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Plying the Sea Lanes of French Polynesia

Travel in the wakes of Captain Cook, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson to the fabled South Pacific isles of Paul Gauguin and “Mutiny on the Bounty.” South Seas by sea is the best way to approach French Polynesia.

Tahiti, Bora-Bora, Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea are the islands that come to mind at the very mention of “South Seas— add to this, friendly, gentle people, palm trees, tropical breezes, soaring volcanic mountain peaks that strain 2,400 feet out of the Pacific, deep valleys, a runaway luxuriance of vegetation, vanilla plantations, Polynesian tattoos, glistening waterfalls and turquoise lagoons, more fish than people, local tour guides still enthusiastic about their country and an almost total lack of hustling vendors.

We believe the islands are best when approached from the sea, and there are compelling reasons why we chose to ply these crystal waters to see the far-flung islands of French Polynesia that lure so many travelers to the South Pacific. My husband Rob and I are island fanatics, and having visited more than 30 islands we longed for another maritime adventure.

It had been a dream of ours to travel to French Polynesia. The turning point for us both was an IMAX film of Polynesia we saw at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii during our honeymoon last year. Ever since, we never stopped dreaming, but the distance, travel time and reputed expense and inter-island logistics were prohibitive. The main stumbling blocks for many would-be visitors.

We then discovered Nemo Polynesia and knew we had hit upon the right combination. We were told that aboard this cat you can actually feel the sea wind and hear the slapping of sails. Not even in our wildest dreams did we envision spending our first wedding anniversary in these islands, but here we were ready to sail the South Seas.

If like us you find large cruise ships intimidating — too many people, too much glitz and too little sea air –and you prefer cruising on smaller vessels with real sails, Nemo Polynesia may be your best choice. These days the price is also right to visit Polynesia, which has long been a fairly exclusive, mostly European affair. Tourism to French Polynesia is now undergoing a sea of changes as the islands make a bid to lure more travelers who now hail from North America. For those who consider Hawaii the epitome of paradise in the Pacific, Tahiti is a definite revelation.

We embarked on a journey with an itinerary of seven nights at sea, with one hotel night at both ends and included a day at five ports of call: Tahiti, Huahine, Raiatea,Tahaa, and Bora-Bora. All part of the Society Islands, which are one of five autonomous island groups that comprise the territory of French Polynesia (about the size of Europe), and the westernmost group of islands composed of 35 islands and 83 atolls totaling 1,550 square miles scattered over the Pacific. The islands have a population of less than a quarter million, with three-quarters being of pure Polynesian descent.

As the Air Tahiti Nui aircraft sang into the heavens, we got the first hint we were heading to a very special place. The first touch was the TV screen which doubled as a Gougain painting. Later a beautiful, soft-spoken Tahitian flight attendant gave us two fresh white tiare buds, (gardenia, the Tahitian national flower) to wear behind our left ear. She explained the custom is to wear it behind your right ear if you are available for dating and marriage or on your left ear if you’re taken. After seeing the lovely flight attendant and nursing a bottle of Hinano, the local beer, the first thing this anniversary boy did was to change the tiare to his right ear.

Tahiti, “The Island of Love”

Having flown eight hours from Los Angeles to Papeete with a two-hour (to the good) time difference, we landed at 5 p.m. on Tahiti, about halfway between Australia and LA. The island serves as the capital of French Polynesia and is the largest of the Society Islands. Here two flags hang — the tricolor French and the Polynesian territorial flag, which is red and white with an outrigger canoe in the middle. We boarded a charter bus with six other sailors to the Tahiti Beachcomber Park Royal Hotel where sunset views of the jagged peaks of Moorea’s ridge line (only 12 miles distant) were visible. We had just landed in paradise.

Tahiti is where the French navigator Louis Antoine Bougainvillea (the flowers were named after him) described his first landing as having been transported to the garden of Eden.

During dinner, musicians played to the rhythm of Tahitian Teore and ukulele with a passionate beat and dancers began their percussive, unabashedly sensual dances. Stunning Tahitian women with their dark eyes and welcoming smiles undulate to the music, with brilliant red hibiscus in their hair and sarongs slung low around their hips. They performed brief dances throughout the dining room, while rubber-legged male dancers rapidly shifted their weight from one foot to the other. It doesn’t surprise me that the missionaries banned these native dances.

Tahiti, the most French-influenced of the islands, is the place to explore exquisite French restaurants and lively bistros. For an ultra romantic dinner, dine in the understated elegance of Lotus, a restaurant that serves superb French nouvelle cuisine, known as the best in French Polynesia for its traditional French menu. Lotus offers sublime seafood as well as French favorites like Coquilles St. Jacques (snails — much more delicious than you think!)

Here with morning comes the odor of freshly baked French baguettes and the roosters of the South Seas asserting themselves about 5 a.m., convinced that the sun is rising to hear them crow. From our balcony the island of Morea comes gradually into view. Suddenly the sun cuts itself on a jagged peak and bleeds into the valley, bathing land and sea in a light that would have intrigued Gauguin himself. At 6 a.m. all thoughts leave my head and is filled only with the beauty of these islands.

