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MANIHI: Island : A TINY DROP OF LAND IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC IS THE POLYNESIA OF LEGEND.

September 20, 1987|SUE FLEISHMAN | Fleishman is a Beverly Hills free-lance writer. and

MANIHI ISLAND — Like a coral necklace dropped from the sky, Manihi, the farthest atoll in the South Pacific Tuamotus Archipelago, is the Polynesia of romantic myth. Until recently it was isolated from the outside world, known to few besides the people who were born at Paumotu, the island's one small village.

Treasure lies within the circlet of this reef, for a quirk of nature has made the floor of the lagoon the breeding ground of the only oysters in the world that bear black pearls.

My husband and I were on one of our visits to Tahiti when a friend suggested that we visit Kaina Village, a 16-bungalow resort in the Tuamotus, on the private island of Manihi owned by Coco Chaze. He contacted Coco, a French pearl-farming entrepreneur on Manihi, 335 miles northeast of Papeete. We took off on Air Tahiti's two-hour flight to Manihi.

Tehau, my Tahitian seatmate, like most of the passengers, was returning home from his job in Papeete. He was so loaded with gifts that he seemed to overflow the seat.

Most packages held meat because there is no way to graze animals for food on the atoll, and few of Manihi's residents can afford to import food from Papeete. He said that in Tahiti he had learned that "it is good for children to have something other than fish in their diet."

Our seats were near the open luggage compartment where he watched his crate of chicks valiantly trying to get out. I watched them too, ready to pounce on the lid with him, as their heads and legs emerged with each bounce of the plane. Fortunately, the flock arrived intact so his mother was able to start a chicken farm and share eggs with her neighbors.

The Manihi runway is a sliver of land, the roaring ocean on one side, the lagoon we were to come to know so well on the other. We were taken to Kaina in the motor-driven canoe that was to be our transportation for the remainder of our stay.

Like all atolls the land is flat, formed from islands that were once submerged, now covered with palms and lush tropical greenery. Beaches are mere threads of sand, fringed with coral and dotted with shells. The Pacific breaks in giant waves against the rim of this narrow strip of land. Goelettes, the 24-foot inter-island trading vessels that until recently were the atoll people's only contact with the outside world, brave rough currents at the pass into the lagoon to collect their cargoes of mother-of-pearl shells.

Kaina Village is well-named. Tahitian country folk are affectionately spoken of as Kainas. Paumotu's Kainas quickly became our friends and we adapted to their simple pleasures and the tempo of village life.

Our over-water bungalow, with every modern convenience, seemed an anachronism in these primitive surroundings. Schools of golden fish swam beneath our balcony in water so clear that we saw them as in an aquarium. The temptation was to wallow in relaxation, just watching the greens and blues of the sea merge into the sky. Instead, we dived into the water and followed the fish into their depths.

Their feeding grounds were the gardens of the lagoon, the beds of coral that were a medley of greens, pinks, mauve and orange. Giant shells opened and closed before our eyes, starfish and living sponges dotted the sand, and a ballet of iridescent angelfish--sapphire blue and striped with gold--danced among lacy madrepores. Fish, whose bodies seemed spawned from rainbows, peered into our masks and swam within our grasp.

Tahitian Hostess

Mareva Coquille, our Tahitian hostess, operated Kaina like a private home, getting congenial couples together in the over-water bar, the game room and in the thatched-roof dining hall which, like a museum devoted to ancient seafarers, was dominated by a great New Guinea war canoe.

We were served family-style at a table we shared with a couple from Pomona, a businessman from Buenos Aires and a prosperous Tahitian family who brought their daughter to show her what Tahiti was like when they were children, only to find that she was more interested in asking American visitors if they knew her favorite rock stars.

Steaming bowls of French, Chinese and Polynesian delicacies were brought to our tables, each dish so delicious that we wished our own spice cabinets held the fresh vanilla and delicate herbs that went into Mareva's recipes.

During the evenings, villagers came to strum guitars and entertain us with melodies that had been passed down through generations. When they swung into "Kaina Village in Manihi," Coco told us that the funny song had been a favorite on the "Tahitian Hit Parade."

Fishing and Snorkeling

Each morning we went snorkeling. Our motor-driven canoe sped over the lagoon and dropped anchor at a coral shoal. The men fished with spear guns, aiming them with deadly accuracy.

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