Date of Trip: February 2007
A solid wall of humidity slammed into me as soon as I exited the plane at Tahiti’s Faaa Airport — but so did the scent of fresh flowers as dark, voluptuous women with glistening skin beamed at the new crop of tourists and ringed our necks with leis. People throw the word “paradise” around — a lot — but in this case, as I walked toward an open-air terminal to collect luggage, clear customs and ultimately board a 10-night cruise on Tahitian Princess, I knew I was “there.”
Tahiti may be in the same time zone as Hawaii, but it is still a nine-hour flight from Los Angeles — and that’s after the multi-hour trek folks from the Midwest and East Coast have to make! I traveled from the New York area’s Newark Airport; with a layover, a few delays and a bus transfer from Tahiti’s Faaa airport to the cruise terminal, my door-to-ship travel time was about 24 hours. But here’s the thing: It’s absolutely worth sacrificing a day to get to the isles of the South Pacific.
You won’t find Caribbean outposts like Senor Frogs and Diamonds International. Tourist dollars are spent instead at independent, locally owned shops and shacks, and each time I stepped off the boat, something was missing — in a good way. Nobody knocked me over in the rush to get to the last pair of cheap diamond earrings, a 9 a.m. margarita or a digital camera that’s really not that great of a deal anyway. Where Hawaii, particularly in its cruise ports, feels modern and familiar, French Polynesia is decidedly foreign. Most residents speak both French and Tahitian; a long tube sits side by side with mailboxes for home delivery of French baguettes, baked fresh daily. On many islands, the main mode of public transportation is a rickety open-air wagon called a Le Truck that sometimes also doubles as a school bus.
Like the Hawaiian Islands, French Polynesian ports all have different personalities, though you will have to dig a little deeper to find each island’s own character. We overheard one beach bum say, “If you’ve seen one island, you’ve seen them all.” And, to be sure, in every port you’ll see gorgeous blue lagoons and towering mountainous interiors. A lot of activities are similar too, including snorkeling, shopping for black pearls and visiting vanilla plantations.
But beyond that there are historical and cultural distinctions. Raiatea is known as the “sacred isle” because it was the place for Polynesians to congregate for ceremonies, such as fire-walks, human sacrifices and funerals. Huahine’s tiny fishing villages are sleepy and authentic while Bora Bora, dependent on tourism, is a little bit slicker with over a dozen luxury resorts gleaming on the lagoon and more gathering places for tourist hordes, such as the bar at the famous Bloody Mary’s restaurant.
Our cruise was a much cheaper option than picking an island and staying on land. Those luscious over-the-water bungalows you see in glossy travel magazines average just shy of $1,000 a night. Yes, a night! Compare that to a deal we saw for our 10-night cruise, just a few weeks before the sail date, of $999 per person.
We also liked the fact that our cruise would allow us to venture outside the region as well; Tahitian Princess sails to New Zealand’s Cook Islands (we stopped at Rarotonga). Most of the French Polynesian ports are within a few hours of each other by cruise ship and so offer minimal sea days. Heading to Rarotonga, however, which is far enough away to warrant a sea day, there and back, adds time for onboard relaxation.
It isn’t exactly a breeze to get to Tahiti — there are only a few carriers that operate flights from Los Angeles (Air Tahiti Nui, Air New Zealand and Air France are the major players), and departures are limited to one or two daily. So if you show up late or miss a connection somewhere along the way, you might be stuck until the next day.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn in planning my trip that passengers board Tahitian Princess on, say, a Sunday (embarkation days vary) — but the ship doesn’t actually depart until Monday evening. Between embarkation and sail away, passengers can come and go as they please as if staying at an on-land resort. Having the extra day at the start of the cruise is particularly beneficial on this itinerary because if you hit an air travel snag, at least you know your ship will still be there when you finally do arrive. Well, not always. There was a huge snowstorm in the Midwest the week of our cruise, and so many passengers faced canceled or delayed flights. Yes, some arrived on the day we set sail, technically the second day of the 10-night cruise. But because the departures to Tahiti are so limited, we saw others finally reaching the ship a few days in, rolling their suitcases to the tender dock in Huahine or up the gangway in Raiatea.
