Paradise Found in French Polynesia

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As Sea Princess prepared to cruise out of Valparaiso in Chile we looked from our Stateroom Balcony over the city and just as we were waxing lyrical about the city, our neighbour popped his head around the balcony and said, “Fancy a beer?” and so we joined Kerry and Di for a sundowner next door as the sun was setting casting a pink hue on the snow covered peaks of the Andes in the distance.

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As natural daylight faded, so the electric lights of Valparaiso began to sparkle, illuminating the city and its 43 cerros (hills) to form a breathtaking backdrop of fairy lights as we sailed into the inky night. It was the most spectacular sailaway.

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Our next port of call on this incredible World Cruise itinerary was due to be Easter Island and there was eager anticipation amongst all the passengers. However, we learnt from some of the more well-travelled-world-cruisers that landing on Easter Island is not guaranteed due to sea conditions often being unfavourable, making it difficult for the tenders to land.

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Within a few days of our sea passage towards Easter Island it became clear that a major low pressure system covering a large part of the Southern Pacific Ocean was making its presence felt.

In the heart of the low swells of up to 10 metres with very strong winds were predicted. So it wasn’t surprising that Captain Gennaro Arma made the decision in the interests of safety of all on board to alter the itinerary and unfortunately miss out Easter Island. We consoled ourselves with the photos we’d snapped at the Fonck museum in Valparaiso of the Moai (the monolithic human figures carved by the Rapa Nui people on Easter Island in eastern Polynesia between the years 1250 and 1500 CE.)

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That was the bad news.

The good news was that at short notice an additional port of call in French Polynesia to the island of Moorea was added to the itinerary. I, for one, was very excited about this, and Moorea became our gateway to three fantastic days in French Polynesia.

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Magical Moorea

We arrived at Moorea early on the morning of August 16th. It was a beautiful clear sunny day as we cruised towards the island taking in its spectacular beauty. It seemed like a magical blue-green oasis after 9 days at sea, and as a destination it looked about as far away from life’s hustle and bustle as you can get.

The island rises dramatically from the ocean, its jagged volcanic peaks soaring above the lush emerald vegetation. There are beautiful blue lagoons enclosed by a pretty coral reef which skirts the island.

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Sea Princess dropped anchor just offshore in Opunohu Bay and we boarded tenders to take us ashore to the bustling little harbourside where we were greeted with the warmest of island welcomes, and met by Polynesian ladies showering us with flowers.

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Just beyond the pier we found a plethora of stalls where vendors sold a selection of local handicrafts including; pareos, black pearls and shell jewellery.

We’d decided to go on a half-day photographic 4 x 4 tour  with Eyes of Moorea, to explore some of the island’s off the beaten track look outs and natural beauty.

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We met our tour guide Renaud, and our four other companions who were joining us for the trip. A lovely group of people; a couple from Kentucky, a lady from Japan and another lady from Australia, all keen for adventure.

Our tour started with a drive along the coastline to a public palm fringed beach, a great lookout point to gaze back on Sea Princess at anchor and we watched the tenders buzzing back and forth carrying passengers to shore.

From there we took a track inland driving into a fertile valley passing orchards of tropical fruit trees including grapefruit, lemon, lime, pawpaws, mangoes, bananas and on into vast fields of Queen Victoria pineapples.

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As we looked beyond the pineapple plantations we saw a particularly spectacular jagged peak , Mount Rotui, soaring from the surrounding forests.

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“Moorea and Mount Rotui was supposedly the inspiration for the idyllic island of Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific,” Renaud told us.

We drove further up the mountain and had an opportunity to photograph plantations of exotic tropical flowers at the island’s agricultural school.

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Then we drove on up the winding hillside road to the look out at Belvedere. The views from the lookout were sensational.

“Are you ready for an adventure?” Renaud asked as he put the vehicle into 4 wheel drive.

We took a rugged and steep road which led to another lookout called Magic Mountain. Everyone clung on to the 4 x 4 railings as we bounced around in the back of the truck up a very steep and very windy track through the forest.

Arriving at the top, adrenaline charged, we were rewarded with yet more amazing views stretching a full 180 degrees across the island, the protected lagoons, the barrier reef and some tantalising looking five star hotel bungalows jutting out into the sea.

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This was the last stop on the tour itinerary and so Dave and I decided that rather than travel in the 4 x 4 we would take a leisurely walk down the mountain to give us time to do more photography.

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Many great views and many photos later, we were back at the coast. Hot and soaked with perspiration from the humid heat we found a little palm fringed beach area where we had a lovely cooling dip in the crystal clear water before heading back to catch the tender back to the ship.

