The islands of French Polynesia comprise the largest chain of coral atolls on earth. They sprawl across the vast blue South Pacific Ocean encompassing an area the size of Western Europe. All the islands in French Polynesia are derived from ancient volcanos. The more recent islands remain very mountainous and high, the older ones much less so as the rocks have slowly eroded. Coral reefs encircle each volcano and create shallow lagoons protected from the open ocean. The really old islands have no rock remaining above sea level and so consist only of the coral, creating an atoll. The combination of high jagged mountains, lush forests, shallow lagoons, the deep ocean, fantastic weather and warm temperatures results in what must be the most beautiful islands on earth, a true paradise. The history of the islands is well represented by Hollywood and other film-makers. Most early visitors to these islands regarded them as a paradise and many sailors took wives on the islands and stayed. However, not all visitors were enamoured with what they found, the missionaries in particular claimed to be shocked by the very different society they encountered and sought to ban many of the traditional dances due both to the content and lack of clothing. Tattoos traditionally used to celebrate passages of life, family and honouring their gods were also frowned upon.
The Islands have a very large religious following, dependant on which missionaries got there first and it is estimated 84% of the population are Christian. The largest group are Protestant, followed by Catholic and then Mormons.
Smiley and friendly people greet you everywhere, they give you a flower for your hair, irrespective of which gender you are. The only rule is, it must be worn correctly, on the left if married, on the right if single or looking to meet someone and on both sides if you’ve met someone but aren’t sure!
Our first destination was Fakavara, an L-shaped atoll adjacent to Fakarava’s large lagoon which is designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The people of Fakarava farm coconuts for copra on shore and pearls in the lagoons. They also host the travellers who flock here to bask on the beaches and snorkel or dive in the luxuriant coral gardens along the shore. At the long spit of Les Sables Roses, the pink blush of the sand reveals its coral origin. There is very little to do except snorkelling, sitting on the beach or visit a pearl farm.
We had nothing planned and on what was an incredibly hot day we set off in the general direction of the main beach, hoping to find a cafe, or somewhere we could get a drink. Everywhere was shut probably due to the wedding that was taking place in the highlighted “must see” Coral church, so we gave up, turned round, found a shop, bought some stuff and wandered across the atoll to the windy and much cooler side. Moving back to the lagoon we found a little beach under a palm tree. The ship’s expedition team had lent us snorkels so we were able to cool off whilst swimming over the corals. We had our 1st encounter with black tipped sharks who were feeding on the sandbank at the beach. Luckily we were out of the water as they were a metre long. Later we discovered, they are harmless and stay out of the way and future guided trips had plenty of opportunities to test this theory.
The town notice board was dominated by information on radiation. Being in French it was difficult to interpret the detailed message but the overall message was clear. The French performed hundreds of atomic bomb tests in French Polynesia and it seems as though they may not have been completely open about the radiation levels the population were and are exposed to, see here and here.
The day ended and as we sailed we could watch the sun quickly dropping beneath the horizon
The next day we’d booked a snorkelling trip from the harbour at Avatoru on Rangiroa, Rangiroa is one of the largest atolls in the world. It consists of about 240 tiny islands that create a total length of 180 km which encircle a lagoon. You truly appreciate this geological wonder when you see it on a satellite picture, because you basically only see a white circle in the water. Most islands are only 300 to 400 meters wide and there is no road that connects them. The lagoon covers 1500 km2 and is only about 35 meter deep. It is an immense body of water where sea water floats into via one of the 100 passages in between the islands. It creates a strong swell and gives the opportunity for underwater life to flourish
The aquarium garden was close to the reef edge and the sea was a bit choppy for one of us, so Andy snorkelled and I was left happily on the boat, watching the fish over the side. I was given “fish food” to entice them. It was a lovely afternoon on the water and we were treated to Polynesian songs accompanied by ukuleles (national instrument?) on the way back which became a regular theme of all our trips.
