Ah, Papeete! Legendary seductress of sailors and capital of French Polynesia. Both Captain Cook and later Captain Bligh dealt with sailors who longed to stay in this tropical paradise. (One more successfully than the other.) And while the city is no longer the primitive village it once was, it retains its own set of charms. The views for one. From Papeete Harbor you can feast your eyes on Moorea, in the running for most beautiful island in the world. Even more awesome at sunset. The downtown market, “Le Marché,” is the best place to purchase your hand-dyed pareau (sarong). And when your stomach starts to growl from looking at fresh island produce, head to the waterfront and Vai’ete Square to dine with the locals from food trucks known as “Les Roulottes.” Embark the Wind Spirit this afternoon and settle in for your upcoming South Pacific cruise.
Have you seen the musical, “South Pacific?” Then the easiest way to describe Moorea is to tell you that it was probably the inspiration for James Michener’s Bali Hai. It’s what most people dream of when they picture a gorgeous South Seas island—jagged green volcanic peaks, a shallow blue lagoon bedded by white sands, tiny motus (islets) offshore. The island’s 12,000 residents are keenly aware they have an image to uphold, so they buried all the unsightly power cables to give you seamless views of paradise. Miles of coconut-colored beaches and that postcard-perfect lagoon make this the place for watersports of all kinds. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, climb to the top of Magic Mountain or Belvedere Lookout for insane views.
The next stop on your South Pacific adventure is the flower-shaped Tahaa, ringed by almost 60 motus and a magnificent coral reef that invites discovery. Located just across the lagoon from Raiatea, this is one of the most traditional islands. Its few thousand residents live a tranquil life fishing, raising livestock, and growing crops from the sought-after vanilla bean to watermelon and copra. You may be lucky enough to see the villagers stone fishing just like their ancestors once did. They wade into the lagoon slapping the water with stones tied to ropes, which drives the fish ashore. The island also produces some of the finest black pearls in the Pacific—a testament to the purity of the water.
Raiatea, “The Sacred Island,” is located just across the lagoon from Taha’a and shares the same barrier reef. (Legend claims the two were a single island until a conger eel possessed by the spirit of a princess separated them.) It used to be the center of religion and culture in the Society Islands. Taputapuatea, on the southeast coast, was once the most important marae around, the place where kings from the neighboring islands would gather for important ceremonies. Uturoa, the main town, reminds some people of Papeete in its younger days with its quaint low-rise buildings. Raiatea is also home to the only navigable river in the islands, the Fa’aroa. Explore Polynesian history or climb Mount Temehani in search of the rare tiare apetahi flower, which grows only here.
Agriculture, not tourism, is the focus on this friendly island where the name of one of the main towns, Maeva, means welcome in Tahitian. Huahine is actually two islands separated by sparkling Maroe Bay and joined by a bridge. Islanders on “The Garden Island” grow a cornucopia of tropical produce—cantaloupe, vanilla, banana, breadfruit, taro, papaya, watermelon, taro, coffee, coconut. There’s also wildly picturesque scenery and a pleasantly laid-back atmosphere that makes snorkeling and a picnic on the beach feel ambitious. Stop by the Maeva archaeological site and wander around the 150-odd marae (temple sites) and 400-year-old stone fish traps that are still in use. At Avamoa Pass, look for international surfing champs catching world-class waves.
Half island, half atoll, Bora Bora has one of the most extraordinary lagoons in the world. The varying depths paint the water every shade of sapphire, topaz, and aquamarine, while the volcanic mass of Mount Otemanu stands guard in a uniform of jade and malachite. Add to this tropical fish whose names begin with clown, parrot, butterfly, and peacock, and it’s not surprising that the lagoon is famous for its snorkeling, or that artists break their brushes in frustration trying to capture it all. Spend two blissful days here in this exotic land on your South Pacific cruise. Play scavenger hunt and go in search of turtle petroglyphs, World War II canons, and the monument to Alain Gerbault, the first Frenchman to sail his yacht around the world. (He passed through Tahiti in 1926 and like so many others, returned to live in Polynesia.)
Disembark this morning for your continued journey home.