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Tahiti – Cruising Tahiti and her Islands

Imagine this. One hundred and eighteen islands, of all shapes and sizes, scattered over an area of tropical ocean the size of Europe. Across this ocean, trade winds blow steadily from the south-east for most of the year, tempering the heat of the sun. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs, through which there are passes which admit vessels of all sizes, from outrigger canoes to cruise liners. Inside the passes are limpid lagoons where the sea is never turbulent. On the outer edge of the lagoons are lines of low, uninhabited islets. Called ‘motu’, they are covered in coconut palms, ironwood trees and pandanus shrubs and encircled by white sand beaches. Close to the shores of these motu a boat can drop anchor in a sheltered bay and its passengers can be tendered ashore. There they can explore the tiny island, then lie on the beach and watch the sun go down over other islands on the horizon, silhouetted against a flaring South Pacific sky.

Captain Log by Graeme Lay, Photography Tahiti Tourisme

A FANTASY, YES? A fantasy, no. Such islands really do exist. They are found in French Polynesia, the primary island of which is Tahiti. Beyond Tahiti there are one hundred and seventeen other islands, and the sea surrounding them comprises one of the finest sailing areas on Earth.

The indigenous people of Tahiti’s islands are Polynesian. Migrating out from the archipelagos of South-East Asia about three thousand years ago, they became by necessity seafaring people who used their sailing skills to first reach the islands of Melanesia, in the south-west Pacific Ocean. From there they continued to filter east, voyaging across the open ocean in large, double-hulled canoes hewn from rainforest trees. This migration occurred two thousand years before European seamen crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing against the prevailing winds, navigating by the stars, interpreting the drift of ocean currents, by about the year 1200 AD these consummate South Pacific seafarers were able to reach and inhabit the apexes of what became known as the Polynesian Triangle. These were the Hawaiian Islands in the north, Easter Island-Rapanui in the east and New Zealand-Aotearoa in the south. And innumerable islands within the vast triangle. ‘Polynesia’ means ‘many islands’.

These include the 118 islands known today as French Polynesia. The indigenous people who inhabit them, known traditionally as ‘Maohi’, remained seafarers, making return voyages in their double-hulled canoes between islands as far apart as Samoa and the Marquesas, New Zealand and Rarotonga, Tahiti and Hawaii. From the late eighteenth century onwards, Europeans explored the Pacific and settled the islands of Polynesia, bringing their radically different culture and transforming the traditional way of life. The British, then the French, came to Tahiti and her islands, and later, Chinese immigrants were introduced by the French. Intermarriage led to the population becoming a unique racial and cultural melange of Polynesian, European and Asian, and remains so to this day. Of the total population of 200,000, three-quarters of French Polynesia’s people live on the islands of Tahiti and nearby Moorea.

French Polynesia’s 118 islands are in five clusters, spread over a sea area of four million square kilometres. The five groups are the Society Islands, which includes Tahiti, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Marquesas Islands, the Austral Islands and the Gambier Group. California is 6,200km north-east of Tahiti, Australia is 5,700km to the west and Tokyo is 8,800km to the north-west. France, which declared Tahiti and
her islands an ‘Overseas Country’ in 2004, is 17,000 km away.
Although all of Tahiti’s islands are of volcanic origin, they are of two very different geological types, namely high islands and atolls.

The high islands have at their core jagged, forest-covered peaks sometimes rising to over one thousand metres above sea level. Largest as well as the most populous of the high islands is Tahiti itself. Its highest peak, Mt Orohena, soars to 2241m above sea level. Other major high islands are the other Society Islands: Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Maupiti and Bora Bora. All are mountainous and forested, and surrounded by coral reefs and tranquil lagoons.

Atolls are the ancient remnants of high islands, sunk almost to sea level. The 76 atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago are scattered across the central Pacific Ocean like a brilliant galaxy. Each atoll consists of bracelets of long slender motus, made of coral sand and rock, enclosing huge lagoons which are protected from the open ocean. Breaches in the motus allow ocean water to enter the lagoon with the incoming tide, flushing its waters and so keeping them pure. These breaches also allow ocean-going yachts and launches to enter and leave the lagoon.

