Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Tahiti Diary – Cruising the Forgotten Tuamotu Archipelago

Mention Tahiti and most people envision dreamy, secluded islands ringed with beaches of velvety white sand shaded by lush palm trees and thatched bungalows perched above crystalline blue lagoons. They are not entirely wrong. These iconic images are real, but they are just the beginning. The Islands of Tahiti (as French Polynesia is commonly called) are actually 118 islands and atolls clustered into five archipelagos: the Society, Tuamotus, Marquesas, Gambiers and Australs Islands, spread across more that five million kilometers (two million square miles) of the South Pacific.

The Island-Hopping Dilemma

Gauguin-Fakarava beach.

Rush hour at the beach in the Tuamotu archipelago.

PG-Hiva Oa

The soaring volcanic cliffs of the Marquesas Islands.

While only half of these islands are inhabited and others mere specks of sand barely sticking out of the ocean, that still leaves an embarrassment of compelling destinations. Places far beyond the posh overwater bungalow resorts that festoon a handful of the now world-famous islands in the Society archipelago. They are the remote, unspoiled Tahiti Islands I have long been yearning for, and an island-hopping challenge

Over time, my list has grown to include mysterious sounding names like Hiva Oa and Taiohae. Now that time has come to check the travel possibilities, I give a passing glance to Air Tahiti, the domestic airline with small plane service to many of the islands. Understandably, it operates on the hub and spokes model, which unless I intent to stay put at one destination means a lot of back a forth between connection points. Besides, my dream is to sail on the South Seas, not fly over them. But boats aren’t much help either. Beyond the trendy Society Islands, ferry service is limited to cargo schooners that take passengers and sail every fortnight to the various Marquesas. From there local transfer can be arranged between nearby islands. Doable, but there has to be a better way.

There is: Paul Gauguin. No, not the late French Post Impressionist painter who put the islands on the art world’s map over one century ago, but its namesake, the M/S Paul Gauguin.

A Winning Proposition

Tahiti-Gauguin cruise.

The M/S Paul Gauguin proposed my ideal itinerary.

Launched in 1998 and fully refurbished in 2012, the 5-star Paul Gauguin is the longest and only continually operating, year round luxury cruise ship in French Polynesia. With a length of 504 feet (154 meters) and a draft of only 17.1 feet (5.2 meters) this lovely (relatively) small vessel is designed specifically to navigate the shallow waters of the remote islands, atolls and motus of the Islands of Tahiti. In case you are wondering, motus are reef islets of coral and sand that surround an atoll. In other words, micro-islands.

The Paul Gauguin offers a variety of weeklong and 10-night itineraries that include some of the lesser-known islands. By now, I am avidly scrolling through the various offerings, weighing trade-offs. Until I come across a winning proposition: a 14-night itinerary around the Tuamotus, Marquesas and Society Islands, all tied up in a gloriously easy, pre-planned package. Sign me up!

Five-Star Adventure

Gauguin-Fakarava anchorage.

The Paul Gauguin at anchor in the Fakarava lagoon.

Gauguin-etoile scallops.

Tonight’s menu at l’Etoile tonight features seared scallops on squid ink risotto.

And so it is that on a beautiful August afternoon in Papeete, we step aboard the Gauguin. My traveling companion is a dear, longtime friend who decided to share my South Seas fantasy. Our stateroom is a spacious 239-square-foot (22 square meter) Balcony Stateroom – Number 738, with twin beds, a floor-to-ceiling sliding glass outer wall opening onto a private veranda, and enough closet space to accommodate the vacation wardrobe of two women. The bathroom features double sinks, a full bath and plenty of cabinet space for all our toiletries. Settling in is a breeze.

Our luggage, collected earlier that morning from the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and Spa where we’ve spent the past three days getting into the Islands’ spirit, has preceded us here, ready to be unpacked. We dine at l’Etoile that night, one of three restaurants on the ship and its main dining room. The setting is formal, the atmosphere pleasantly relaxed, the menu inviting and the service superb. With only 166 staterooms able to accommodate a maximum of 332 guests and an international crew of 127 (for a crew-to-guest ratio of 1/1.5, one of the highest of any luxury cruise ship), the level of attention is truly remarkable.

At Sea in the Tuamotus

Gauguin-Topaka lighthouse.

The old Topak lighthouse dominates Fakarava Island.

