Our first morning on Tahiti Moorea shined pink across the turquoise lagoon and cobalt sea that separates the two islands. We walked paths through playful exotic flower gardens, graceful palms, and glittering fresh water pools that overflowed into the ocean. We were always aware of the delectable colors of sea and the ever-present roar of the barrier reef protecting the quiet lagoon from it. A buffet covered ten tables under the shade of the palms and allowed for every possibility of breakfast choice. Enormous urns of scented vibrant flowers were integrated with the edibles to create a riot of color, scent and texture that was truly irresistible. Warm breezes played in the blossoms while we sampled the delicacies at the buffet and watched small sailboats and outrigger canoes on the lagoon.
John and I had crossed the 3875-mile distance from Los Angeles to FAAA airport on Tahiti to board a cabin charter boat called Nemo Polynesia. We would live aboard the 83′ catamaran in our private cabin as we sailed between Tahiti, Huahini, Tahaa, Raiatea, and Bora Bora. Cabin charter is the middle ground between taking a cruise and chartering a yacht. Like a cruise there is a planned itinerary, meals are all served at one time and the other guests are unfamiliar. Unlike a cruise, there were only 12 of us and we had some flexibility in our schedule. Like a yacht charter, we lived in cabins on a comfortable boat, the food was regional, exotic, and beautifully presented, and we spent leisurely days sailing from island to island. Unlike yacht charter you don’t have the boat to yourself, and that makes cabin charter cost a fraction of the price of a private yacht.
A half-hour flight from Tahiti brought us to the town of Fare on Huahine Nui. The village was filled with the quiet bustle of barefoot activity and the ever-present rumble of the barrier reef. Children and chickens wandered the flower-lined street among the restaurants and shops. The locals are physically beautiful people, so innocent that they meet your eyes like old friends. There are flowers everywhere on these islands and people pluck a blossom from a bush to stick behind their ear as part of strolling down the street. Little brown bodies did flips off the dock into the iridescent water, performing tricks and grinning in delight as they burst to the surface.
We met Michel, our captain aboard Nemo, when he came to pick us up at the covered bridge dock in Fare. After moving into our cabins and exploring the catamaran, the process of getting to know our fellow travelers began. We all had sailing and exploring new places in the world in common. There were twelve of us on board, but with a boat 83’ long and 30’ wide there was always space for gatherings small or large, and places to read quietly or work on a tan. Our cabins were tight but efficient, each with it’s own entrance and head. Life aboard had a comfortable rhythm as we explored these primordial islands.
Before we left Huahine we took a land tour with AFO Safari in the afternoon. Afo is a native who gives a tour circumnavigating the twin islands of Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small). We saw fresh water blue eyed eels that have been hand fed by the locals in the town of Faie and have been tame for decades. At a small farm we all saw the processes involved in growing the fresh vanilla used in most local recipes. The farmers pollinate the blossoms by hand since there are no native insects for this job. We were taken to the Maeva Bridge, the last remaining site of the local tradition of using fish traps. You build stone walls in the tidal pools, shaped as a “V” which follows the outgoing flow. These stone walls are just higher than the lowest tide. When the tide comes in, the fish do too. When the tide goes out some fish are trapped. The traps were just one more indication of people living in elegant simplicity, enjoying a lifestyle which reveres the harmony of natural forces.
Our first dinner aboard Nemo was a delicious raw fish salad full of chopped raw vegetables and a salty sweet dressing, followed by Polynesian chicken marinated in coconut milk, and lots of wine. For dessert there was a mixed fruit compote with crème fraiche. Fabianne is Michel’s wife and is a very creative cook. She uses what ever is freshest of native produce to create beautiful and tasty feasts day after day from her tiny galley.
Our first night sky was filled with luminous reds and vibrating purples. The islands make shadows into the bioluminescent water, and look as if they are floating. The new moon in the Southern Hemisphere hangs in the air like a teacup without a handle on a tapestry of spilled sugar. In the morning the water was flat calm and reflected the pink light so evenly that you could not tell where the sea stopped and the sky began. Clouds hung in the rosy air, roosters crowed, fragrant flowers and salt breezes blended to create a sense of being suspended and timeless between sky and ocean. The smell of fresh coffee drifted over the deck as people began to emerge from their cabins. Michel prepared for our first day’s sail, a three-hour run between Huahine and Tahaa.
