THE SPELL OF MAUPITI

Cruising World - - Con­tents - By Lies­bet Col­laert

A fas­ci­nat­ing and mys­te­ri­ous dot in the South Pa­cific drew in a pair of sailors. It didn’t take long for them to dis­cover the is­land’s charms.

A FAS­CI­NAT­ING AND MYS­TE­RI­OUS DOT IN THE SOUTH PA­CIFIC

DREW IN A PAIR OF SAILORS. IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR THEM TO

DIS­COVER THE CHARM OF THE IS­LAND AND ITS RES­I­DENTS.

here is some­thing about Maupiti, a tiny, lit­tle-known atoll in the So­ci­ety Is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia. Its al­lure, its spirit, its lo­ca­tion, its peo­ple, its vibe. Ev­ery­body who vis­its Maupiti loves it, and some even stay. But why? This is hard to ex­plain, and doesn’t be­come clear, re­ally, un­til you touch and have been touched by the cap­ti­vat­ing is­land your­self.

Back in 1989, Ber­nadette Bren­nan, then deputy ed­i­tor of Cruis­ing World, char­tered a Priv­ilège 47 cata­ma­ran out of Ra­iatea and, as part of a team, sailed the boat over to re­mote and rarely vis­ited Maupiti. Not many cap­tains dared to ven­ture into this reef­strewn la­goon, with its tricky un­marked pass. Ber­nadette might well have been the first per­son ever to write a sail­ing ar­ti­cle about this mys­te­ri­ous and laid-back gem of

T

Maupiti is well-known among South Pa­cific cruis­ers for its tricky dog­leg en­trance.

the South Seas. She met the hos­pitable lo­cals, had amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing her visit and was en­tranced by the atoll, its res­i­dents and its cul­ture.

Since then, few things have changed. The dog­leg en­trance chan­nel through the one south­ern pass is marked now, but still only ac­ces­si­ble in cer­tain con­di­tions, when wind speeds are be­low 20 knots and the swell is less than 6 feet. Th­ese mel­low cir­cum­stances are rarely met dur­ing the high (trade wind) sea­son from April to Oc­to­ber, when boats might get trapped in­side, of­ten for weeks at a time. Ideal con­di­tions pre­vail dur­ing the cy­clone sea­son, but with no shel­tered hur­ri­cane holes in the atoll, vis­its have to re­main brief. Be­cause of th­ese fac­tors, not many cruis­ers and char­ter­ers ex­plore the area.

In Novem­ber 2014, my hus­band, Mark, and I hopped over from Bora Bora to Maupiti on our 35-foot cata­ma­ran, Irie. The sail was faster than an­tic­i­pated in chang­ing con­di­tions. Be­ing on high alert, with our gaze fo­cused on the range mark­ers, we were gen­tly thrown into the la­goon, but our nerves didn’t re­lax un­til the turquoise wa­ter was dead-flat and the two sets of lead­ing marks were be­hind us. Fol­low­ing the usual green and red mark­ers all the way to the town of Vai’ea and fi­nally tak­ing in the sur­round­ings, we ex­pected to be blown away by the atoll’s beauty. But it wasn’t un­til we had safely an­chored and ven­tured ashore that Maupiti slowly but pro­foundly be­gan to cap­ti­vate us.

t all started with a sturdy dock — watch the coral heads on the way in — to safely leave the dinghy. Once ashore, we were greeted with a friendly “ia orana” (hello) by food ven­dors and lo­cal farm­ers at the cov­ered mar­ket. De­spite the main is­land be­ing ba­si­cally a rock and the sur­round­ing mo­tus (low-ly­ing bar­rier is­lands) con­sist­ing of sand, palm trees and brush, we were amazed at the di­ver­sity of healthy good­ies. Free drink­ing wa­ter is pro­vided by a spigot nearby, and a few small gro­cery stores are scat­tered in the area. The mairie (town hall) and the poste are right on the wa­ter’s edge, and the main bak­ery, with fresh baguettes, is a five-minute stroll to the south.

