Charter

Summer Vacations: Cruising French Polynesia Page 2

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Thirty hours and 275 miles later we are approaching Bora Bora and the charter-cruising territory of the Leeward Islands, where the anchorages are many and the distances are fairly short—though not infallible. Years ago I sailed in this island group at the end of March, a time of year that gave new meaning to the word “rainy.” Teavanui Pass, the one and only pass into the lagoon, on the western side of the island, was closed — not, of course, by lock and key, but by a radioed message telling us the pass was impassible. This time the weather is calm and sunny, and we’re soon admiring the loom of Mont Pahia as we head for the wharf at Vaitape, the main town.

A cruiser/writer e-mails me later: “I hate to think how much Bora Bora must have changed,” he writes. “Did you find it different?” This is not a question a one-day visitor can answer. Yes, there are probably more hotels, but there were hotels here, and plenty of tourists, when I was here before. Yes, there are probably more pearl sellers and more traffic, but there is also the astounding and unchanged scenery, and the lagoon provides a perfect morning of snorkeling. Our hospitable guide takes us to his home, on a motu, where he lives in a house set among fruit-bearing trees with an assortment of dogs and cats and a clutch of baby gooney birds. It’s clear we’re not in Kansas.

My theory is that you should take up any and all snorkeling opportunities—especially if you live in the northeastern United States and especially if the water is the shade of blue that was the fashionable ink color when I was in junior high—so I sign up for a drift snorkel through the coral gardens of Raiatea. Our guide on this trip tells us his family emigrated from South Africa and is engaged in various watery pursuits on Raiatea; he is practicing with a team entered in interisland outrigger-canoe races. The annual Hawaiki Nui open-ocean competition is a big deal, drawing well over 100 teams from islands between Hawaii and New Zealand. In contrast to this high-energy sport, our drift snorkel is entirely effortless aside from a little steering around coral heads.

Shopping in the new gare maritime in Uturoa for a pareu is a low-energy activity and a necessity, since it is Polynesian night onboard Star Flyer and appropriate dress is required. These colorful lengths of cloth are normally ubiquitous and are useful too, but finding a store that is both open and carries them is proving difficult. The pre-dinner pareu-tying lesson produces a skirt, a dress, pants—whatever you want to make of it—but doesn’t lend any grace to awkward attempts at Polynesian dance. It’s clear that this skill is best learned at childhood by people with very strong knees.

By the time we get to Huahine, reported to be the most traditional of the islands and possibly the first one of the Society Islands to be settled, I feel that I’ve met most of the fish in the sea. It’s time for a land excursion. George opts for a bike tour, and I take a minibus tour led by an American who has lived on the island for twenty years or so and is well integrated into the community here. Our first stop is at the maraes (stone or coral platforms that are all that remain of a more elaborate construction with a religious purpose) on the shoreline near the village of Maeva. We continue on, via a shop belonging to a vanilla planter, to the bridge at Faie, where there is a traditional fish trap and, just downstream of the bridge, what are easily the world’s most frequently photographed large, blue-eyed eels. they are being hand-fed by a local man who is accompanied by a dog and a camera-toting tourist.

The advantage of driving around with a local is obvious. He tells us how people interact, how food is grown (plentifully, with enough for all), how local construction projects come to pass—all those things you couldn’t possibly guess. Everywhere we go is astonishing, but what really gets the cameras clicking are the stops we make along the shore, where the division between deeper and shallower water looks like it was drawn in with crayons.

We spend one of our remaining days in Moorea at Cook’s Bay and the other at Opunohu Bay, both of which are spectacularly beautiful. I split my days between spending as much time as possible in the water and taking sightseeing walks ashore, which inevitably include window-shopping for Tahitian pearls (yes, they are spectacular). In retrospect, I regret that we didn’t think to rent a car, but at the time it seemed intrusive on a sailing trip.

Our departure from Opunohu Bay provides one last vista of the impressive volcanic peaks of these islands as we head back to Papeete and a day room at a local hotel before an evening flight out. There’s plenty to do on the island of Tahiti, but at this point George and I are both suffering from sensory overload; we eat, we swim, and we turn on the television to catch up on the political news from the U.S. Are you still in paradise if you can watch CNN?

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