Michener, Brandon and Gauguin aside, these islands are everyone’s dream of the perfect South Sea.

Rather than board the ship right away with a severe case of jet lag, we decided on a “pre-sail” package. We had time to acclimatize to island life while slowing down our internal clocks on the hotel’s fine beach and getting started on Rob’s much needed tan. While he was bare chested and glistering with Tahitian oils, the Lotus swim-up bar offered the perfect vista from which to view the kaleidoscope of color on the ocean. After an hour on the beach this Dutchman looked sun-dried, like a hot tomato.

While Tahiti is synonymous with unspoiled beauty, the island itself is a bustling capital. In fact, if not departing on a cruise, we suggest most visitors to use Tahiti as a springboard to the other nearby islands. The capital city, since the days of Captain Cook, has been the gateway to the South Pacific. All international flights land at the Faa’a (pronounced Fa ah ah) International Airport, and Tahiti is also the first island most visitors see.

Papeete, French Polynesia’s only large town, deserves a walking tour from the port to the lively municipal open-air market, probably the best place to shop for Tahiti’s famed black pearls and all your shopping, since there isn’t much available on the other islands. Scenery here is spectacular with enough mountains, churches and towns to make your circumnavigation of the island worthwhile.

If you’re staying in Papeete, don’t miss The Paul Gauguin Museum, one of the most famous museums in the South Pacific. Here you’ll learn about the bohemian artist who was irresistibly drawn to these islands. With his sensuous brush strokes he introduced the island’s beauty to the world and whose paintings popularized Tahiti. You’ll see a few of his original works, but most of his paintings are scattered throughout the world.

Polynesian people are the friendliest people I have ever had the joy to experience. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy to be right where they are. Stress is virtually non-existent. It is a simple, casual life that appears to offer these people all that they could wish for and their attitude is contagious.

Huahine “the secret island”

The next day, we flew Air Tahiti 45 minutes on a 80-passenger prop jet to the picturesque lush green island of Huahine. The plane landed on a small airstrip, and Michele Jordan, our French captain, was already waiting for us. We boarded the gracious 82-foot catamaran Nemo Polynesia, anchored near Huahine’s main village of Fare (pronounced FAR-ay) meaning house in Tahitian. Our group, three couples and two solo travelers, were a well-seasoned bunch, most ranging in age from 20 to 50. Everyone knew at least one other person on the boat before the trip. Most were avid sailors who enjoyed the intricacies of sailing a cat. Some had even worked as crew before.

We had our first lunch onboard. Then a five-minute ride by dinghy took us to the dock. We went on a land tour into Huahine, from where we had a commanding view of the two bays and inlets that bite into the north half of the island. We bounced along in a “Le Truck,” one of the hard-benched, open-sided vehicles that serve as the local transportation system.

Our driver from Afo Safari, tank-topped, tattooed and sun-glassed, drove us around the island along with Moe-Moea, our transplanted French tour guide. Soon we were four-wheeling, bouncing uphill then whizing downhill to get to the interior through agricultural stretches of land. You really need a four-wheel-drive vehicle here. Our driver took a rain-gutted slope with one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road, so steep that the only thing visible through the windshield was the blue view of the bay and the islands beyond.

Huahine is made of two island masses connected by two bridges. It is an island full of flowers where even the most modest homes are surrounded by a profusion of tiare (Gardenia taitensis), bougainvillea, hibiscus, croton, frangipani, ferns, jasmine, and exotic species of orchids. Trees laden with fruit–bananas, uru maiore (breadfruit), mangoes — fill every yard with a kind of runaway luxuriance. Roads are also infested with crabs and grounds littered with windfall nono, papaya rotting to sweet mush. We passed sugar, taro lime, bamboo and coconut plantations.

Within the hour we were high in the mountains on a vanilla plantation. Tahitian vanilla beans, introduced to the island in 1848, are prized by gourmets because their beans are considered larger and richer in oil and shinier than other varieties. They are also extremely expensive — a small bunch can cost up to $15 — and there at the plantation we discover the reason. There are no pollinating insects on the islands; each plant must be pollinated by hand. The owner delicately places a needle-like piece of wood, about the size of a toothpick, inside each flower of the plant. The plants themselves (Vanilja Tahitensis) are orchids, and the fruit resulting from the pollination is harvested and dried. This orchid, originally from Central America, was used by the Aztecs to perfume chocolate.

We later stopped at the remains of a 900-year-old marae–an ancient place of worship. All that’s left is a rectangular platform made up of thousands of basalt rocks, each one heavy with history. Along the way we saw Polynesian women selling and wearing beautiful bright pareus — the wraparound, sarong like garment worn in several different styles by both men and women here. In front of every house we noticed a boite de pain–a kind of elongated wooden mailbox that accommodates the daily delivery of 40c French baguettes.