The sailaway from Moorea in the late afternoon was probably one of the most spectacular we’ve had. The views of the volcanic peaks, the stunning colours, the tropical temperature and the idyllic scene will be etched in my memory forever.

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On deck there was a real party atmosphere with people sipping champagne and cocktails as the the band played on, as we all watched the beautiful tropical island recede from view as we cruised on to Tahiti.

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Pretty Perfect Papeete

We sailed into Papeete at around 8pm that evening on a balmy tropical evening. We decided to take a look around this city which is the capital of French Polynesia’s largest and most widely known island, Tahiti) and after a short walk around the town which was very quiet and shut up for business we decided to eat al fresco at an area next to the pier where Sea Princess had docked.

This area was full of gourmet  food vans or Roulettes as they’re locally known, and we had quite a time choosing what to eat. The wharf was bustling with vans which had different themes and served a variety of local, Chinese and French cuisine which vendors served to you on tables bedecked with colourful table cloths.

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Eventually after much debate, and on recommendation from other diners, we decided to go for savoury crepes washed down with a French cider, and we spent a lovely hour munching and watching the Tahitian world go by.

The next morning we set off on a half day catamaran and snorkelling tour.

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We had a beautiful sail on a 90 foot catamaran along the Tahitian coast, across the cerulean lagoon with great views of the Tahiti’s emerald covered volcanic peaks in the distance.

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Delicious tropical fruit was served en route, and then the skipper dropped anchor in the shallow waters near the dive site so that everyone could enjoy an hour’s snorkelling around the reef.

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Sadly it was was all too soon that we were called back to the boat and away from the pretty coral reef with its bounty of colourful fish.

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“The bad news is it’s time to head back to shore. The good news is, we have a treat for you,” said the skipper. And with that he produced Mai Tai (tropical fruit juice made with local rum) and snacks for everyone.

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We had the afternoon and evening to do our own thing and Dave and I decided to explore the town and waterfront which was now bustling with people. The market was in full swing offering everything from beautiful flowers and garlands, to fresh tropical fruits and vegetables, and gift items ranging from black pearls, colourful clothing, pareos, arts and crafts, souvenirs and jewellery.

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In the late afternoon the light was excellent for photography with the beautiful saturated tropical colours.

We visited the cathedral, so Polynesian in character.

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We also walked around Bougainville Park, and then took a long lazy sunset stroll along the waterfront path where Tahitians came out in their droves after work to play and enjoy walks, runs, bike rides, and soccer games or to set off in their outriggers for a late afternoon paddle as the sun cast fiery hues over Moorea’s jagged peaks.

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We looked back onto the island of Moorea and marvelled at the beauty of the sunset and turning the other way we watched Sea Princess gradually come alive with lights, and music wafting down from the Riviera Deck, like a ship from a mystical fairy tale.

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Later that evening we set sail for our final port of call in French Polynesia, Raiatea.

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Dave and I had decided to do different activities in Raiatea.

Dave was heading off with a group of 9 people on an exciting drift snorkel. They set off on a small motor launch heading for the Tahaa Coral Gardens located on an uninhabited Motu (island) at the edge of the reef.

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He returned raving about this experience; the amazing variety of fish he’d seen and the absolutely pristine beaches, and the beautiful clear waters he’d swum in.

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Tahaa Pearl Farm and Mahaea Motu Beach

I set off on a small motorised boat (completely dwarfed by Sea Princess) with about 20 or so other people and we chugged across the beautiful blue lagoon bathed in warm sunshine.

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“We’re heading for the island of Tahaa and a small family-run pearl farm,” our guide Matahi told us, and here we learnt all about the islanders practice of grafting and culturing pearls in pacific oysters.

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Then we carried on to Motu Mahaea, the most gorgeous uninhabited private tropical island, picture postcard perfect with palm trees fringing the white sandy beach, and sea water the most lovely colour of aquamarine I’ve ever seen.

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Those with their own snorkelling gear had a fun time exploring the nearby coral garden, while others walked around the island, swam in the warm sea and munched on a variety of fresh tropical fruits and fresh coconuts which Matahi had cut up for us.

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Later in the afternoon we wandered around the market stalls which were set in thatched huts at the pierside, we bought souvenirs and enjoyed fresh coconut milk straight from a coconut.

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For a late lunch we tried the local dish of ‘poisson cru’ which is raw fish that’s been marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.

We also tried a local beer 🙂

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Paradise Found!