Luckily, our flights were unaffected and we arrived as planned. But as a general rule of thumb, when you are cruising a region that’s distant and not easily accessible by plane, it is best to plan to arrive in the city of embarkation a day or two early. This way, you allow yourself more time to explore; if you are flying all the way to Tahiti, you might as well see Tahiti! And if weather or another uncontrollable force delays you, you’re less likely to miss the boat (so to speak).
Which Island Fits Your Personality?
Each island is different, with its own history, scenery and characteristics — and excursions. Rarotonga is all about nature; because the island is so green and lush, and because there are no natural predators, hiking through local plantations and low-lying forest is a must-do (fellow cruisers raved about a local tour guide named Pa, who points out local herbal medicines along the way); there’s a bird sanctuary that can be explored as well.
History buffs, meanwhile, can visit multiple maraes — outdoor ancient worship temples used in old Polynesia for ceremonial purposes. Many were destroyed or abandoned with the arrival of Christianity in the 19th century, but there are still high concentrations on Huahine and Raiatea.
Raiatea is the only island from which you can take a tour of another island. We loved our excursion from Raiatea to Tahaa, a smaller, quieter island that shares the same lagoon. After our boat transfer we saw a woman fishing for lunch while her two skinny dogs, cat and kids ran around playing in the dirt (one of the kids was completely naked, to the delight of the camera-toting tourists — the kids didn’t seem to mind the attention, either). On Tahaa, most people don’t work; they simply live off the land, fishing for their daily meals much like this mother was.
One of the main reasons I wanted to get to Tahaa is because I am an avid baker — and Tahaa is known as the vanilla island. Three-quarters of all Tahitian vanilla is produced there, and we visited a family-run plantation where you can see where and how the beans are grown, and then purchase some to take home. I expected to see the leathery brown ribbons I see chefs slicing down the middle on the Food Network to procure sweet vanilla seeds. But when vanilla is on the vine, the beans are bright green and plump like string beans (vanilla is part of the orchard family; the vines wrap around a “host” plant — anything tall and leafy).
I sniffed around the plants and couldn’t smell the vanilla; turns out the beans don’t really become fragrant until they are dried in the sun. As soon as we walked into the barn-like open-air shopping area, however, the perfume of vanilla was thick and warm like cake just out of the oven.
Now I know why that tiny bottle of McCormick’s extract in my local supermarket is nearly $7. From start to finish, the vanilla takes a lengthy year and half to be cultivated and prepared for the marketplace — and it needs to be pollinated by hand. (It is the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.) Thankfully, we learned how to make our own extract at the farm: buy a cheap bottle of rum and soak 10 Tahitian vanilla beans in there for three months. Back home, I’m not-so-patiently watching my “tub” of homemade vanilla extract develop its dark brown and delicious finish.
Starting in Papeete
Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and the typical turnaround point for cruises, accounts for well over half of the island’s overall population of 180,000. Papeete is also the most urban of the ports (it was here we encountered the region’s only real city bus system), and numerous shops, attractions and cafes are within easy walking distance from the cruise ship dock.
We spent our afternoon on embarkation day covering the waterfront on foot, ducking into small shops and enjoying a seafood lunch at Jack Lobster atop the Vaima Center, a four-level shopping and dining complex. It was so close to our dock that we could see many of our shipmates returning from the Marche du Papeete, a fabulous market with a French feel, with flower arrangements for their cabins — one of the more affordable items to pick up in this most expensive region.
If French Polynesia is regaled as a relaxed place, Huahine is the inspiration. When we stepped off of our tender boat and onto terra firma in Huahine, I felt at odds with myself. The impulse to “go, go, go” was squelched by an overwhelming sense of calm and a somewhat deafening silence. There were no cars or taxis zipping along the one slim road fronting the tender pier. Just my fellow cruise passengers and I in awe of the lush jungle-like foliage creeping up the steep mountains.
