by Julia Steele
photos by Kyle Rothenborg
The first island I ever visited in my life was England—I was one, the Beatles were huge, it was cold, and one night, so my mother tells the story, I disappeared—only to be found, after a lengthy and increasingly frantic search, in a small store across a busy street, sitting on a stool, entertaining the locals. How I got there remains a mystery. More islands followed as I grew—Ibiza, where at six, I lived in a farmhouse with no running water or electricity, kept company by a monkey called Charlie Chaplin; Majuro, where at eight, I would fend off feral dogs and go reef-walking with my brother under the full moon; Jamaica, where at ten, I learned to love goat curry and drive a hard bargain with the dreadlocked women at the market; Fiji, where at thirteen,
I fell in love with the disco of Donna Summer and a Rotuman named Willy Valentine. And that is why islands for me have always represented adventure, abandon, unpredictability, bliss.
I’m thinking about this all as I sit on a tiny island in French Polynesia. It is my first trip to this country, and truth be told, I’d never been that interested in coming here: It all looked too manicured, too sophisticated, too expensive to me—I pictured a nation of gorgeous, pearl-strewn Tahitians munching croissants, a place where the nuclear testing was over, the living was easy and the Hinano beer flowed as profusely as the waterfalls. Where, I wondered, was the excitement, the volatility, in a place like that?
Now get this, because the irony grows thicker: As I’m sitting on this island, thinking these thoughts, I’m staring out at my cruise ship. Yes. My cruise ship, a 227-foot-long luxury craft replete with multi-star chef, a wine cellar, a jacuzzi on the sun deck and a live-aboard masseuse. I have spent the last few days on this modern-day, tricked-out bling-bling Bounty—me, who never expected to set foot on a cruise ship, who thought the whole industry should have quit while it was ahead, back in the days of the first Queen Mary. And here is the kicker: Every moment I spend in this country, I am more seduced by its vibrancy and its complexity. And my time on the ship? It is turning out to be one of the sweetest experiences of my life.