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
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
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!
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
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?
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.
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.
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).