This is how small Huahine, population 5,000, really is, at least according to ship lore: A passenger chatted with a local longing for something from the states — beef jerky. The passenger offered to send some, and was instructed to address the package this simply: her name, Huahine, French Polynesia. The jerky got there, no address required! It was this port in particular that gave us a sense of “old” Polynesia, not something fabricated for tourists.
Around the island, you’ll see 400-year-old stone fish traps that the locals still use today (mahi mahi, marlin and tuna are abundant here). Some of Polynesia’s coolest archeological sites — stone and coral temples — are on Huahine; the town of Maeva was once a seat of ancient Polynesian government. There’s a lookout point called Belevedere, where panoramic views of Maroe Bay took my breath away; from here there’s a clear view of the ship at anchor, looking for the entire world like a tiny tub toy in the vast aqua water, but fog prevented a great photo.
After a ship-sponsored tour, which included a stop at a museum in a hut over the water, Mike and I grabbed Princess’ $5 shuttle into Fare, Huahine’s main town (it’s too far to walk, and public transportation is extremely limited). There are a few shops here selling colorful pareos (silk wraps) and vanilla beans, a pretty beach within walking distance, and an oceanfront restaurant where we had grilled mahi mahi sandwiches and Tahiti-brewed Hinano beer — the first of many seafood lunches and cold brews we’d enjoy ashore.
I have to confess: We were prepared not to like Bora Bora. I know that sounds insane, but I chalk it up to too much of a good thing — I read too many travel articles online by jaded writers who condemned it the most tourist-y of the Polynesian ports due to crowded bars and restaurants, and overpriced bungalows. And quite frankly I couldn’t care less where Nicole Kidman spent her honeymoon. But I couldn’t have been more wrong….
Besides a day in Papeete at the beginning and end of the voyage, the ship only overnights in two ports — Raiatea and Bora Bora — but it leaves Raiatea early on the second morning, whereas it doesn’t depart Bora Bora until late in the afternoon on the second day. So, because we essentially had two full days, we booked a pair of ship-sponsored excursions.
The first day, we took a 4WD island tour; we were fortunate to be the last of our group off the tender, and ended up having a safari vehicle all to ourselves (they usually hold about 10). The ride is bumpy — we were warned of that ahead of time — but the fact that there were no bodies cushioning us on either side of the wooden benches also meant that for each sharp turn or dirt pile, my behind would slide to and fro, or bounce clear off the seat. It was great fun, even though my arms were sore the next day from holding on for dear life!
On day two, we did a helmet dive, which has piqued my interest in learning to scuba. You don’t even need to know how to swim to participate in this tour; the idea is to give you a scuba experience — definitely up close and personal, as they say, with the underwater world — without having to become certified or learn any new techniques. Each helmet supplies oxygen so you can breathe normally and best of all, your hair doesn’t even get wet.
After a short ride on a motorboat, one by one we walked down a ladder into the water. Once the water is about chest-high, the weighted helmet is lowered onto your shoulders; then you descend the ladder (about 15 ft.) until reaching the sea floor at which point all you have to do was walk around and enjoy the view of the fish and coral! The helmet is heavy — about 70 pounds — but once you are beneath the surface you don’t feel it.
Mike and I, in awe of a particularly plump yellow and blue fish, kept passing our underwater camera back and forth to snap shots. However, the glass of the mask distorted distance a bit (things that looked dangerously close, like sharp coral rocks, were still quite a ways away), and I missed the strap on one pass and accidentally let go of the camera. In a flash, it floated up to the surface and started bobbing away from where our boat was anchored. Our guide Jean Paul, in his dive gear, rescued it for us — and took a snapshot of us together in our outfits.
In addition to saving our camera, Jean Paul was incredibly professional and a lot of fun. Each person gets a chunk of French baguette to feed the fish; he took my soggy bread and rubbed it all over the front viewing panel of my helmet. I’ll never forget seeing what had to be a hundred bright striped fish dive-bombing my head for a snack. Thankfully, nobody could hear me laughing and shrieking inside of my helmet but me.
