The Society Islands of French Polynesia offer some of the world’s most stunning scenery and natural beauty.
The sweet scent of frangipani lingered in the air as the sun set in a blaze of glory behind the rugged mountain spires on the nearby island of Moorea.
“If Tahiti boasted of nothing more than these faery silhouettes across the bay, it would still be one of the most fortunate of islands,” wrote novelist James Michener.
As we slipped out of tiny Papeete harbour aboard the luxurious Paul Gauguin for a seven-day cruise through French Polynesia, it was easy to understand why these beautiful islands had captivated Michener and so many westerners before them.
The first European to discover Tahiti was Captain Samuel Wallis of England who was greeted in 1767 by outriggers full of natives, including vahines (women) clad in nothing but grass skirts. Frenchman Louis Antoine de Bougainville and Englishman James Cook followed, but the most infamous visit involved Captain William Bligh and his ship the Bounty in 1789.
Bligh had been sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit plants for transport to Jamaica. But when Bligh tried to leave six months later, some of the crew decided they preferred life on their island paradise to the tyrannous rule of their captain. The resulting mutiny on the Bounty was not an isolated case: the erotic allure of 19th-century Polynesia enticed many Europeans to remain on its shores, including French post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, for whom our ship had been named.
While it was sad to leave Tahiti in our wake, my wife Gail and I decided mutiny was out of the question. After all, we had just embarked on a leisurely cruise to four of the most beautiful islands in French Polynesia, with much of the week to be spent lazily at anchor in one gorgeous emerald lagoon after another.
After cruising through the night, we rose early the next morning to watch the sacred island of Raiatea appear off our starboard bow as we sipped coffee on our balcony.
Encircled by a ribbon of coral and a turquoise-hued lagoon, Raiatea was once the religious centre of Polynesia. Havaiki, as the island was known in ancient times is believed to have been the starting point for all migration to the Hawaiian, New Zealand and Easter islands, as well as the legendary birthplace of Oro, the Polynesian god of war and fertility.
After tendering ashore, we took an all-wheel-drive jeep over rugged terrain to the island’s highest vista for a breathtaking view of the surrounding coral and lagoon. Then we drove down to the mouth of the Faaroa River, where we boarded an outrigger canoe for a meandering cruise up French Polynesia’s only navigable river past lush overhanging vegetation and imposing mountains.
Back on board ship, the day was capped with a late-afternoon native dance show presented by the children of Raiatea and led by the island’s own version of “Bloody Mary,” the large and sassy Polynesian woman made famous in the musical South Pacific. Dressed in traditional costume including loin cloths and grass skirts, the children performed a variety of local dances, and invited members of the audience to join them on stage for an hilarious lesson on the art of hula dancing.
The following day our ship drifted a few kilometres up the lagoon and anchored off the coast of Tahaa near Motu Mahana, a tiny islet of soft, white sand and palm trees surrounded by warm, turquoise waters. It was beach day, and the crew set up the motu with chaises longues, sports equipment, and a sumptuous barbecue buffet lunch. Les Gauguines, our talented Tahitian hostesses organized local craft classes and sang native songs. The ship’s portable stern marina was also lowered for those who wanted to sail a dinghy or go snorkeling without going ashore.
We awoke the next morning to see what is arguably the world’s most beautiful island as we sailed through Teavanui pass into a magnificent lagoon surrounded by coral and motu. Like most of the Society Islands, Bora Bora sits on the eroded cone of an extinct volcano with its majestic peaks towering over lush green valleys and pretty turquoise and emerald bays. As the heavy basalt rock of the extinct volcano slowly sinks back into the earth’s crust over the millennia, it leaves a lagoon teaming with life between its jagged coast and the coral reef.
Once ashore, we boarded a jeep for a rugged ride up Mount Pahia some 700 metres above sea level. The narrow dirt roads were muddy, rocky and treacherous, which made our drive up and down the mountain quite an adventure. However, the stunning views of Faanui Bay and the surrounding lagoon made it all worthwhile – at least, for most of us.
The excursion also took us to Pointe Patiua to see one of the seven-inch cannons left behind by U.S. forces after WWII. Bora Bora’s deep lagoon made it ideal as a naval way station, and by 1942 the Americans had 6,000 troops stationed here, none of whom saw any military action while on the island.
For our second day at Bora Bora, we took the ship’s tender to an absolutely stunning motu where we were met by champagne-toting waiters as we waded through ankle-deep water onto the sandy beach. The warm lagoon water was perfect for swimming, and the swaying palms provided an ideal respite from the hot sun.
We sailed overnight to Moorea, the beautiful Polynesian paradise that must have inspired the mythical island of Bali Hai in the musical South Pacific. Located just 20 kilometres northwest of Tahiti, Moorea is dominated by a number of jagged peaks and spires that perch over the deep bays and emerald lagoons of this heart-shaped island. Moorea is also famous as the birthplace of the over-water bungalow, the enchanting cabins on stilts which first appeared at the Hotel Bali Hai in 1961.
We took a jeep trip into the interior of this mainly agricultural island, stopping along the road to examine pineapples, vanilla plants and local flowers like beach hibiscus, Tahiti ginger and bougainvillea. Our jeep then climbed up the old crater rim to the belvedere (lookout) atop Mount Rotui, with its dramatic view of what many feel is the world’s most gorgeous bodies of water at Cook’s Bay and Oponuhu Bay.
The next morning as we disembarked the Paul Gauguin in Papeete and boarded our bus for the airport, our native tour guide sang us the traditional Tahitian farewell song. “E mauruuru ia vau, te tiare Tahiti,” she sang. “We thank you from Tahiti.”