Society Island Hopping
Waking up in the emerald waters of Moorea's Cook's Bay at 6:30 a.m. to a porthole view of verdant mountains, quilted with pineapple fields and sketching a jagged skyline, there was simply no chance of going back to sleep. The only option was head upstairs to the white morning sunlight and make a cup of tea on the open teak deck.
It started with a "75% off Windstar Cruises" Travelzoo e-mail that caught my eye, triggering swift navigation to their "Dreams of Tahiti" itinerary: sailing through the Society Islands from Papeete, Tahiti to Bora Bora, Moorea, Taha'a, Raiatea, and Huahine on their Wind Spirit yacht. French Polynesia. The South Pacific. More alluring with each nomenclature. The stars aligned to produce surprisingly reasonable airfare search results ($995 roundtrip), and so a few clicks and one customer service rep phone call later, my dream of actually boarding an Air Tahiti Nui flight instead of longingly driving past their signage on every airport pick-up and drop-off became a reality.
Taking full advantage of my current residency on the west coast, it's a mere eight hour nonstop (though I suppose that goes without saying, considering there's no major land mass en route) flight from Los Angeles - a couple of movies and a nap, and you're there (and if you're not tired when you board, two glasses of the complimentary wine should help).
A trio of Polynesian musicians greet us upon our 11 p.m. arrival at Faa'a (three syllables! means "far away"!) Airport in Tahiti. We spend the night in Papeete at the Hotel Sarah Nui, which, with their free WiFi, great AC, and location just a few minutes' walk from the pier, had the potential to be a recommendable economical and practical choice were it not for the terrible, terrible mattress.
We can board the ship anytime from 1 p.m. the next day, which leaves a couple of hours to explore Papeete upon check out. One immediate observation is the absence of litter throughout the city, a constant that would remain throughout the islands. We check out the market, catering equally to locals and tourists with their impressive array of fruit, vegetables, fish, and souvenirs. I'd be remiss not to point out that it is here where Jake purchases his pareo (a traditional Tahitian garment; or, wraparound skirt), which will have a starring role throughout the trip.
Wind Spirit literally rolls out the red carpet for you upon embarkation, and it doesn't take long to understand why so many of Windstar's guests are repeat passengers. The staff treats you so well it's guilt-inducing. This cruise was only two-thirds full, meaning just 100 of the ship's 148-passenger capacity. Most of the time, there was nary a fellow passenger in sight, evoking the sense you were on your own yacht. Being the youngest people on the ship meant the hot tub was almost always empty at night (and open until midnight!), so it's kind of genius to travel with this age demographic. Check-in is a breeze in the lounge area with a welcome cocktail in hand, and Jake and I set off to explore our new abode. We each find mementos of our mainland lives in the library - Jake in the Fiddler on the Roof DVD that his dad stars in, and I through the several Barbados coffee table books designed by my former boss and dear friend. Still in port (we don't sail until midnight), we eat lunch al fresco at Veranda overlooking downtown Papeete and Tahiti beyond. We drink.* We dip in the pool. We soak in the hot tub. We pick up snorkel gear that will be ours for the week. We eat dinner under the stars at Candles, the outdoor "restaurant" the staff transforms the aft into at night. By the time my head hits the pillow, I already feel right at home on this ship.
*After much debate, we opted for the all-inclusive drink package. At $62/day per person (including 15% gratuities), would it be worth it, we wondered? This question was answered when our final bill arrived at the end of our trip, with both the drink package and the individual drink orders accounted for. Before rectifying the matter with the concierge, we tallied up our damage and confirmed it was indeed worth it. I'm sure this has something to do with the fact that we cleared out the mini bar into our suitcases on a nightly basis, but hey...frugality.
In Mo'orea, our first port of call, we had independently booked ourselves on a morning horseback ride. We climb into the back of our guide's truck that was awaiting at the pier (somewhat to our surprise, since pre-trip communication had been sparse at best), and drive for about 20 minutes along the coast and up into the interior before we reach the ranch where we are acquainted with and mount our equine friends. My horse settles into a pattern of intermittently and abruptly lowering his neck to tear horse-teeth-size chunks out of a pineapple, ripping through the spiny skin as if it were nothing. From the looks and fragrance of the exposed canary-yellow flesh left behind, these were delicious pineapples. Unfortunately, my horse did not share.
