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People's eyes sparkle in Tahiti (www.tahiti-tourisme.com). Upon arrival at the wooden, two-story, A-framed airport with windows ajar letting in the wet Tahitian heat, the eyes of arriving tourists are wide with hope. Even the people leaving, native and tourist, lounging about black from the sun, are open-eyed with thoughts of the weeks, months, years gone past.

This is French Polynesia. The land of black sand. Where Englishman James Cook spotted land in 1769. Where Captain Bligh, Cook's previous sailing master, lost command of his own vessel in the most famous mutiny of all in 1788. Where French painter Paul Gauguin was so mesmerized by the natives, their strength, vigor, passion, joie de vivre, song and sexuality, that he set up an easel, lived hard, and died fast in 1903.

Not much has changed since Gauguin's time. Seriously, the Tahitians, Mooreans, Marquesans, and Samoans are still a proud, friendly, welcoming people who love to eat, smile, and enjoy the paradise they call home. The women are as enticing as ever. The men as strong and silent. The waterfalls still flow. The sand still black. The waves still bang against the shore. The markets still thrive. The colors of the water and the Tahitian cloth, still brilliant. From the day the first European stepped foot on French Polynesia, people have loved to disembark in these islands of true exotica.

Fortunately, travelers today don't have to spend months on a sailing vessel to get to Tahiti. Thank Air Tahiti Nui (tel. 877/824-4846; www.airtahitinui.com) for that. Single handedly, the award-winning airline has made an effort to improve tourism to French Polynesia with daily flights from Los Angeles, and new direct flights to New York.

Round-trip airfare on Air Tahiti Nui from New York to Tahiti starts at $1,223 (which is why you want to take advantage of the package deals below) with sales in the fall moving the price down to a very low $324 each way. In all the flight takes just 12 hours with the arrival in Tahiti being the reward for the long flight. (Europeans and Australians scoff at Americans who won't take a 12 hour flight to a place as beautiful as Tahiti. They come to America, and that flight for an Aussie can take up to 18 hours.)

A host of package deals from the airline's travel partners can be found at www.airtahitinui-usa.com/specials/tahitivacationspecials.asp. These packages bring honeymooners craving an over-water bungalow, surfers looking for that big wave, independent travelers looking to explore for themselves, or friends on a sun-filled weeklong holiday. Weeklong package deals with airfare and accommodations start at $1,689 from Los Angeles with accommodations in four-star properties in Tahiti and Moorea. From New York, a similar trip starts at $1,665 with accommodations at a moderate hotel in Moorea and four-star in Tahiti. The trip offers transportation between islands on the intra-island ferry or the seven minute flight with Air Tahiti, the local airline. If you're stopping over in Tahiti on the way to Auckland or Sydney and flying with Air Tahiti Nui, the airline offers stopover deals (www.airtahitinui-usa.com/hotelbooking/us/default.asp) for three nights in Tahiti with hotels costing $70 per night at the Sheraton in Papeete or $75 in the Moorea Pearl Resort. The Sheraton, of course, has high speed Internet access. The Pearl does not.

Once in Tahiti, these tours give you ample time to do what the first Europeans did, explore for yourself the welcoming spirit of the Tahitian people and their land.

While considered expensive by some, Tahiti is actually very affordable. Public transportation is easy and cheap, the street food is some of the best in the world, and the public beaches occupy Tahiti's most valuable coastal property.

Upon arrival in Papeete (www.papeete.com), pronounced Pa-PI-eh-TAY, the capital city of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti, you'll experience a vibrant urban culture intertwined with the natural beauty as the island climbs toward the crown-shaped volcano that gave Tahiti its famous black sand beaches.

Public buses, called Le Trucks, take natives and tourists to and from the central part of the city to the island's beaches and coastal towns. Le Truck's are elongated, wooden, covered-wagons with red benches along the sides of the bus, large open windows, and a footrest when the bus isn't overcrowded. Costing no more than $1.30 for a daytime ride and $2.00 for nighttime ride, Le Truck is the best way to get around town and a great way to encounter Tahitian people in their element. People play guitar on the buses, families laugh, little girls sing songs, and the elderly smile and chat. These buses run steadily on ten minute intervals during the daytime beginning at 5am and on one-hour intervals till 10pm during the week. For longer hauls to beach towns like the surfing Mecca Teahupoo (CHAY-a-HU-poo) more than an hour away, modern coaches take passengers to and from the island capital. Signs signify stopping locales, but often you can wave the busses down on low-traffic locations.

For food, the Market place located in the center of Papeete, (just ask anyone where the market is and they'll point the way), has excellent fresh fruit ($1.50 per bushel of bananas), fresh fish including delicious sashimi ($6), roasted meats ($8), French sandwiches like ham and cheese ($4), and fried shrimp (2 for $2). Open from 9am to 4:45pm, the market makes for great lunches or breakfast. It's also a shopping center for baskets, silks, cotton dresses, Tahitian clothing such as the Pareo, traditional dress worn by Tahitian women, Tiki trinkets, conch shells, and black pearls. Covered but with an open-air feel, the market is where Tahitians come on a daily basis to shop and gossip. While it may seem chaotic, the market, along with all of Tahiti, is a very safe place. There are no guns or knives in Tahiti, and therefore, nothing to worry about. People smile to welcome you, not to assess your worth. There are no touts, and anyone who calls your name at 1am in the morning wants nothing more than a cigarette.