Whether you choose to venture into the water as we did or relax on Bora Bora’s beaches, don’t miss a visit to Bloody Mary’s bar and restaurant, named after a character in James Michener’s novel and the subsequent “South Pacific” musical. The institution is famous in part as a hangout for the elite. When you pull up (you’ll need to take a $5 per-person taxi or shuttle, as it is not within walking distance) there are two huge wooden boards printed up with the names of celebrities who’ve been there, from Rod Stewart to Jimmy Buffett.
But beyond that, it’s truly earned its bragging rights for being a really fun place. The sand floor is tropical and casual, and you can check your shoes at the front door if you want to feel it between your toes. Even the bathrooms are an attraction. They are al fresco, though you go in private thanks to “walls” of bamboo and foliage; in the women’s room, there’s a gorgeous waterfall sink and in the men’s, a funny phallic toilet flusher (yes, I peeked in!).
I’m glad we went to Bloody Mary’s for lunch as opposed to dinner — I saw a lobster entree on the menu for 6,500 francs, about $65! I was continuously reminded, and shocked, by how expensive everything on these islands really can be. Aside from fish and some local produce like bananas and coconuts, everything (beef, grain) is imported, mostly from France and Australia, both some distance away.
But hitting up fancier eateries for lunch instead of dinner is a great way to experience local favorites without blowing your food and souvenir budget in one fell swoop. My cheeseburger with the restaurant’s “special sauce” was much more reasonable and hit the spot after eating nothing but fish, fish and more fish ashore. All tastes best washed down with a super spicy Bloody Mary, the apropos house drink.
It is often said that the fictional island in the musical “South Pacific” — Bali Hai — was based on Moorea, and the island is as idyllic as any set designer could dream up: soft sand beaches, clear azure water and jagged mountains that appear to pierce right through cottony clouds. I was amazed by how pristine the landscape is — even the power cables are buried underground so as not to mar Moorea’s natural beauty.
You can swim or snorkel right from the shore, but we decided to take in the atmosphere on the ship’s secluded motu (small island) “beach break” excursion because it all but promised a stingray encounter without the crowds and hype of, say, Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Indeed, a very friendly stingray swam right up to Mike and me while we were floating in the bathtub-warm water off the motu. I thought I’d be scared; as gentle as they seem who can forget what happened to Steve Irwin, the gutsy host of the wildlife documentary series “The Crocodile Hunter” who died after a stingray attack in Australia while filming a show. But Irwin’s case was rare and with a different type of creature.
This stingray tickled my leg as he passed by — which made me giggle and squirm — but I have to say I never was certain if it was actually his body that touched me or simply a current of water conducted by his motion. I was impressed by how graceful they are underwater, gliding around the docked boats and human visitors, getting so close without ever bumping into anything. It’s like they are equipped with mini GPS systems!
Our swim was topped off by a barbeque lunch, a feast of chicken, fish, sausages and fresh fruit. It was one of the most relaxing days — and tours — of the trip. In hindsight, this was the one port where we wished we’d had time to do even more, such as hiking through the island’s unspoiled rainforest or parasailing above its craggy peaks and duo of picturesque bays.
After reading a book about a place, or seeing a play, it never turns out to be exactly how you pictured it in your head. But in this case, reality was pretty close to fiction: breathtaking, idyllic and relaxing. I’d never seen water so blue (the Caribbean is greenish and the ocean off the Jersey shore where I live is — sadly — gray). The bays and lagoons surrounding the islands of the South Pacific are colors I’ve only seen in the Crayola 64 box of crayons: cerulean, turquoise, aquamarine. But beyond the typically stunning landscape, we bounced up a hill in Bora Bora in a 4WD vehicle to see giant World War II cannons, walked on the bottom of the ocean with just a helmet and a loaf of bread — and, in today’s busy world, found time to really talk to each other over mahi mahi burgers and beer on Huahine.