Laid-back Huahine features palms bursting through the dense vegetation, and people here tend to stay put, pursuing traditional ways of life in quiet villages with unspoiled beaches. Near the principal town of Fare we drove slowly past an Adventist church crammed with earnest worshippers, our stop made more memorable when a dozen of well-fed massive eels, well over five feet long, swam out of their cave in a Banyon tree and wriggled among us. Their giant mouths opened and shut to feed on a can of sardines our driver fed them as they surrounded our legs and nibbled our calves. Eels and remoras are considered sacred by the natives here.

As the day drifted into night millions of stars splashed the inky black sky. Nemo Polynesia indeed seemed like an island of serenity in this beautiful sea. In this floating Paradise it is hard to decide which appeals more, the cat or shore? All night long I was vaguely aware of the lullaby of the waves surging onto the reef.

Our first night we spent anchored off Huahine, and none of us wanted to leave. Once or twice in the night, we stepped out to marvel at the stars and this beautiful island, with its deep bays, mountains and white-sand beaches, where waves rocked Nemo as gently as a water bed. The maramuu–or southeast trade wind – brought the heavy aroma of blossoms from shore.

Tahaa “The Vanilla Island”

Mornings some people headed for the fore deck, the perfect spot for stretching at sunrise, while most of us began with a quick snorkel. I sat every morning on the stern swim–step to watch quietly the remoras feed on mahi-mahi bits I gave them. The waters around Huahine serve up incredible snorkeling, with namesake creatures and coral in blues, violets and greens. We encountered sharks, barracuda, remoras, and today a pod of dolphins danced and chased us. Rob and I are confirmed island-hoppers but even so, every morning for the past few days, we have had to mentally pinch ourselves. Yes, here we are, about to anchor off the coast of one of the world’s most legendary islands.

Nemo glides effortlessly over the deep, light blue waters towards Tahaa (23 mi.), a salty mist lightly envelopes our senses. For lunch, the friendly crew, Fabienne the captain’s wife and Tehahe (Jessy) our Tahitian hotesse, cooked mahi-mahi steaks while we swam in the immaculately clean, white sand-bottomed lagoon. A Robinson Crusoe setting. We had the island to ourselves and some curious stingrays. This especially sugary stretch of beach is an easy swim or snorkel to either of two motus off this point. When we asked Michele the name of the motu, his reply was Je ne pud pas! I have sworn secrecy not to say its name.

After lunch we visited a pearl farm on Hana Mane Bay. As we climbed onto the dinghy sporting a 40 hp Yamaha, we saw hanging in the shallow lagoon hundreds of submerged wire mesh cages holding saucer-size oysters ready for pearl cultivation. A kaleidoscope of fish swam leisurely below, awaiting a meal of discarded oysters from the farm.

Black pearl farms are set up in protected lagoons where the reefs slow the strong ocean waves, while still allowing currents to carry enough nutrients to feed the oysters. It takes about two to three years for a Pinctada margaritifera oyster to grow large enough for the grafting process to begin.

The friendly owner gave us demonstrations on pearl oyster farming. He pried open the shells of a hapless oyster, revealing a lustrous black pearl nestled on the half shell. “Le coleur, c’est belle,” he whispered to me, scrutinizing the marble-size pearl under the brilliant South Pacific sun. He grinned and dropped the dusky jewel into my hand.

French Polynesia first cultivated black pearls in the 1960s and today exports over 200,000 of these iridescent gems a year. Their name comes from the distinctive black-lipped oyster that produces them, not from the pearl itself; the term “black pearls” is actually a misnomer because they come in green, magenta, blue, silver-black, green-black and even white. Individual pearls vary in price from $150 to several thousand dollars. The leading Polynesian cultivation of the gems is the coral atoll of Manihi, 300 miles northeast of Tahiti where pearl farming is a way of life, and sixty pearl farms operate within its lagoon.

The islands we visited here have between 4,000 to 8,000 residents, speaking primarily French and Mao’hi (Tahitian), a language of ancient origins with 13 letters and a few hundred words, many of which have 5-6 meanings. Living the same basic lifestyle as their Polynesian ancestors, the islanders’ primary occupations still remain shoreline fishing and farming. Each of the densely vegetated, mountainous isles is fully ringed by a barrier reef and dazzling tropical blue lagoons. Fortunately, each has a narrow deep water passage enabling ship access.

We sailed to a Motu ( the word for the tiny, palm-studded islands that dot the region), just off of Tahaa, and snorkeled around various clusters of coral, searching for underwater delights. The dinghy kicked up a salt spray, and we sat back and let it cool us. The dinghy provided access to an hour-long snorkel where we encountered literally hundreds of coral and an array of colorful fish that seemed the least disturbed by our presence. We walked through the palms to the shore and enjoyed another great snorkeling day before catching the lively winds back to Tahaa. We later beached at a smaller motu where we enjoyed the most colorful snorkeling we’d experienced along coral beds that stretched downwards into the deep lagoon — just another day in paradise .

From here it was easy to understand why the first Europeans, including Captain Cook’s expedition and the H.M.S. Bounty’s mutineers, coined these islands “Paradise.”

