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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in French Polynesia.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in French Polynesia.
One early morning, midway through our 13-night journey from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands, the Aranui 5 was gently pitching in the deep blue Pacific swells. Beyond the clutter of cargo, cranes and loading gear on her bow, Ua Pou’s mist-enshrouded basalt spires, some soaring ter a height of 4,000 feet, loomed. From our balmy, breeze-enhanced vantage up on Deck 10, it could easily have been a scene from King Kong or perhaps some long-forgotten tropical adventure film relegated to the wee hours of television’s Turner Classic Movies.
Almost as unique as the Jaggedly lush Marquesan scenery unfolding before us was the actual vessel transporting us there. In many ways, although she is barely a year old, the Aranui 5 harkens back to another era, that of the hard-working combination passenger Jiner and freighter. Decades ago, combi-liners like her were a common entity in ports around the worlds but with the advent of the jumbo jet and the containerization of cargo, these hybrid ships met a sudden, decisive demise.
Taking her name from “The Great Highway” in Polynesian, the Aranui 5 provides an essential service to the six populated islands in a chain of 15 that is more distant (nearly 3,000 miles) from the nearest continental land mass (Baja California) than any other in the world. In exchange for Marquesan copra (a coconut product), bananas and other local commodities, she brings automobiles, construction v. materials, televisions and other essentials that -would be difficult, if not impossible, to transport via air since the region has only two small airstrips. In many of the tiny ports she visits, she is greeted like a cherished relative bearing gifts, and her guests are often welcomed by locals with hand-crafted beads leis and/or tiares (fragrant flowers that are worn behind the ear).
Externally, the Aranui 5 is a quirky-looking vessel with a long foredeck housing two large cranes and four holds leading to an imposingly tall block of passenger accommodation. Internally, the ship is laid out according to ancient Chinese Feng Shui principles (based on the flow of mystical energy) and infused with Polynesian motifs and tropical color schemes. This combination of design elements owes much to the ship having been built in China for a Tahitian family of Chinese descent.
Mahalo could have squashed me like a piece of breadfruit, and yet I couldn’t stop marvelling at him. Arms broad as coconut palms extended from his sleeveless army surplus jacket, and etched into these limbs were black markings symbolising his ancestors, family, job and personality – he literally wore his heart on his sleeve. He then took off his hard hat to reveal a face and bald head almost completely covered in dark ink. I
didn’t know it then, but in many ways Mahalo was a microcosm of how French Polynesia was changing.
Tattoos were banned for over a century in the Marquesas Islands, where my ship was headed. Today, they are a good example of how the archipelago is slowly reclaiming its culture from the whims of misguided foreigners. But more on that later. In the meantime, I simply watched in awe as Mahalo effortlessly worked the crane aboard the four-star Aranui V – our part-cargo ship, part-cruise liner. The newly launched vessel was the only one in the area able to deliver cement, cars, bicycles, sugar and travellers to the archipelago, but to me it was simply my gateway to this remarkable world.
For anyone unfamiliar with Polynesia, the Oceanic subregion forms a neat triangle deep in the Pacific, with Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand its three most far-reaching outposts. My destination, the Marquesas, lay more or less in the middle: a dozen volcanic islands within the collective of French Polynesia, only six of which are actually inhabited. These are some of the remotest clusters of islands on Earth; so remote that they even have their own time zone (30 minutes behind Tahiti). No wonder so many people had come here to escape.
A list of the Marquesas’ famous post residents reveals a who’s who of cultural outsiders. Notorious French artist Paul Gauguin lived, romanced and drank himself into a stupor on Hiva Oa.
Explorer Thor Heyerdahl – famous for his Kon-Tiki expedition – treated his new bride to an 18-month honeymoon on Fatu Hiva, while Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel sought to avoid fame and advanced-stage lung cancer in the islands’ sculpted mountains and bays. Even Moby Dick author Herman Melville had once jumped ship here.
For many, the Marquesas offered a retreat from reality – well, all except Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson, who is said to have declared that they looked “just like the Scottish Highlands” when he visited in 1888. Travel writer Paul Theroux best sums up their appeal in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania, which he researched while touring the islands after the break-up of his marriage. “They are the tableau on which travellers can paint their fantasies,” he wrote. It was this line that had provided the inspiration for my own visit. And fantasised I had – of mouthwash-blue lagoons and reefs alive with rainbow-hued fish. But, like all dreams, it wasn’t long before reality came knocking.
“The Humbolt current makes it too cold,” he added, pouring yet more cold water on my dreams. But I wasn’t the first visitor to the islands to arrive with misconceptions. I followed in a grand historical tradition.
The world’s second-largest atoll, comprised of 240 palm-covered islets that form a protective 100-mile oval around a turquoise lagoon, Rangiroa has been called “God’s aquarium.” It’s a favorite of divers and snorkelers for its bountiful aquatic population, while swimmers love its placid breeze-brushed waters and sun worshipers head for its gorgeous pink-hued beaches. Unlike the vertical profiles of Bora Bora and its neighboring volcanic islands. Rangiroa’s is flat, though lush.