My fascination with the Tuamotus goes back decades, ever since I came across the travel diary of Norwegian scientist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl, “The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas.” Heyerdahl and a crew of six had sailed in 1947 from the western coast of South America to the Tuamotus on a primitive raft to demonstrate the possibility that ancient people from the Americas could have colonized Polynesia. His hypothesis was later scientifically disproved. But as we approach the string of sea-level reef and motus stretching for 40 kilometers (25 miles) on the eastern edge of the Fakarava lagoon, the only thing that emerges from the ruffled coconut trees tops is a steep Mayan-looking pyramid. Could Heyerdahl have been onto something after all?

Gauguin-Fakarava guest houses.

Small family-run guest houses line the lagoon.

The mystery pyramid turns out to be the 27 meter (90 foot) high Topaka lighthouse, an old stepped tower of coral stone with a flat top, where during times of emergencies a fire would be lit to alert signal neighboring atolls. The tidy little village of Rotoava, home to most of the 850 inhabitants of the island, is a good place to get a sense of atoll life. The village has all the necessities, basic public services, a couple of grocery shops, a handful of dive centers, and nestled in the palm trees along the beach, a string family-owned guest houses. In addition to the traditional activities of the island: copra production (the dried kernel of the coconut used to extract coconut oil), fishing and black pearl farming, dive tourism is now a growing industry here.

Gauguin-Fakarava school.

The lagoon is teeming with marine life.

There may not be much happening on Fakarava, but the real thrills lie on and beneath the water. This afternoon, I am headed for Garuae, the north pass into the lagoon, famous for its shallow coral garden and exceptionally rich marine life. From the Zodiac, the magic hits me full force. I have never seen anything quite so blue – startlingly, vibrantly, intoxicatingly blue – as the blue of the lagoon of Fakarava. Until I don my snorkeling gear and enter the water. I feel I am floating in molten crystal around the coral, in the company of multicolored parrotfish, groupers, snappers, stripped “convict fish” and more that I cannot identify.

I am happy that we will be at sea again tomorrow, on our way to the Marquesas Archipelago. I need that time to fully internalize the dazzling experience of my long anticipated encounter with the Tuamotus.

Gauguin-Fakarava lagoon 2.

The lagoon glistens like molten crystal in the afternoon sun.

Good to Know

  • The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified. They are also active participants in the international Reef Check program, a voluntary-based research and education organization monitoring coral growth, health and rehabilitation.
  • The Paul Gauguin is frequently recognized as a top awards winner by notable travel and lifestyle publications. For more information about Paul Gauguin Cruises, call 800-848-6172, or visit pgcruises.com.
  • Fakavara has been a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1977. The delicate ecosystem of this marine wonderland is uncompromisingly preserved by its government and local population (n.b. Overwater construction of any kind is banned here).

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Fakarava

Tahiti Diary – The InterContinental Resort and Spa

Tahiti Diary – The InterContinental Resort and Spa

After decades of dreaming, a year of planning, a week of packing and a endless night of flying through so many time zones I can only guess what day this is, I am about to land in Tahiti. Even from this bird’s eye vantage point, the mythical island looks worthy of the hype heaped upon it ever since 18th century navigators first set foot ashore. White sailboats dot the shimmering sapphire sea. The shore is lined with white sand beaches shaded by groves of palm trees, and a semi-circle of thatched overwater bungalows rising from a turquoise lagoon complete the postcard image the perfect South Seas Island.

Ia Orana Tahiti

Papeete-overwater bungalows.

Thatched bungalows rise from the sea.

Tahiti is the largest of 118 islands and atolls (of which more than half remain uninhabited) that make up French Polynesia. Scattered across a South Pacific area the size of Western Europe, this Overseas French Community as it is officially called, occupies a total landmass of barely 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles, approximately the size of the U.S. State of Rhode Island). Home to the capital city of Papeete and Fa’a’ā, the only international airport in French Polynesia, it is the point of entry for the majority of visitors.

The lobby of the InterContiental offers a spectacular view of the Lagoonarium and the island of Mo’orea.

Fa’a’ā is one of the most laidback airports I have ever come across. Entry formalities are expedited to the sound of a trio of enthusiastic local musicians. “Ia orana” says the official who hands me back my passport after a perfunctory glance. That’s both “good morning” and “welcome” in Tahitian, and his bright smile leaves no doubt that he means it. I emerge into the party atmosphere of the arrival hall to be lassoed with a traditional Tiare hei (necklace of fragrant white gardenia that is the symbolic flower of the island) by a cheerful greeter from the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa.

Anteroom to Paradise

Papeete - lotus pool.