By definition all these islands are surrounded by coral reefs, so how do ships access the safe lagoon without running aground? The answer lies in gaps in the coral caused by freshwater streams from the original island. The freshwater inhibits coral growth so leaving a natural access point used by ships as well as dolphins, sharks and whales wanting to gain access to the shallow, calm and often safer waters of the lagoon. Being on a ship entering one of these relatively narrow gaps knowing one false move could scupper the vessel has to be one of the highlights of sailing in these waters. As the boat approaches the gap…
The water ahead looks very turbulent as the water moves between the shallow lagoon and deep Pacific Ocean. Often pods of dolphins and flocks of seabirds congregate in these gaps as food is readily available
In reality the gap in the coral is deep and very well marked although problems can still occur if there are high winds, for example. Everywhere you look there are fantastic views
In the tropics the sun sets early and quickly so each departure is generally followed by a dramatic sunset
On to probably the most famous Polynesian island, Bora Bora where we had 2 days and an overnight stay. Bora Bora has long been noted for its stunning beauty. A tiny island, less than 20 miles in circumference, Bora Bora is dominated by the castle-like Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia, two volcanic peaks with lush tropical slopes. A protective coral reef encloses Bora Bora, and the lagoon is dotted with colorful motus, or islets. We arrived later in the day so had the chance to watch as we negotiated the coral reefs surrounding the island….
…and caught glimpse of the famous profile of Bora Bora
On our first day we took a catamaran out round the small island adjacent to Bora Bora, passing by the hugely expensive hotel resort
And on to a shallow area where we could snorkel above the coral. The sea was quite rough which made accessing the boat again a bit tricky.
The second stop was where we could swim with sharks and rays
Bora Bora is stunning
That night we went ashore and ate at a roadside burger place, albeit one with a difference. The menu ranged from bog standard burgers to steak and roquefort sauce to kebabs and chinese dishes. Chicken and chips was a perfect antidote to the increasingly monotonous menus on board.
On day 2 we made the rookie error of booking a trip at least 50% identical to the one we’d already done. So we returned to the sharks but this time the crew fed them and we weren’t allowed to go in. Feeding is supposedly outlawed but it did attract the frigate birds
And the sharks
Following this we were dropped off on a deserted island in the rain. The air was warm and soon the rain stopped and we quickly dried off. This island was famous for its rays
But the best part was the island itself, exactly like the mental images of an island in French Polynesia
Beautiful women on the beach..
Fresh fruit…bananas, mango, grapefruit and coconut bread prepared by the crew of our boat. As they said, you can’t go hungry in French Polynesia, fruit grows everywhere
That night we went out again, in the wind and pouring rain. But at least it was warm. Our destination was one of the better restaurants on Bora Bora, the St James. The evening was nearly a washout
The storm soon passed and we had a reasonable, if expensive, meal, made much better by not being onboard.
Huahine-LTI was our next stop, a much less touristy island. The island has length of 16 km (10 mi) and max width of 13 km (8 mi). It covers a total area of approx 75 km2 (29 mi2) and consists of two main isles surrounded by a coral reef with several smaller islets. Big Huahine (Huahine Nui) is the northern one, and Little Huahine (Huahine Iti) is the southern. The two are divided by a few hundred yards of water. They are naturally linked via a sandspit at low tide. A bridge was later built to connect both Huahine islands.
Our arrival was debatable. Due to arrive at 8am, going on deck to witness the ship going through the entrance in the coral, we seemed to be going round in circles. Asking one of the staff what was happening, we were told the wind and currents were too dangerous to attempt entry and that we might have a sea day instead. A decision would be made in the next 1/2 hour and of course the safety of the ship and passengers was paramount. As this was being relayed over the tannoy system, those of us on deck witnessed a sudden rush in speed and a run at the opening. We made it into the calm bay waters, but would we be able to leave later in the day?
We’d booked a cultural and heritage trip. Again the weather was dreadful, wet, windy but warmish so the highlight of the tour, a walk to a viewpoint, was cancelled and we spent ages listening to our guide whilst standing in the rain and then going to a river to feed huge eels which live there. This is billed as a major tourist event but in reality is exceedingly dull. The island was buzzing as that morning had seen the departure of a major canoe race which usually takes place every year across the islands. That evening we again watched from on high as the captain took us through the reef so yes, we did make it out in much calmer seas.
