The divers' stories were inspiring, but such adventures weren't for me. I needed a land-based reprieve from the sun, so the next day I explored Rangi's two main villages: Tiputa, east of the main pass, and Avatoru, west of it.

Although the towns are only about six miles apart, getting to them requires both boat and car. So I hitched a car ride into Avatoru and a boat ride into Tiputa. Such travel is a fact of life for Rangi's residents. Because the atoll consists of so many islands, islets and sandbars—with about 100 narrow passages in the reef—travel is usually on water.

"Most families own a boat, but not many own cars," said guide Estall, who grew up in Rangi. "If they don't have a car, they have a bicycle or a motor scooter."

Many islanders live in or near Avatoru, the larger village, which has a sprinkling of restaurants, churches, craft centers and tiny shops, such as Boutique Ikimasho, owned by Stéphane and Shoko Froleau.

A guest at the hotel had recommended the shop, which she said looked like a hot dog stand. Indeed it did, but the setting was deceiving. Stéphane, an artist and jewelry designer, specializes in rare Polynesian black pearls. The pearls vary in hue from silver to dark gray, and they're pricey. One of the finest necklaces in Stéphane's shop was $8,353.

Stéphane is a Frenchman who found his way to Rangiroa via Australia seven years ago. "It's a good place with an easy life," he said. "There's no crime. Everybody knows everybody. The dolphins play every day in the current. They like it as much as I do." But he worries that the atoll will have more development. "In 15 years it will be too late. There will be too many hotels, too many tourists here."

My next stop was Tiputa, which I reached by hiring a water taxi for $20. The boatman let me out near the main dock, where a freighter was unloading and half a dozen boys were taking turns diving into the ocean. The breeze had disappeared. The heat was stifling.

I walked into the village, hoping to see some residents, but no one was in sight. The whitewashed Catholic church with an open door was a godsend. I wandered inside and sat in the nave on a spare wooden bench. Carved into it were the English words, "I love you."

The church, St. Michael's, was pretty in its simplicity. Colored windowpanes cast brilliant patterns on the cement floor. Seven huge bouquets of flowers stood at the altar. They were made of silk, an oddity in a place where plumeria and other tropical blooms grow wild, scenting the island.

Cooled off, I went outside again, finally spotting a man in shorts and a flower-print shirt. He was hurrying down the street, but he would talk as we walked, he said, his face glistening in the midday heat.

Bernard Bacconnier, an educator from France, was returning to his Tiputa school office after running an errand. He showed me through a tidy, modern school where third- to sixth-graders worked at desks. He had been posted in Rangi for four years and loved it. Now he was worried that he would be assigned somewhere else, he said.

Why? I asked.

"Because this is Eden," he said, surprised by my question. "There is too much pollution, too much noise everywhere else."

The following day, I visited Rangiroa's lone high-end resort, the Kia Ora, where life is fine but not quite so simple and definitely not inexpensive. The hotel's over-water bungalows, similar to those in Bora-Bora and other high-traffic areas of French Polynesia, cost nearly $800 per night. The least expensive room is $366 nightly. But the lagoon-front setting and landscaped grounds are beautiful, and it's easy to arrange transportation and activities here, which is sometimes a problem at smaller hotels.

The resort also has a satellite, Kia Ora Sauvage, on a remote island that can be accessed only by an hourlong boat ride. I begged a ride out to see it and wished I could stay to snorkel and play. But my bungalow at Joséphine's had something I couldn't pass up. After leaving Kia Ora, I hastened back to the Tiputa Pass inn. The marine acrobats would be performing, and I didn't want to miss the dolphins' main act.




GUIDEBOOK

From LAX to Rangiroa, connecting service is available on Air Tahiti Nui or Air France to Papeete, Tahiti, connecting to Air Tahiti.

DIVE

Oviri Excursions, P.O. Box 76-98776, Tiputa, with an office at the Kia Ora village, 011-689-96-05-87. Island tours, snorkeling trips, boat rentals with skipper.

Blue Dolphins diving center, P.O. Box 141-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-96-03-01, www.bluedolphinsdiving.com, with an office at the Hotel Kia Ora. Instruction, certification and dives.

Six Passengers Diving Center, P.O. Box 128-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-96-02-60, www.the6passengers.com. Instruction and dives.

TOPdive, P.O. Box 181-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-96-05-60, www.topdive.com. Instruction and dives. Pickup from all hotels; private dives are its specialty.

STAY

Kia Ora Rangiroa and Kia Ora Sauvage, P.O. Box 198-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-93-11-11, www.hotelkiaora.com. The 63 air-conditioned bungalows and suites have a lovely location on the lagoon, with 25 units on the beach and 10 over the water. Facilities include a restaurant, bar, gift shop, tennis court and dock. Rates $366 to $779. Kia Ora Sauvage, on a private island accessible only by boat, is the place to truly get away from it all. Bungalows start at $458.

Novotel Rangiroa Lagoon Resort, P.O. Box 17-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-93-13-50, www.novotel.com. Air-conditioned Polynesian-style rooms and bungalows. Facilities include a restaurant, bar and activities. Rates start at $278.

Les Relais de Joséphine, P.O. Box 140-98775, Avatoru, 011-689-96-02-00. Small Mediterranean-style inn overlooks the Tiputa Pass. Bungalows are not air-conditioned but have fans and private bath. Breakfast and dinner are included in rate. $164 per person, double occupancy (single surcharge $47 per night).

EAT

Te Rairoa Restaurant, at the Kia Ora Rangiroa, Avatoru, 011-689- 93-11-11, www.hotelkiaora.com. Seafood and grilled fish are the specialties here. Wednesdays and Sundays are Polynesian nights, with dancing, singing and traditional island foods. Entrées start at $26.

Vaimario Pizzeria, between the Novotel and Hotel Kia Ora, 011-689-96-05-96. Pizza highlights the menu. Prices start at about $15.


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