There are many corners of this world that deserve praise for their beauty and splendor. But very few rise so spectacularly from the ocean floor as does Polynesia. The islands are mystical, magical and leave you with a sense of wonder and beauty that we have not matched in our travels throughout the globe. This was to be 10 days of rest and pampered treatment. However, as is our trend it ended up as 10 days of nonstop activity and exploration. We started out on the island of Tahiti, docked at the capital city of Papetee for our first two days. We arrived on Hawaiian Airlines after a comfortable flight from Los Angeles and were whisked away to our awaiting ship and cabin on board the R4, operated by Renaissance Cruises. We spent the first day strolling about, shopping and picking up tickets to the Heiva 2000, a month long Island celebration of Dance, Art, Sport and Agriculture. The Dance competition was being held just a short distance away and we scurried out after dinner to take it in with the locals.
The next day brought a warm sun rise and Bastille Day. A perfect day for traveling around the Island and taking in the sights. But our first stop was to the Heiva Art/Craft show where our senses were delighted from displays of tribal talent and the lines of beauty. We picked up a Tapa, which is a canvas made from local tree bark, pounded into shape and then adorned with Polynesian graphics, such as a Turtle or Tattoo pattern. From here we proceeded to take in the spectacular scenery as we rounded the island. Stop off to swim under a waterfall, see a blow hole and stroll through a Botanical Garden made for a wonderful day of leisure. We returned under the cover of darkness and a pounding rainstorm to catch dinner and push off the dock to our next island of adventure, Moorea
Of all the islands in Polynesia, this particular piece of paradise holds a special place for Betsey and me, as it was where we became engaged many years ago. The Hotel Sofitel was the scene of the crime and we returned 7 years later to find it somewhat changed, but still at heart a quiet getaway. One of the many excursion we undertook was a Dolphin Watching jaunt with the research assistant for Dr Poole, who has been in Moorea for the past 15 years. Spinner Dolphins are the smallest of this family and are the only dolphin that can complete a full body rotation before they return to the water surface. We hit pay dirt just minutes after leaving the dock, even though these creatures hunt at night in extreme depths and rest during the day. They showed off their family pod and even took the time to delight us with a spin or two.
Like all the Polynesia islands, Moorea was formed by a 'Hot Spot' in the sea bed. From here a rising column of magma produced a sea volcano and pushed it upwards to become an island. As the volcano goes extinct, the vent empties and the weight of the outer cone starts the process in the return direction. A Coral Reef starts around the perimeter, and as erosion and weather conditions shape the formation of the sinking caldera, the reef struggles to grow and maintain contact with the water surface. This in turn forms the spectacular lagoons that are an integral part of the island chain. A healthy lagoon is predicated on a healthy coral reef, which in turn has 2 enemies. Fresh water flowing from the internal rise of the island will create breaks in the reef that then let in the second threat, humans. Many modern day activities can destroy the reef as it attempts to maintain growth at the water surface level. So as you vacation, be aware of your impact and tread lightly so that future generations of Polynesians may inherit the world of their ancestors.
We anchored in Cooks Bay and all around peaks and ridges of the caldera presented themselves to delight our eyes. Whether it was Sharks Tooth or a green covered ridge exposing cyclone-induced patches of stone, the views were inspiring, as evident below. But now it is time to journey on to Huahine.
The Quiet Island. Now here is a bit of paradise, laid back, gorgeous with a calming effect that has you finally discovering tranquility. Huahine lulls you into relaxation and never lets you go. As one of the smallest populated Islands of the group, you can really wind down. Fortunately for the traveler, this island is not as nearly developed as her brother and sisters, but you can still find some first rate accommodations. As you glide into Maroe Bay in the early dawn, Huahine's calm lagoon and reef greet you. The still waters of the bay are a shadow of things to come as you discover this sleepy outpost. We were only to enjoy one day on this tropical heaven, but we made the best of it. Grabbing one of the last rental cars, we proceeded to find the Coral Garden located a stone throw away from the Hotel Sofitel Heiva. Here you are able to take in a leisurely snorkel among corals and schools of tropical fishes bursting in all colors. A casual lunch at the open air restaurant, with tropical breezes is enough to get you started on next years plans to return!!!!
Raiatea rises as the religious center of the Polynesian culture. Legend has it that Raiatea and Taha'a were the first islands settled by Tahitian ancestors. It is thought that the religious stone platforms called Marae built here are revered by the islanders. It has also been said that all other Marae's throughout the islands have as their cornerstone a rock from Marae Taputapuatea, the largest in French Polynesia. Raiatea also is the middle leg of the Hawaiki Nui canoe race that starts on Huahine and ends on Bora Bora each October. The 116 KM of paddling over three days in open seas ends with thousands of spectators lining the beach, drummers pounding out encouraging rhythms and the paddlers greeted with flower leis.
We arrived early morning and were on our way to an 4x4 tour of the island perimeter and interior. One of our first stops was to see local fishermen drying out their nets and some of the spectacular lures that were made with mother of pearl shells. The lagoon is dotted with small structures that are part of the booming black pearl cottage industry. As Tahitian pearls have become known worldwide, local families are getting into cultivation on a small scale. We then proceeded to drive up some rather wet and steep trails to soak in wonderful vistas from the center of the island while snacking on fresh coconut, fruits and juice. Ahhh what a life. Next stop was the Marae and a glimpse into early Polynesian religion on this island.