After having had the most incredible world cruise itinerary so far, having visited 5 continents, the historic cities of Europe, the desert landscapes of the Middle East, the manic activity of New York and the wonders of South America we both decided that (before we head back into Australasian waters and Auckland) our three days in paradise on the French Polynesian islands was the most perfect tropical finale for what has been the trip of a lifetime.

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Tips, Hints, and Trivia

  • The artist, Paul Gauguin, lived in Tahiti painting scenes capturing the local Papeete life experience.
  • Tahiti is known for its black pearls – check for a certificate of authenticity on the wall of the shop to ensure legitimacy.
  • The word “tattoo” had its origins in French Polynesia and comes from the legend of the god of tattoo, Tohu, who painted the oceans’ fish vivid colours. Tattoos are a ceremonial symbol of beauty in Polynesian culture.
  • Tahitian waters are home to over 55 species of fish.
  • There are 130 Polynesian Islands – they became a French protectorate in 1889.
  • Raiatea, means ‘faraway heaven’ and, along with Moorea and Tahiti, is part of the Society Islands of French Polynesia. It lies just 12 miles west of Tahiti in the South Pacific, half way between South America and Australia. It’s the most sacred of the Polynesian islands and has many archaeological ruins.
  • French Polynesia consists of five island groups; the Society Islands, the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Austral Islands and the Gambier Islands.
  • Raiatea is known for it’s water sports, and deep sea fishing.
  • The black pearl is a symbol of purity to the Polynesians and the Polynesian islands are the world’s leading exporter of fine black pearls.
  • Raiatea, Moorea and much of the South Pacific lived quietly until the 18th Century when European explorers including Louis-Antoinne de Bougainville and James Cook returned home with tales of a newly discovered earthly paradise.
  • Raiatea was formed by a volcano over a million years ago.
  • The flowering vine, Bougainvillea is named after French explorer Louis-Antoinne de Bougainville.
  • Polynesian legend says that the spectacular sights of Opunohu Bay and Mt Rotui on Moorea were only to be viewed by the eyes of gods, but you can view them from the spectacular Belvedere Lookout.
  • Moorea means ‘golden lizard,’ in Polynesian.
  • Renowned marine biologist Dr Michael Poole leads excursions to see and swim with dolphins on Moorea. His tours have been featured on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

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I’m a guest of Princess Cruises but all opinions are my own.

 

Comments

  1. Jodie Meikle says:

    Amazing! I don’t want your cruise the end. Love it how you balance out your writing with photos.. It makes it such an enjoyable read.

  2. Janet aka Middle Aged Mama says:

    Sigh … how lovely it all looks. Yes it will be very hard to return to normal life after this, having to cook meals and make your own bed!!!

  3. Oh wow, French Polynesia looks absolutely stunning. Thanks Jo. I think I need to add them to my travel list!

  4. Shame about Easter Island Jo, but what a great consolation prize – Moorea!! I have always wanted to see this magical part of the world and now you have convinced me that I must visit here. 🙂

  5. You brought back fond memories of our Celebrity cruise from Hawaii to Australia that gave us a taste of the South Pacific as well. Certainly a beautiful part of the world.

  6. Michele Peterson says:

    What an incredible journey you’re on! Those views! I’m actually headed to French Polynesia next month so fingers crossed I’ll be in one of those overwater bungalows you spotted!

    • I shall be looking out for pics of those awesome bungalows on stilts, with you reclining ever so gracefully over a bluer than blue sea SOON, Michele! 🙂

  7. Wow Jo, I would say not a bad detour at all, it really is a gorgeous island and one I would love to visit and explore. Thanks for showing us the highlights

  8. Hi Jo. I had no idea there are so many islands in French Polynesia. I’ve only been to the Hawaiian Islands (which are part of Polynesia but not French Polynesia) and I truly love them all. Would love to explore French Polynesia. Thx for the amazing photos!

    • I had no idea either Doreen – and there are so many. It was really interesting getting to Auckland in New Zealand and going to the museum, and seeing a map which showed the historic movement of people from Indonesia down to the Polynesian islands and beyond to places like Easter island.

  9. Having been to many Caribbean islands and the islands of Hawaii, I always figured that French Polynesia wouldn’t be anything special for me. Your account of your visit has convinced me that I am completely wrong, so I am adding yet another destination to “must see” list. Thanks for sharing your Princess cruise adventures.

    • Hi Suzanne, great that my post on French Polynesia could have been a little bit of a reason for you to add another destination to your list of ‘must sees!’

  10. Your days in French Polynesia on Princess look wonderful. Who can complain about a captain who leads you to blue skies and sun? 🙂

Look forward to hearing your thoughts!