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20 years ago, Russell, the boys and I went around the world for a year. We started with a weeklong “vacation” on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. (After a year of planning, I needed a break). While planning I had also looked at Tahiti and Fiji as options. But I decided I wanted something calmer and less expensive. I knew the islands would still be there if someday we wanted to go back.
When the world cruise came up and we saw that French Polynesia was included, I got very excited. Finally, we would get there. (All my life, my mantra when things got tough was, “I want to go to Tahiti.”)
I have written about Nuku Hiva and the wonderful time we had there. I could have stayed, but Fakarava beckoned. I had no idea what to expect, but a flat line in the ocean was not it. When I went out on deck in the early hours of our arrival, all that was visible was the top of palm trees. And stunning water in multiple shades of blues and greens.
This is an island atoll. A spit of land barely about sea level. Think of looking down on an open box. The box edges are the land, the center is open space, and the space outside the box is water. There is one flap a bit loose from the others, and that is your way in. That is the shape of Fakarava.
As in Nuku Hiva, we had to tender in. But today, the water was calm and the transition ship to tender was easy. Once on shore, we were greeted by music and flowers. I stopped to chat with the musicians and found that they had hand carved their drums, which were beautiful. Our language barrier didn’t stop us from connecting. As we walked around the very small town, I kept stopping to listen and applaud. These guys are generally rather burly, but oh-so-patient with my requests for photos with them and Happy the Hedgehog.
We were first off the ship and it was only 8:30, but already very hot and humid. We decided to rent bicycles, but only for an hour. I knew I didn’t have much more than that in me. We never did find the beach we were told about, but did risk a 500-yard ride to the windward side. And got drenched by rain that was blowing sideways. Halfway back, the rain was behind us. We dried quickly once we were on the leeward side again.
Russell had to go back to the ship to get our ATM card, so I wandered back down to where we first encountered the sharks. And I got in the water with them. The guys who play music feed them right from shore. You could hear the loud sucking snap as they devoured the chicken bits. Finally, I got up the courage to pet them. I expected smooth, but they were pebbly.
For me, the highlight of the island was the sharks and the puppy we played with. If I could have gotten her past the ship’s security, I would have taken her home.
As we left Fakarava and headed to Moorea, we again had no real idea what awaited us. The morning arrival could not have been more different. There, alone in the Pacific and far from anything, was another gorgeous island. Our ship anchored out near the mouth of the bay – the same bay Captain Cook entered when he visited. There, rising high out of the sea, were mountains. Sharp, jagged and tall. It was stunning.
Our first stop on the 4-wheel drive tour was at the bottom of the bay, where we took in the stunning views of Bali Hai. (The movie “South Pacific” was filmed there.) The guide explained how when he was younger, the beach extended out about 50 more feet, pointing to a pier post out in the water. Now the beach was a ten-foot-wide strand with the road right behind it. Global warming at work.
Everywhere we went, the views were stunning. Huts right over the water. High peaks. Stunning colors in the water, with white breakers framing the horizon. At a river I was able to get right into the water, touch and nearly pick up river eels that have blue eyes. They are one long muscle, but oh so soft. This is a place to return to and spend much more time at. Remote, gorgeous and friendly. It was with reluctance that we reboarded the tender to return to the ship. But another island called. Tomorrow would be my long-awaited Tahiti. I couldn’t wait.
We were on time disembarking. As I was taking the last photos of the sun gleaming behind Moorea, I happened to turn to my left and… WHAT? Where did that island come from? Wait. What? We were remote, we were in a tropical paradise. Where did that building-covered modern island come from?
That was my welcome to Papeete Tahiti. What?
It had been hidden from view by our angle of approach to Moorea, and we had stayed on the far side of the island, never seeing that the next island was right there. As a matter of fact, there is a multi-time-a-day ferry that goes back of forth. Had I done any research, we would have know this. I think I would have opted to stay a night on Moorea and spent the next day exploring on our own by car. Instead we were suddenly thrust into a nightmare of shops, tourists, traffic, noise, smells and confusion. Can you tell I did not like it? Friends at breakfast commented how much it has been built up. One of the wait staff said that the entire right side of what we could see was new construction. This was NOT the Tahiti of my dreams. I could not wait to leave. But we had two days here because it was a turnaround day, with new folks coming on and goodbyes to new friends disembarking.
I felt scarred by Tahiti and was worried about Bora Bora. I needn’t have been. Once again we woke to a mountain in the sea – a single tall peak that spent the day with its head buried the clouds.
I was lucky enough to be able to exchange my tour, which was basically a boat tour around the bay and a stop at the beach. Instead I went with Russell to the stingray and shark swim. And oh my, am I glad I got on that tour.
Petting sharks in Fakarava was amazing. Holding and petting river eels in Moorea was so cool. But this… THIS was mind blowing. We were lowered chest deep in the water. I don’t snorkel but I could still easily see everything in the water. Puffer fish swam by. Black-tipped reef sharks went by in large groups and circled us. And the rays floated along within arm’s reach. They fly in the water. So graceful. I was able to touch then hold a ray as she snuggled up to me. The rays are smooth in the center of the back, and as you move to the edges the skin turns sandpaper rough. And of course, I am letting the world know how exciting this is by exclaiming regularly “I touched a ray!” One of the guides who was in the water with us exclaimed, “I LOVE MY JOB!” I could have stayed much longer, but the reef snorkel was waiting.
Since I don’t snorkel, I was allowed to sit on the end of the pontoon and watch. I got into a conversation with one of the deck hands/entertainers, Tai. It was a bit touch and go – once again, a French-English mash of words to get a conversation going. I asked if they were worried about global warming on Bora Bora. He said they had heard about it on the radio. But no, he was not worried, as the island is high. He said that people tell him he lives in paradise, and I assured him he does.
On the return trip, the crew played music and we just enjoyed the scenery.
With these amazing experiences behind us, we looked forward to the next two stops: Pago Pago (American Samoa) and Apia (Samoa). But sadly, it was not to be. These two stops were canceled by the ports because of the fear of the Coronavirus. We are fine with this. They need to protect their home.
Sometime today or late tonight… well, whenever… we cross the international dateline soon. So tomorrow never comes. