Unveiling Tahiti’s Allure with Variety Cruises
When travelers conjure images of French Polynesia,
not surprisingly the first island to come to mind is not Tahiti but the supermodel island of Bora Bora, with its luxurious hotels like the Four Seasons Bora Bora, complete with swanky, over-the-water bungalows and unblemished panoramic views of omnipresent Mount Otemanu.
But there’s more to this storied archipelago than Tahiti and Bora Bora. After short visits to both of these famous destinations, I was excited to join a seven-night sailing through the Society Islands with Variety Cruises (www.varietycruises.com), a Greek small-ship cruise line. Aboard the 164-foot (50-meter) Panorama II, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit multiple off-the-beaten-path islands. With its 25 ocean-view cabins serving 49 guests and 16 crew, the twin-masted private yacht offered an immersive cultural voyage more than a beach holiday.
Variety’s Society Islands sailings include seven- and 10-night cruises, both departing and returning to the capital of Papeete. We opted for the shorter cruise to Moorea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Taha’a and Raiatea. The longer voyage ventures further to the rarely-visited Tuamotu archipelago, making stops at Makatea, Rangiroa and Tikehau.
Most expedition cruises operate with a set plan. Following breakfast, there is a morning expedition, lunch aboard the ship, and an afternoon tour option. But an essential aspect of expedition cruising is to arrive with an open mind or at least a willingness to “be flexible.” Due to weather conditions or wildlife sightings, the ship can easily change course. Each voyage is unique.
For many locals and visitors, Moorea is the most inspiring backdrop in French Polynesia. The island is known for its turquoise lagoons, white sand beaches and eight colossal, jagged peaks.
The program for Moorea begins at 8:15 when tenders travel to shore for the a dolphin excursion. We’re joined by American marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole, who has lived in Moorea conducting research projects since 1987. Poole lends his expertise in explaining the geology of French Polynesia and the habits of whales and dolphins. The highlight occurs when pods of acrobatic spinner dolphins put on a display, twirling mid-air as if launched from cannons from the sea, spinning vertically and horizontally in the air like ballerinas.
An afternoon drive around the island in a 4×4 open-air safari vehicle was followed after dark by a 12-hour overnight trip to the island of Huahine.
The Garden Island of Huahine is a tropical paradise island often overlooked on island-hopping trips. We arrive on a Sunday when, Sephora informs us, most shops will close at noon. We spend the morning on a guided 4×4 tour to ancient sacred sites. It is a cultural immersion in Polynesian geology, botany, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, economy, history and traditions. An afternoon boat trip to a motu (islet) for a traditional cooking class is followed by a snorkeling trip. In the evening, local musicians boarded the ship and performed Tahitian songs.
Bora Bora is French Polynesia’s most visited island, like Santorini in Greece. The volcanic island is set in a radiant lagoon. Delve deeper into the seductive Shangri-la and you’ll find a robust marine life teeming with tropical fish. Variety guests spend the morning visiting four different snorkeling spots, petting stingrays, and watching eels slither by. The ship docks in the main town of Viatape, where shops, bars, and cafes are just steps away. In the evening, the Variety hospitality team slices up a massive tuna for a sashimi appetizer.
One of Tahiti’s best-kept secrets, the tranquil island of Taha’a produces 80 percent of the aromatic vanilla in French Polynesia. It is also acclaimed for its exquisite pearl production. We spend the morning at the Motu Pearl Farm, where experts from the family-run business explain the cultivation of Tahitian pearls, followed by a trip to the Ferme Bio Organic Vanilla Farm. Later in the day, we snorkel, letting the current guide us as we drift past colorful coral and schools of brightly hued fish at the island’s renowned coral garden.
On a partially rainy day, Variety anchors at our sixth Society Island, historic Raiatea. Known as the “Sacred Island” and the second largest of the Society group, Raiatea was the second capital of French Polynesia as well as the home of Sephora, our passionate cruise director. She reminds us that Raiatea’s Taputapuatea marae is the holiest place of worship for all Polynesians.
The day’s activities include a trip down the Faaroa River, the only navigable stream in French Polynesia, on a motorized outrigger canoe, followed by a guided tour of the open-air Marae Taputapuatea shrine—the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in French Polynesia. The motor yacht remains docked for the day at the island capital of Uturoa, where my wife shops for jewelry and I buy a few Polynesian shirts.
Each suite is designed with two single beds or one double. I found rooms easily manageable, but some guests found cabins and bathrooms restrictive. Three excellent meals are served daily in the upper-deck restaurant. A daily happy hour is held in the cozy communal entertainment living room from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by dinner. Snorkel gear is lent to passengers.
Long, pebbly white-sand beaches, flanked by crystal-clear waters with schools of multi-colored fish, are the norm on this traversing of a few of Tahiti’s favorite islands. And as irresistibly and equally attuned to close encounters with cultures, people, and marine animals, Variety Cruises’ immersive sailing of Tahiti is an unrivaled experience.
Air Tahiti Nui, Delta, French Bee, and United fly nonstop to Papeete’s Faa’a Airport (PPT) from San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. Air New Zealand and Qantas fly from Auckland and Sydney, respectively; Air Tahiti Nui operates a nonstop flight to Tokyo.