My balcony overlooks Le Lotus pool and beach.

Papeete - pirogue.

The pirogue is a popular mean of transportation on the lagoon.

The resort, a mere three kilometers (two miles) from the airport, turns out to be the idyllic stretch of coastline I had been gazing at from the plane. At the far side of the open lobby, my eyes lock onto a jaw-dropping panorama of lagoon, ocean and rolling surf against the chiseled backdrop of the sister island of Mo’orea just 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. My Polynesia dream is getting real!

Despite its proximity to downtown Papeete and the airport, the InterContinental, the largest luxury resort on Tahiti with 246 guest rooms and overwater bungalows, is an oasis of tranquility nestled in 25 hectares (62 acres) of tropical gardens. My spacious lagoon view room opens onto a curved, panoramic balcony overlooking Le Lotus, one of the two fresh water infinity pools on the property. With its inviting swim up bar and shaded beach, the white sand-bottom Lotus is a quiet haven to laze away the hours while watching pirogues dart across the lagoon and the Black Noddi birds nest in the coconut palm trees. For those who prefer a livelier environment, the lake-size Te Tiare pool with its waterfall and Jacuzzis is a popular gathering spot at the heart of the public areas.

The Lagoonarium supports a thriving reef ecosystem.

However, my absolute favorite swimming hole is the Lagoonarium, a giant natural aquarium that recreates the natural underwater environment for hundreds species of tropical sea creatures. Regularly monitored by a team of scientists, it houses a thriving reef ecosystem that supports a wide variety of fish as well as corals and shells. I spend many glorious moments snorkeling through the fragile coral formations, surrounded by a swarm of fish of all sizes, shapes and colors, my popularity doubtless enhanced by the net bag trailing from my wrist, filled with rolls purloined from the dining room’s bread basket.

Tahitian Fare and Traditions

Papeete-Marquesas dancers.

Traditional dancers re-enact the ancient tales of the Marquesas Islands.

Papeete-Lotus dining

Intimate fine dining at Le Lotus comes with a generous helping of lagoon views.

Overlooking its pool and waterfall, Te Tiare is the main restaurant of the resort, as well as the stage for cultural performances. Open from 6:00 am on with a gargantuan buffet featuring traditional breakfast fare from Tahiti and the world over, it then offers a menu of light summer dishes as well an extensive array of local specialties throughout the day. Additionally Te Tiare features two weekly theme nights. Wednesday is Marquesas Night, when local legends are reenacted in the traditional dances of the remote Marquesas Archipelago, and a rich buffet of Polynesian and Marquesan specialties complement the show. Meanwhile, Friday night is dedicated to contemporary Polynesian dancing with a spectacular show by the perennially award-winning troupe Hei Tahiti.

For a more refined dining experience, the intimate Le Lotus restaurant proposes a creative menu of fusion cuisine based on local specialties and complemented by a selection of fine French wines. Located in a trio of thatched overwater bungalows adjoining the sand-bottom pool, it offers glorious views of the ever-changing life on the lagoon with the mountains of Mo’orea beckoning in the distance.

With its easy access to the airport and the ship terminal, its superb location and amenities, and its attentive staff, the InterContinental Tahiti is an ideal launching pad for any French Polynesia adventure.

Papeete-Tahiti dusk

Taking in the magic of a Tahiti dusk – seen from my balcony.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – Air France flies daily from Paris to Papeete via Los Angeles. The national carrier, Air Tahiti Nui, also connects Papeete to France, the USA, Japan and New Zealand. Some of their flights code share with Air France and Air New Zealand.
  • Visiting – Papeete is mainly a connecting destination for visitors traveling on to the remote islands of French Polynesia. What little I saw of the town in my jetlag-induced daze on the short first morning drive from the airport left me with a first impression of a provincial port city, traffic-bound and a bit scruffy. A subsequent walk around the center of town confirmed it: not unpleasant but unremarkable. I also took a drive along the coastal road that circles the island, the center being dominated by three of the highest extinct volcanoes in Polynesia and quasi impassable. Other than a couple of waterfalls gushing through exuberant walls of ferns and a small botanical garden, I saw nothing much of note. However, I didn’t regret the few hours spent exploring, if only for having reassured myself that I hadn’t missed anything.
  • Staying – For my pre and post-cruise time on the island of Tahiti, I stayed at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa, B.P.6014, 98702 Tahiti, French Polynesia. Contact: tel. + (689) 40 86 51 10, email: tahiti@ihg.com.

Location, location, location!

InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa