Spe­cial Re­port

Cruising World - - Contents -

The an­chor splashes into the gin-clear wa­ter as if to pro­claim, “We’re here.” Not that there’s any­one around — and that’s fine by me. We’re the only boat on the east side of the la­goon in Ta­haa, one of the qui­eter spots in French Poly­ne­sia’s So­ci­ety Is­lands. Ev­ery­one else is mak­ing a bee­line for hon­ey­moon fa­vorite Bora Bora, where you have to jos­tle with the char­ter cata­ma­rans for an an­chor­age. We’ll get there soon too. But for now, we gaze upon Ta­haa’s vanilla-clad peaks, mes­mer­ized by how the ever-chang­ing light casts shades of vi­o­let and ochre upon them — as if Mother Na­ture were putting on a show just for us.

I’m a far cry from Toronto, Canada’s largest city, where I grew up and started sail­ing on chilly Lake On­tario. Scat­tered across the South Pa­cific like a string of bro­ken pearls, the 118 is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia are home to fewer than 280,000 peo­ple, the ma­jor­ity of whom live on Tahiti. And the far­ther you go from the “big” is­land — a bit of a mis­nomer since you can drive around it in a day — the wilder things get. For­get fast in­ter­net, well-stocked gro­cery and hard­ware stores, and places to fill up on fresh wa­ter and diesel.

For­get also the cruel jolt of the alarm clock, the dark­ness, the cold and snow, the obli­ga­tions that await back home, half a world away. Cruis­ing the South Pa­cific is a world apart. And after seven weeks sail­ing these waters aboard Nanami, an older 30-foot Con­test sloop be­long­ing to a good friend, I know it’s not al­ways easy. On this trip alone, two of three wa­ter tanks have failed, along with the head. Pa­tience has some­times run thin, and spir­its have fallen along with the barom­e­ter. Yet de­spite, or per­haps be­cause of, all this, I know cruis­ing is where I’d rather be.

The Te Pari coast in the south of Tahiti Iti is ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. Rolling green hills sharpen into jagged cliffs with wa­ter­fall after wa­ter­fall tum­bling down them. The an­chor­ages are deep, the bot­tom im­per­cep­ti­ble against the black vol­canic sand. The wa­ter doesn’t ex­actly beckon — who knows what’s swim­ming around down there? (If you’re look­ing for pow­dery white sand and the vis­i­bil­ity it af­fords, try any other is­land in the ar­chi­pel­ago.) I’m be­gin­ning to won­der why we came here in the first place, beat­ing against the trade winds and trig­ger­ing a sea­sick­ness so de­bil­i­tat­ing I thought I’d rather die. Now that I’m able to keep my food down, we’re out of fresh meats and pro­duce. It’s canned pe­tit salé or cas­soulet — up­mar­ket French equiv­a­lents of Spam — un­til the next pro­vi­sion­ing.

That’s not to say that I re­gret com­ing here. Most boats don’t bother, which is a shame be­cause the la­goon is dot­ted with un­in­hab­ited mo­tus, small co­ral islets ripe for ex­plo­ration. Stand­ing in the

shal­lows of one motu, I watch in awe as seven reef shark pups cir­cle slowly and de­lib­er­ately around me. I want to call Na­tional Geo­graphic — surely this is a rare oc­cur­rence to be doc­u­mented for pos­ter­ity. But no, they’re just sharks do­ing as sharks do, na­ture tak­ing its course. Noth­ing un­usual around here.

A day’s sail from Tahiti is Moorea, where we meet Francky, a fel­low sailor and French ex­pat who first came to Poly­ne­sia a life­time ago with the mil­i­tary. These days, he runs four-by-four tours of the is­land, and lives with his beau­ti­ful Tahi­tian fiancee and their daugh­ter aboard Tiare,a 38-foot La­goon cata­ma­ran he named after the na­tional flower of French Poly­ne­sia. A va­ri­ety of gar­de­nia, its white blos­soms in­fuse the moist air with a gen­tle sweet­ness.

C’est mon rêve, “This is my dream,” Francky says, and I be­lieve him. He takes us un­der his wing, show­ing us around the is­land and host­ing l’apéro, or cock­tails, in Tiare’s spa­cious cock­pit. To­gether we down many a ’ti punch — a de­light­fully easy mix of rum, fresh lime juice and sim­ple syrup — the per­fect cruis­ing tip­ple. When it’s time to weigh an­chor, Francky presents us with seashell neck­laces, the cus­tom­ary Poly­ne­sian farewell gift. In true cruiser fash­ion, he doesn’t say good­bye (for there are al­ways too many, too soon) but à la

prochaine, “un­til next time.” Eighty-three nau­ti­cal miles north­west of Moorea lies the is­land of Huahine. It’s a cruiser’s dar­ling, that rare place where you can an­chor just off the charm­ing town, Fare, and take the dinghy over to take care of busi­ness. Get cash from the ATM, pick up gro­ceries, rent a bike to ex­plore the is­land’s many marae, Poly­ne­sian ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites, or down a frosty glass or two of Hi­nano, the lo­cal beer, at happy hour. Tired after the pas­sage, we’re grate­ful it’s all so easy. Yet for all its con­ve­nience, Huahine is nearly de­void of tourists.