The marvel of exploring Moorea's verdant interior was absolutely heavenly for the first half-hour; my hangover made a delayed appearance at that point and joined us for the next hour-and-a-half, and I make a note that horseback rides--like massages--are best left to 30 minutes.
Back at the pier, we rent bikes from the adjacent hotel. After all, how better to wear off a two-hour horseback ride than with a bike? It's all flat along the coastal road though, and well-worth the effort.
Sailing out of Cook's Bay in Mo'orea, we experience our first signature Windstar sail away - a momentous evening ritual. Once the ship clears the reef pass and the gentle roll of the swell reminds you you're back in open water, the sails begin to rise one by one in harmony with Vangelis' "1492: Conquest of Paradise" piping throughout the ship as if from the heavens above. It's a dramatic, stirring experience and kudos to whomever from Windstar identified this track because I can't imagine a more perfect audible backdrop to accompany the sight of 50-foot billowing sails rising in the wind, and you cannot fully understand what I'm talking about until you watch Jake's video capture:
All of the day's excitement culminated during the evening briefing on our next day's port of call, Taha'a, when we learn that the ship will be running tenders all day to our very own motu, a small island along the coral reef. Lunch will be served on the motu, and the water sports (paddle board, kayaks) will be brought over. I hadn't read any literature on this, so to say that I am excited beyond belief is an understatement.
It absolutely soaking pours for most of the day. The first tender to the motu, with brave passengers fairing the rain, nearly gets lost and has to turn back. The motu lunch is cancelled. Jake makes the most of the rain; I wonder why God has taken me from the peaks of anticipation to the valley of despair in twelve hours.
New day, new island. New weather (YES!). Raiatea is the only island, aside from Tahiti, were we dock the ship instead of anchor at bay. Without a plan, Jake and I set off on foot to explore the modest town and beyond. We end up walking almost all the way to the airport before an empathetic local lets us hitch a ride - destination: rental car. Despite reading that there's a Hertz at the airport, we're met with no such result. We also read that there's a local car rental company about 300 feet down the road, and indeed, we spot a sign that matches the article's information. It's really just someone's front yard, but there is that sign, and we're warmly greeted and told to take a seat on two stools while they arrange a car. A man takes off, presumably to find said car. We wait for about 1/2 hour - Jake is anxious to leave, I say no way. They have gone all this way to fetch a car from God knows where, and what, we're just gonna make a run for it down the street? My faith peaks when a new-ish SUV pulls into the lot and a woman hops out and comes over to us, only to tell us that she doesn't have a car for us, so...yeah.
No matter, because in the afternoon we're booked on the "Discover Scuba" tour for my first time scuba-diving. Forty minutes dive, no experience needed. Suspicious, but I'm intrigued by the ease. It ends up being only Jake and another passenger, both certified divers, and me. One of the two instructors takes us through the equipment on land before boarding the boat, mostly noting to me not to worry about this hose or that valve because the instructors will be doing it for me, which is just what I want to hear (I'm not being sarcastic). Soon, we're skimming over calm brilliant seas in the dive boat, and within minutes we're at our location marked by a barely distinguishable buoy. And then, we descend. Well, I descend 18 inches before my flight instinct kicks in and I frantically signal "up! up!" to the instructor. At the surface, I inform my instructor that I'll be enjoying the afternoon from his lovely dive boat instead, and wish him a happy dive. He's not having any of it. Back down we go, to rest on the sea floor while I "find my center" and become trial-by-fire acquainted with inhaling and exhaling through this device. Knowing full well that panicking will not help...like if I was bitten by a snake...I come to terms with the fact that there's no way out of this experience except through it. Just as I'm reaching somewhat of a calm level, one of the instructors spots a baby sea turtle resting in a crevice within the coral wall. He motions for us to slowly approach, and then with a blurred dart of two arms, he grabs the turtle and brings his cupped hands to his mouth. And bites the head off the turtle. I am horrified, suspended in my vulnerable and helpless aquatic state. No no no no no, I scream in my head! A wave of relief comes over me when he flips the turtle over to reveal a "Made in China" underside. Folks, we've got a jokester.