Tahiti was our next stop, ah the magic of that word! Tahiti is the largest of the Polynesian islands and home to the capital city of Papeete, a delightful blend of cultures. Papeete, meaning the “water basket,” was once a gathering place where Tahitians came to fill their calabashes with fresh water. Today, it is the gateway to the country, and boasts romantic resorts, fine dining, vibrant markets, pearl shops, and boutiques. Tahiti’s mountainous interior is adorned with deep valleys and scenic waterfalls, while the rugged coastal lands are home to fields of tropical flowers, and glorious white and black sand beaches.
We docked in the capital, Papeete but had nothing planned. Helen was under the weather so I jumped ship and following advice from a friend, got a catamaran to a nearby island, Moorae. Another rookie error, forgetting a driving licence, restricted any movement round the island to a few hundreds metres each side of the port so the visit allowed much time for contemplation
The view of the way back was stunning
Tahiti has a number of valleys which scour the landscape and the upper reaches of these are still home to some of the rarest endemic bird species on the island, the problem is knowing about and accessing these sites so we’d been in touch with the Société d’ornithologie de Polynésie to see if they could take us to a breeding colony of the Polynesian swiftlet. However, recent storms had rendered the area unsafe due to landslides so yet again we were thwarted!
Little known to us, the ship was to move that night, to anchor on the other side of Moorae, in Cooks Bay where we were due to go on an ecotour with a research scientist, Dr Michael Poole. The tall, verdant peaks of Moorea, rising from the dazzling blue sea, embody a perfect daydream vision of a South Pacific Paradise. In fact, it’s said the island’s profile was the inspiration for the fictional Bali Hai. A sortie on the local Le Truck open-sided busses along the island’s roads does nothing to deflate the image, passing under great, spreading boughs of breadfruit trees, past extravagant cascades of brilliant bougainvillea and hibiscus, scented rows of pale pastel (really, you sound like a tour brochure Andy!). This was yet another beautiful island, largely undeveloped.
For one of us this was the best tour to date. he took us out to see a group of Spinner Dolphins, a species he has studied for decades. These are the smallest dolphin species and have some unique behaviours, including spinning, as you’d expect
Leaping out of the water
And synchronised swimming
These dolphins spend daytime in the lagoon as this is a much safer place than the open ocean where various sharks lurk. At night they go out to sea as squid species and lantern fish, their favoured prey, rise up from the depths to feed and become prey themselves.
That afternoon we wandered down the road to a restaurant-cafe the likes of which you’d only see in the glossiest of magazines.
Yet again, some great views as we moved on again that evening
Our final stop was at Uturoa on the island of Raiatea.
Raiatea is rich with cultural and historical significance. Believed to be the original birthplace of Polynesia, this legendary island is a secret garden of ancient myths and hidden temples. Her unique and fascinating heritage gives the island of Raiatea an intriguing sense of place (more brochure information!). Raiatea, which translates to “faraway heaven,” was once the cultural and religious center of the Society Islands. Known in legends as Hawaiki, “the homeland,” many cultures believe that this is where the great Polynesian migration began, from which large double-hulled sailing canoes set out to colonize Hawaii and New Zealand.
Our tour took us round the coast to the only navigable river in French Polynesia and the heart of where the Polynesians started their expansion across the Pacific. The area had everything they needed for the journey, wood for the boats, fresh water and enough fresh food for the voyage. Before setting off, they would trek up Mount Tefatua to ask their gods for a good voyage.
The river is supposedly 5 miles long but the only navigable bit seemed to stop just round the corner from the mouth of the river, conveniently near a little shack selling bananas and coconut milk
We were then taken to what can only be described as a communal island, for use by the whole community for parties, celebrations etc. The atmosphere was fantastic, with small family groups dotted around an idyllic tropical island. Robin Hood got an airing
We went swimming and walked around the island, seeing sharks, frigate birds and fish
Fruit was provided before we were taken back to town. The barista on board, Bojan, is a fabulous photographer and he “papped” us as we walked through town
Back on board, this was our last departure before 4 days at sea, crossing the international date line and Fiji..
French Polynesia is very much unfinished business. There is so much we didn’t see, especially the interior of these islands and the wildlife they hold. One day it’d be nice to return and enjoy these islands at a more leisurely pace.