Sadly our 3 months in French Polynesia is coming to an end and our final island in the final archipelago we’re visiting is Bora Bora!
Saving the best to the last 😉 Perhaps….. but it’s certainly the most famous of the group known as the Society Islands (bar Tahiti).
There are actually 5 archipelagos in French Polynesia, but we haven’t had enough time to do justice to the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Societies, never mind the Gambiers and Australs.
Other than Tahiti and Bora Bora, the Society Islands include Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa. Whilst the Marquesas are impressive volcanic islands with steep cliffs dropping off into the ocean, the Tuamotus are flat coral atolls with challenging tidal passes to enter the stunning turquoise lagoons. Meanwhile the Society islands are a combination of both, with volcanic peaks reaching up to the sky, yet these islands are surrounded by fringing reefs, wrapping them in clear, blue waters teaming with marine life, much of which you can get up close and personal with (check out the sting rays in the Moorea & Bora Bora lagoons and the stunning coral gardens in Tahaa!)
We timed our arrival in the Society islands with the Tahiti-Moorea Sailing Rendezvous, which is a fabulous get together weekend of yachts, event organisers & sponsors to celebrate crossing the Pacific ocean, probably the longest passage most of us will ever make. Back in Panama in March we attended the Pacific Puddle Jump 2016 meeting that was put on by Andy Turpin of Latitude 38 magazine and Stephanie from the Tahiti Tourism Board along with a host of other contributors and sponsors. Part of the fun of global cruising is meeting like-minded cruisers who are also out here ‘doing it’! Not only do we all learn from each other, we are all far away from home and family, so our cruising family means a lot and hey, who doesn’t love a good party!!
Our stay in Tahiti was short and wet! In fact the windy, rainy weather we’d ‘enjoyed’ for much of the time in the Tuamotus followed us to Tahiti and we found ourself anchoring in the very busy anchorage off Marina Taina in 35 knot gusts and driving rain! Fortunately we still managed to get a few repairs done and find a new waterproof camera (not quite the quality of the previous one, but as that one cost more than double here than what we paid only a few months ago from UK we decided on a cheaper model, especially taking into account our luck with ‘waterproof’ cameras!!)
It was fun to reconnect with good friends we had met back in the Caribbean during the past few seasons, others we had met along the way and also to meet new friends. The Tahiti-Moorea RDV kicked off with an Aussie get together on the Friday morning, 24th June, with various Australian marinas and marine specialists showcasing their products. Of course, Steve from Rivergate Marina in Brisbane was a big hit with just about every Aussie he met by presenting them with a tube of Vegemite! The day continued with the event registration at the Tahiti Tourism Office downtown, where we all received our goodie bags with T-shirts, brochures etc and a presentation showcasing many of the islands and what they have to offer, plus a welcome by the Head of Tourism, who caused some amusement by welcoming the various Nationalities, along with the Europeans and not forgetting the British (this was the day of the Brexit announcement!). After a performance of Polynesian dancing and drumming and cocktails, we went off to sample the delights of the Roulottes (food trucks which set up at dusk on the waterfront in Pape’ete).
On the Saturday the plan was for all yachts to rally (not race, Lorna 😉 ) across to Moorea. Unfortunately, after weeks of high winds, the wind decided NOT to blow, so most of us ended up motoring the 15 NM across to Moorea to anchor in the stunning Cook’s Bay, where the party continued through Saturday night and all day Sunday.
We were treated to more dance and drumming performances and more presentations by sponsors from other Pacific nations, including Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. On the Sunday, we began the day with canoe races. In teams of 4, along with 2 locals, we raced in traditional Polynesian outriggers. Our team of 4, the Amarula crew, along with the crew of SV Echo Echo, Jeannette and Neil, did amazingly well, coming in 2nd in our heat! This meant we had to race again in the semi-finals. Something went bizarrly wrong, as we came in last, having rounded the buoy and almost ended up in the next bay! Somehow our canoe simpy did not want to head back towards the finish line….. Ho hum…. There were various other activities and events all day long, more dance and drumming performances and a delicious, traditional Polynesian lunch. All in all a fun and successful event. Thanks to Andy, Stephanie and all the rest of the team! Well done!
