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Our Guide To Cruising French Polynesia, Part One

By:
Joanna Hall
 

It’s a region that’s inspired generations of artists and writers, and when you cruise French Polynesia’s islands it’s easy to see why. Perfect blue lagoons, colourful reefs, volcanic mountains, bright flowers and a real atmosphere of tranquility combine to create one big natural water-colour that typifies the tropical idyll. French Polynesia, more popularly known as Tahiti and Her Islands, is divided into five separate archipelagos - the Society Islands which includes the main island of Tahiti and the administrative capital of Papeete, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and the remote and tiny Australs and Gambier Archipelago. Each group is unique and was formed by volcanic activity, creating mountainous islands and coral atolls, or reefs which are just above the water surface surrounded by a natural lagoon.   

What Makes Tahiti So Famous  

Overwater bungalows and five-star resorts are always in focus when it comes to Tahiti, but there’s a lot more to this stunning part of the Pacific than sipping cocktails under a palm tree by a pool. With 118 islands spread out over an area just a little smaller than Europe, Tahiti and Her Islands is best experienced from the water as this is truly one of the world’s great maritime destinations. Many of the more remote islands can only be reached by ship, and this is where the “real” Tahiti exists with a genuine reverence among the people for their cultural heritage. Taking this into account, it’s not surprising that this part of the world attracted the attention of artists like Paul Gauguin. In addition to France’s greatest post-impressionist painter, many other artists, explorers and writers made the arduous journey to French Polynesia, sometimes spending months at sea to answer its alluring call. From the time European adventurers and sailors returned with tales of a land, and people, of incredible beauty in the 19th century Tahiti and Her Isles have been a real life tropical fantasy for people around the world.  

The Society Islands

It’s just after 6pm and time for the nightly sunset show as the first tinge of yellow permeates the horizon. With the mythical peaks of Bora Bora as the backdrop, the show quickly moves into full swing. From yellow to orange, pink, red, blue, purple - and various outrageous hues in between - the multi-coloured palette moves through the sky and glassy ocean. With the sky ablaze, outrigger canoes paddle through the surreal scene and out in the middle of one of the lagoons that ring the island, the jagged volcanic mountains on each side change colour with the sunset and finally darken against the night sky. The name Bora Bora has become synonymous with the word “paradise” and with its emerald-green hills and chameleon-like lagoons, it’s easy to understand why it’s a serious contender for the most beautiful and romantic island in the world. James Michener, author of Tales of the South Pacific which inspired the movie Bali Hai, wrote of Bora Bora: “Anyone who has ever been there wants to go back.” 

Bora Bora

Sailing into Bora Bora means navigating the one and only entry point through the reef surrounding the island, the Teavanui Pass, and is one of those experiences which burns unforgettable images and emotions into the memory. Like many of the Tahitian islands, Bora Bora was created out of a volcano and the jagged peaks which rise out of the ocean mark the edge of the original crater. On land this image of tropical perfection is somewhat diminished by rubbish-strewn roadsides and aloof locals, but these imperfections can be forgiven when Bora Bora is viewed from the deck of a ship. Although it’s around 260 kilometres northwest of the main island of Tahiti, it’s often the first stop for cruises in this region because of the “wow” factor that comes with circling Bora Bora before making the grand entrance into the lagoon. But “The Magical Island” of Moorea is no less alluring - it’s also been credited for inspiring the mythical Bali Hai, and appropriately, it’s a heart-shaped island with a dramatic landscape which mirrors Bora Bora. Also a volcanic island, Moorea is a heady mix of mountains which often reach the clouds, tropical jungles, beautiful lagoons and the ocean, which forms a landscape of deep blue and green.

Moorea

Unlike Bora Bora however, there are several passes which allow ships to navigate past the reef which surrounds Moorea and sail into the turquoise lagoons. The Passe Teavaroa and Passe Tareu on the northern side of the island are the most used passes by cruise ships and allow entry into Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay. Cook’s Bay is the most developed area of the island with a string of hotels on the water alongside the main village of Paopao, but Opunohu Bay is arguably the most beautiful place on the island and is much quieter and it’s been the setting for many films including the the third remake of Mutiny on the Bounty starring Anthony Hopkins and a young Mel Gibson. Quite simply Opunohu Bay, and much of Moorea, possesses a powerful and natural beauty which even attracts Tahitians from other islands, and especially from the main island of Tahiti as it’s only a 20 kilometre ferry ride across the Sea of the Moon.

Ra’iatea And Taha’a

That’s not to say the other Society Islands are unworthy of attention. The twin islands of Ra’iatea and Taha’a, which are separated by a three kilometre channel and share a coral reef and a protected lagoon, are less touristy than Bora Bora and Moorea but have a more traditional Polynesian feel with a laid-back atmosphere. Ra’iatea is known as The Sacred Island as it was the centre of Tahitian royalty, religion, and culture, and today its main attraction is the massive Taputapuata marae, the largest and most sacred site in Polynesia. It’s also one of several places to check out one of Tahiti’s most prized souvenirs and famous exports, black pearls. Taha’a is the smaller of the twin islands and even quieter that Ra’iatea, but The Vanilla Island possesses a genuine village atmosphere, perhaps due in part to the fact that there’s very little traffic. Its main claim to fame, however is vanilla production and a string of beautiful motu, uninhabited coral islets with stunning beaches, on its northern side.

Papeete

As for the main island, most visitors bypass Tahiti and its capital Papeete and simply connect to the outer islands, missing out on its many charms. For people cruising Tahiti, however, it’s the key jumping-on and jumping-off destination, offering the opportunity to explore one of the country’s best kept secrets. From the street life of Papeete, to a four wheel drive tour of the interior with its cascading waterfalls and ancient marae, or archaeological sites, or simply catching some sun and snorkelling off the beaches at Punaauia, the main island possesses its own unique attractions. The municipal market in Papeete, Le Marché, features every conceivable fruit and vegetable from the islands on the ground floor while the second floor is dedicated to Tahitian arts and crafts. If given a chance the main island can reveal a cultural side of its people and history that the glitzy resort islands don’t offer. What it lacks in the classic-island-postcard stakes it makes up for with a very authentic French colonial charm.

 

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  1. Posted by on 8th Jul 2019 Verified Customer

    One For The Bucket List 5 Star Review

    I keep seeing holidays for Tahiti lately....maybe it's a sign I should go! I hear it's one for the bucket list though, very expensive on land and at sea. I can but dream :)

  2. Posted by on 1st Jul 2019 Verified Customer

    Best Cruise Ever 5 Star Review

    We did this cruise when it was Radisson years ago on the same ship and it was the best ever. Lovely destinations, great food and the people were lovely. It did rain quite a bit but you could always tell when and for how long so it didn't impact on our activities too much. Mind you we arrived into Tahiti in a terrible rainstorm and everything including our luggage got soaked!

  3. Posted by on 1st Jul 2019 Verified Customer

    Looks Beautiful 4 Star Review

    Would love to travel here let alone cruise here....the water and landscapes look amazing. But I hear from friends it's very expensive? One friend said a bottle of wine she could by in her bottle shop for $6 in Melbourne cost over $40 at a supermarket in Papeete! Need a lotto win perhaps?

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