Tahiti works around the clock to seduce visitors. It's about five a.m. when I arrive and there, on the dark airport tarmac, I am greeted by the mellifluous sounds of ukuleles and the bright smile of a dark-skinned woman who tucks a white flower blossom behind my ear, left side if you're taken, right side if you're available. I'd come as a guest of Club Med to find people who wore the flower on the left, married couples who had come to Tahiti to renew their vows.
Tahiti is the big island in a group of five archipelagoes that makes up the country of French Polynesia. Moorea, Tahiti's closest island neighbor, is a prime destination for lovebirds. Its lush jagged peaks tower above fishermen in wooden out-rigger canoes angling for the evening's food. And despite being one of the most touristed spots in the country, Moorea doesn't feel congested. Which is no surprise: The Tahiti Tourism office says that Hawaii gets more visitors in 10 days than Tahiti does in an entire year.
The tourism office doesn't have statistics on how many visitors are newly-weds, but if my experience at Club Med is any indication, I'd say one in three are honeymooners. That seems logical, given the island's beauty. But why, I wondered, do couples travel half way around the world to get married again or a third time?
Diana Fieran: "My name is Diana Fieran. I'm from Scotsdale, Arizona. I'm on a vacation and a kind of third honeymoon. Uh, the first time we got married in Las Vegas, Nevada. And the second time we got married in San Diego in a yacht out in the bay. And we're going to get married again here in Tahiti at a traditional Tahitian wedding."
Most of the half-dozen luxury hotels offer supplemental excursions like scuba diving or boat trips or a traditional wedding ceremony. But many couples, like Olivier and Diana, choose instead to tie the knot up the road a bit at a place called the Tiki Village Theater. French ex-patriot Olivier Briac established the theater, in part, because he understood what it was like to have a lack-luster experience at the alter.
Briac: "Myself, I was not coming here to be married. I arrive with my wife. But my papers was not well done, because I was married in Las Vegas. And it was fun, but my paper was not right by the French consulate and I have to re-marry again. And my Tahitian friends make me a so fabulous wedding that when I have opened the first theater in Polynesia called the Tiki Theater Village, I have decide to offer to the visitors to have the chance that I had myself."
To see just what Briac offers, I finagled an invitation to one of his Tahitian wedding for Jacques and Janine Richard, who had good reason to celebrate.
Jacques Richard: "We are celebrating our 50th anniversary, I think you say in English. It's our Golden Anniversary. Fifty years of marriage."
I am a little skeptical. With a name like Tiki Village, I think it's gotta be kitsch. Of course, for camera-toting tourists, it is mostly a lark. But for the Tahitian performers, this ritual is clearly sacred. And beneath their big jubilant smiles, you can see a pride that runs deeper than a colorful snapshot in the family photo album. The singing, the dancing, the artwork, all preserve a deep cultural heritage. Traditions made taboo under the influence of missionaries.
It's easy to see why the conservative Catholics got uptight. In addition to the worship of what the missionaries considered pagan gods, the ceremony has a strong current of sexuality. Take the music, for example. The Western anthem is somber.
By contrast, when Jacques and Janine make their entrance, not down the isle, but across turquoise waters by boat, the music announcing their arrival makes you want to shake your butt.
At the beach, Jacques and Janine are greeted by bare-chested Tahitian men, covered in tattoos, and women hardly covered by grass skirts and coconut shells cupping their breasts. The bride and groom are crowned with a wreath of jasmine and hibiscus, and other brilliant tropical flowers, then led before the priest at a stone alter.
The ceremony is conducted in Tahitian. An interpreter translates for the bride and groom. I asked Briac, the theater owner, to paraphrase it for me.
Briac: "They get a benediction from the gods for protect their love, told to the husband to protect his wife."
But the audience can't hear the translation and has no idea what's being said.
Briac: "I say, if you put a mic and a loud speaker, it's a show. It's not any more a wedding, you know."
That's not to say there isn't a theatrical element. Local Tahitians sing and dance and juggle fire on a baton.
But authenticity does have its limits. For example, the traditional wedding would last for days. The modern version is condensed into two hours. And the ceremonial tattoos for the wedding party aren't so painful.
Briac: "But we don't do it with a shark's tooth. We make it with a pen, you could wash it later on."
The extravaganza of tattoos, fire-juggling, and half-naked alter boys also gives the bride and groom a chance to put on a real show. Pull out all the stops and go over the top. To be treated like a king and queen, quite a contrast to the humble tone of their first wedding.
Jacques Richard: "We (got) married in a church. It was very, very simple. It was just after the war. We have two years, three years after the war and it was still a poor time for France and we just have some friends around. We dance, we eat, but it was just nothing exciting as it was today."
The cost for that excitement runs about $1,000. Three hundred bucks more to spend the night in the floating cabin in the lagoon. And perhaps it's better if you already are married, since the ceremony is not legally binding. Even after you say 'I do' in a Tahitian wedding, you still need to fill out the paperwork at that most un-exciting place, city hall.
In Moorea, French Polynesia, I'm Jeff Tyler for the Savvy Traveler.
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