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food / travel

Unfurl The Mystery Of Tahiti's Fragrant Monoi Road

Tahiti sunset
Tahiti sunset
Simon Roger

PAPEETE – Regardless of what geographers might say, there is a certain proximity between Tahiti and Iceland…

The lush green rock dropped in the middle of the southeast Pacific Ocean might be a hundred times smaller than the chunk of windswept ice in the Northern Atlantic Ocean, but insularity is not about surface or latitude. Both islands were born from volcanic events. The Polynesian island and her far-away cousin are two wild creations. To get to know them, there is nothing better than to hit the coastal road – another thing they have in common.

Since 2010, the 100-kilometer long paved road that encircles Tahiti Nui Island ("The Big Island") and partly continues onto Tahiti Iti (the "Small Tahiti," the eastern peninsula) is called "the Monoï road." A more enchanting name than the obscure "PK" (which stands for “kilometric points”), the name used until then to refer to the different segments of the loop. It is also an invitation to discover the botanic heritage of the most famous island of French Polynesia.

The main components of Monoï, whose oil is the local specialty, come from two plant varieties commonly found in this far corner of the world: Tiaré flowers (also known as Gardenia tahitensis or Tahitian Gardenia) and coconut trees. Plunge some Tiaré petals in coconut oil, leave the mixture macerate in the open and then filter it. This is how you make the skin and hair softener that Captain Thomas Cook wrote about in his travel essays.

What's that smell?

Before leaving Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, it is a good idea to take a walk through the city’s market – the first of the Monoï Road's twenty-two stops. On the ground floor of the building, the smell of exotic fruits is mixed with the smell of fish and freshly cut flowers. But the smell that stands out the most is the smell of Tiaré flowers, whose star-shaped white corollas with their fragrant scent are used to make the flower necklaces that adorn the necks of tourists during traditional ceremonies.

Our second destination, at the no. 6 stop, gives us an opportunity to discover another way of using Tiaré flowers. Behind a green façade – its color faded with the monsoon rains – lies the island’s oldest Monoï factory. Established in 1942, Tiki Parfumerie has since then modernized its manufacturing and conditioning techniques. The modernization started slow and then picked up speed during the "sunny years – the 1970s and 1980s – when Monoï sales boomed in the U.S. and in Europe," explains Sandra Langy, one of the company heads. "Overseas, Monoï has often been used, mistakenly, as tanning lotion. But in fact, what makes it interesting is its skin care and hair softener virtues," she explains. "Here we also use it to protect ourselves from the cold."

The cold? This is all relative in a region where temperatures rarely go below 25° Celsius in July and August – the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months. A walk around the gardens of the Tahiti Museum, near Punuaauia, is a good way to see the effects of humidity and heat on the local flora. "Polynesia is a land of plenty, where everything can grow," sums up Eric Vaxelaire, director of Papeete’s Monoï Institute, who is serving as our guide. Candlenuts, banyans, walnuts, breadfruits, water morinda, pandanus, taro, hibiscus, bamboo, cordyline, coconut trees … Tropical vegetation never seems to run out of imagination.

White or black sand…

Two different kinds of sceneries can be seen on the road that plunges down toward the Southern tip of Tahiti Nui Island. On the driver’s side, a dense forest covers the hillside of the crater that lies in the middle of the island. On the passenger’s side, the beach shows off its nuanced colors, white or black sand depending of the characteristics of the soil. Further away, the barrier reef serves as the ultimate defense against the assaults of the ocean.

Our next stop is near the village of Papara. The improvised parking area looks like an itinerant market. People sell "hot mape" (boiled mape tree chestnust), as well as strings of fish and Monoï sold in small, recycled bottles. Alongside "industrial techniques" which have allowed Tahiti to export nearly 90% of its production -- and which has been protected by the French “controlled destination of origin” certification (AOC) since 1992 - - there is also an artisanal production.

Robert Peretia has not forgotten the know-how he was taught as a child. "Grating coconut has always been a punishment for me," says the 50-year-old man with a smile, before kneading his mixture made of tiaré flowers and sprouted coconut to which he adds the abdomen of a hermit crab to accelerate the exudation process. After five years in the parachute corps, the idea of making Monoï came naturally to him. "Instead of buying Monoï at the drugstore to give massages to my four children, I started to make my own, using the same methods my parents used."

Not far from Robert Pertia’s house stretches the tiaré flower fields of Taharu’u Fleurs. A plantation of 300 small trees (some plantations have more 10,000 trees) whose buttons are picked early in the morning, before dewdrops have a chance to alter the plant’s active principle.

To satisfy the demands of Monoï production, fields now stretch as far as the plains and on the neighboring Tahitian islands, notably in Moorea.

Further out, in the Leeward Islands, there is a new road to explore. It is the unpaved road that leads to the apetahi tiaré, an endemic variety of the plant that can only be found on the remote highlands of Raiatea Island.

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