I had never seen an atoll before, and did not understand the effect of a barrier reef. What it creates is a lagoon with a clockwise circular current surrounding the volcanic island in the center. Outside the ocean pounds against the barrier, with surf is made up of rolling curls as high as 30′. The luminous turquoise wave shatters into white spray with a continuous roar. There are only a few breaks in the barriers to each island. These are known as “passages” where the boats can pass through. The ride out of the passage at Huahine was calm, just a moderate swell actually. As you go through the passage you can look down the throat of this rolling curl, see the sunlight through it, and imagine what power it must have. There is that ever present sound of the ocean, like an animal roaring in frustration.
Three hours of peaceful sailing later we entered another passage, the one surrounding Tahaa. Each island has what is clearly a volcanic shape covered in thick jungle. We were able to go ashore on Tahaa for a little shopping in the afternoon. John and I explored the small shops and sandy streets then settled in for a cold local beer at an outdoor café. The leisurely pace and casual style of everyone in the streets gave a feeling of being at the end of the world, pretty much true. Children chatted happily to us in very pristine french as we took in the comfortable life of the village. You would really have to work hard to have a rotten day in an environment such as this.
Back aboard Nemo we headed south around the lagoon to spend the night in the harbor of Point Tuamaru. Our first dinner ashore was at the Marini Iti Restaurant. We were treated to a festival dinner complete with native musicians and dancers. Our stewardess aboard Nemo, Jese, grew up on this island and joined family members in the dances. The dancers were instinctively graceful while music was innately joyous. We wondered about an odd small wire basket with a long handle at each place setting. The answer was that the traditional dinner of Poisson Crue is served rather like fondue. Each table had a large platter of fresh fish cut into chunks and slivers. Vegetables were to be mixed with the fish pieces and quickly seared as the wire basket is dipped into a candle heated pot. The mixture is then eaten hot sprinkled with coconut shavings and delicious fruit sauces. Every basket produces a different mix but the outcome is always crispy, tender and delicious.
Being the earliest riser among our group, the next morning I spent some time chatting in my rusty french with our captain and his wife. I learned that we were headed to a black pearl farm on Raiatea that day, We would travel inside the lagoon to Motu Tau Tau. Michel and Fabienne told me a bit about the black pearl farms in the region, describing the strings of oysters hanging in the water, the farmers checking on each oyster every day. I could envision the large black irregular shapes clinging to the silver strands twisting in the shining lagoon 30 feet down, quietly making dark pearls. I could picture the strong brown swimmers diving in the clear sunlit water with to tend the current crop..
We set out to the west and then north along the lagoon towards Raiatea which over time has come to share a barrier with Tahaa, creating in the end a figure 8 shaped lagoon. Cabin charter offers flexibility of schedule not possible on a cruise ship so Michele took a detour up a large inlet called Baie Hurepiti. He told us that it was a place where we could see the homes of fishermen on the island. The terrain is so steep that it appears like a fjord with palm trees. The houses were all on the beach with a variety of watercraft tied up in front. Dense jungle rose steeply up behind them and I wondered if the only access to these homes was by boat. We saw typical working boats, dozens of outrigger canoes and a few large sailboats along the way. There were swings hanging from the branches of palms, and sandcastles along the shore, bright pareos drying on lines in the breeze and flowering gardens everywhere. All the signs of people who take time to enjoy their lives.
Then back out into the lagoon for the trip to the Motu Pearl Farm. The pearl farm was a casual riot of flowers and shells with gardens everywhere and a lovely beach. Unfortunately we did not get to see the tending of the oysters, but we did see them opened and the pearls removed. Black pearls each shine with a distinctive hue, the colors spanning from gold, to green to purple. A fabulous explanation of the process of growing, tending and harvesting pearls was given to us by our host. This farm had been in his family for eight generations. I couldn’t help noticing what a peaceful and graceful lifestyle these farmers had.
The next day was about exploring the reefs around Raiatea. Many guests wanted to walk on one of the barrier islands so Michel took them across in the raft. John and I preferred to snorkel in the beckoning coral heads that we could see below the surface of water so clear as to make determining depth impossible. There was no loss of light as we dove 35-40′ down to come up with a beautiful conch shell. The natives called it “sept doigts” or “seven fingers”, named for the slender points that extend from the shell. Live ones are protected but since there was nobody home in this one it lives on my desk now as a reminder of peaceful living.
