Sailing French Polynesia’s Society Islands

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With 118 islands and atolls stretching over 1,200 miles of the South Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia has a long and intimate relationship with the sea. When my photographer, Michaela, and I finally found time to put this epic destination into our sailing calendar, it was both a pleasure and a privilege. Our focus was an island group called the Society Islands, the most famous of which is Bora Bora.

Aside from the incredible beauty of the cartoon-like magical blue-green lagoons, one of the biggest attractions of this region is the relaxed, friendly nature of the people. On the main island of Tahiti—which serves as the entry point for international arrivals by plane—we asked someone where to buy a SIM card. He not only drove us to the store and helped us buy one, but he also brought us back to the airport where we caught our flight to the Sunsail base on Raiatea.

We had chartered a beautifully appointed 38ft Leopard catamaran from Sunsail and planned to start our trip with an easy sail to neighboring Taha’a, which shares a lagoon with Raiatea. Our first destination on Taha’a was Champon Pearl Farm. Owned by a delightful, elegant French woman named Monique, the farm’s main building is a classic old French colonial house that sits on a point of land looking out to the sea. Ducks and a couple of friendly boxers greeted us and followed us around, as Monique gave us a private tour of the property.

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Later, she invited us inside her beautiful home to give us a tour of her pearl collection. She explained that the color of pearls is dependent on the color of the inside of the shell. The Tahitian variety of oyster has a dark-colored shell, which makes the pearls “Black.” “Black” is actually a misnomer, as these pearls range in colors that include hints of silver, purple, green and blue. Not surprisingly, we didn’t leave with empty hands.

Oysters are not French Polynesia’s only beautiful natural product. It’s also famous for vanilla. At our next stop, La Vallée de la Vanille, we had a relaxing stroll through a small demonstration vanilla garden. La Vallée de la Vanille is one of the few vanilla plantations in the Society Islands that produce their own vanilla products, so we purchased some essential vanilla oil and a few fresh vanilla beans fresh off the vine.

Tahaa is also home to one of the French Polynesia’s few remaining traditional tattoo artists, Tavita—a man my photographer was especially interested in tracking down. After leaving the vanilla farm, we dropped anchor in the harbor in front of the main village of Patio and asked at the local grocery store if anyone knew the fellow. Once again, we were treated to this region’s exceptional hospitality. Instead of just telling us where we could find him, the owner of the store drove us directly to Tavita’s house.

When this famed tattoo artist stepped out through his front door to greet us, there was no mistaking that we had found our man. He is literally covered with tattoos from head to toe—even his lips and tongue are tattooed! Tavita doesn’t use any mechanized equipment. Instead, he hand-carves his tools from pig bones and creates the ink from local nuts that turn dark blue-black when roasted. The thought crossed our minds to perhaps get a small commemorative tattoo, however, Tavita’s schedule was full.

There are few finer places for a bareboat charter than the Society Islands

There are few finer places for a bareboat charter than the Society Islands

After thanking Tavita for his hospitality, we spent a night off the boat at Vahine Island Resort: a quaint boutique establishment on its own private motu, or island, that offers an eclectic selection of over-the-water and private beachfront bungalows. It’s also home to some of the nicest staff, best food and best snorkeling we’ve ever encountered. If you’re looking for a night off the boat, this should be on top of your list.

After that, we had our first “bluewater” passage to Bora Bora, which proved to be both a long sail and a long day, with big seas all the way around the island to the pass through the reef at Teavenui.

The pass itself can also be a bit hairy, especially with opposing wind and currents, with razor-sharp reef walls that can cut through fiberglass like butter. Needless to say, we dropped sails and turned on the engine, making it through safely, albeit with quite a lot of rocking and rolling.

Bora Bora, with its 36 idyllic motus, impossibly jagged volcanic mountains and lagoon with more shades of blue than are words in the dictionary, is surreal. I can only imagine what the young U.S. sailors thought when they first arrived at the base there during WWII—they must have imagined they’d been transferred to heaven.

We love diving and snorkeling and were keen to experience some of the “big fish” this region is famous for. We, therefore, opted to take a trip with an outfit called Topdive, which has centers on seven islands in the archipelago.

One of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite dive spots, the deep blue waters here are teaming with larger aquatic predators, especially sharks. Truth be told, it took me a while to get used to seeing so many sharks swimming all around me. Fortunately, most of them were a relatively harmless reef, gray and lemon sharks, which helped ease my nerves.

Besides famous dive spots like Tapu (just outside the pass) and Toopua (known for eagle rays), Bora Bora also has such prime snorkel spots as “The Aquarium” at Point Paoaoa, which has nice coral and a huge density of colorful reef fish; and nearby “Breaker Reef.”

In our case, we were most excited by the prospect of the manta ray “cleaning station” at Anau: a kind of a manta dental office where these majestic creatures come to have their mouths cleaned out by the much smaller fish that call the area home.

Unfortunately, while we’d planned to hit Anau on our second day in Bora Bora, our plan suffered a little setback when I put a huge hook through my thumb while rigging a lure. Before we could do any more diving, therefore, I had to pay a visit to the local doctor who pushed the hook the rest of the way through my thumb, cut the barb and then pulled the hook back out—not pleasant.