Islands are meant to be approached from the sea, as Tahiti’s islands were for thousands of years. Today French Polynesia has a comprehensive, sophisticated infrastructure to accommodate private sailing vessels, with a great diversity of nautical options – blue water, lagoon exploration, inter-island voyaging. And whatever the size of the vessel, the received pleasures are intense. Standing on the deck of a yacht or launch, seeing a smudge of shadow and cloud appear on the horizon, then watching that smudge gradually become more distinct, is an incomparable experience. Drawing closer, saw-toothed mountains, topped with a toupee of cloud, appear to rise slowly from the Pacific.

In French Polynesia many of the high islands are in close proximity to one another, so that profiles of neighbouring islands are always present. This is particularly true of the Society Islands, which are divided into the Leeward Islands (to the west) and the Windward Islands (to the east). Tahiti and Moorea are in the Windward Group, and on Tahiti’s northern coast is French Polynesia’s capital and principal port town, Papeete (population 70,000).

A bustling, cosmopolitan city which spreads up the slopes of its mountain hinterland, Papeete is reminiscent of a city on the French Riviera. It has an extensive port where large yachts can moor, as well as a marina for all types of pleasure craft. At any time of the year there will be vessels of all sizes, along with the ferries to neighbouring Moorea island, tied up just below Papeete’s waterfront drive, Boulevard Pomare. The waterfront here is also a popular public gathering place, with many restaurants and craft boutiques at paved To’ata Square at its western end, and mobile snack bars and an open entertainment area at Vaiete Square, at the eastern end. Tahitian cultural shows are also held regularly at Vaiete Square, and can be enjoyed by visitors whose yachts are tied up in the nearby marina.
Across Boulevard Pomare from the main wharf are Papeete’s downtown shops, the central business district and the town’s vast, two-level ‘Le Marche’ (public market), one of the best in the South Pacific. Papeete is also the entry point for overseas visitors to Tahiti who arrive by air. Faa’a Airport, the base for both international and domestic flights, is a ten-minute drive west of downtown Papeete.

Tahiti and Moorea are only 17 km apart, separated by the Sea of the Moon. Large catamarans and ferry boats cross this sea many times a day, connecting Papeete, French Polynesia’s capital, with the port of Moorea, Vaiare. Moorea is a popular holiday island where all aquatic activities are catered for. Two giant bays, Baie d’Opunohu and Baie de Cook, deeply indent the island’s northern coast, and make ideal anchorages for large yachts or launches. Enclosed by towering mountains, these twin bays provide ready entry and egress to Moorea’s forested interior, which rises to Mt Tohiea (1207m).
The Leeward Islands of the Society Group – Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Maupiti and Bora Bora – are clustered about 200 km north-west of Tahiti. Only half a day’s sailing apart, all four are sublimely beautiful high islands. Deep passes through their coral reefs allow even large vessels to enter their extensive surrounding lagoons, which are ideal for anchoring, cruising, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving. Each island also has a port and a waterfront town where the vessels can be provisioned.

The Leeward Islands towns are much quieter than Papeete, and their sleepy ambience suits the territory perfectly. Most attractive of them is Fare, on lovely Huahine Island. Fare’s one main street of shops, cafes and restaurants is directly across from the island’s little harbour, where inter-island trading ships and private vessels tie up. Fare is everybody’s notion of what a South Sea island port town should be. And being located on the west coast of Huahine means that nearby Raiatea, the island which is sacred to all Polynesians, and the island which shares Raiatea’s lagoon, Tahaa, lie across the western horizon. Sitting in a restaurant on Fare’s waterfront, cool drink in hand, watching the sun go down over Raiatea andTahaa, is one of the South Pacific’s most sensuous experiences. Until you anchor off the west coast of Raiatea and Tahaa, and on deck with cool drink in hand, watch the sun going down over nearby, fabled Bora Bora, which is even more enchanting.

There is only one pass through Bora Bora’s reef, but the island’s town, Vaitape, has every facility for seaborne visitors, including a substantial wharf, banks, restaurants, supermarkets and an excellent craft market on the waterfront. And Bora Bora’s lagoon is one of the most beautiful in the South Pacific, with its variegated shades of blinding blue and a long chain of motus along the eastern fringe of the lagoon.

