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- Sailing Tahiti's Dreamy Blue Waters
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- 3 Atolls to Discover
Sailing Tahiti's Dreamy Blue Waters
Experience this South Pacific paradise on two very different shipboard excursions
When we heard about an eco-resort now under development on Marlon Brando’s private island, our radar zoned in on French Polynesia. Even though the luxury resort wasn’t open yet (and still isn’t), we couldn’t get this South Seas paradise out of our water-loving minds. So we recruited writer Bill Fink to experience this dream world in the most logical of ways — by boat, but on two very different types of sailings. Which of the shipboard experiences is right for you depends on your pocketbook and preferred style of travel.
BY PRIVATE YACHT: JUST THE SEA AND THREE SUNSEEKERS
After a short night's stay on Tahiti (visitors rarely stay long on the main island), I'm off on a short-hop flight to Huahine to meet my boat and captain. The plane soars over impossibly blue waters dotted with the occasional outrigger canoe, then circles to land below neon-green mountain jungles on one of the island's few flat spots.
The single street through the sleepy village of Fare leads to the wharf where my captain awaits, scrubbing the deck of the shiny, white 46-foot Catana catamaran. Along with a photographer, I've booked the vessel through a company appropriately named Dream Yacht Charter for a private, five-day voyage past three islands from Huahine to the famed Bora Bora. With four double-bed cabins, there's more than enough room for the two of us and the captain. In fact, the boat can hold up to 10 people, making it a popular option for families and groups of couples.
Our first order of business: provisioning the yacht. This is a "bare-boat" charter and bare-boat sailors are responsible for all aspects of their trip, from food to fuel, itinerary, and navigation. I'm new to these waters, so I've opted to hire a captain, but experienced yachters can charter bare-boats on their own, after going through skill-checks and briefings in the main harbor.
Given its remote location, French Polynesia is a pricey place to provision, but deals can be had. While a box of Raisin Bran cereal runs the equivalent of $8, 2-foot-long baguettes cost a mere 50 cents. We stock up with the key "B's" of the islands - Bordeaux wine, Brie cheese, and baguettes - hoping to supplement this with fish we catch and fruit we gather along the way.
With the winds quiet, we motor from the harbor and through a narrow pass between reefs as we watch surfers catch some waves. We cruise slowly past scattered hillside homes and a couple of small beach resorts before anchoring in remote Port Bourayne Bay. This is the beauty of charter sailing - the ability to follow your feelings (and the winds) to travel and stop as you see fit. With no need to conform to schedules or checkpoints, it's the ultimate free-flowing adventure.
In the bay, I simply dive off the back of the boat and into waters so clear the 30-foot bottom seems within hand's reach. I follow colorful groups of fish around small reefs, their rainbow formations like prize-winning aquarium collections. A few hundred yards away, a couple of men fish out of a small outrigger.
We go ashore to the soft sandy beaches below Mt. Tepaa, the location of a luxury resort a hurricane destroyed in 1998. The jungles have so thoroughly overrun the hotel ruins that it seems like we're visiting the remnants of some lost civilization. We walk uphill past crumpled concrete walls, a moss-choked swimming pool, an occasional white porcelain toilet in the trees, then cross the rotting wood planks of a rickety bridge straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. We're rewarded at the summit with a sweeping view over an expansive set of bays and inlets, mountains towering in the distance while our boat bobs small and alone in the water, the vision of explorers rediscovering a lost land. On our return, we pick armfuls of star fruit and mangoes growing in incredible abundance.
Leaving Huahine, we cruise four hours over open seas to Taha'a and Raiatea. As we sail, I find the boat is small enough that the captain can handle virtually all of the sailing duties, beyond my occasional help grabbing a line or helping crank a winch. Polynesia's leeward islands are grouped so closely together that European explorers nicknamed them the "Society Islands." For charter sailors, this means more time is spent admiring island scenery and exploring bays than staring at blank water for days on end. We stop to refuel and lunch in Raiatea, then drop by Taha'a to visit one of Tahiti's many pearl farms, the Champon farm and showroom by the Taravana Yacht Club.
We sail westward to see the iconic twin peaks of Bora Bora emerging from the horizon like a movie opening. Ever since lucky U.S. sailors were stationed here during World War II, the island has maintained its mythology as the ultimate tropical island destination. Arriving at "Bora" (as the cool people call it) at sea level, we're able to enjoy the experience of the island seemingly growing out of the water, appreciate the power of the waves rolling over the reefs, gawk at flying fish zipping beside us, and feel the sanctuary of the protected inner lagoon.
We tie our dinghy to a mooring near the reefs and jump into waters straight from a deep-sea nightmare: A dozen sharks circle me like a razor-sharp rush hour. Fortunately, the blacktip reef sharks and lemon sharks pose virtually no threat to the divers and snorkelers gathering in this popular spot. A couple of dive masters spread bloody fish scraps with their bare hands, which no matter the assurances, seems like a really bad idea. The sharks savagely attack the chum, making me feel like a bobbing piece of bait. But they ignore me like I'm a weather buoy.
