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The legendary appeal of a tropical archipelago soaked in the myths of ancient cults and audacious tales of 18th Century British navy mutineers has made French Polynesia one of the South Pacific’s most mesmerising destinations.

Celebrated as the "island of love" by smitten French explorers, Tahiti is the French territory's administrative and commercial backbone. Its breezy cosmopolitan capital, Papeete, sits on Tahiti's northeastern tip and is the gateway to a captivating world of indigenous culture that infuses a chain of islands spread across 5 million square kilometres of sparkling ocean between Australia and South America.

This rugged, remote land was shaped by volcanoes and many of its low-lying islands are ringed by flawless beaches and protected by coral reefs.

"Tahiti is a picture of paradise," said Jeremy Lefore, a French-born surf instructor. "For me this is a spiritual adventure."

Hurried tourists keen to experience some of French Polynesia's original soul need look no further than the burst of colour and art that illuminates Papeete every winter.

Tahiti's acclaimed cultural heart beats fastest in July during the annual dancing and sporting competition, the Heiva, when the streets of the capital bloom with dazzling costumes and the air hums with the sweetest of South Pacific songs.

Spectators are enthralled by coconut tree climbing, stone lifting, spear throwing and outrigger sailing in a Polynesian version of Scotland's Highland Games.

Tickets are often hard to come by, and, make no mistake, this is not an event driven exclusively by tourist dollars (or the Pacific Franc) but one that is committed to preserving local culture and identity, and the dancing continues with a proud energy well into the small hours, long after weary holiday makers have retreated to bed.

"It is a time for the Tahitians to really assert themselves within their normal French lifestyles," said Karen Stevenson, a New Zealand-based historian.

Throughout the year, most hotels have Tahitian shows and feasts of fei (cooked banana), uru (breadfruit) and poe (a fruit and tapioca dessert served with coconut milk) at least once a week. The Radisson Plaza Tahiti runs classes for visitors who are keen to delve into the mysteries of indigenous dance. The Tiki Village on Moorea, a ferry ride from Papeete, also offers a glimpse into the tribal customs of the past, along with fire dancing and delicacies from an earth oven.

Every October attention turns to the sea during the Hawaiki Nui Va'a, an outrigger canoe race that attracts more than 100 teams which navigate around the Society Islands between Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a and Bora Bora. This is the way early Polynesians first conquered this seemingly endless world of water that is punctuated by lumps of volcanic rock and coral. While anthropological opinion varies, it is thought that settlers from Southeast Asia arrived in the Marquesas Islands around 300 AD, although other historical evidence has suggested tribes from Samoa and Tonga sailed into the region before 100 AD.

The same vast ocean eventually brought Europeans to this glittering archipelago, among them the English navigator James Cook and the French adventurer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who arrived in the late 1760s. It is widely thought that the unruffled pace of life in Tahiti prompted sailors on the British Royal Navy ship HMS Bounty to mutiny against their commanding officer, William Bligh, who was accused of mistreating his crew, in April 1789.

Missionaries from London began their work on the islands a decade or so later, and Christianity has very strong roots in this devout corner of the South Pacific. A special treat is the spectacle of a packed service at the renovated Protestant Cathedral in Papeete, where women in their floral Sunday best fill the chamber with enchanting South Pacific hymns.

For a taste of more ancient beliefs, any itinerary should include a marae, or Polynesian temple. Most are now ruins, and while some are more preserved than others, they all harbour secrets of the past. Legends of human sacrifice tell how the body of the condemned had to be dragged across the sacred stones until blood was coated on each one. Marae Taputapuatea is a large temple complex that sits on the southeastern coast of the island of Raiatea, which was once considered to be the spiritual heart of Eastern Polynesia.

"It is where the tribes would go to see the gods and make sacrifices. Apart from being very beautiful places, you go there and really feel the power and the mythical atmosphere that there is in those ancient places," said Gina Bunton from Tahiti Tourism. "Obviously we don't walk round wearing grass skirts anymore but it doesn't mean we have lost our culture.  We've managed to incorporate European ways and keep the Polynesian (traditions) as well. That makes a good mix."

Phil Mercer is the BBC correspondent in Sydney, Australia

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