An unexpected dose of style and comfort is found at the chic Kia Ora Village, with its ten luxury overwater bungalows, excellent restaurant specializing in fresh fish and seafood caught right in its backyard, and nearby Blue Dolphins Club, a sophisticated scuba center available to hotel guests.
For those who aspire to withdraw even farther from civilization, the ultimate Robinson Crusoe experience is an hour’s boat ride away at Kia Ora Sauvage, a deserted 10-acre motu islet in the middle of nowhere. At this self-imposed exile for ten castaway guests, there’s no electricity, no phone, no air-conditioning, and no problems.
Tetiaroa remains one of Polynesia’s least-hyped destinations, despite the cachet that comes with being the private domain of the late great Marlon Brando and his Tahitian former wife Tarita, who costarred with him in Mutiny on the Bounty.
A mere fifteen minutes by air from Papeete, these gorgeous islands and their swimming-pool-blue lagoons were once the home of Polynesian royalty. While its future remains in question following Brando’s death, it has escaped development thus far thanks to the actor’s refusal to sell out the small-scale hotel he established after purchasing the island in 1966. Its fourteen bare-bones, native-style, palm-frond-roofed farés are the only accommodations on the island.
Air-conditioning is courtesy of the sea breeze that wafts through your windows, and sunsets and dinner are the island’s only entertainment. It’s heaven for many, hell for some, who cut their reservations short once island ennui sets in.
You’ll be sharing your island sanctuary with the spirit of the larger-than-life actor, as well as thousands of sea birds that come here to lay their eggs on the white powdery sands of the beaches. Their cries, and the sound of the sea as it breaks on the coral reefs around the atoll, are the only sounds you’ll hear.
At this seven-week mother of all French Polynesian festivals, locals from many of the country’s 115 islands converge upon Tahiti for singing, dancing, and sports competitions rooted in their common heritage. The excitement is palpable, and colorful traditional costumes are worn by contestants and local spectators alike. When the dancing contests begin, be there!
Although not heavily attended by visiting foreigners, this is the local culture so sorely missing from many of the glitzy resorts that sometimes manage to misplace, overlook, or dilute the spirit of this proud Polynesian race. Some of the contests are as timeless as fire walking, stone lifting, and outrigger canoe racing, but the present day also makes an appearance in the form of golf tournaments.
Missionaries suppressed the region’s suggestive tamure dancing in the early 19th century, but it has been resuscitated with a vengeance; check with the local board of tourism to get times for the main dance playoffs and the emotionally charged finals that determine the year’s best individuals and troupes. The winners often tour some of the principal hotels in August, in case you miss the boat.
Perhaps the only thing more awesome than the incomparable view from Moorea’s Belvédère lookout is Moorea itself. Contending with Bora Bora for the World’s Most Gorgeous Island title, Moorea’s jagged, dinosaur-scale peaks and spires have been the backdrop to numerous Hollywood films set in the South Seas. The paved circle-island road can be traveled by bicycle, scooter, car, or foot, but no matter how you go, you’ll find it hard to keep your eyes on the road for most of its 36 scenic miles.
The climax is the Belvédère, in the interior of the island at the highest point accessible by car, commanding one of the South Pacific’s most incredible views: the deep blue Cook’s and Opunohu bays cutting into the island’s lush green interior and the dramatic Mount Rotui that separates them. As an awed James Michener put it, “To describe it is impossible. It is a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature.”
The Hotel Sofitel la Ora’s Polynesian bungalows sit on Moorea’s most beautiful coconut-grove-shaded beach. Beyond is the cobalt blue Sea of Moon, and beyond that a postcard view of the green, cloud-topped mountains of Tahiti. At sunset, watch the whole sky ablaze with pinks, purples, and reds as you sip a sundowner at the la Ora’s bar, built on stilts overlooking the lagoon.
To maintain the day’s high, head over to Te Honu Iti on picturesque Cook’s Bay for dinner at a thatched-roof snack bar (also called Chez Roger), whose casual dock-side atmosphere belies some of French Polynesia’s best cuisine. You’re in luck if chef-owner Roger Iqual’s blackboard menu includes mahi mousse, an island favorite; you’ll find out why.
If you’ve seen one too many flame-lit, hip-gyrating “authentic Tahitian show” and dream of sleepy Bora Bora fifty years ago, Maupiti fits the fantasy bill. Guidebooks hesitate to include this untrammeled gem, so most travelers have never heard of the island – and that’s good news.
For the moment, at least, the Last Great Secret of French Polynesia remains blessedly quiet and laid back, delivering the languor of a real tropical paradise. The Bank Lady only makes an appearance twice a month, arriving by boat: If you want to change traveler’s checks, just hope she knows the exchange rate. Otherwise you’ll have to rely upon the kindness of strangers – what this small island of staggering beauty is all about.
Many of the private homes that rent rooms, or the small pensions that have a bungalow or two, don’t even have telephones, so you’ll just have to show up and knock on the door. Long motu islets offshore are home to watermelon and cantaloupe plantations.
You can help your innkeeper fish for tonight’s lobster dinner or take a leisurely walk through the island’s beautiful countryside along a crushed-coral road lined with fruit trees and hibiscus.