Back to the food. At night is when Tahitians and tourists eat like kings. The people are on the large side for a reason. They love to eat. In the huge town square, where the cruise ships dock and the taxi drivers wait, Les Roulettes, or rolling restaurants, congregate to feed Tahitians and their visitors on a nightly basis. Think of a huge city square on the water where food trucks roll up, set up shop, put out tables and chairs, and cook up local cuisine. The food choices available at Les Roulettes include Steak Frites, crepes, Chinese food, Italian food, waffles loaded with Nutella and whipped cream, roasted pig, and cooked and raw fish, all served in a lovely setting by the harbor with a Tahitian band playing traditional Polynesian music to the large crowd of feeders, eaters and grazers. At the most, you won't spend more than $15 to $20 for a meal that will stuff your face and taste great. I had an entrecote with Roquefort sauce and a mound of French fries for $14. Bring your own water, though, a Coke costs $3 per can (remember, it's an island), a ridiculous sum, and that's common. Add $5 for a chocolate and banana crepe. This delightful setting offers affordable food and unmatchable people watching.

"You haven't been to Tahiti if you haven't been to Les Roulettes," says one animated cab driver.

To get acclimated to the island and her history, Carl's Tours and Transfers (tel. 689 77 13 69; www.tahiti-tours-and-bungalows.com) offers an honest, friendly, and extremely amusing look at the island. Carl Emery, a Polynesian-born Aussie who speaks, French, English and Tahitian, all with a fluent flair, is a trip in his delivery and knowledge of Tahiti. Whether you want to see the normal sites such as waterfalls or things off the beaten path like the best boogey board spots on the island called Papeenu, Carl can take you there and explain it to you.

You learn equally as much watching Carl interact with the locals -- French and Tahitian. Available 24 hours, and I mean 24 hours, feel free to call Carl anytime you want. To make sure you get him for the date and length of time you want, reserve your tour before you depart. Sightseeing costs come to $150 for the car (fit as many people as you like in his eight-capacity air-conditioned van) for a half day and $250 for the full day. That comes to $50 a piece for the entire day for a group of five people.

Carl can also turn you on to events on the island, the best places to shoot pool, and the best nightlife such as The Piano Bar (tel. 689 42 88 24) on rue des Ecoles where Tahitian transvestites and transsexuals called "Ray Rays" come out to play in droves. In Tahitian culture the seventh child is obligated to stay home and help mom. Even if born male, the seventh child is dressed as a woman and treated as such. They can rebel, but if they accept this gender reassignment, they stay women their entire lives, often seeking operations or living their lives as females. The Piano Bar is as much cultural spot as it is fun.

For places to stay in Papeete and the island of Tahiti, tourists can choose traditional resorts, small hotels, and family pensions, which are small family-run boarding houses, similar to the Bed and Breakfast concept. From Spartan to luxurious villas, these family pensions are where Americans really learn about Tahitian hospitality. In some cases, meals are served.

The Pension Ahitea Lodge (tel. 689 53 13 53; www.ahitea-lodge.com) has thirteen bedrooms with private baths and a swimming pool. Its downtown location is walking distance to the ferry terminal, the market and Les Roulettes. Room prices begin at $85. More rural, the Hiti Moana Villa (tel. 689 57 93 93; www.papeete.com/moanavilla) overlooks the water. Rooms are spacious and the pension's pool overlooks the bay from above. Prices start at $100 for a bungalow.

Now for some local hints while in Tahiti:

To rent a car and explore on your own, Europcar (tel. 689 45 24 24; www.europcar.pf) has cars for $80 for eight hours. One day costs $94.

Top Dive (tel. 689 86 49 06; www.topdive.com) has diving and snorkeling excursions leaving from the Sheraton Hotel in Papeete. They can also set up dives for you on the nearby islands of Moorea and Bora Bora.

Tahiti Surf School (tel. 689 41 91 37; www.tahitisurfschool.info) offers half-day surf lessons for $48 that includes lessons, boards, transport and insurance. A full-day board rental or body board costs $40.

Tahiti Nui Travel (tel. 689 46 41 41; www.tahitinuitravel.com) has half-day bus tours for $42 and hiking tour starting at $52.

Tekura Tahiti Travel (tel. 689 43 12 00; www.tahiti-tekuratravel.com) offers airport pick-up and custom-tours of Tahiti. They can take you to any family pension or hotel on the island.

The Billabong Pro Teahupoo 2006 surfing contest is held in Teahupoo in early May. The event draws surfing's top names such as Kelly Slater, Mark Occhilupo, and Danny Fuller. With both the women and men competing, the competition draws the entire surfing world to Tahiti's waters. Not surprisingly, The Billabong store (tel. 689 43 07 30, www.billabong.com) in the Centre Vaima Papeete is the nicest retail store in all of Tahiti, rivaling any Fifth Avenue clothing store or Beverly Hills shop.

Robert Wan (tel. 689 46 15 02; www.robertwan.com) is the most prestigious black pearl retailer in Papeete. Ask for Rie. She can give you a quick tour of the attached Black Pearl Museum as well as sell you the "perfect" pearl. Located on Boulevard Pomare, the shop is down the street from the Market.

Chat with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Tahiti Message Boards.