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.

Those are the “near enough” factors. Everything else took us “far enough” away. The electricity on our islet came from a generator that ran only part of each day; the water was from a solar desalinization plant that put out about two gallons an hour. For the six adults and one baby in our party, this was enough water, but not more. If you can swim every few hours, you need only a brief freshwater rinse at bedtime. You need not wash clothes very often if you wear a bathing suit all day and a sarong at night. We got up, swam, ate, swam, read, and went to bed. The reminder of life’s imperfections came mainly through the incessant mosquitoes: there can be no such thing as enough repellent spray.

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 lost.

Much of Moorea, like our entire islet, is ringed by coral reefs a few hundred yards offshore. Big Pacific waves break against the reefs. Within are shallow, calm, limpid lagoons. All other members of our family love swimming; I do not. Yet in this setting, even I was wading out on the first day, and snorkeling on the second, and by the last I was swimming the kilometer-wide channel to Moorea and back, before lunchtime.

The lagoons and reefs attract divers from around the world, and they are the venue for the most consequential tension between distance and connectedness. Twenty-five years ago, when living with our children in Malaysia, we first saw the spectacular reefs and marine life of the South Pacific. In the time since then, many of those same reefs have died; they now look like gray concrete hulks. Moorea is on the cusp. As you swim, snorkel, or dive, you pass from spectacular concentrations of brain- or antler-shaped coral, with fancifully colored fish large and small darting among them and rays or sea turtles passing by, to … bleached and pulverized marine deserts. Marine researchers from the University of California and elsewhere have made Moorea a major test site for conditions that will allow reef biospheres to survive. To understand the stakes and to marvel at the existing beauty, try to visit soon.

Moorea’s many tourism Web sites will give you the practical details; describes the place where we stayed, and is the main scuba operator in the area. My sense of calm didn’t last long enough after our visit, but even now I am soothed by memories of placidly drifting past those sharks.