Ge­o­graph­i­cally, Maupiti re­sem­bles Bora Bora — a ring of pic­turesque is­lands around a turquoise la­goon with a high, rain­for­est-cov­ered land­mass in the mid­dle — but the com­par­i­son stops there. A flat road, which is paved now but by no means

Ibusy, pro­vides an easy, quiet walk around the whole is­land, fol­low­ing the edge of the la­goon. Mod­est houses and pretty gar­dens, many with a well-tended fam­ily grave in the mid­dle, line the street, be­com­ing sparser when leav­ing the vil­lage. There, lush moun­tain­sides and mas­sive rock for­ma­tions — some are “pet­ri­fied” faces of le­gendary gods — are the main fea­tures along the route. There is one hill to walk up and over, or a di­ver­sion to Tereia Beach on the south­west­ern penin­sula, look­ing out over one of the five mo­tus. It’s pos­si­ble to wade across the la­goon to Motu Auira. Along the is­land’s road, banana, mango, bread­fruit and pa­paya trees abound. As on all the high is­lands in French Poly­ne­sia, na­ture pro­vides a healthy dose of vi­ta­mins here. Dur­ing the rainy sea­son, it doesn’t only rain fresh wa­ter to fill your wa­ter tanks, but also man­goes and bread­fruit to re­plen­ish the fruit bowl!

Maupiti’s big­gest trea­sure re­vealed it­self dur­ing a chal­leng­ing hike to the top of Mount Teu­r­u­faatiu. It took us a cou­ple of hours and gal­lons of sweat to steadily climb to a height of 380 me­ters (1,247 feet), pass­ing through trop­i­cal veg­e­ta­tion, find­ing re­prieve in the shade of jun­gle­like trees and plants, and ap­pre­ci­at­ing the sturdy ropes to pull our­selves over steep rock faces. Once on the top, our fa­tigue im­me­di­ately evap­o­rated when the 360-de­gree view ma­te­ri­al­ized. Spell­bound, we looked over the vast ex­panse around us: palm-fringed mo­tus fram­ing the turquoise-blue la­goon with indigo-blue ocean depths be­hind them, an infinite seascape; bar­ren moun­tain­sides in­ter­changed with rocky out­crops and green hills, with patches of coral dot­ting the blue can­vas un­der­neath; frothy, white waves break­ing over the outer reef; and the minia­ture houses of Vai’ea scat­tered around the pic­turesque church. It all molded into ar­guably the best view of French Poly­ne­sia.

We were able to ex­plore all the is­lands in the la­goon by dinghy. No tabu (for­bid­den) signs here. Un­like on many of the beaches we came across in Ra­iatea or Bora Bora, as vis­i­tors to Maupiti, we were wel­come to walk around, sit in the shade of palm trees or go for re­fresh­ing swims with­out be­ing chased off by pro­tec­tive dogs or pos­ses­sive peo­ple. One day, we were even given ba­nanas and co­conuts by a nice man liv­ing on a motu, be­fore head­ing back to Irie. But not only Poly­ne­sians are of the wel­com­ing kind in Maupiti!

ey, are you guys Amer­i­cans?” A tan man with a long, gray beard and dec­o­ra­tive tat­toos ap­proached in his mo­tor­boat. We popped our heads out­side, baf­fled to hear English. While his quiet Maupi­tian friend Nu-nu kept the two boats from touch­ing, we met Johnny Co­conut. Who would have guessed we’d find an Amer­i­can ex­pat in this re­mote part of the world? Ea­ger to make new friends and to com­mu­ni­cate in English after months of mak­ing con­ver­sa­tion in

Hpoor French, we lis­tened to Johnny’s story.

