supply of something other chiefs didn’t have: guns. Soon afterward, he united several islands under his rule and declared himself King Pomare I.
After the kingdom fell and France seized sovereignty in 1880, a Canadian named Walter Williams, Tahiti’s only dentist, secured Tetiaroa’s long-term leasehold. Then, in the 1960s, Marlon Brando, who had happened upon Tetiaroa while filming Mutiny on the Bounty, bought it for a 99-year term.
Brando’s family still holds the lease for Tetiaroa. Only the westernmost islet, Onetahi, is inhabited. It’s home to a luxurious resort called the Brando, which opened in 2014. The resort is perhaps best known as the getaway where Barack Obama spent a month working on his memoir after leaving the White House.
But the Brando’s discreet operators would rather it were known for its truly impressive environmental-sustainability measures—its solar panels, which provide two-thirds of the resort’s power; its air-conditioning plant, which cools the property with seawater; its filtration system, which uses taro plants to cleanse wastewater. It also acts as a nature preserve and scientific lab. A portion of the revenue underwrites the Tetiaroa Society, a nonprofit on Onetahi that hosts scientists and students who come to learn about French Polynesia’s fragile ecosystems.
The Tetiaroa Society also conducts the nature tours offered to the Brando’s guests. One blustery morning, I boarded a boat with a Tetiaroa Society guide, Kealoha Wilkes. We headed for Rimatuu, the islet where Williams had built a coconut plantation. There, as we sought out birds like the Pacific reef egret and black noddy, Wilkes explained that his work had deepened his respect for nature. “So many of us don’t even know what we have here,” he said. “Don’t we all want to find some kind of deeper meaning? To understand where we fit?”
IT WAS RAINING by the time we got back to our boat. As we motored back toward the Brando, the vessel moved through the color wheel—the turquoise of the shallows, the blues of the deep—until the oncoming storm’s angry grays overtook everything. As the wind rose, so did the sea. “Rain is a blessing!” Wilkes shouted over the thwack of the boat against the water.
I don’t know why, but I threw off the towel that I’d wrapped around me, took off my glasses, and turned face-first into the blessing. The line between sea and sky blurred. Water was everywhere, rising up, falling down, coming at us sideways—a thousand little acupuncture needles pricking my skin.
Strangely, I didn’t feel wet or cold. I didn’t want to be inside. I didn’t want to be anywhere other than exactly where I was, out in a rainstorm in the middle of a lagoon in the middle of a giant ocean. I felt alive, invigorated, utterly at peace.
Like a lightning bolt, it hit me: This was mana.
Travel guide to French Polynesia
InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa
The grande dame of Tahiti hotels is a five-minute drive from the airport and 15 minutes from downtown Papeete. intercontinental.com; doubles from US$298.
Maheata Banner’s globally inspired menu—octopus tempura; fish tacos with house-made tortillas and tuna; duck breast with a shiitake caramel—reflects her wide-ranging culinary curiosity. blackgarden.pf; mains US$24–$29.
This casual, open-air eatery at the central marketplace in Papeete offers an eclectic menu of pastas, grilled meats, and curries. A highlight: fries made from breadfruit. 689/87-21-31-06; mains US$13–$20.
The bistro menu created by chef Tereva Galopin, who is half French and half Tahitian, celebrates French technique and Polynesian ingredients—especially the local seafood. restaurantlesully.com; mains US$28–$40.
Though many visitors use Tahiti as a transit point, the island is worth exploring, especially the rugged Papenoo Valley in the island’s heart. Chave leads excursions around the island. manaarii2.wixsite.com/aratai-safari.
RAIATEA AND TAHAA
Le Taha‘a by Pearl Resorts
This hotel on a private islet off the coast of Tahaa offers comfortable overwater villas and excellent local cuisine; try the korori ceviche, made from the meat of the pearl oyster. letahaa.com; doubles from US$669.
Nearly 80 percent of French Polynesia’s famous vanilla is grown on Tahaa. Learn about traditional cultivation methods at this small organic farm run by Joe C K Y. 689/89-75-10-85.
Tahiarii Yoram Pariente
Pariente leads custom cultural tours and has a wealth of local knowledge. firstname.lastname@example.org; tours US$113 for a group of up to five.
Sofitel Kia Ora Moorea Beach Resort
This collection of bungalows and overwater villas fronts one of the island’s finest stretches of white sand. sofitel.com; doubles from US$530.
Pura Vida Moorea
Chef Nahema Charles cooks whatever Moorea’s farmers and fishermen have to offer. On the day of my visit, the carpaccio of tuna, with mango and ginger, was a standout. The kombucha, made in house with local honey, is outstanding. 689/87-74-55-76.
Hall, the island’s best culinary guide, emphasizes local eateries and food trucks. tahitifoodtour.com.
A paradisiacal resort with postcard-perfect stands of swaying coconut palms and stretches of pristine white beach. Even the smallest of its villas sprawls over more than 92 square meters. thebrando.com; villas from US$3,725.