clad Polynesian beauties are practicing the hula,
their laughter chiming like crystal bells. The crispy
aroma of coconut oil and baking pork wafts froman
oven. “I missed you, Ruru!” John Wayne
booms as he tosses a barefoot youngster in the air.
Before I can even take my Tony Lama boots off,Sam Mackey, the Irish airport manager, hands me
a highball glass that’s sweating so I don’t have to.
“Tide was shy and the tail clipped a coral head,” heapologizes. He’s sending the
on to Papeete
without us for repairs; another plane will pick us
up soon. In the meantime, he’s rounded up some
islanders for a luau and some dancing later tonight.
And the tiki bar? Well, the tiki bar never closes.
A dark 21st-century cloud drifts across the sun,blotting out my 1950s fantasy. But I’ll be damned
if the lagoon doesn’t just glow all the brighter.
If this island is heaven, then I think Godjust turned on the pool lights.
skimming at 200 miles per
hour over the wind-scrolled
South Pacific, I spot the bright turquoise
lagoon from five miles out, glowing in the
noon sun like an opal on a jeweler’s velvet tray. Imake my way forward, passing Brigitte Bardot
coiled like a mink in 4A and the Duke himself snor-ing two rows ahead of her. He tied one on last nightat Aggie Grey’s bar in Samoa. That’s why we’re run-ning late. When John Wayne shouts for a full round
of mai tais, you really can’t say no, pilgrim.
I poke my head into the cockpit of the
Tasman Empire Airway’s 45-passenger flying boat.
Like Brigitte, the
is a double-decked beauty
with a sleek hull and a set of props to make grown
men purr like the Hercules engines that spin them.
“Welcome to the most glamorous airport in the
world,” St. Pierre announces above the roar, push-
ing up his Ray-Bans. Like the rest of the crew, he’s
The runway oclear water whereTasman EmpireAirway’s fyingboats once landedhasn’t changedmuch since big jetschanged air travel.
barely in his 30s. And like them, he earned his wings
in places like Midway Island and Guadalcanal. He
into a yawing left turn, and 90 sec-
onds later we’re buzzing over the lagoon at 100 feet,
so low I can see coconuts on the trees. “Hold on to your Bloody Marys, boys,” St. Pierre says.
Rita Hayworth is clearing away a dream of filet mignon when I get back to my seat. She
flicks a smile and her silver Ronson as I tap out
a pair of Lucky Strikes. “We have a quick refuel-
ing stop in Aitutaki,” she says, taking a long, cool
draw. “We’ll be in Tahiti by sunset.”
I sink into the leather wingback seat for a silk-soft touchdown that’s rudely interrupted by a grinding jolt. The Duke wakes from his tipsy
slumber, but nobody spills any champagne.
Aitutaki’s semi-international airport is littlemore than the jetty and a couple of thatched
. Beyond the palapas a dozen grass-skirt-