In 1991, John Brito, of Cal­i­for­nia, read the ar­ti­cle “Maupiti, Is­land of Spir­its” in Cruis­ing World and was cap­ti­vated. That’s where I want to go, he thought. Maupiti fit his pic­ture of a quiet is­land par­adise with friendly peo­ple, no paved roads, no big ho­tels and min­i­mal tourist in­fra­struc­ture. He loved the wa­ter, he loved boats; Maupiti had plenty of both. A call to author Ber­nadette Bren­nan con­firmed his ex­pec­ta­tions, and he jumped on a plane to the South Pa­cific. He cel­e­brated his 50th birth­day in Maupiti and was re­ceived with open arms. “I am stay­ing!” he told his new friends, and over the fol­low­ing two decades, Maupiti be­came his home and his life — he mar­ried, he di­vorced, he ran house­boat tours. He be­came known as Johnny Co­conut.

Dur­ing our stay in the atoll, Johnny shared tips and sto­ries and in­vited us over to his house on the south side of the is­land, where he and his Amer­i­can friend Jen­nifer pre­pared a de­li­cious lunch. We in­dulged in the is­land life, cher­ish­ing the peace, at­mos­phere and views over the la­goon. Life was sim­ple here, and de­li­cious at the same time. There were other “for­eign­ers” like us, who could not with­stand the charm of Maupiti. Johnny told us about a Tahi­tian-french cou­ple who

WE IN­DULGED IN THE IS­LAND LIFE, CHER­ISH­ING THE PEACE, AT­MOS­PHERE AND VIEWS OVER THE LA­GOON. LIFE IS SIM­PLE HERE, AND DE­LI­CIOUS AS WELL.

had been liv­ing on a motu near the pass for many years. When we took Irie to that part of the la­goon, not only did we enjoy sun­down­ers and bril­liant sun­sets on one of the nicest beaches in the area, and snorkel among col­or­ful fish, healthy coral and a group of ma­jes­tic manta rays, we also vis­ited the se­cluded cou­ple we were told about. We were in­trigued by their life, im­pressed with the house they built and in awe of its sub­lime lo­ca­tion.

NOT ONLY DID WE ENJOY SUN­DOWN­ERS AND BRIL­LIANT SUN­SETS ON ONE OF THE NICEST GROUP OF MA­JES­TIC MANTA RAYS, WE ALSO VIS­ITED THE SE­CLUDED COU­PLE WE WERE TOLD

n 1996, Louis — a sixth-gen­er­a­tion Pa­cific is­lan­der — and Maud, who’s orig­i­nally from France, bought a sub­stan­tial piece of land on a motu in Maupiti, far away from the hus­tle and bus­tle of Tahiti, where they had lived for 25 years. Their fond­ness of the is­land was based on a visit by schooner in 1977. For­tu­nate to have come across such a chunk of prop­erty, which is rare in th­ese ar­chi­pel­a­gos, where most land is owned by large fam­i­lies, they packed up and moved to the west­ern ex­trem­i­ties of French Poly­ne­sia. On the south­ern point of Motu Pi­ti­ha­hei, over­look­ing the pass and the wide ex­panse of the Pa­cific Ocean, they built their res­i­dence with pre­dom­i­nantly nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als.

The oval-shaped house was open and breezy, with a coral floor and a perime­ter of con­crete. They dec­o­rated it with lo­cal arts and crafts and sou­venirs they had col­lected dur­ing their trav­els. From the bal­cony on the sec­ond floor, they can ob­serve all the boats that come and go, and on a clear day, Bora Bora and Ra­iatea are vis­i­ble. Seven­teen years ago, a cy­clone brought dev­as­ta­tion to Maupiti, re­mov­ing the top floor like a hat off some­one’s head. Louis and Maud re­built the whole house back to its orig­i­nal state. They have a cute boathouse with a va’a (out­rig­ger ca­noe), and their prop­erty spans the whole south side of the motu. Here, a few bath­houses and two bungalows for vis­i­tors are other prod­ucts of the cou­ple’s imag­i­na­tion and artis­tic tal­ents.