On a happier note, after my “surgery,” we enjoyed a fantastic meal at the Maikai Yacht Club right next to the main dock in Vaitape. There’s also a great anchorage here just in front of the restaurant, where you can even receive free Wi-Fi on your boat if you’re close enough.

Finally, the following morning, my thumb carefully wrapped up, we went searching for mantas. As fate would have it for almost half an hour we saw nothing. Then, just as we were starting to get discouraged, five of these majestic creatures appeared out of the blue and sailed by us like space ships engaged in an underwater ballet. I had never snorkeled with these grand animals before, and even though they’re harmless, it’s hard not to be intimidated by their size.

After that, we stopped by another unique enterprise called The Farm at the Bora Bora Pearl Company, where you can actually dive for your own pearls. Be warned, though, that it’s harder than you might expect, as the oysters are kept in groups on strings about 10 to 15ft below the surface. You also have to carefully untie the entire group underwater while holding our breath, which was not so easy as they are very heavy and the water is 90ft deep. If you dropped them, you’d probably have to pay for them all.

It’s also impossible to tell what kind of pearl you might get just by looking at the shell: all part of the mystery! Depending on your luck, you could end up with something quite valuable, or a misshaped dud. Luckily, we came up with a fairly nice, shiny 11mm pearl that Michaela had polished and turned into a necklace.

After that, we decided to take another night off the boat in Bora Bora, as we’d heard of a unique small resort called Rohotu Fare Lodge. This magical oasis is tucked in the mountainside in a lush jungle of exotic plants and trees overlooking the lagoon. It was much more affordable than some of the larger more famous resorts in Bora Bora and much more intimate and special.

Once we were done exploring Bora Bora, we’d planned to sail to Maupiti—one of the most primitive and undeveloped of the Society Islands and high on our list. However, it’s a long sail, the pass there is extremely narrow and treacherous (next to impossible if the wind, tide and swell are not just right) and we were told we’d need a guide boat to get us through.

We’d also heard that a charter group of Russians who did not follow the instructions for navigating the channel had recently sunk their sailboat while trying to get through. (We also heard they’d left their luggage and only salvaged the booze: not sure if this is true, but it makes for a good story!)

Bottom line: in the end, the conditions were not ideal, and we didn’t want to end our trip like the Russians did, so we decided to head back to Taha’a in search of a traditional Polynesian family-based dance group that hosts dinners at a little outdoor restaurant called Le Ficus. We had a nice 20-knot wind at our back, which got us back to Tahaa in no time.

Once there, and after grabbing a mooring, we took the dinghy over to the Le Ficus dock just as the rains came. Alas, our timing was a few minutes off, so we entered the place, soaking wet. Nonetheless, the friendly welcome (and rum punch) we received soon had us warmed up again.

The main hall of the open-air restaurant is decorated with a number of handmade artisan mobiles hanging from a grass roof ceiling. In the center is a bar built around a living tree. Dinner was traditional Polynesian food cooked with hot lava rocks and banana leaves. We ate on long tables around a central dance floor where musicians and dancers entertained us and even encouraged us to join in, which was much harder than it looked.

After that, our next stop was Huahine. The island doesn’t have a large number of motus or great snorkeling sites that we found in some of the other places we visited. However, Huahine is a gold mine when it comes to stone temples, or maraes, and other ancient historic sites.

The islands’ French colonial past is still widely evident

The islands’ French colonial past is still widely evident

The first marae we visited was Anini, on the southwestern most tip of Huahine Iti. We sailed across the lagoon until the water got too shallow and then anchored and headed off in the dinghy. This trip is not for the faint of heart, as there are a lot of shallow reefs and coral heads here that are only roughly marked with little sticks the local fishermen put there. However, Michaela put aside her camera and monitored the depths, and we managed to make it through without damaging the prop on our dinghy.

Anini is a rectangular plaza made of many small reef rocks spread out like natural tiles. Larger slabs of coral set on end in rows surround the arena. Like all maraes, it served as a place of worship and was used for religious practices, including human sacrifices and cannibalism. In Anini’s case, it was dedicated to Oro (the god of war) and Hiro (the god of thieves and sailors). The island’s most famous religious site—Marae de Maeva—is located inland on the shores of Lake Fa’una Nui. Our guide told us the last human sacrifice took place there as recently as 1906.

By now our two-week charter was reaching its end, so we headed back to Raiatea to be close to the base for our last few days afloat. While there, we also dove to French Polynesia’s largest sunken wreck, the Nordby, with a small local dive operator called Hemisphere Sub. The Nordby is a 150ft wooden Danish schooner that was unloading goods in Raiatea on its way from Auckland to Liverpool when it sank on a stormy night in 1900.

On our last day before turning in our catamaran, we took a dinghy ride up a beautiful long river in Faaroa Bay. Amazing tropical wildflowers lined the banks, colorful birds fluttered from tree to tree and sacred blue-eyed eels swam under our bow as we forged our way upstream.

We knew that the following day we’d be managing the stress of airports and our long slog back home. So we killed the engine, let our dinghy lazily drift back down on the gentle current and soaked in our last few hours of that magic they call French Polynesia. 

Eric Vohr and Michaela Urban have a travel website at travelintense.com

MHS Summer 2019

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