Back on the ship and having survived my first scuba encounter, a group of locals called the "Mamas and the Papas" come on board to share with us not only their tropical music, but also a few other aspects of their Polynesian ways: dancing, dress, and flower lei-making. Needless to say, this is the point in the trip where Jake's specific dream of getting lei'd and learning how to tie a pareo comes true. A Tahitian mama pulls Jake out of the crowd and center stage (rewarding his efforts to inch closer to the front), removes his shirt, places a lei over his neck, and proceeds to tie onto him a male-style pareo, under through and around the legs, in a manner not completely unlike a diaper. Then she literally topped off this experience with a fern crown. I don't know how to fully explain the delight in the air except to say that I might have gotten a glimpse into what it's like to experience Christmas through your child?
Jake would continue to wear his newly-fashioned pareo for the remainder of the trip, receiving compliments on his traditional garb multiple times a day ("You wear that so well"; "I hope you never wear pants again!").
Bora Bora Day 1 and Day 2
Ah, Bora Bora. In a country of endless beauty, your lagoon steals more hearts than them all. Knowing full well we'd want to spend as much time in her waters as possible, we planned a full-on water day for our first day in Bora Bora (the Wind Spirit spends the night at anchor here, giving you two full days to explore and enjoy).
As is most often the case, it's cheaper to book your "shore excursions" independently rather than through the cruise - if you can spare the time for a little research. Windstar is no exception. The ship's "Bora Bora by Jet Ski" package consisted of 90 minutes on a jet ski for $469. Meanwhile, I had come across an outfitter that will rent you a 15 Hp boat from 9 a.m. -5 p.m. for $240. Sold! I can't say enough about the experience we had with La Plage Boat rental, and if I'm lucky enough to make it back to Bora Bora, they will be the first experience I book. We circumnavigated the island, stopping at our leisure to snorkel, swim, eat, repeat. I almost worked up the courage to see if we could pull up and have a drink at one of the glorious hotels occupying their own motus along the eastern shoreline, but the sheer luxury and privacy of these resorts ultimately intimidated me (that, and the "forbidden areas" warnings on our map). Besides, why pay $20 for a drink to swim in the same waters I had right in front of me?
The next morning, tenders shuttle passengers back and forth to the private motu for snorkeling, sunbathing, and shell collecting during the day, and at night, we return to see our motu transformed into a feast for kings - the site of the complimentary Windstar Private Event, "Bora Bora: Celebration Festival" - a traditional Polynesian dinner, dance, and fire show on a private motu, rented from the Hilton for one night each week to dazzle the Wind Spirit guests. How the crew hauls on, hauls off, assembles and dissassembles this culinary and visual feast without the slightest hint of commotion is a testament to the hard work of the staff members.
It's immediately apparent how Huahine (locally pronounced “WHO-a-he-nay”) earned its nickname "The Garden of Eden". A pod of dolphins spends the day exploring nearby islets and carving wide ellipses around the ship. At the beach a 5-minute walk outside of town, I glance down and spot two young, curious black tip reef sharks skimming the shoreline at my ankles. We met a man on our walk from beach to town, who lives half the year here, and half in Minnesota, and chose this island because it was the least hectic place he could find on Earth. I'd come back. Though our time here is limited, sailing away from and around the southern coast of Huahine, you get a greater perspective of the island's twists and turns, breaks and peaks, and as one or two isolated resorts come into view, I'm drawn to return for the rich sensory rewards that surely await beyond each bend.