Unfortunately, our friend Lorna from SV Quatsino II was quite badly injured in the canoe races as their canoe capsized and hit her on the head. She was concussed and taken to hospital, so sadly she & George missed the rest of Sunday. The good news is that the paramedics were on the spot within minutes and the treatment she received was, thankfully, excellent and she is on the mend. We managed to catch up with George and Lorna again a few times before we moved on to Huahine and they returned to Tahiti.
Moorea was truly beautiful and we enjoyed a relaxing few days in Cooks Bay after the party weekend. In fact we continued partying with various friends who had stuck around and others who had just arrived. We had a fabulous musical evening on Amarula with Dave from SV Eliana plus Shaun and Sabine from SV Chevaldy entertaining us, and the Quatsino and Enchatress crews, and apparently a few of the other yachts in the anchorage!
After a few days we relocated to Opunohu Bay and did the 10km round trip hike up to the Belvedere viewpoint, passing by the Agricultural college, where you can stop for ice cream and a tour of the facility (and free wifi! Wish we’d known. We didn’t bring the tablet…). The more attractive trail through the woods & alongside the river wends its way past an interesting archaeological site, which includes various maraes (stone platforms) and an archery platform.
After the hike we spent a couple of days in the crystal clear anchorage at the entrance to the bay, where it was easier to dinghy across to spend time getting up close and personal with the tamest sting rays we’ve ever seen! The crews of Amarula, Quatsino II and Moonraker, plus visiting friends enjoyed feeding and stroking these amazing creatures, whose skin felt like velvet. On the way back we stopped off to see the sunken tikis, stone carvings which were allegedly dropped into the lagoon when the missionaries came through the region and destroyed many of these ‘false idols’! We popped ashore to the village of Papetoai to see whether we could pick up internet and got lucky with the reception, as we were able to have great skype calls with the family back in Australia!
From Moorea we sailed overnight to Huahine. In retrospect we should have waited another day for better wind and to clean the weed off the boat, which had grown prolifically in just the few days we were anchored in Cooks and Opunohu Bays. However, the calmer winds permitted us an easy entry through the east coast pass on Huahine and a chance to explore the bays and motus (islets) there, before moving around to the main town of Fare on the west coast to stock up on supplies. One of the ‘highlights’ of the east coast is to visit the river at Faie Bay where there are the sacred blue-eyed eels. As we had the dogs with us, Eric anchored off in the dinghy whilst I went ashore for a quick look. A small group of tourists were there feeding them, so I managed to take a few shots as they slithered all over each other in a fight for the food. Not quite sure why they are sacred…? We noticed a stilt hut on the water out in the lagoon, which seemed to be getting visits from quite a few tourist boats and only realised later that this must have been Huahine Nui Pearls and Pottery that is mentioned in our Lonely Planet Guide. I wish we’d stopped for a quick look, but the forecast was for stronger winds again, so we decided to head back out through the pass before it became too choppy and we sailed around the north coast down to Fare.
We anchored in the deep Haavai bay just off the village of Fitii, a mile or so beyond Fare and during the evening we were treated to the sounds of singing and drumming wafting across the bay from the village. It is July and during this month the whole of French Polynesia is engaged in a cultural extravanganza known as Heiva. It is a month long celebration of all that is Polynesian, ranging from dancing and drumming performances to canoe races and other sporting, cultural and artistic events. The villagers from Fitii were preparing for their upcoming performance at the main Heiva site in Huahine. We were lucky enough to enjoy their practice sessions a few days early, as unfortunately we couldn’t make it to the actual performance. Eric’s visa runs out on 18th July and we still had to get cooking gas and provisions in Raiatea, then get to Bora Bora for the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th. Fingers crossed that the weather is kind to us, as we are leaving our departure until the very last minute!
In retrospect, perhaps we should have applied for the long stay visa for Eric (non-Europeans only get 3 months in any 6 month period, unless they apply in advance for a long stay visa). As it happens Lynne’s British passport may not be much use anyway in the not to distant future if all goes to plan with the Brexit!!!