After four nights shipboard, I say goodbye to the captain and leave my yacht for land. I disembark to a luxury, thatched cottage at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort. Air-conditioned overwater bungalows feature fish-watching windows in the floor and awe-inspiring views of Bora's mountains. I enjoy a seafood buffet with the requisite Tahitian dance show, impressed with the dancers' tattoos as much as their routines. The resort actually offers tattoo services to guests from its expert who, inked head to toe, clearly practices what he preaches. A traditional Tahitian massage at the hotel's spa pounds me into pulp seasoned with local tamanu oil, said to be useful against the sunburn I developed in the prior three days on deck. The hotel restaurant and spa are both open to yachters, who can moor off the beach and come in for some land-based luxury.
From the Pearl, it's an easy 10-minute boat taxi to Bora Bora's airport, where I board an island-hopping flight to Rangiroa, the launching point for the next phase of my Polynesian sea voyage.
BY CABIN CRUISE: SAILING WITH A FEW STRANGERS
I'll soon be sailing with Dream Yacht Charter again, this time from Rangiroa on a weeklong "cabin cruise." I'll be sharing a 60-foot, six-cabin catamaran with the photographer again and vacationers I don't know, but fortunately the South Seas destination usually attracts laid-back travelers. Cabin cruising shaves off some of the costs of chartering an entire boat, and the trips come with a full crew, complete with captain, first mate, and chef. All meals are included, with the added bonus you won't have to do any dishes.
A cheery French couple and their 11-year-old daughter, who looks up briefly from her Game Boy to smile and wave bonjour, greet me onboard. The boat still feels roomy with five passengers and the crew.
We sail inside Rangiroa's 60-mile-long lagoon for days among picture-postcard islands while seeing only a handful of people. In this area, two boats sharing the same horizon constitutes a traffic jam. Leaving the atoll, intrepid sailors can navigate the designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve around the Tuamotu archipelago, exploring the hugely diverse sea ecosystem. Within the lagoon, we see local wildlife both under and above the water. Snorkeling, we float around shallow reefs covered in mazes of sea cucumbers, the coral spotted with holes from which moray eels thrust their menacing mouths, while rainbow-colored fish dart around us. We anchor and go ashore to hike around the appropriately named Bird Island - where flocks swarm the sky, nests at eye level decorate trees like holiday ornaments, and below, panicking peeping chicks squeak and squall at the interlopers.
We're enjoying low-speed exploration at its finest, the charter giving us the freedom to stop and smell the hibiscus, or not, as we please. We read books or catch some sunrays on the bow's trampolinelike netting, and troll off the stern to catch stingrays, or hopefully, more edible fish.
All the while, we wander from one section of the massive lagoon to another, with the crew recommending stops to see a special reef, a flock of odd birds, or some abandoned dwellings. The boat comes with kayaks, so we often paddle to beaches where we gather seashells, explore marshy inlets, and tiptoe around razor-sharp rock formations aligned like stone castles. For one sunset, we take our dinghy to Rangiroa's famous Pink Sands Beach, where the sinking sun highlights a dazzling array of colors like a planetarium laser show.
We spend our evenings on deck, looking at the stars, listening to soft tunes on the boat's stereo, and sipping some rum-and-cokes. We eventually retire to our berths to read a bit, then get rocked to sleep by the sway of the lagoon's currents, awakening in the morning, batteries fully recharged, ready to continue our circuit of the lagoon.
Throughout the trip, we feast on meals served family-style on the boat's shaded patiolike rear deck. For breakfast, it's bread and cheese and French lessons from my 11-year-old instructor who refuses to pass the butter until I say "le beurre, s'il vous plait." Our dinners include fresh-fish dishes (interspersed with imported meat and pasta for variety) accompanied by the quintessential Poisson Cru Tahitian salad with raw tuna, coconut milk, and lime.
The highlight of our feasting occurs during our final day's excursion to a deserted beach. The captain and first mate bring a few lobsters and fish they had caught the night before. Under the shade of an abandoned thatched picnic area, the captain shaves coconuts and mashes the meat with sugar and flour to make flatbread toasted over a fire of coconut husks. We weave palm-frond plates to hold our food. It's our homemade luau, more memorable than any fancy hotel offering. Instead of a fire show for our post-meal entertainment, we throw the leftovers to sea, where young blacktip sharks appear from nowhere to devour the scraps like Neptune's high-speed garbage disposal.
As our yacht approaches the harbor on my final day in Polynesia, almost on cue, a pod of dolphins arrives to swim along the side of us. They jump and play in the slipstream around the catamaran's fins as if they want to join in celebrating our successful journey.
Back on shore, I say goodbye to my fellow passengers and crew, everyone agreeing that sharing our voyage made it a better one. I go to Rangiroa's tiny airport to drink one last Tahitian Hinano beer and wait for my flight back to Tahiti. By the next evening, I'm whisked back to fast-paced LA, making my journey once again seem like it was a dream.