We had come to a very special place, where a lover is suggested and a very good book advisable to solo travelers. On our first day, Rob had said, ” I’m going to go crazy, gotta get my PC!” By the third day he began to relax on this decompression chamber of an island. With no corporate America meetings to attend, phones to answer or deadlines to meet, his biggest decisions were: should we go snorkeling or diving? Should I nibble on papaya or mango?

By late afternoon, layers of clouds scattered in all directions, reflecting the ever-changing light show. We have witnessed magnificent sunsets in places as diverse as the Dominican Republic to Finnish Lapland, but we must declare the ones here are the very best. That evening the South Seas sunset glowed with colors of Gauguin’s purples, oranges, pink and red in every direction. We watched this encore each evening.

In Tahaa, both of us tired and Rob sunburned, we moored off this tranquil, off-the-beaten-path island sampling the local cuisine, at the Tahaa Yacht Club at marina Iti owned by a French-Swiss transplant who prepared us a seafood fondue feast featuring a variety of freshly caught fish, served with with rice, taro and nonstop Polynesian cocktails. His Polynesian friends entertained us with ukuleles and dances.

Raiatea “the sacred island “

Every morning, as the sky turned to gold and sweet gusts of wind swelled the sails of the Nemo, Michele raised anchors to set off for another alluring adventure at sea. Up on deck we helped hoist anchor. The Dufour silently crept out of the harbor, and our last look at the island faded away behind us as we headed for Raiatea. This island is the most popular yachting base in French Polynesia as the stretch of lagoon between Raiatea’s port and the nearby twin island of Tahaa provides some of the best sailing here. For lunch today we had tasty Tahitian poisson cru (raw marinated fish), the national dish and a delicious experience.

There are numerous French expatriate-run businesses owned by people who had traveled here only to find themselves still on the island 12 years later. Sailors also flock to these waters for its many picture postcard-like anchorages, and non-yacht owners can arrange barefoot charters. Even non-sailors can hire yachts ranging in size from 56 to 85 feet skipper and charter. A spectacular experience by the way.

Small vessels bigger than kayaks but not megaships are popular throughout the islands. This 18-passenger Nemo Polynesia, from NEM-Raleigh Yachts, sails year-round in French Polynesia. Built in France by Dufour shipyard and designed by Jaques Pierrejean, Nemo’s French designers envisioned a life of intimate island-hopping, giving the cat a shallow draft so that it could thread the lagoons formed by coral reefs and motus that surround many of the Polynesian islands. The result of the design is that you can anchor literally a stone’s throw from paradise.

We were lucky to have Captain Michelle, who felt as comfortable on the water as we felt on land. He has not been inland in 10 years, and this was his second journey in Polynesia with Nemo. None of us travelers had sailed French Polynesia before, so he maintained what he called “an open bridge policy” where we were all welcome to drop in and chat about charts and rigging whenever we wanted. This cat has all the latest radar, GPS and other navigational systems.

He had many tales to tell of his seagoing adventures. The crew is as crucial to successful sailing as the need of an experienced sailor at the helm. Our second favorite gathering place became the lounge with its full bar, binoculars, books, games, videos — enough to keep the party swinging high.

Every day before breakfast, we joined a few other early birds on the trampoline streched between two hulls at the bow, cooled by fresh breezes. We eagerly performed tasks: dropping anchor, hoisting the sails, with laissez-faire attitude. All eight of us had embarked on this sailing adventure, chartering the cat, which included the captain, a crew of three and provisions. We were part of an two-boat flotilla. We discovered there’s no need to own a boat or be anautical wizard to enjoy a charter sailboat cruise.

Aboard Nemo Polynesia, we ate marvelously thanks to Fabienne, who is a creative, self-made French chef and a wine connoisseur. Breakfasts were eclectic and alfresco, and most mornings we could choose from scrambled eggs, cold cereal, French baguettes, yogurt, fresh fruit and coffee. Lunches were creative: crusty French baguettes and mahi-mahi burgers, and among our dinner choices were grilled tuna steaks sautéed with seared onions. Travelers we met groaned about the restaurant prices, but when we compared notes, we learned that we had escaped with a tiny tab since in the cat, we had a hotel and restaurant in one. After lunch we continued on to Bora-Bora, a four-hour sail in gentle winds.

Bora-Bora “The Island of Dreams”

Our first glimpse of Bora Bora did nothing to dispute James Michener’s opinion that this is the most beautiful island in the world.

Bora-Bora’s exotic name alone makes the journey here worthwhile. It’s unique geography lives on in the minds of anyone who has visited. Mount Otemanu sits at the center of the island like a giant tombstone in the sky overlooking its main feature: the world-famous, turquoise blue–multihued lagoon that shimmers radiantly. Huge reef and a protective strand of offshore motus ring the entire lagoon scattered along large corals, making it easy for couples to lay claim to a private islet for a day. Bora Bora’s palm-lined white sand beaches offer a vacation setting that is hard to top anywhere on earth.

