Travel April 2013

The Skeptic’s Guide to the South Pacific

How I learned to stop worrying and love vacation
Gerrit van Ommering/Buiten-Beel/Redux

“You seem stressed,” my wife said just before midnight one Friday. Whatdoyoumean? I’mfinejustletmefinishthislastmessage, I replied, forbearingly. We were in the endless-line hell of the LAX international terminal, with a nine-hour overnight trip in super-discount seats ahead of us. I was pecking out e‑mails with one hand and thumbing through phone apps with the other while scanning the room in the vain hope that some hipster power-socket hog would unplug before flight time and give me a chance.

Four days later, my cornered-rat sense of all-fronts besiegement had receded this far: while scuba diving in a coral reef, I noted three good-size sharks approaching from the side, but I didn’t worry about the rose-tinted plumes swirling into the water from the fresh coral-scrape wound on my knee. Instead I lazily asked myself, “These sharks with the black tips on their fins are the ‘nice’ sharks, right?” So they were, and after the group swam by, I turned my attention to a manta ray. Four days after that, when preparing for the 24-hour slog by motorboat, van, ferry, and airplane back to our home in Washington, I looked at my smartphone and my computer and wondered how long I could go without turning either of them back on.

“Getting away from it all” is an ideal, a dream, a cliché. Over the decades, since spending our first few “honeymoon” months of marriage enrolled in a labor project in Ghana, my wife and I have tested the practical limits of escape. We have learned that the trick is getting just far enough away: sufficient distance to let you truly shed workaday worries, but not so far as to make you feel forgotten and lost. Life at the getaway site should seem uncluttered and simple but not austere. Flush toilets are a plus; hot water, a necessity; a way to make coffee, very important for me.

Late last year, we found something as close to the ideal restorative balance as we have encountered anywhere: more connected than the Ghanaian labor project, more set-apart than the standard beach resort. It was on Motu Fareone, a tiny islet off the volcanic island of Moorea in French Polynesia, near Tahiti, where we spent the Christmas-through-New-Year’s period in a villa we rented with our grown sons and their families. I realize the lack of novelty in praising the same paradise that has attracted foreigners from Paul Gauguin to Marlon Brando. But they were no fools.

Former French colonies typically retain some of their culinary patrimony. You can get good French bread in Vietnam and Senegal, and we could in every little storefront trading post on Moorea. More than just an ex-colony, French Polynesia is an official part of France d’outre mer, “overseas France.” While it strangely does not use the euro (instead French Pacific francs, issued on gaily illustrated currency worth a little more than one U.S. cent apiece), its stores are stocked with many of the brands and goods you would expect to find in the motherland. These notably include cheeses, wines, confits, and other items from a French charcuterie, alongside native mangos, papayas, and bananas. A new fiber-optic cable now runs between these islands and Hawaii, so you can get an Internet connection—if you must. Flights on the national airline, Air Tahiti Nui, go once a day from Tahiti’s main city, Papetee, nonstop to Los Angeles and thence of course to Paris.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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