Guides are available to take you to the island’s 1,220-foot volcanic summit, or you can paddle an outrigger to an unpeopled cove for a picnic lunch. Or, you can just relax in your hammock, hypnotized by the rustle of palm fronds. Either way, Maupiti will never disappoint.
Steeped in tradition and a standout for its varied scenery, splendid beaches, proliferation of ceremonial temples (maraes), picturesque main town, and tiny, charming villages, Huahine is one of the few Polynesian islands Captain James Cook might recognize if he were to return today.
Tourism has been late in arriving on this island, which is still largely agricultural and is often compared to Bora Bora before the luxury hotels arrived, so there’s not much going on – but that’s the point. Take advantage of the island’s South Seas charm while you can, since it seems to be going extinct elsewhere in Polynesia.
Settle into the Hotel Sofitel Heiva, whose most extravagant accommodations are the six thatched-roof bungalows built on stilts over the lagoon.
Glass-floor panels afford views of the lagoon’s colorful marine life, which has become rather spoiled by regular feedings of bread crumbs filched from the restaurant. You can slip in and join them or loll on either of the hotel’s two sandy beaches, the island’s prettiest.
Grab a seat on the left side of the plane for your first glimpse of the island that mesmerized Captain James Cook some 225 years ago. James Michener called it “the most beautiful in the world” and “the South Pacific at its unforgettable best” – so beautiful it’s said to have been the inspiration for Bali H’ai in his Tales of the South Pacific.
Four miles long and 2/2 miles wide, Bora Bora rises as an oasis in the deep indigo sea, its circular palm-covered barrier reef of semiconnected motu islets embracing a wide lagoon whose palette of blues and greens defies description. The lagoon, in turn, surrounds the high green island, whose renowned, twin-peaked volcanic cones rise nearly a half mile above the water.
When the original owners of the Hotel Bora Bora arrived to build the first resort on this beautiful isle in the 1960s, they had their pick of locations and so secured the prime spot: exquisite, sugar-white Matira Beach, possibly the most idyllic in the Pacific.
On it, they built a series of thatched bungalows, some on the beach and some out over the water, with two- tiered sundecks and steps that lead directly into the beautiful lagoon. A group of beach- or garden-sited farés (villas), some with their own private pools and Jacuzzis, are some of the largest accommodations on the island. The atmosphere is one of elegant South Pacific charm and simplicity, designed to blend harmoniously with the tropical splendor of the setting. With the powdery palm-studded beach at your fingertips, the blue lagoon at your door, and Mounts Otemanu and Pahia looming over your shoulder, you’ll be effortlessly lulled into the torpor of the island’s kick-back rhythm. But some of the Pacific’s best inshore snorkeling calls, offering underwater traffic jams of trumpet fish, angelfish, parrot fish, and the curiously named Pinocchio and Napoleon fish.
Shark feeding is one of the hotel’s more dramatic activities: Willing guests submerge themselves amid dozens of 5-foot blackfin lagoon sharks, which are regularly hand-fed by local divers. A four- wheel-drive journey that jounces and rattles you through the lush interior terrain is worth it for the cliffside views, which are as heart-stopping as the morning’s nose-to-nose shark encounter.
For years the wild beauty of the little-visited Marquesas Islands – the most remote inhabited islands on earth, located 1,000 miles from anywhere – has drawn literary personalities and artists. One of the most scenic places in all French Polynesia, this is the untainted tropics, where forest-cloaked cliffs plunge into the rocky sea and eerie volcanic spires that Robert Louis Stevenson once likened to “the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church” are often lost in the clouds.
Of the six inhabited islands (out of ten total), Fatu Hiva is said to be the most beautiful, due in large part to the beautiful Bay of Virgins, whose steep sides are ringed with lush groves of mangoes, oranges, and guavas. Paul Gauguin intended to live out his days here, but instead disembarked on the neighboring island of Hiva Oa. Herman Melville and Captain James Cook were just as captivated by the Marquesas’s allure, believing them to be even more beautiful than the Tahitian islands. The largest town, with 1,500 handsome, tattooed, brightly smiling inhabitants and a bay that rivals the Bay of Virgins, moved Jack London to write, “One caught one’s breath and felt the pang that is almost hurt, so exquisite was the beauty of it.”
The 343-foot freighter/ passenger ship Aranui is the lifeline that links the far-flung Marquesas with the outside world, delivering everything from cement to medicine to sugar. Entire towns – sometimes entire islands – turn out to greet the ship’s monthly arrival, bartering copra (pressed and dried coconut meat) for basic supplies. Aranui passengers make landfall in the same whaleboats that transport cargo, and once ashore can make excursions to see lush valleys populated by wild horses and the volcanic basalt peaks that inspired Melville, London, and Stevenson.
There are few roads, but follow the trails through steamy jungles to abandoned stone-carved tikis (Polynesian images of supernatural powers) or visit one of the world’s most movingly beautiful cemeteries, where you’ll find the frangipani-shaded graves of Gauguin and the Belgian singer Jacques Brel. A cruise ship could replicate the Aranui‘s route, but not the experience. You’ll come back from this cruise with much more than just a tan.