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Jewels of the sea from French Polynesia's Gambier Islands

In Polynesia's Gambier Islands, the South Seas' most treasured pearls brighten the lives of 1,200 inhabitants

It was harvest time in this remote archipelago where French Polynesians produce the South Seas' most treasured pearls.

After flying almost five hours over the empty Pacific, the turboprop carrying me and a scattering of passengers tilted for landing, revealing a 15-mile-wide lagoon pocked with 14 vivid green islands ribboned with peacock hues of turquoise, emerald, azure, indigo, cobalt and violet blue.

My trip to the Gambiers in January was serendipitous. Some years ago I was taking a break from writing a book about my Afghanistan war coverage when I encountered a quirky fellow who told me about these Polynesian islands 1,000 miles southeast of Tahiti.

A beautiful place, he said, with a bizarre past.

I thought I knew a little about a lot of places, but I had never heard of the Gambiers. I was intrigued. I scribbled "Gambier Islands" on a scrap of paper and threw it on my desk when I returned to my office.

Years later, when I was recovering from yet another Afghanistan reporting trip, that note emerged from under a dusty stack of files.

At the time, the Gambiers seemed like an antidote to the central Asian war zones.

Although the Gambiers are indeed beautiful, there's a whiff of infamy here, the legacy of a draconian 19th century theocracy established by French Jesuit priest Father Honoré Laval, whose megalomania killed most of the islanders. Vestiges of Laval's tyranny remain on the sparsely populated islands, adding a touch of melancholy to this paradise.

A water taxi ferried us from the airstrip, on a tiny speck of an island, to the largest, Mangareva, where the spires of Laval's masterwork, the Cathédrale Saint-Michel, rise above the quaint village of Rikitea.

With its clustered houses and mountainous backdrop, Rikitea looks like a bit of coastal France, but the heavy scent of plumeria and the lovely pareu-wrapped ladies placing flowered leis and crowns on disembarking family and friends signaled Polynesia.

It's a locals' place. Only a few dozen foreigners spend extended time here each year; even Polynesians dream of visiting the beautiful Gambiers.

The islands hum with French Polynesia's mixture of cultures. The primary languages are French and Mangarevan, a Polynesian dialect. Steak frites are as ubiquitous as poisson cru, lime- and coconut-marinated raw fish.

The gendarme station, with its tri-colored sign, is near the boulangerie, where islanders line up for fresh baguettes, and the artisans shop, where women sell pearls and woven pandanus baskets. Near the cathedral, Polynesian men play pétanque under a shade tree, their repartee mingling with the click of the boules.

About 70% of the Gambiers' 1,200 inhabitants are involved in the pearl industry. And 80 Gambier perle cultivateurs are doing it "the Polynesian way" by banding together to market their pearls to international buyers through their cooperative, GIE Poe O Rikitea.

Dominique Devaux, Gambiers' prince of pearls, is the cooperative's co-president. This trim former French military man with a Mangarevan wife operates a large pearl operation on Mangareva that includes a James Bond-ian laboratory, where Japanese and French scientists labor to genetically improve oyster larva.

At Devaux's bustling pearl farm, dozens of workers cleaned, harvested and grafted black-lipped oysters. In a sunlit room, graders sorted pearls of a hundred shapes, sizes and hues — black, lunar gray, silver, cherry, blue, green and pistachio.

Treasure chests brimmed with jewels of the sea awaiting transport from this remote atoll to the world's most exclusive jewelers.

"This pearl," Devaux said in his Gallic-accented English, "it generates a lot of dreams."

As he gazed out to the blue lagoon dotted with pearl farms, he said, "Finally, you live a dream."

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A tour of the islands of lost souls in the Gambier atoll

"I am Louie — 'Louis,' the French way," our stocky barefoot Polynesian guide said, pushing off on a boat tour to islands in the Gambier atoll.

His Tahitian assistant, Malvina, was wrapped in a floral pareu with a peach-colored hibiscus behind her ear.

Because I was familiar with the sad history of the historical Laval period, I was interested in seeing some of the now-almost-uninhabited islands, where remnants of old Gambier remained. (The tour, arranged through my lodging, a pension, cost about $50.)

We were soon wading toward Taravai's white sand beach, where an elegiac twin-hearted arch framed the old Église Saint-Gabriel.

One of the archipelago's islands of lost souls, Taravai was home to 2,000 people when its islanders erected the imposing Norman-styled church in the mid-19th century. Now only a handful of people remain.

Though the white-steepled church is slowly moldering, fresh tropical flowers still adorn the elaborately carved altar.

On nearly unpopulated Akamaru, a wide, bromeliad-bordered promenade led to the prim Église Nôtre-Dame-de-la-Paix.

Walking through Aukena's gloomy jungles to French Jesuit priest Honoré Laval's abandoned seminary and towering stone kiln was plain spooky, and the nearby grindstone and beehive oven poignant relics of the Polynesians who labored here.

Then there was desert island time: It was a hot, dry clamber up the steep slopes of Mekiro, a dot of uninhabited volcanic rock. The climb was rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the reef and the Pacific stretching to the horizon.

On tiny Bird Island, black noddy terns watched imperiously from their large nests, while freshly hatched white fairy tern chicks perched on bare branches, where their mothers had precariously laid eggs.

After lunch, Malvina cast for fish as four baby sharks circled just off the beach. Watch for the mother, she said, by way of warning.

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If you go:

THE BEST WAY TO THE GAMBIER ISLANDS

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to the Gambier Islands is offered on Air Tahiti Nui. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $2,202, including all taxes and fees.

After landing at the airstrip on Totegegie Island, a water taxi (about $10) will take you to Rikitea on Mangareva, the Gambiers' largest island.

WHERE TO STAY

Pension Maroi, Mangareva; 011-689-40-978-444, http://www.pensionmaroi.com. This four-bungalow guesthouse faces a small beach and the Gambiers' foremost oyster farming bay. Doubles from $190 a night with breakfast and dinner.

Chez Bianca & Benoît, Mangareva; 011-689-97-83-76, http://www.chezbiancaetbenoit.pf. The pension sits above bustling Rikitea, with views to other islands. Doubles from $237 a night with meals.

The Mangareva guesthouses are part of the Ia Ora network (www.ia-ora.com) of more than 100 family guesthouses on French Polynesia's atolls.

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