Our sail from Huahine to Raiatea was one of the faster ones we’ve experienced in some time and really quite choppy, as the wind was beam on. Once through the pass we headed up towards Uturoa, the main town of Raiatea, looking for a decent anchorage. With no anchoring anywhere close to town, we motored a good 5 miles north of town, through a pass into a deep channel and back south again, to anchor a mile away from Uturoa across the lagoon. With 20+ knot winds from the south east, heading into town was a rather wet affair and unsuccessful, as we were looking to fill our cooking gas bottles and hadn’t realised that the Carenage Yacht Services, which does gas refills is actually around on the north west side of the island! Oops! Had we been a bit more up to speed, we would have found a much more pleasant, calmer anchorage in the lee of the island, which we did the next morning.
We took our gas bottles ashore to be filled, caught up on some internetting and even enjoyed good skype calls from the boat later that evening, a first since Panama! Onboard internet, especially good enough to make skype calls, has been almost non-existent here in French Polynesia, so this was a real bonus! Another job we had to do in Raiatea was fill up our diesel tanks before leaving for Tonga. French Polynesia very kindly offers duty free diesel to visiting yachts for up to 6 months.
From the fuel dock we motored back south to visit the Taputapuatea Marae site, which allegedly dates back to the late 900’s and is deemed the most important cultural heritage site in French Poynesia. From here Raiateans sailed out to ‘colonise’ other Pacific islands, as far north as Hawaii, east to the Tuamotus, west to the Cook islands and south west to New Zealand in their dugout canoes with their elementary knowledge of planetary navigation.
After visiting the marae site, we decided to head round to the deeper, more protected bay of Faaroa to anchor for the night, where we caught up with cruiser friends on SV Haven, Kinabalu and Blowing Bubbles. Eric went and joined them all for sundowners, but unfortunately my allergies were playing up so I stayed onboard and had an early night. However the next morning we all dinghied up the nearby river, one of the only navigable rivers in French Polynesia and we were treated to a mini tour of the plantation of a local man, Andre, who shared produce from his farm with us for a minimal fee. We enjoyed tastes of papaya, coconut, guava and orange limes (good for a facial workout!), plus a fruit called pakai, which was new to us; similar in taste and texture to a lychee, except it grows in a long pod containing a number of cells each with it’s own dark seed in the centre, rather than a single encased cell with a single seed like a lychee. We came away with a couple of large bunches of bananas, sweet potatoes and taro to share between us.
After another very enjoyable evening of sundowners onboard SV Kinabalu, we all went our separate ways again the next day. Eric & I had hoped to stop for a dive on the Nordby, one of the only wreck dives in French Polynesia, but the wind was still gusting 25 – 30 knots, so we sailed up through the lagoon to the west coast of Tahaa, known as the Vanilla island and enclosed within the same fringing reef as the island of Raiatea. Our plan was to sail around to the north of Tahaa to visit a small pearl farm and check internet at the village of Patio, but again the strong winds changed our minds for us. Instead we anchored in the calm, protected bay of Tapuamu, directly across from Motu Taotao, which is home to Tahaa’s luxurious lodge and spa Le Taha’a Private Island and Spa and also the site of the lovely coral gardens. This is some of the best snorkelling we have done in a long time, as you float just above the coral in between the 2 islets. It is teaming with fish and the coral is healthy and plentiful. Back at the anchorage we enjoyed lovely sunset views over Bora Bora and the next day we had a great sail across to our final island in French Polynesia.
Bora Bora is one of those magical bucket list places and we were fortunate to visit during the Heiva and Bastille Day celebrations. (We sadly learned about the horrors of Bastille Day in Nice, France, the next day. Our hearts go out to those whose lives have been irrevocably affected and to the whole free world) Initially when we inquired about what was happening for Bastille Day in Bora Bora no one seemed to know and we also learned that most of the Heiva cultural events had finished, however we got lucky! Early in the morning, on Bastille Day, there was a colourful parade, followed by a Polynesian dance performance at the Heiva events area.
We were even treated to a firework display across the bay in the evening! So it turned out to be a great day! In between cultural events we dinghied across the lagoon to another area where tourist boats go to feed rays. We didn’t take food ourselves this time, having fed the rays in Moorea, but once again we got a chance to snorkel with these amazing creatures. Such a treat!
The downside of all this touristy activity is that many boat jobs have gone by the wayside and now we have run out of time! Oh well, maybe we’ll get a chance to do some boat work in Tonga…..!!