Tahiti Last Day
First up, a hike. Well technically, first we get our rental car from a very pleasant lady at the airport's Hertz (the car rental costs the relatively standard $90, and the small KIA took a whopping $18 to fill up after driving around Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti). Okay, now the hike. I had thought it would be a two-hour hike to a waterfall, total, as in one hour there and one hour back, but alas, distance was lost in translation (the trail signs, while plentiful, were in French only). The sheer perspective of the mountain soaring upward at an inverted angle was mind-boggling...and dizzying. We eventually discovered my timing miscalculation when, two hours into the hike, there was still no waterfall in sight and the path had turned completely to mud. As I do, I was wearing my rainbow sandals for the hike. Slippery thongs that were now needing serious attention just to stay on as I made my way over narrow, knotted, wet and rocky mountainside. There's a staircase fashioned into the hillside so vertically that there's a rope hanging alongside it to help you navigate the slope. Visions of hidden waterfalls turned to defeat, and four hours was beyond my hiking allocation with only one day in Tahiti. Covered in dead gnats and sweat, we finally make it back to the car and set out driving along the east coast toward the day's remaining sights, where we promptly drive past a waterfall directly on the side of the road.
Any misconceptions that Tahiti is just a stopover island are just that. There's so much to see, and though we drove around Tahiti Nui and explored Tahiti Iti, we simply did not have enough time to hit all our spots (the Marea Grotto and Teahupoo will have to wait until next time!). I will say that I favored the West Coast, which seemed to have better beaches for swimming, so, duh. And one would be remiss to pass over Tahiti Iti without driving up to the lookout point; past cattle grazing in cooler pastures at higher elevation, winding your way to a sweeping cloud-level viewpoint of Tahiti Iti and Tahiti Nui. We did stop to check the surf at a black sand beach, and watched the sunset over Mo'orea among roulettes (food trucks) and a few familiar passenger faces (who graciously directly us to the Manava Resort's incredible infinity pool for one last dip before the airport).
Cruising is a great way to discover where you might want to visit next. Windstar Wind Spirit's staff go above-and-beyond to spoil you - in fact, a couple we befriended were accidentally left off the invite-list for the returning guests' cocktail hour, and bottle of Veuve was sent to their room as soon as the mistake was realized. Their tagline - "180 degrees from ordinary" - was never more true than the night Jake and I laid down at the ship's forward deck at night, starring up at stars seemingly dancing around four white masts piercing the black night as the ship steadily slicing through slight waves. If there's any downside, it may be the lack of balconies, and there is a certain magic to a 6 p.m. swim in the sea when you have all night in one location. But the up-sides are so worth it, you won't be too bothered. I'm not sure there's any more affordable way to see six Society Islands, with all meals included. And boy did we made the cruise worth it - sandwiches and beers wrapped for outings, minibar nips cleared into our suitcases nightly (you know, to fill the piñata at our next party), room service (I got far too used to my 4 p.m. spinach crab dip routine)...
And Polynesian culture is such a simple way of life. They really do ride around in outriggers, wear flowers in their hair. And the tattoos. Yep, they're there, too. Polynesians have a notably nonintrusive way about them. Locals are happy to point you in the right direction, and even give you a lift back to town when your car rental doesn't pan out. Our cab driver on Bora Bora told us a story (perhaps figurative, but the underlying message remains the same) that if you are poor in French Polynesia, the government gives you mango seeds and a fishing net. And with the day's fresh catch--tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi--strung up on the sides of the road, alongside fruits, nature's bounty does prevail here.
Landing back in Los Angeles gave us our last taste of Tahiti - the announcements were read first in mellifluous Tahitian, then French, then English. We're soon shuffled into the customs line at LAX. "Back to civilization," someone remarks. But maybe, instead, we just left it.
Jake is seriously considering becoming a fisherman and moving there. To sooth his woes, I promise a trip to Grimaldi's pizza, and am sure to take the scenic route at sunset along Pacific Coast Highway. We spot Catalina in the distance, and let our minds imagine it's a sunset over Mo'orea. For now, we've renamed the island Ca'a'ta'a'lina (six syllables), and promise to continue taking the scenic route until we're back in French Polynesia.