We were ecstatic, and we weren’t even in the water yet. Soon the green mountain’s craggy features came clearly into view, becoming recognizable as Mt. Otemanu, a ragged remnant of a massive volcano that juts 2,400 feet out of the Pacific, dramatically defining the island of Bora-Bora. This island’s stunning beauty resulted from an ancient volcanic erosion, resulting in shark’s teeth ridges rising above a narrow lagoon. Several luxury resorts line these shores, many featuring over-the-water bungalows.

More Polynesian than French, Bora Bora offers such dazzling scenery, both below the water and above, that it made this island the most enchanting of our seven-day sail. Although its name belies that French Polynesia is a territory of France, it is uniquely Polynesian, and once clear of Tahiti we were seemingly transported centuries back in time. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the outer islands is how famous they are, yet how little tourism infrastructure exists.

An over-the-water bungalow

If you want to loose yourself in love, escape to Bora Bora. On our first day here we departed from our group and arranged a night’s stay on an over-the-water bungalow at Moana Beachcomber Parkroyal Hotel. We moved from simplicity to luxury by taking a room facing the beautiful lagoon.

Our spectacular, secluded “fare” over-the-water-bungalow was an unabashedly romantic retreat. These thatched suites seem to have been designed with honeymooners in mind. We had a sweeping view of the lagoon from the simple but elegant sitting room, double Pandanus doors open onto a bedroom with a bamboo-trimmed, king-for-a-day bed covered with hundreds of freshly cut flowers. A dressing room and bathroom decorated with live vanilla plants scenting the air ensured that our every creature comfort was met.

Built in authentic Polynesian style, the suites are a jewel of traditional Polynesian architecture. Designed with the finest materials and finished in exquisite tropical wood, they are topped with elaborately hand-tied thatch roofs made of paeve. The bungalows, raised on stilts a few feet above the sand in the quiet serene lagoon, keep out some, but not all, wandering Polynesian crabs. The deck opens eastward, displaying dramatic South Pacific sunrises and spectacular moonrises above the placid water. These brillant sky scenes will be forever sketched in our memory.

The luxury accommodations are located in quiet, secluded areas for couples seeking privacy. We appreciated the hotel’s honeymoon signature welcome: delicately sweet fresh coconut, a white polo for Rob, and for me, a beautiful white pareu. We also received two mouse pads picturing our bungalow in the glow of a gorgeous Polynesian sunset. Who could complain?

Shortly after our arrival and with our appetites ravenous after our four hour sail from Raitea to get here, we were ready to dine. We strolled to the restaurant, for an ultra romantic, candlelit dinner. All the way enjoying the scent of tropical flowers scenting the cool night air, tiar, bougainvillea, hibiscus and jasmine, closed in, surrounding us with their heady perfume. Reality seemed suspended here.

In the main dining room, scanning the menu, we unanimously decided on a local spiny lobster. As we raised glasses of sweet vahine & Mai Tai, our dinner fit for Polynesian kings was served. The resort’s French chef Patrick Gateau creates the finest meals, indulging all the senses with his sublime and imaginative blend of French culture with native Polynesian influences. An essential experience is dining on fresh-from-the lagoon fish in the understated elegance of the restaurant.

Menus here feature something Polynesian, grilled parrot fish or Mahi-Mahi caught fresh from the seas surrounding, lobster shrimp; something vegetarian, like sautéed vegetables with a Tahitian sauces; exotic, poisson cru, baked salmon and a variety of local seafood’s. The cuisine created is excellent. Lunches and hors d’oeuvres served al fresco facing the lagoon. Nightly dinner specials and the nightly grill, set up around the lagoon, which feature seafood. Every menu seems to revolve around the abundant seafood. The resort offers two dining venues decorated in beautifully designed and relaxing Polynesian décor. adjacent to the beach and gracious landscaped terrace, both venues overlook the majestic lagoon of Bora Bora. While waiting for dessert, I took a good look around the room and realized all these love-or-sun-struck couples weren’t here to see and be seen, as in many top restaurants. Indeed, they only had eyes for each other. We felt like spies in the house of love. The Moana Beachcomber Parkroyal is appealing to honeymooners and anniversary celebrants like ourselves, who especially enjoyed midnight skinny-dipping in front of our bungalow with uttermost privacy. The suites have a ladder off the terrace that allow you to swim in the lagoon just outside your bedroom.

Fabrice Bohbote, the hotel GM and another French expatriate, had traveled to Bora Bora 12 years ago and still finds himself here. He called our first evening to welcome us to the hotel and asked, “Have you turned on your Polynesian TV yet?” We almost laughed at him, as TV would be the last thing on our minds while in heaven. He then explained: the coffee table in the living room had a removable top so that we could feed the fish in the water just below. We were mesmerized by our personal aquarium, which was illuminated at night and gave us a clear view directly into the lagoon below.