The following day, we crossed through another passage, this time on the western side of the twin barrier reefs, onto the deep blue for a four hour crossing to Bora Bora. Approaching the island we were silenced by the twin towering pyres, vibrantly green as they jutted into the luscious blue of the sky. There is only one passage into Bora Bora. It is on the western side. The barrier reef had huge rolling aqua waves which traveled as a luminous curl for miles before crashing down. The passage through them was very narrow, and gave a stunning view down the curl. As if internally lit is seems like a gigantic continuous emerald syphon with a frothing white trim on the interior side. Our native stewardess, Jese, did a graceful dance to her traditional music as we sailed through the passage.
At the village of Viatapea we disembarked for a short shopping trip. John and I wandered the streets and bought presents for our friends at home. As had become our custom, we had a beer at an open café, and watched people go about their lives. Children walked or rode bikes chatting happily among themselves or with us as I tested the boundaries of my improving French. They seemed unconcerned about our language skills and were much more interested in these two blond and blue eyed visitors appreciating their black eyes and tattooed bodies.
After reboarding Nemo, we set sail to put out a hook for the night. All evening, my eyes kept drifting up to those two huge slabs of rock jutting up into the sky that create the distinctive silhouette of Bora Bora. As the light faded and the boat rocked gently I asked Jesi about the meaning of her dance. She told me that sea travel was full of legends about these island passages. Her reverence for this island was profound and unmistakable as she told me that Bora Bora was such a sacred place that one should never enter the passage without a gift. This dance was hers.
After breakfast, we headed to the Lagoonarium on Motu Tofari. It is a charming small barrier island, which appears to contain only a few small houses for the people who tend the pens used to contain turtles, sharks and tropical fish in shallow water. We were able to swim in the pens for a close up look. The pens were large enough to really travel with the animals, and in a funny way they seemed interested in us too. When we emerged from the fish pens, the owners brought us a huge tray of fresh fruit cut up into finger sized chunks as we rested under the palms.
When the dinghy came, Michel took us to a place locally known as the coral garden. It is unmarked, simply a turn in the lagoon. We plunged backwards over the side of the dinghy, and by the time we surfaced we were 100 feet from it riding the 5-6 knot current. We held hands, and raced over the coral 2-4 feet below us. The yellow and orange coral heads, black and brown snails, brilliant jewel like fish, and neon colored scallops flashed by for about a mile and a half. Traveling at such speed it was like watching an Imax movie right in front of your nose! This was one of the most sensuous and exhilarating experiences I have ever had. Michel picked us up with the dinghy in the wash where the current slowed, and took us back to the headwaters so we could do it again. It was a stunning show, a truly exotic insight into the life that exists within and under the coral beds.
On one of these races over the coral John began to do lazy somersaults in the fast current. Twisting and rolling weightless in the turquoise water, flying over the brilliant display of color and sparkle from the coral he looked for all the world like one of the ebullient native children. I think each of us recognized that the child within sometimes demands expression in this place of innocence, and we were watching his now. If I had to summarize what French Polynesia had to offer, it would be the reverence for simple pleasures made of water, sunlight and flowers. French Polynesia wraps its friendliness and beauty around you until you view its charms with the uncomplicated eyes of the child within.
Casual clothing and bathing suits make up most of your wardrobe. Soft luggage is necessary. Currency is the Coeur de Franc Pasifique, but US dollars & credit cards can be used in larger stores and restaurants. Sun block (at least spf15) is important. There is plenty of light, so slower film is preferred.
Fly into FAAA Airport, Papeete on Tahiti Airlines: Air Caledonie Int, Air France, Air New Zealand, AOM French Airlines, Corsair, Hawaiian Airlines, Lan Chile and Quantas From Tahiti you can get to the other islands by small plane or boat.
You can stay for up to a month without a visa, and everyone who is not French needs to have a passport.
Nemo Polynesia – Cabin Charter
Length of deck: 83’
Width of deck: 30’
type: Sloop rigged catamaran
Nemo carries masks, snorkels, fins, windsurfer & a kayak
Location of Nemo Polynesia:
Year Round: French Polynesia