Unspecified

Photo: Harriet Upjohn

Paradise lies between here and the Big Apple, writes Harriet Upjohn.

Why do the long haul to New York in one go? For a stopover between Australia and the US, Tahiti is perfectly placed. And since Air Tahiti Nui started operating twice weekly direct flights between Sydney and Tahiti's capital, Papeete (and on from there to Los Angeles or New York), the option has become even easier.

Stopovers can be anything from a couple of nights' indulgence in a swish resort to a truly Polynesian experience in a budget family pension. The seven-hour early morning flight from Sydney crosses the international dateline and gets you into Papeete at about 8pm the previous evening (I can think of worse places to gain half a day).

Even if Papeete isn't your intended destination in French Polynesia, you have to stay there for the first night as there are no flights out to other islands until morning.

If you're travelling on a budget, a room at the Tahiti Airport Motel is the go from 9600 Pacific Francs ($132) a night. Alternatively, you can opt for a family pension with bed and breakfast from about $75 per person per night or a bungalow from about $130 (for up to four people).

At the other end of the scale, and just a few minutes from the airport, the sprawling Intercontinental Resort is about as classy as it gets. There, all standard rooms have balconies overlooking two large swimming pools and the lagoon beyond. The hotel also has a few overwater bungalows.

Located on a black sand beach, the smaller Radisson Plaza Resort, about 30 minutes from the airport, is a swanky joint too.

Don't be fooled by its somewhat ordinary exterior - behind the Radisson's bland walls lies a peaceful, tropical sanctuary. With a range of room configurations including suites and duplexes, and a large infinity pool, it's a popular choice for families.

While staying in Tahiti, a circle-island tour is highly recommended. At 120 kilometres around, it's an easy daytrip.

Either hire a car and do your own thing, stopping at one of the many black sand beaches along the way for a picnic and a swim, or take a guided tour.

For about $95 a person, Mato-Nui Excursions, a one-man business operated by the delightful and knowledgeable Hereveri Maraetaata, offers an unforgettable four-wheel-drive adventure. Highlights of the tour include an invigorating dip under a cascading waterfall in one of the island's spectacular lush valleys, a look at the famous monster wave at Teahupoo (where the Billabong Pro is held every May) and a visit to the Paul Gaugin museum.

Just sitting in the back of Hereveri's open Land Rover and watching the colourful scenery go by is a treat in itself ... even the Tahitian washing lines look good with bold floral sarongs and tablecloths flapping in the breeze. The tour price includes a picnic and stops along the way at roadside stalls for chestnuts, grapefruit and whatever other local delicacies catch Hereveri's eye.

Moorea, Tahiti's sister island 20 kilometres away is a half-hour catamaran ride from Papeete (about $12 one-way). If you're in a real hurry you can take a seven-minute flight (about $35). While it's near enough for a daytrip, you probably can't do it justice without staying at least overnight.

On Moorea you can luxuriate in an overwater bungalow in one of the island's four deluxe properties (the Beachcomber Intercontinental Resort, Sheraton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, Sofitel Moorea Beach Resort and Moorea Pearl Resort) or, if you're feeling adventurous, explore the island by scooter.

The circle-island road is 60 kilometres long, so you're looking at about half a day for a complete circuit. For spectacular views from up among the island's volcanic crags, take the steep winding road past fields of horses and cattle up to Le Belvedere lookout, then cruise back down through pineapple plantations to the coast road. If you've still got the energy after that, at the Intercontinental you can swim with dolphins or join an exhilarating, high-speed jet-ski tour. Or, of course, there's always snorkelling in the lagoon.

Like Tahiti island, Moorea has plenty of cheaper accommodation options in Polynesian family pensions.

For souvenirs, Papeete's bustling colourful central market, Le Marche, doesn't disappoint. Best things to buy are the traditional pareu, or sarong (the Gaugin museum shop also has a really good selection for about $15 each), the beautifying Monoi or tamanu oils, the energy-giving (but revolting tasting) noni juice, painted ukeleles, woven craft items and shell necklaces. Then, of course, there are the coveted Tahitian black pearls. But be warned: they're not cheap ... the necklace I set my heart on was the price of a new Mercedes. For something a bit cheaper, but a tad more painful, you could always treat yourself to a tattoo.

While eating in the deluxe hotels is expensive, it's no more so than the eqivalent in Australia. Les 3 Brasseurs on Papeete's harbourfront is a popular and lively spot to dine and indulge in a bit of people-watching. To eat more cheaply, do what the locals do and head down to the roulottes, a nightly collection of colourful food vans in the paved dockside area, where you get pick up anything from steak and chips to chow mein for about $14.

For a bottle of French wine, expect to pay from about $40 in a top hotel or $15 in a supermarket. If you're self-catering, you'll find food costs no more than it does back home.

At the supermarket you can pick up a baguette for about 60 cents, a litre of milk for $4, cheese for $12 a kilogram, a can of beer for $3 and a can of Coke for $1.50.

The writer was a guest of Tahiti Tourisme and Air Tahiti Nui.

TRIP NOTES

Best time to go: May to October (dry season).

Suggested packages: 1. Return Sydney/LA flight on Air Tahiti Nui and five nights at Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti on the way back, from $2615pp. Includes return flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti.

2. Return Sydney/Papeete flight on Air Tahiti Nui, five nights at Intercontinental Moorea (including American breakfast and dinner daily), Papeete-Moorea return catamaran and transfers, from $3125pp. For more information, phone Elegant Resorts and Villas, (02) 8270 4850 or see http://www.elegantresorts.com.au.

Family pension accommodation/tour options: See Tahiti Tourisme website, http://www.tahitinow.com.au.

Tahiti Airport Motel: http://www.tahitiairportmotel.com.

Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti: http://www.radisson.com/aruefrp.

Intercontinental Resort Tahiti: http://www.tahiti.interconti.com.

Beachcomber Intercontinental Moorea: www.moorea.interconti.com.