We spent a total of six weeks cruising through the Society Islands of French Polynesia. Many cruisers take much longer if their visas allow it. For us, we found that this was about the perfect amount of time there. The islands are all beautiful, most with fringing reefs protecting blue lagoons and mountainous terrain, their hillsides lush and green. Alongside this beauty, however, is a lot more tourism and a lot more people than we’ve encountered since leaving Panama City over two years ago.
We arrived in the Society Islands after a 2-night sail from the Tuamotus. As for so many sailors before us, Tahiti’s verdant green landscape was a welcome sight. While technically one island, Tahiti is divided into two main land masses, the northern Tahiti Nui and the southern Tahiti Iti. We spent five days in an anchorage on the northwest side of Tahiti Nui, near Papeete, the capital city and entry port for hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists, working on boat projects and exploring a bit of the island by car.
Papeete itself, a city of approx. 200K residents, has some decent shopping and eateries but it is busy with a somewhat rough, transient feel and wasn’t really our scene.
The local Carrefour supermarket was a great place to provision for forward travel, though. We were also able to catch up with friends we hadn’t seen since last year, as well as new ones from this season. If we had time we would’ve visited the more relaxed local scene in Tahiti Iti but with only six weeks left on our visas we decided to move on. There will always be more places than time.
The island of Mo’orea is a short daysail from Tahiti or a very short ferry ride for non-yachties, providing easy access for all. Yet even with so many people visiting, it doesn’t feel crowded. Lonely Planet’s description captures the allure of the island perfectly, “…Mo’orea absorbs its many visitors so gracefully that it feels surprisingly nontouristy.” We found Mo’orea to be incredibly striking and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. We picked the rainiest day to rent a car and explore the island. The viewpoint was a bust, but still we were able to find some beautiful scenery and enjoy an excellent lunch in an outdoor setting.
We topped it off with a visit to the Sofitel resort where Wags stayed on a family trip in 1988.
The lagoon provided an opportunity to swim with stingrays and sharks (see previous post) while the schooners in Cook Bay gave a feeling of traveling back in time, making it easy to imagine how little the landscape has changed since Captain Cook’s first visit.
Anchored deep in Oponohu Bay, we totally relaxed as the earthy smell of vanilla filled the air and every evening hibiscus blossoms turned red and dropped with the sun, filling the bay and floating gracefully past.
An overnight sail took us to the leeward group of the Societies and the island of Huahine. This is the epitome of a laid-back Polynesian island. We anchored near the main village of Fare, where the pace is glacial and the local yacht club has a dinghy dock and nightly happy hour, both of which are always full.
Island exploration was done by bikes one day and scooters the next. We visited the Fare Potee, a replica of a traditional house situated at the edge of a fresh water lake and surrounded by 10 or more marae (open-air places of worship and ceremony). It is also home to an excellent, albeit small, museum that, in the past, has partnered with the outstanding Bishop Museum in Honolulu on projects related to Huahine’s role in Polynesian history and culture. The exhibits were quite interesting and it was a wonderful way to learn about the history of the island. As an added bonus, part of the space was dedicated as a gallery of local artists’ work.
Driving along the lakeshore we saw several centuries old V-shaped fish traps made of rocks. Some are still in use, designed to trap fish with the ebb and flow of the tide. We stopped at the gallery of Melanie Dupre, a well-respected artist of Polynesian paintings. Melanie is American so it was fun to hang out for a bit. Talking with her, it was easy to see why one would want to live an artist’s life in Huahine. A bit farther and we were flagged down by a local man at the side of the road. Turns out he was working on a community improvement project to provide a place for people to sit and watch the huge freshwater eels in the stream. It was pretty cool to see the eels and we complimented him on the work.
Time for lunch, we stopped at a small restaurant in a sleepy village. It looked closed but as we were turning to leave, Lolita, the owner, came out and assured us she was open, with one thing on the menu, grilled fish and rice. Happy with that, we settled in for a leisurely meal before finishing our scooter tour.
The next day we moved to an anchorage called Avea Bay at the south end of the island. It was a lovely anchorage and we spent the next several days there snorkeling in the turquoise waters, relaxing and hanging out with our friends on S/V Imagine and S/V Red Pearl. We were so relaxed, in fact, we didn’t take a single photo.
From Huahine it was a short daysail to Raiatea. This turned out to be one of our favorite islands in French Polynesia. Inside the reef, which can be entered through several passes, Raiatea shares a very large lagoon with the neighboring island of Taha’a. There are many small islands, or motus, some VERY small, all of which are apparently suitable for building.
Our first several days in Raiatea were packed with activity. We enjoyed a night out with our Swedish and Swiss friends on S/V Ruth, whom we last saw several months ago in the Marquesas.
We made the 3-mile dinghy trip to Uturoa and enjoyed the hustle bustle of this town we found gritty but charming. We especially loved the street art. Town also offered a chance to stretch our legs on a hike to a vantage point overlooking the lagoon and Taha’a.
And we watched gorgeous sunsets (with Bora Bora in the background).
We then sailed to Taha’a for a few days, taking in quiet bays, visiting a pearl farm, touring a rum distillery (that also makes coconut oil and has a cat named Bourbon), and enjoying free wifi from a resort near one anchorage (yes, that’s a highlight for cruisers!). Although there are several charter operations on Raiatea, most of the charter boats seem to vacate the area and head to Huahine or Bora Bora so there were few boats with which to compete for anchorages.
Due to a necessary sail repair we had to return to Raiatea and stay a few days longer than planned but it turned out to be a wonderful time. We rented a car, which gave us a chance to see more of the island and visit the Marae Tapuatapuatea, a large archeological site known to be the early epicenter of spirituality in all of Polynesia.
Our sail repair complete, we pointed west.
Bora Bora. The pictures in travel brochures are true to form – a multi-hued blue lagoon with a stunning volcanic remnant as the backdrop, a postcard at every turn.
Over-water bungalows, many high end with price tags in the $500-$700/nt range, dot the landscape of almost every motu (small islands on the fringes of the lagoon) and charter boats dominate most of the anchorages. There are good restaurants and plenty of activities. There is easy access to snorkeling, diving and crystal clear water and, although much of the coral is dead, there are opportunities to dive with manta rays and snorkel with stingrays. As a week-long vacation spot, it would be hard to beat (aside from the dead coral). A side effect of cruising, however, is that we tend to look for more than the vacation experience. With so many tourists on the island the local vibe in Bora Bora felt a bit indifferent, more like Tahiti or Moorea than some of the more remote islands we’ve visited where we were able to interact on a personal level with residents who seemed genuinely happy to have us on their island. We didn’t let that get in the way of having a fun time, of course… exploring the island by car, navigating the shallow waters of the lagoon to find the best anchorage, patronizing the “world famous” Bloody Mary’s bar/restaurant (where all the stars go when they’re on island), and hanging out at the village wharf.
All in all, Bora Bora was a wonderful place to say farewell to French Polynesia.