The next morning we slept in late, then slipped on our new Moana pareus over our swimsuits and padded our way straight into the lagoon. To surprise your love one, have breakfast delivered by a flower- decked outrigger canoe after your first morning dip with the hotel’s long trumpet fishes. Organize it the night before. You can also have a romantic sunset dinner delivered to your balcony.

The next morning we left early to meet our group of sailing buddies for a snorkel. We tackled a gullied, red-dirt trail, overgrown with vegetation, partially paved and lined with flamboyant trees dripping with red blooms. You can wander the dramatic emerald isle for hours without seeing another soul. You can explore the island’s 19-mile ring road by moped, bicycle, auto, horseback or foot. The road around the coastal plains of Bora Bora around the jagged, verdant mountains climb almost vertically from the lagoon. Mt. Otemanu is considered unclimbable from any angle.

In town, we could hear the buzzing sounds on doors marked “Salon des Tatouges.” Tattooes originated in Polynesia, and before colonization men wore an assortment of them and were considered less than desirable without many of them decorating their bodies. A man’s family origin was tattooed on his right side while his victories and awards on his left. Officially banned by the missionaries and government, tatoos have experienced a resurgence in recent years. Modern tattooists use an electric needle, but the original way was a shark’s tooth and mallet.

A foaming reef encircles the 80 km. multi-colored lagoon, three times larger than its land mass with luminous blue-green water that varies with depth. Bora Bora is dotted with motus–tiny islets that look like cartoonists’ stereotypical desert islands. In the middle, Nemo sits at anchor, stone-still in the bright sun.

My eyes scan to devour the scene greedily, savoring this precise moment in our lives, never losing sight of Mt. Otemanu. As we motored in the cat, beckoning views called from every angle. Bora Bora’s green peaks soared into the wispy clouds. We crossed the lagoon, heading toward a palm-studded reef islet. After slowing to a sandy anchorage, we eased ourselves into the water and followed our captain towards the lagoon’s tidal channel. Although some people consider it inundated with tourists, we hardly noticed anyone. I wanted to savor every moment in this magical island.

Dazzling French Polynesia ,Tahiti and neighboring isles truly exceed their fame

In Bora Bora we were determined to dive. Here we faced one drawback of sailing: most such excursions are organized by hotels. Our captain dropped us off Motu Piti Aau ? at the spectacular Bora-Bora Lagoonarium. We were content to snorkel in the clear, warm water and shallow reefs that created an aquarium teeming with colorful tropical fish. Snorkeling slowly, we saw droves of fish in myriad colors, and gasped with wonder at these beautiful creatures.

We also swam with well-fed reef sharks and large manta rays. Several rays glided effortlessly toward us, lazily flapping their six-foot-span fins. They circled us, awaiting a squid snack. Taking care to avoid their long tails, we enticed them and black-tipped reef sharks with bits of raw fish. We approached and stroked the rays’ velveteen backs, their large gill spiracles pulsing behind searching eyes as they gobbled handouts with their flat, narrow mouths. We had not imagined that these magnificent animals were accustomed to humans in their eons-old environment and that we could snorkel with those prehistoric looking creatures.

Our visit here was made more memorable when, to our surpise, we came face to face with six black-tip sharks. We hastily swam back when along came a five-foot gray reef shark — more dangerous than the common black-tips. We just couldn’t stop marveling how lucky we were to experience a brief encounter with these beauties and the rare opportunity to see the natural behavior of this unique animal. Only when they flapped out of view did we realize that the nearby coral formations and huge colorful fishes were also deserving of our attention. Rob surfaced with his mask on and said angel fish!.

At 4:00 p.m., our time in paradise was running out, and a friendly French expatriate/guide Dany from Bora-Bora Diving Center had set a final a afternoon dive and our first Aqua Safari. The experience was like jumping into a private aquarium where schools of tiny fish of every color and configuration were willing to snack on baguettes and let us touch them. Some, like the parrot fish, looked they’d flopped around for a time on Gauguin’s wet palette, becoming underwater works of art. With 82-degree water and visibility of 70 feet, we weren’t complaining. This was the perfect cap to an unforgettable week in French Polynesia.

Reality unfortunately had to surface. Our flight home was up in an hour, and it was time to leave this insular paradise we had found. As our plane lifted into the heavens, Rob whispered to me, “This is my idea of paradise.” And who could possibly argue? We watched Bora Bora disappear, surrounded by aqua blue waters that are transparent even from the air. That evening, so ended for us a week in the unspoiled paradise that is French Polynesia — where coconut palms and pandanus still stand taller than hotels.

“There is something truly magical about sailing this secret pocket of the world. If you can’t be romantic in Polynesia you might just not have that gene in you.

Sailing around this enchanting piece of the world

Yacht charters not only make for an exceptional vacation, they also bring you island treasures accessible only by boat. Catamaran yachting offers guests comfort, space, and at the same time the flexibility to discover French Polynesia intimately and at their own pace. Also a great value for your money in these islands. You can select either Monohull, Power or Catamaran available for charter by the leaders in crewed yacht chartering, offering over 500 yachts worldwide in the most exotic destinations. Yachts ranging in size from 56 feet to 85 feet and their crews are dedicated to serving the luxury crewed charter market, offering unparalleled cuisine, water sports equipment & amenities. This fresh approach to cruising as a vacation option makes a nice alternative for those who have already tried the cruise line experience.

