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Tahiti and her sister islands in French Polynesia have conjured up romantic images of an earthly paradise since European sailors brought home tales of their tropical splendor and uninhibited people in the 1760s. My own love affair with these remote outposts doesn't go back quite that far, but when I did wash ashore in 1977, I quickly understood why they came to have such a reputation. In fact, I was so smitten that I stayed for 7 months, as long as the gendarmes would allow in those days.

You may wish to plan a longer trip yourself, for these are the most beautiful islands in the world -- an opinion shared with many others, including the late James A. Michener. They are blessed with gorgeous beaches, and their lagoons allow for spectacular diving and snorkeling.

Then there are the Polynesian islanders who live here. Their fabled history has provided fodder for famous books and films, their storied culture inspires hedonistic dreams, and their big, infectious smiles add charm to any visit.