The islands have attracted visitors ever since English explorer Captain James Cook first landed on the shores of Tahiti in 1769 and with its steep mountain terrain, lush jungle greenery, crystalline beaches and turquoise lagoons, it’s every bit the tropical paradise we imagine.
Elise Ciappara, Head of Yacht Expeditions at Pelorus, takes us on a personal journey to this incredible part of the world.
I was invited to Tahiti – Queen of the Pacific and the largest of the French Polynesian islands - as part of a familiarisation trip for the 40 metre motor yacht Silentworld, alongside the Tahiti Tourist Board. What an amazing experience it was, and a perfect opportunity to recce the region for our clients.
I was apprehensive about the travel time to get there - 22 hours in total from London - but after arriving on board in Huahine and taking the morning to stretch and relax, I was more than ready for the first adventure.
Our first day in the main archipelago of the Society Islands was eye opening in so many ways. It started with a hike up into the mountains of Tahiti with a fantastic local guide, trekking through the jungle and learning about a culture that almost died out. Spanning across the South Pacific, the Polynesian people are known to have traded in South America and Taiwan, but there are various theories about their origins. My favourite was put to us by our guide: “Maybe we were always here. It’s paradise.”
We walked to waterfalls cascading into freshwater pools and foraged for additions to our picnic, which was provided by the guide's mother from her own garden – fresh mango, coconut, papaya and a cake baked in the ground within a large bamboo cane. Delicious! She also taught us about the medicinal properties and uses of different plants in the area and the meaning of our guide’s tattoos. It was humbling to be surrounded by such lushness and beauty, discovering how a way of life was brought back from the brink as recently as the 70s and 80s.
When night fell it was time to hit the main town, and that first evening we dined at one of the many great hotels where again I was surprised by the level of service. This was the case wherever we went, unlike the Caribbean where people get used to service being a certain way. French Polynesia is still very French – as well as the language, there’s an ethos of pride and luxury that you just don't find in other islands around the world. That, combined with the warm Polynesian welcome and cheerfulness, just works for me.
Our second day was spent in Moorea, a short hour and a half cruise from the port in Papeete. We anchored near Cooks Bay, made famous by Jimmy Buffet, so of course we wanted to see it. But what happened in the tender on the way gives me chills just thinking about it.
As we were cruising around the island, our dive guide Anthony was telling us how they often see whales all around the area, but it was unlikely for us due to the time of year. However, as he was explaining protocols for snorkelling and swimming with the giant pelagic fish, we spotted a breach between us and the shore. We immediately cut the engine and floated, just watching, and after confirming the humpback mother and baby had been resting in one place for almost twenty minutes, our guide handed out flippers and snorkels and we slipped as quietly as we could into the water.
We did as our guide advised and kept behind him as we swam perpendicular to the whales. As we got closer, I looked up and around at the group as to be honest, I couldn't see anything! At first I thought I was somehow doing it wrong, but before a minute had passed I glimpsed a white stripe of a fin in the deep blue below. It took a second to realise what I was seeing was only the fin of the baby - the scale of them was hard to comprehend. We stayed in the water with the humpbacks for a while before they started to move away, upon which we swam back to the silently waiting tender. It was a truly amazing experience, and we were all extremely quiet as we continued on our tour, taking it all in.
Later that afternoon we fed stingrays and played in turquoise waters that, until I saw them for myself, had cynically assumed were always photoshopped in pictures! We also met with the Coral Gardeners and learnt about the vital ecosystems of the reef, adopting corals and planting them in new areas for them to grow and flourish. We were given the coordinates should we ever return, and one of our party has actually visited a coral she had adopted from Florida the year before - purple and gloriously healthy!
Our time on board Silentworld was wonderful – in total we cruised Huahine, Raiatea, Taha'a and Bora Bora, and as none of the islands were more than three or four hours cruise away, it meant we could enjoy waking up as we arrived at a new place each day. My highlights? Playing sports on Huahine, visiting Taputapuātea marae on Raiatea and exploring the farms on Taha’a. What’s more, with half the crew hailing from French Polynesia, we had expert guides and local knowledge when we toured vanilla plantations and visited pearl farms - the rainbow of black pearls is something to behold.