Ready to sail

VPM Richleigh Yachts P.O. Box 550070 o Ft Lauderdale o Fla 33355 Toll Free: 1-800-578 4348 o Local: 954-236 8800 o Fax : 954-236 8822 · Booking the Charter: you can go directly to their Internet site to obtain information, sailing dates, and pricing for Tahiti. Unlike cruise lines, VPM encourages customers to call them directly to book charter · Charter crew: of three is bilingual — English and French — though the majority of passengers are American · Prices: The Tahiti charter starting at: $1288 low season: June 1- Sept. 30 dual occupancy on yacht, $450 plane ticket from Oakland or LA (plus taxes), $150 internal air .High season: Oct. 1- May 31 $1433, $500 flt., $150 internal air. Single rates available on request. Price includes: round-trip air fare, charter rental and land lodging, two nights hotel in the Beachcomber Parkroyal in Tahiti, airport transfers, internal air Tahiti/Huahine and Bora Bora/Tahiti, ferry transfer and tour of Moorea, seven day cruise aboard the yacht, all meals including table wines, jeep safari in Huahine and dinner and show in Tahaa.

Getting there

Airlines serving Tahiti: more accessible than many Americans imagine. The flt. from the West Coast takes just two hours longer than that to Honolulu · Air Tahiti Nui is the long-distance carrier, flying from L.A. to Papeete. Owning only one aircraft their plane is booked well in advance. Excursion fares from the West Coast start at about $505 · Island-hopping: is simple · Air Tahiti offers frequent flt. service to all the main islands (ask about the Air Pass if you plan to do a lot of island-hopping). Ferries are loads of fun-and inexpensive.

Staying there

We suggest an overnight near LAX before continuing your travels: Four Points Hotel Sheraton at Los Angeles International Airport. 9750 Airport Blvd. o Los Angeles, California 90045 Telephone: 310-645-4600 o Fax: 310-649-7047 and Le Montrose – 900 Hammond Street – West Hollywood CA 90069 TEL 310.855.1115 / 800.776.0666 – FAX 310.657.9192 Reservations 800.776.0666 In French Polynesia offers the traveler a wide variety of hotel accommodations from full-service to first-class luxury resorts. No matter where you stay, you will be embraced by Polynesia’s abundant natural beauty and genuine hospitality. There are more luxury hotels in Bora Bora than elsewhere in French Polynesia, and the luxury standards are a notch or two higher as well. We opted for the Beachcomber Parkroyal Hotel chain in each island, Polynesia’s premier resort and member of the “Small Luxury Hotels of the World” · In Tahiti the Beachcomber Parkroyal Hotel P.O. BOX 6014 Faaa Tahiti Tel: (689) 86 51 10 Fax: (689) 86 51 30 Jean-Marc Mocellin E-mail: [email protected] a magnificent low rise Polynesian style resort set amongst fourteen hectares of lush tropical gardens on the edge of the lagoon. With spectacular views across the Sea of Moons to Tahiti’s sister island, Moorea · In Bora Bora the Moana Beachcomber Parkroyal Fabrice Bohbote, Pointe Matira PO Box 156 Bora Bora 98730 Phone: (689) 604.900 Fax:(689) 604.999 Email: [email protected] · In Morea the Beachcomber Parkroyal PO Box 1019 Moorea 98729 French Polynesia Phone: (689) 55 19 19 Fax: (689) 55 19 55 Email: [email protected]

For a taste of paradise

Food onboard Nemo: these yachts offer some of the best food in the world. and a preference sheet, filled out before guests leave for their adventure, allows the onboard chef to cater to the likes and dislikes of each person · In Tahiti: Lotus (60 120) A gourmet French restaurant with local Polynesian specialties. Offering you the most beautiful surroundings for a gourmet dinner or a light lunch. The Tiare restaurant features an open grill as well as local and international cuisine’s 53.00$ dinner. Enjoy a cocktail at Lotus swim-up bar, or in the Tiki Bar to the sound of the ukulele 6.00$ coke · In Bora Bora: Noa Noa restaurant (604 900) Noa Noa’s cuisine offers only the finest dishes, combining seafood subtlety with local island produce, to create an international and exotic cuisine featuring local entertainment. Vini Vini Bar offers light snacks savoring the fruity flavors of cocktails. On Monday and Friday evenings Tahitian cooking is demonstrated and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings you can experience a pareo tying demonstration. Bloody Mary’s, Amanahune (689) 67 72 86 an island institution, with its talcum-powder-soft sand floor. The legendary restaurant really does serve an incredibly tasty Bloody Mary · In Tahaa: Yacht-club Marina Iti: 38.50$ Dinner Robert Antoine o Local : (689)-65 69 27 o Fax: 65 63 87 [email protected]