I get the feel­ing that Philippe, the guardian of Hana Iti beach mid­way down Huahine’s west coast, is a lit­tle lonely. Row­ing out to greet us in his bright-red va’a, a tra­di­tional out­rig­ger ca­noe, he shows us to a moor­ing. Later, on the co­conut-cov­ered beach, he tells us ei­ther his life story or a tall tale, I’m not sure which. Phillipe shows us the path to the ru­ins of the Hana Iti Ho­tel, up the hill and en­snared by ver­dant jun­gle. We climb up and up, un­til the trail opens onto a dream­like view over the sparkling azure cove. From high above, I spot a white speck in the wa­ter, my float­ing home for the past sev­eral weeks. I think of my yel­low brick house in Toronto’s west end. Sure, it’s com­fort­able. But un­like a sail­boat, I can’t take it with me on my ad­ven­tures. It’s start­ing to dawn on me, what I’d like to do with my life.

In the end, what bet­ter way is there to spend an evening than swim­ming with some of the ocean’s most glo­ri­ous crea­tures? We’re on the hook in Avea Bay in the south­west of Huahine, and I’m hop­ing to catch a glimpse of the area’s res­i­dent manta rays. The guide­book says they like to swim along the edge of an un­der­wa­ter cliff where plank­ton, the ray’s main source of food, tend to con­gre­gate. I grab my snor­kel­ing gear and dive in. Out of nowhere, it ap­pears. Char­coal gray on top and white on the bot­tom, so large and yet so grace­ful. The manta ray glides along about 15 feet be­neath me, do­ing back­flips. With each turn, the ray’s gills ex­pand and I can lit­er­ally see right through it.

Ap­proach­ing Bora Bora from the ocean, I won­der what all the fuss is about. It looks a lot like the other is­lands we’ve vis­ited. Lush emer­ald peaks ris­ing from crys­tal-clear waters, an earthly Gar­den of Eden. As if on cue, a shadow emerges from the wa­ter about 10 me­ters away. It’s a whale and her calf, and I’m no longer blasé. They swim along­side us for 20 min­utes, mom play­fully spray­ing wa­ter through her blow­hole.

We spend a cou­ple of nights at the leg­endary Bora Bora Yacht Club, lux­u­ri­at­ing in long, hot show­ers and prox­im­ity to some of the most breath­tak­ing yachts I’ve ever seen. There’s a su­per­mar­ket and gas sta­tion down the road, and we head there on foot, red and blue jer­rycans in hand. A car pulls over in front of us. Bon­jour, says the driver, a plump young woman wear­ing a lime-green pareo, a Poly­ne­sian wrap­around dress, and a hot-pink hi­bis­cus blos­som tucked be­hind her ear. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal cus­tom, a flower be­hind the right ear means the wearer is sin­gle, while a flower be­hind the left means she is spo­ken for, like our new friend. She smiles and gives us a lift the rest of the way and back. This

would never hap­pen in Toronto, I think. Even­tu­ally, I learn it’s the east side of Bora, as the lo­cals call it, that in­spires all the fuss. Im­mense, shal­low and clear, the la­goon here of­fers up the most dra­matic views of the moun­tains, and some of the best in­shore sail­ing around. It’s also where most of the de­vel­op­ment has oc­curred — those ex­trav­a­gant over-wa­ter bun­ga­lows you see in Condé Nast, the mag­a­zine for well-heeled trav­el­ers. I get a kick out of sail­ing within feet of the bun­ga­lows, en­croach­ing on their guests’ very ex­pen­sive pri­vacy. It’s what they de­serve for dis­turb­ing the peace with their he­li­copter and jet-ski tours. Later that night, I think about how cruis­ing verges on the life­styles of the rich and fa­mous, the ul­ti­mate free­dom, for a frac­tion of the cost. I’m sold.

Yvonne Palkowski is a writer from Toronto, Canada, where she is a mem­ber of the Na­tional Yacht Club. She is al­ways look­ing for her next crew­ing op­por­tu­nity, at home and abroad.

Lo­cals of­fer lessons in crack­ing co­conuts on the shore of Huahine. Nanami, a 30-foot Con­test sloop, at an­chor off the Te Pari coast, Tahiti.

From top: Marae Arahu­rahu, Tahiti, a re­stored an­cient tem­ple site, was a fas­ci­nat­ing stop. The au­thor comes up for air while snor­kel­ing in Va­iare Bay, Moorea. A ven­dor sells flower crowns on a Moorea road­side. A whale and her calf es­cort Nanami near Bora Bora.

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