Bewitching, seductive Tahiti; a name that's launched a million or more dreams of love and lust under a tropical sky; a place that's captivated sailors, movie stars, artists, writers, lovers and mere mortals looking for paradise since the Englishman, Captain Wallis 'discovered' it in 1767. French Polynesia is made up of a group of five archipelagos; the Society Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Atolls, Austral Islands and the Gambier Islands; 118 islands strung out like a broken strand of pearls across four million square kilometres of ocean.
This part of the world is truly gorgeous with deep, crystal-clear lagoons shimmering in infinite shades of blue and skirted by dazzling, white-sand beaches; swaying coconut trees that edge the sand and lope up the monolithic mountains before running riot in a carpet of lush green jungle – and let's not forget the charming, friendly locals who really make you feel welcome. Gorgeous yes, but paradise does come at a price. After Tokyo, it's the world's most expensive place to live or visit, but you can enjoy its many charms without breaking the bank by combining a cruise of the islands with a resort package on land, which is exactly what we did.
While winter temperatures in Australia hovered between four and twelve degrees we were far from the everyday stresses of phone, fax and email - not to mention frostbite - enjoying perfect weather while sailing around the magical islands of French Polynesia, better known to Australians as simply Tahiti. Cruising is the easiest and most cost-effective way to see the most popular islands as, except for your drinks and excursions, everything is included in the fare, including water sports - and because you sail in the evening, you can really see and do a lot more than just settling for one or two islands. Our cruise aboard a mega-yacht, the Star Flyer, which commenced plying these waters last December, took us through the Leeward islands of the Society group, starting in Tahiti and then across the water to islands with exotic sounding names like Taha'a, Huahine, Raiatea, Moorea and of course, fabled Bora Bora.
This is boutique sailing at its best aboard a true clipper ship reminiscent of the 19th ‘century greyhounds of the sea’ that used to race across the oceans. It's a casual style of cruising where you can do as much or as little as you please, but the one thing every passenger does experience is sailing as it's meant to be, which might mean helping the crew raise the sails, a spot of mast climbing or, when the ship is racing across a wide, open space of water as we did on our first night, feeling like you might roll right out of bed as the ship dips up and down the swells. If you love the freedom of sailing, a casual dress code, loads of water sports including scuba diving, a range of interesting excursions and mixing with an international group of like-minded people then you'll love this Star Flyer trip.
Each new day on our seven-night journey brought with it a vista of loveliness; picturesque islands with steep, jungle-clad mountains; multi coloured lagoons where children frolicked, laughing and waving to us; small waterside townships where the locals seemed to take the passage of time in their very slow stride either fishing, swimming or just sitting, but certainly never rushing; dozens of sleek charter yachts racing across the water, their white canvas silhouetted against a sparkling blue sky. On one day we moored off a private motu (small island) for a day of snorkelling and a barbeque lunch, on another we stood on deck in the pale blue light of pre-dawn Bora Bora, watching as the sun poked its head over the top of Mount Otemanu, spilling a translucent shawl of golden light over the small township of Vaitape.
At Cook's Bay in Moorea where we moored for a day, we found ourselves swooping across the wind-whipped waters on a catamaran that bumped and jumped like a bucking bronco in a rodeo while we perched on the very tip of the hull laughing out loud with pure exhilaration. On our port side, which faced the ocean, the weather was perfect with crystal-clear water and a cyan-blue sky, but to our starboard, looking toward land, it was a different story altogether.