Shore Excursions

You can literally design your own itinerary from an imaginative selection of energetic shore excursions ranging from para-sailing · Bora Bora Parasail Mr. Pierre Phillipe Giraud (689) 676173 / 789710 and scuba diving to snorkeling, sea tours by outrigger canoe or helicopter tours. An ever-present option is to rent a car or bicycle and get around on your own. Activities include exploration by Land Rover · Huahine’s Afo Safari: 35$ (689) 68 87 91, sailing, jet-ski tours, deep-sea fishing, and dolphin watching · Tahaa Motu Pearl Farm: (689) 65 66 67 o Fax: 65 69 18 · The Gauguin Museum: Km. 51.2, Papeari (689) 57 10 58

Diving there

Is year-round, with water temperature averaging 82-84 degrees. For beginners, experienced instructors conduct PADI or NAUI introductory courses. Contact: Anne & Michel Condesse · Bora Bora Diving Center & The Aqua Safari 58.30$ [email protected] Tel (689) 67 71 84 or 67 74 83 or VHF channel 8 · Lagunarium: 30.00$ fruits included after dive, Anau, (689) 67 71 34 ·

Shop to your heart’s content

There’s no better way to revive memories than with a few well-chosen treasures from the islands · Bringing a taste of Tahiti home a real delight for the gourmet vanilla beans can be found at vanilla plantations or public markets. Tahitian vanilla is exported world-wide because of its high quality. Kept in a plastic bag (not refrigerated) the beans will last 25 years. Use them as chefs do, flavoring fruit salads, custards rum punch or even rum. We bought ours in Huahine you can also buy the extract: Tropical Tahitien vanille at the airport. We really loved: Noa Noa Rhum Brun and coconut chocolate chip cookies, Tahitian café vanillé, Namata Tahiti thé. Tahitian beer: · The pareu the colorful piece of cloth, practically the national dress. There are more shops selling pareus than T-shirt stands. Most pareus are printed with designs inspired by the tropical scenery and the island’s best buy starting at 10$ · Nature’s bounty nearly all crafts in Tahiti are based on natural materials. Look for hats and baskets woven from pandanus, bowls, platters and ceremonial paddles carved from precious woods that grow in the islands · Soft touch Tahitian coconut oils are great as massage oils and moisturizers blended with the perfume of the Tiare, and sold under the name monoi · Soundtracks : taking home some Tahitian music one excellent young star we found was Tapu Arii, whose authentic melodies are inspired by Tahaa. A popular local singer son of the owner of Tahaa’s pearl, whose disc is called Cool Morning. He sings in Tahitian, French and English. A great gift idea. Tahiti compact disc co. Tel: 011-689-53-18-24 / Fax: 011-689-53-12-33 · The black pearl Polynesia is famous for, make a perfect keepsake to take home from the islands. Of the world’s 70 species of oysters, the rarest and finest-quality pearl oyster is the one that thrives on the Tuamotu atolls scattered east of Tahiti. Before the natural supply of these oysters was exhausted in the 1960s natives would dive to depths of 90 feet to find them. Only one oyster in 300 would hold a natural black pearl; only one in 10,000 would be of significant size. Black pearls now French Polynesia’s most valuable export. You’ll find black pearl shops in the airport, major hotels, throughout downtown Papeete, and in commercial centers of Bora Bora. Prices start at just a few dollars for small, irregular pearls, but climb to many thousand. During our stay I discovered that it was difficult to buy black pearls at a pearl farm–it’s kind of like trying to buy a gallon of milk directly from a dairy farm. Most farms transport newly harvested pearls off island to grading centers · Note: Pearls are the only item where bargaining is expected.

Language: although French is the official language of French Polynesia, most of the residents prefer Tahitian. English is widely spoken in the tourist sector · Climate and clothing: cooled by gentle Pacific breezes, Tahiti’s climate is sunny and pleasant year-round, with average temperatures around 80° Pareus and swimsuits are standard attire · Cost of paradise: paradise doesn’t come cheap — Polynesia has one of the highest costs of living · Relative costs: you can pay up to $75 per person and up for an ordinary dinner without wine, hotel rooms go for $200 and $300 a night, and bungalows cost $800 a night and up). That’s when sticker shock set in. A tiny jar of salsa $6.95, a can of dry-roasted peanuts $16, a six-pack of local Hinano beer $10, a 6-ounce fruit yogurt $3.60, 2$ a coconut. On the bright side, the crusty baguettes were delicious and only 30 cents one of the few bargains we encountered on land · Tipping: is discouraged in French Polynesia, but it is becoming an accepted practice in many areas · Reading, etc. Passport Tahiti & Bora Bora Information free pamphlets in all languages. “Tahiti-Polynesia Handbook” e-mail: [email protected] · For more information: Tahiti Tourist Board, (689) 50 57 16 Fax: 43 66 19 [email protected] 300 Continental Blvd., El Segundo, CA 90245; tel. (310) 414-8484, fax (310) 414-8490, Internet Bon Voyage

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