We also learnt how to navigate by the stars and steer outrigger canoes. We spent time on deserted beaches and enjoyed a Polynesian BBQ with traditional dishes and music. In Bora Bora, we dived with eagle rays and explored the remote motus - a far cry from my previous assumption that it was all holding hands and walking on beaches! We played on the water and under it, with jet skis, SeaBobs and paddleboards. The weather was stunning, it truly is a year-round destination and somewhere I would recommend to everyone.
The charter in French Polynesia was a whirlwind and my only negative was that upon my return to the office, not a single person offered me a gloriously perfumed lei or blew a conch shell to announce my arrival. My husband has announced we must go back and visit our coral child and I for one, cannot wait.
- Land in Papeete on the main Island of Tahiti where you will arrive on board and meet your crew.
- Head ashore in the afternoon with a local guide to explore the volcanic island. Hike along the ridge and learn about the history of the islands and why the locals have always believed they are in paradise.
- Welcome dinner on board.
- A short morning cruise to Moorea where you will spend the morning hand feeding stingrays and reef sharks. You will be able to get into the water to swim and snorkel with them, too.
- Head across the island in 4x4s, exploring the mountainous terrain before arriving at a wonderful secluded restaurant for lunch.
- In the afternoon, visit the Coral Gardeners and learn about the reef and how each one protects the islands. Now is the chance to join the replanting programme which involves snorkelling over the reef to select your adopted coral, affix it to the grow tables and replanting in a new area where it will flourish and grow
- Enjoy dinner onboard as you cruise 70nm to Huahine.
- Wake up in the Garden of Eden!
- After breakfast, you will step onto the culturally preserved island to explore its temples and sanctuaries with a professional guide.
- Kayak and paddleboard down the coast before enjoying a beach picnic in glorious isolation. Local musicians will serenade you before you spend the afternoon in the water and playing traditional Polynesian games.
- As you tender back to the vessel, keep an eye out for the local whale population, as you may also get the chance to snorkel with these beautiful creatures.
- Following a night at anchor, visit the Faei Village, feed the sacred blue-eyed eels and snorkel in the coral gardens.
- Whilst you explore the other side of Huahine, the vessel will cruise to the neighbouring island of Raiatea where you will be collected from the village by private chartered sea plane and fly over to rejoin in time for lunch.
- Spend the afternoon touring the many pearl farms in the lagoon.
- Take a morning cruise to Taha'a, the island of the vanilla orchid. The scent will reach you as you enter the surrounding reef.
- Hike with local guides across deep valleys and discover the flora and fauna along the way.
- Alternatively, drift snorkel with intensely coloured tropical fish and dive along the outside of the reef.
- You will recognise the iconic Bora Bora on the horizon as you arrive with the dawn.
- Once anchored within the reef, an outrigger canoe will transport you to a remote atoll where you will learn the basics of piloting the war canoe in races and sports before setting up a remote desert island camp with survival specialists who will teach the techniques of fishing and foraging.
- As evening approaches, gather around the open fire and stargaze with specialist astronomers.
- Head into the water in your canoe to learn the basics of celestial navigation before heading back to the vessel.
- Spend the morning in the lagoon, playing underwater with SeaBobs where the manta rays explore the deeps. Alternatively, simply kitesurf or take a jet ski on the water.
- It wouldn't be a trip to Bora Bora without a visit to the legendary overwater bungalows. Disembark your vessel and spend your last night in French Polynesia savouring the delights of this iconic accommodation.
- Enjoy a spa treatment on the water and watch the sun go down over the lagoon from the deck of your bungalow.
- Fly over the islands to Papeete and board your international flight home.
Images supplied by Elise Ciappara at Pelorus and Tahiti Tourism