Prospero’s Island in the South Pacific

Was it Bermuda—or the dreamy French Polynesian island of Huahine—that inspired the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest?

Huahine in the South Pacific
Huahine in the South Pacific Imagine courtesy of Flickr user Runintherain

Some scholars say Bermuda inspired Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others claim it was modeled on the Mediterranean’s Corfu. But I’m pretty sure that the exiled Duke of Milan turned sorcerer in the South Pacific. “Be not afraid, the isle if full of noises,” says Prospero’s woebegotten slave Caliban, a description that admirably suits the island of Huahine about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti.

It’s a mecca for the sunburned, barefoot crew who drop out for a spell to pilot sailboats among the 130 islets that make up French Polynesia. Otherwise, most tourists head for Bora Bora with its fabled lagoon or the diver’s paradise of Rangiroa, leaving Huahine a lazy, slow-lane, off-the-beaten-track South Pacific backwater with only a handful of resorts, a half dozen sleepy villages chiefly populated by mangy dogs and one main town, Fare, where there’s a ferry port, airstrip and hordes of mosquitoes.

Huahine is actually two islands—Huahine Nui, the bigger one, and littler Huahini Iti—connected by a bridge. Both are ringed by skinny sand spits known as motus, where islanders grow watermelons with sweet, yellow meat. The interior is all volcanic mountains carpeted in tropical jungle that can only be broached with machetes, where early settlers, possibly from Samoa, built temples—or marae. Now atmospheric ruins covered in creepers, they are the island’s only tourist attraction, apart from yacht harbors, wild beaches and noises that I started to hear almost as soon as I got there.

I hove-to in a perfect Lord Jim sort of place, the Pension Enite outside Fare, where the room rate included a perfect French Polynesian dinner, headlined by steamed clams, sautéed fish and a half carafe of table wine from Burgundy or the Rhone; oenophiles are lucky for whatever they get on Huahine. My room in a garden-framed bungalow had well-mopped linoleum floors, Polynesian fabric curtains and a slowly circling ceiling fan. Still, it was hot, so I left the door open.

I was in the middle of a Jungian dream about my childhood when the sound of heavy breathing made me rise up from unconsciousness and open my eyes to see two bare feet underneath the curtain at the room’s entrance. Size 3, maybe. Then a little hand reached to the hook just inside the door, where most guests must have left valuables in the past, though I didn’t. My money belt was under my pillow and I still marvel over the instinct that brought me out of a deep, tropical sleep to shriek get out of here in high-school French.

Pat, pat, pat went the little feet, in retreat. The next morning, I told the pension’s unflappable French proprietor about it and found that the little sneak thief had made off with the lower half of my two-piece swimming suit, which I’d left to dry on a line outside. God knows what he wanted with my bikini bottom.

After that a lot more weird things happened to me on Huahine, not least getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on a path leading through the jungle to temple ruins and some misadventures on a motor-scooter ride around Huahini Nui. I could tell you about them, but instead will call to mind what Prospero said at the end of the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”

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