Slate grey clouds had settled like an opaque blanket over the rugged mountains and showers of rain scudded across the landscape. Suddenly, just like Harry Potter's invisible cloak, the clouds parted to reveal a perfect triple rainbow arched across the bay. It was an incredibly beautiful scene reminiscent of a Gauguin painting and a real picture-postcard moment to add to the dozen or so others I'd already stored in my memory. I would like to be able to tell you that we jungle hiked on Raiatea, stopping to swim under a pristine waterfall, or that we spent many pleasurable hours kayaking the Faaroa river or even that we explored Moorea's deep valleys and high mountains in a 4WD safari - but we didn't. Our desire to explore the islands only went as far as the beaches so we left all the adventure to the other passengers and just enjoyed hearing about their day over drinks and dinner each evening. Instead we indulged in the sybaritic pleasures of utter relaxation. We lazed around the pool catching the warm, gentle rays of the sun, we wandered around a couple of tiny towns and found a beachfront bar where we enjoyed the local brew, we shopped and spent a small fortune on Tahitian pearls at a fraction of the price you would pay here, so this fact alone makes a trip to Tahiti worthwhile! - and we spent many hours simply cocooned in the comfort of one of the salon's lounges reading books. You've probably guessed by now that my partner and I are not one of those couples who rush around trying to fit as much into a holiday as possible and it's not because we're lazy, it's just that everyday life is so busy keeping to schedules and running to appointments that oftentimes we feel like two mice in a cage, running around and around but never getting anywhere, so when we have time for a break on a fabulous cruise like this, we really appreciate the fact that we don't have to do anything - so most times we don't! Seven magical days of cruising in paradise, but all good things must come to an end and then we were off to Moorea, a stunning island of jagged, volcanic peaks and deep, lush valleys, only 30 minutes by high speed ferry from Tahiti, to spend three days at the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort and our first time in an overwater bungalow - more sybaritic pleasure only this time wrapped in the arms of five-star luxury!
If we were relaxed on the cruise we were absolutely comatose on Moorea. The most strenuous thing we did was to dress for dinner and stroll to the restaurants; one night at Pure, a fabulous, toes-in-the-sand spot with a great menu and wine list and one night to the resort's regular buffet and Polynesian show. The rest of the time we only left our bungalow to climb down the stairs from our private deck for a snorkel and swim with the multicoloured fish in the lagoon, fully content to just enjoy the simple things in life.
Moorea offers a variety of activities including sailing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, sport fishing, horse back riding, day cruises, four wheel drive excursions, shark and ray feeding - so it's a great holiday destination in its own right - but combined with a few days at a resort on Tahiti, it's heaven on a stick! We finished our Tahitian holiday with two days staying at the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort which again, was fabulous with its own private beach, huge pool and great restaurants. Waiting to board our flight home I thought about all that we had seen and done since we'd arrived just twelve days ago but felt more like a month. I thought about the last night on Moorea when we sat on our balcony until the early hours of morning, completely lost in the magic of the night and I remembered something written by the actor, Marlon Brando, that I had read years ago. He said "The happiest moments of my life have been in Tahiti. If I've ever come close to finding genuine peace, it was on my island among the Tahitians. When I lie on the beach there naked, which I do sometimes, and I feel the wind coming over me and I see the stars up above and I am looking into this very deep, indescribable night, it is something that escapes my vocabulary to describe".
I couldn't explain it any better.
CRUISING TAHITI FACT FILE
The Cruise : Star Flyer operates seven, ten and eleven-night cruises in French Polynesia year round from its base in Papeete. The other ships in Star Clippers fleet, Royal Clipper and Star Clipper, follow the sun with cruise programs in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Croatia, and South East Asia from Phuket. Contact travel agents or Creative Cruising at 1300 362 599. Visit www.starclippers.com
Air: Tahiti Nui offers two weekly, seven-hour non-stop flights Sydney to Papeete,Tahiti. Flights depart Australia mid morning, cross the international dateline, and arrive in Papeete the previous evening. www.airtahitinui.com.au
Best Time to Travel: Cooled by the gentle breezes of the Pacific, the climate in French Polynesia is sunny and pleasant. There are no real seasons in Tahiti, although there is supposedly a ‘rainier’ and ‘drier’ season. Currency: The official local currency is the French Pacific franc, or XPF. Most international credit cards are accepted by tourist industry businesses as well as traveller's checks in US dollars or Euro. Vaccinations: No vaccinations are necessary and there are excellent sanitary and medical systems.
Tipping: All published prices include service since welcoming people and providing service is a tradition in Tahiti and Her Islands. However, while there's nothing preventing visitors from leaving a tip for exceptional service, visitors are not obliged to tip. Drinking Water: Tap water in the hotels and restaurants is safe to drink.
Crawlies: Flies and mosquitoes and perhaps 'nonos' (sand flies) are the most common insects. Insecticides and skin sprays offer the best protection. There are no snakes, poisonous spiders or dangerous animals but there are a variety of sharks, usually no larger than a big fish and very often timid.
Words: Rhonda Bannister
Photography Dan Bannister with additional images courtesy Glyn May, Accor and Tahiti Tourisme