Much as I love to bake, there’s always a twinge of sadness every time I measure out a spoonful of my homemade vanilla. As good as it smells and as great as it tastes, each recipe takes me closer to the bottom of the bottle.
And I know I’d need to go halfway round the world to replenish it.
Sure, it’s just a recycled vinegar bottle and some of the liquor store’s cheapest Russian vodka. But the graceful little lances floating in amber are the secret: Genuine Tahitian vanilla pods.
It’s been years since my husband and I sailed on the Paul Gauguin through French Polynesia. Yet the pods we bought early one morning in Papeete have been bringing an unforgettable aroma of beachcombing romance into our kitchen ever since.
The cruise of the Society Islands, the voyage back to Gauguin’s long-haired beauties, Michener’s Bali Hai and Jimmy Buffet’s “One Particular Harbor,” began and ended in Tahiti’s capital of Papeete.
Papeete’s harbor pulses day and night, a sunny Gallic beat that seems to start when an islander revs up on his motorcycle to the bakery in the morning. He fetches a long, Parisian baguette, anchors it across his handlebars and roars off.
At night, food trucks glitter with tracer lights and glowing woks reflected into the harbor waves.
Scouting the Papeete Market
In between, the massive Papeete market sells every ingredient you can fathom. Peppers and beans just off the farm, pineapples fresh from the plantation.
Our first market trip at the start of the cruise is strictly scouting, walking through the aisles, up and down the staircases, through T-shirt shops and baskets stalls. For a moment, I’m tangled in a batik forest until I can part the fabric and come to daylight again.
We’re not here to buy, but to reconnoiter. Whose vanilla pods look the best? Who looks the friendliest to trade with in my pidgin French?
Soon, it’s time to board the Paul Gauguin and all thoughts of commerce fly out our porthole. We’re all about scuba diving in the warm water, so many shades of turquoise and teal we run out of descriptions. Deciding what wine to have with the chef’s snapper. And looking for a falling star each evening at the railing.
Do we really have to leave?
I wonder, looking down at some marks on the rail our last night, could these be the claw marks of passengers they’ve had to pry off the Gauguin? We certainly don’t want to leave, no one at our dinner table wants to leave, no one on this ship wants to leave. No one who comes to French Polynesia ever wants to leave.
But we can feel the porters prowling the hallways for luggage and the beautiful ship slipping back into berth at Papeete. We have plane tickets that seem to mock us—if we hocked them today, how long could we stay on these teal/turquoise/indescribable waters?
But there is one last pleasant task before the taxi sweeps us off to the dreaded airport. I set our alarm for 6, so we can be the first shoppers at the Papeete market.
The sun is half awake when we walk to the block of shops. Some of the vendors are still sleeping on the concrete steps next to their shuttered stalls. Others have prodded little stoves ablaze for breakfast.
Inside the vast room, one man of middle years sets up his worktop: flowers in pails, shell trinkets on the table. We zero in on his vanilla pods, breathe in their scent and tell him we’ll take $50 worth.
He covers his surprise well, slowly picking out the best pods for this strange couple that seems to have materialized out of morning mist. He can’t know that I plan to make vanilla extract for dozens of us, giving it to friends and family, and have gallons of cheap vodka awaiting me at home.
He only knows that he’s happy and grateful, and we do a full round of “Merci’s” before we wander off deeper into the market.
Even now, every time I unscrew the vanilla cap I’m instantly transported, diving with black-tipped sharks off Moorea, clambering up to World War II guns on Bora Bora. To a pineapple plantation, where the guide wields his machete and filets the fruit atop his Jeep hood for us to savor.
With each soul-stirring breath of my Tahitian vanilla, I’m also back at the Papeete market that morning, admiring orchids and tracing batiks with my finger.
At the edge of awareness, I hear “Madame, madame!” It takes a moment or two of persistence before I turn in the general direction of the call.
“Madame, Madame!” And in that silent movie pantomime, I point to myself and mouth “Moi?” to the vanilla seller.
“Oui, madame,” he says, motioning us back to his booth.
My husband and I look at each other –is there a problem with the cash? Something wrong with the vanilla?
We’re wary Americans as we shuffle back to our first stall, puzzled and apprehensive about some Tahitian mores we might have violated.
“Oui?” I say, staying a pace apart.
“Merci, madame,” he says with a lavish smile, stepping forward to drape a shell necklace around my neck. “Merci!”
I glance down to see the most elaborate necklace of his entire inventory, shells intricately braided into a lei.
It sets all three of us off on a further round of smiles and bows, and we finally “Merci” ourselves out of the market. With our vanilla pods tucked safely away, as if they were ropes of Tahitian black pearls.
When you go
Paul Gauguin Cruises and Tahiti Tourism.