The Marae below was the ceremonial platform to crown a new king. Once pronounced the new ruler, usually after a long and bloody battle, the new leader would then be lifted on to the upright stone for all the island natives to see. Sort of puts perspective into our globally orientated world of today. The flora and fauna were intoxicating anywhere you ventured. There were tiny delicate flowers and massive dense tropical jungles, and this was all back dropped against the deep blue and green colors of the Pacific. It was color overload. During our drive around the island, we were greeted by a busload of Tahitian school children on their yearly two week trip to another island. This is a part of the regular curriculum that gives all the Tahitian children the opportunity to live on other islands and gain an understanding of their island cousins . Not a bad idea for the rest of the world.
The next day brought on some cloudy skies, but it did not deter us form taking a Pirogue ride in the lagoon to explore a cool water river flowing from the interior and then head out to the coral reef for snorkeling. As we started out, we knew good luck would come our way as we came across an active pod of Spinner Dolphins cavorting in the bay. Our guides knew the territory and we were treated to a quiet spot with lots to see. Especially the Moray Eel protecting its coral reef cave. Off to the coral reef as we took a cautious walk along to see the life forms that exist on the island perimeter. Sea Slugs, Sea Anemones, Coral Clusters and Blue Lip Clams were there to take in. It was a great experience, but given the fragile nature of the Tahitian reefs we will skip that portion next time. The rain then came down and sent us scurrying back to the Pirogue and a return to our ship. As we showered and came out on to the balcony, a rainbow greeted us in tropical fashion. Now it was time to head on to Bora Bora
Talk about dramatic! Bora Bora has been described as the picture perfect postcard Polynesian island, and it lives up to its outwards reputation. The white sand beaches, volcanic peaks and abundant flora and fauna are everywhere. However, the lagoon that surrounds Bora Bora is the ultimate in color combinations. As you move across these warm waters, you can go from a crystal clear sea floor to deep ocean blue in just moments, while experiencing every shade of green-blue in-between. It can take your breath away and render you silent, as your gaze is transfixed on the water passing by under you. Bora Bora translated from the local tongue means something close to 'first born' possibly indicating that this was the second most important island for early Polynesians after sacred Raiatea. The steep land and lack of level ground gave rise to a warlike population that challenged their neighbors on other islands. Only the warriors of Huahine were able to resist the Bora Bora clan at their peak . World War II also brought another group of warriors, this time it was the US Armed Forces in operation Bobcat, which transformed this pacific atoll into a major supply base. The only sea water inlet was gouged out by the Navy to allow a port for Allied ships.
So far on the trip, Betsey and I were relatively well behaved and only took tours that were educational and local in nature. However that all changed when we hit Bora Bora. We became tourists!!!! The first order of business was a couples parasail jaunt in the lagoon. What a ride!!! We launched right off the boat and were reeled out like bait on a fishing line. The warm air gave rise to the sail and off we went, up and up and up until the views were cascading all around. It was remarkable that once you got any altitude, the ride was a gentle rocking motion and a peaceful serenity filled your ears and soul. The only possible spoiler to this all was if you were concentrating on the knot that linked you to the boat line and some form of control, and contemplating what you would do if it snapped. You could only think about it for a few moments before being distracted by the sights around you and your mind would wonder off in another direction. Here are few shots on our ride.
Lunch was spent trying the local tourist trap, Bloody Mary's and they were good. A rental car then swept us around the island taking in the sights. We made a half hearted attempt to drive up a dirt road and get a birds eye view, but given there were four of us and the vehicle had a ground clearance of about 4 inches, we decided it was best not to raise the ire of the rental agency. Who knows what kind of curse would be awaiting us when we returned on foot and told them where the car was ready to be picked up!!!! There remains a real contradiction on this island. While you are overloaded with awesome views and sights, at the same time there seems to be no end to the build up of over water bungalows and who can charged the highest. About $800.00 a night will get you there. Also the island has not been kept very tidy, with some of the hotels remaining abandoned after they had moved to better digs. One can only hope that the locals and business ventures will realize this common challenge and rise to meet it.
The next day greeted us with a warm sunrise and a quick run before breakfast. The afternoon was to be filled with Shark and Ray watching, another tourist adventure. However, a quick check of our tickets brought us to a mad panic as we were booked on the morning trip and the last tender was leaving in 15 minutes. Needless to say, we made it without having to jump from our balcony down to the tender below to catch the trip to shore. Off we went skimming over the blue-green lagoon to swim with sharks. Does not seem like a very smart activity, but we were assured it was safe, as these were Black Tip Reef sharks and did not include humans on their menu. And for our safety they pulled a rope line within the reef to keep the sharks away from us. What a feeling of relief that a half inch round rope hanging underwater would keep these creatures of the deep away from us. As promised, the sharks came and we were treated to a memorable event. I just could not help thinking that if another species of shark would have shown up and saw 20 snorkelers all attached to a line, it would have felt it had found nirvana. Tourist Lunch. Next stop to see Sting Rays. Now these creatures are fascinating. As they swept in from the dark shadows around us, they had an unearthly motion as if they had come to this planet from the far reaches of the universe. They hovered below us and I was treated to five of them communing under me as I floated in amazement. I could swim and watch them all day. We spent the rest of the day doing a little swimming and a little shopping. Finally, we do have to thank the two French divers who gave us a ride back to the dock, in order to catch the last tender before sailing back to Papetee for the end of our adventure.
May our paths & errands meet
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