When asked how things have changed in Maupiti over the years, Louis said, “The is­land looked dif­fer­ent in 1977. There was a small stretch of dirt road and one car. When we moved here in 1996, the dirt road sur­rounded the is­land, and we counted 10 cars. Now, the road is paved and there are 100 cars! The num­ber of peo­ple is about the same as 25 years ago, but there are fewer houses, oc­cu­pied by big­ger fam­i­lies. The youth now is into gad­gets they can­not af­ford, and fish and lob­ster are not as plen­ti­ful any­more. Ev­ery­one wants a big car and big out­boards. Peo­ple spend a lot of money and want more than in the

Iear­lier years, when life was more fo­cused on sus­tain­ing one­self. This evo­lu­tion is a sad one, but one no­body can change.”

But Louis and Maud are happy where they are and tak­ing life easy. They have a power­boat, which they need to visit the main is­land and is kept in a small nat­u­ral basin in­side the pass. They main­tain their prop­erty, and Louis fishes for 30 min­utes off the beach, ev­ery morn­ing, be­fore walk­ing his dogs. The cou­ple’s lives are iso­lated and their rel­a­tives spread out over the world, but they wel­come friends with open arms. They in­vited us over for a de­li­cious lunch of fish and sweet potato, grown in their gar­den; we pro­vided a salad, fresh basil to grow and Bel­gian good­ies for dessert. It was a re­laxed French way of din­ing in a mag­nif­i­cent Poly­ne­sian set­ting. We en­joyed the cou­ple’s hos­pi­tal­ity and com­pany while ap­pre­ci­at­ing the sym­bioses be­tween peo­ple and na­ture. The coral floor, de­spite be­ing a bit tough on the feet, pro­vided a clean liv­ing plat­form, on which crabs and noc­tur­nal crea­tures act as vac­uum clean­ers!

The time of our de­par­ture ar­rived. It promised to be a wind­less day with many squalls when Mark and I mo­tored our sail­boat out of Maupiti’s la­goon at 0600. I vis­ually lined up the range mark­ers, look­ing back­ward, while Mark steered us through the sub­dued cut. When we passed Maud and Louis’ house, we paused and waved. Louis, al­ready fin­ished with his first ac­tiv­ity of the day, catch­ing fish, stood on the sec­ond floor of the house and watched us dis­ap­pear to­ward the hori­zon. It was with mixed feel­ings that we en­tered the dark­ness and wet­ness of the ocean. De­ter­mined to come back one day to this cap­ti­vat­ing place and its friendly peo­ple, we hoped that Maupiti would con­tinue to re­main un­spoiled.

Lies­bet Col­laert and her hus­band, Mark Kilty, cruised the Caribbean and South Pa­cific for eight years on their 35-foot cata­ma­ran, Irie. They left from Ch­e­sa­peake Bay in 2007 and sold their float­ing home in Tahiti in 2015 to fo­cus on their busi­ness, the Wirie. Read about their ad­ven­tures on their blog (it­sirie.com).

BEACHES IN THE AREA, AND SNORKEL AMONG COL­OR­FUL FISH, HEALTHY CORAL AND A ABOUT. WE WERE IN­TRIGUED BY THEIR LIFE AND IM­PRESSED WITH THE HOUSE THEY BUILT.

A cruiser in Maupiti puts on a poi per­for­mance for those gath­ered to watch the sun­set (top left). In­spired by a story in a 1991 is­sue of Cruis­ing World, Johnny Co­conut (top right) left Cal­i­for­nia and paid a visit to Maupiti. He has now lived there for more than two decades. Cruis­ing friends Monique and Garth Wil­liamson (above) snorkel in the la­goon near the pass.

The author and her hus­band cruised aboard Irie (left), their 35-foot Foun­taine Pa­jot Tobago, from An­napo­lis, Mary­land, through the Caribbean and then the South Pa­cific. Lunch with new friends Louis and Maud (top), at their unique home on Motu Pi­ti­ha­hei was a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence. While not for the faint of heart, a hike up to the top of Mount Teu­r­u­faatiu (above) of­fers the best view of the la­goon, sur­round­ing mo­tus and be­yond.

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