Turo and the girls in front of our catamaran

DAY ONE (June 25, 2009) — Our captain is straight out of central casting — or a Gaugin painting. He’s tall with a big smile, a long mane of sun-bleached brown hair and tattoos that tell his family story. When he puts a garland of greens around his head, he looks all the more like he stepped out of a painting — or tourist ad.

The four 18 year-old girls in our group are instantly smitten by 40-year-old Turo Aritu, who will be our leader for the next week on the catamaran “Arapima” that will be our home as we sail around a small slice of French Polynesia (www.tahiti-tourism.com).

Click: PHOTO GALLERY We arrived in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, on a seven hour flight from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui (kids under 12 fly free!) and overnighted at a brand new resort about a 10 minute ride from the airport. Manava Suite Resort (www.manavatahitiresort.pf) is hip, modern and boasts the largest infinity pool in the islands. The next morning, while the four girls — childhood camp friends — laze at the pool, the four adults, my husband Andy and I and Pam and Allan Roza, from Milwaukee and parents of one of the girls, go on a tour around the island. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Our tour guide takes us to black sand beaches (it is volcanic after all) and a 300 foot high waterfall that is called Vaimahuta, meaning water coming from the top in Polynesian. We pass canoe races and see where Gaugin painted his famous Girl with the Mango.

But we’re in a hurry to start our real adventure — sailing around some of these islands that are heart stopping beautiful, where everyone smiles all the time. There is a bride and groom in full wedding attire on our short flight to Raiatea, the heart of the yacht charter industry here and where meet Turo, who encourages the girls to practice their high school French because his English is fractured. Everyone speaks French and Tahitian here and some English. That adds to the exotic adventure. Our boat, from Tahiti Yacht Charter (www.tahitiyachtcharter.com), is a twin-hulled catamaran that comfortably sleeps 12 people.

After we stow our gear — I’m always amazed on sailboats how much room there really is — we head into town a short taxi ride away because it turns out tonight the July festival “Heiva” has started. It combines France’s Bastille Day (this is French Polynesia after all) and Tahitian festivities that last for a month with canoe races, dance competitions, carnival rides and restaurants set up just for the festival under thatched roofs with batik on the walls and ceilings and just eight or so oil clothed-topped tables.

We seem to be the only Americans and wonder if secretly everyone is laughing at us, especially when we snap a few pictures of the festivities — kids on the carnival rides, adults playing a game that seems kind of like Bingo — Taviri Raa, where they get tickets and turn them in for a chance at an even bigger prize (the biggest prize seems to be a washing machine).

We drink bottles of the local beer and feast on steak frites, ginger shrimp and chow mein with fresh veggies and noodles at the restaurant that’s dubbed RestaurantPlace To’AHuriNihi . Local toddlers are running around in their diapers. We perch on plastic stools chowing down under the thatch, surrounded by brightly covered batik panels that have been tacked to the walls and the s-ceiling. Can it get any better than this, I think?

The girls beg to stay later because there is supposed to be a disco with their new found buddy Turo. We caution them not to take advantage of his kind nature, arrange for a cab to pick them up and head back to “our” boat and crack open a bottle of wine. We drink it under the stars on deck.

It’s great to run away to paradise—even if just for a couple of weeks.

Next: The first day of sailing, to Huahine