Due west of Bora Bora, half a day’s sail away, is the mini-high island of Maupiti. It has passes at both its southern and northern ends, broad motus surrounding a sapphire-blue lagoon and a central island rising symmetrically to the peak of Mt Teurafaaitu (372m). Utterly au naturel, Maupiti is noted for its secure anchorages, rich bird life, fruit trees and motu beaches.

Raiatea does not have as many beaches as the other Leeward Islands, but it is an island of great cultural significance as well as having the second busiest port in French Polynesia. Its waterfront town, Uturoa, boasts a large, modern marina and a deep harbour which accommodates vessels of all sizes. Big enough to have the support facilities cruising vessels require, but small enough to be explored on foot, Uturoa makes a fine base for cruising the extensive lagoons of Raiatea and exploring the island’s enormous sound, Baie de Faaroa, on the island’s east coast.

Faaroa Bay is enclosed by mountains, including Mt Toomaru (1017m), the island’s highest peak. Fed by French Polynesia’s only navigable river, the deep bay was the centre of ancient Tahiti’s canoe building industry. The hulls of the great canoes were hewn here, from giant rainforest trees, launched into the bay and taken around the coast to the largest and most sacred marae in all Polynesia, Taputapuatea, which occupies a level promontory opposite a deep pass in Raiatea’s reef. Here the canoes were blessed by priests before their departure for other far-flung islands in the Polynesian Triangle. Taputapuatea was the Cape Canaveral of ancient Polynesia.

Just a short sail across the lagoon, directly north of Raiatea, is its sister island, Tahaa. Lush and serene, with immaculate villages, Tahaa is renowned for its vanilla pods. Vanilla vines thrive, along with other tropical crops, in the luxuriant centre of the island. Two deep bays penetrate Tahaa’s flanks, Baie de Hurepiti on the west coast and Baie de Haamene on the east coast. Both make superb anchorages for yachts and launches. Black pearls, farmed in the island’s deep bays, are another product which Tahaa is famous for.

Further beyond Tahiti, the islands are less visited and accordingly have a much slower pace of life. The atolls of the Tuamotus are another world entirely, their motus being only a metre or two above sea level. But within their sheltered lagoons are some of the finest dive sites and richest aquatic life in the Pacific, with an underwater visibility of many metres. The most developed of the 76 Tuamotu atolls are Rangiroa, Fakarava, Tikehau and Manihi.

Tikehau has a wonderful seabird sanctuary island in its lagoon, while Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass is world-renowned for its ‘shark wall’, where up to 300 sharks of various species gather to feed. Harmless to humans, the sharks and other large fish make Tiputa Pass a diver’s nirvana. Cruising vessels can enter almost all the Tuamotus’ atolls’ vast lagoons via deep passages through the reef, then readily find safe anchorages within them. These lagoons are like sheltered seas within the Pacific Ocean. In 2006 Fakarava atoll’s environmental purity was internationally recognised when it was added to UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme, a world list of places of exceptional natural beauty where local communities are actively involved in their environment’s conservation. This is a fitting tribute to Fakarava’s lagoon and the pride which the atoll’s population of 700 takes in its protection.

For the adventurous sailor, the Marquesas Islands offer something truly unique. Wild, rugged and remote, this group of twelve islands 1,500km north-east of Tahiti is further from any continental land mass than any other islands on Earth. Steep cliffs plunge into the ocean, waves crash against the base of the cliffs and wild goats and horses inhabit the islands’ ravines and forests. Unusually, the islands of the Marquesas are not surrounded by coral reefs and so lie exposed to the ocean swells. But there are also beautiful bays here, sheltered from the winds and swells, which make up some of the most picturesque anchorages in the world. These include Taiohoe Bay on Nuku Hiva, Taaoa Bay on Hiva Oa and Aneo Bay, on Ua Pou.

Perhaps the ultimate cruise itinerary in French Polynesia would be one which departs from the port of Papeete, cruises through the Leeward Islands, calling at Huahine, Raiatea-Tahaa, Bora Bora and Maupiti, then sailing due east to Fakarava atoll in the Tuamotus. After a stopover at peaceful Rotoava village, inside Fakarava’s huge lagoon, a north-east course is then set, for the Marquesas Islands. Here fine anchorages and fascinating local cultures can be experienced at islands such as Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa and Fatu Hiva. The return voyage to Tahiti can then be made via Rangiroa atoll, for a swim with the sharks and rays in Tiputa Pass.

Bon voyage!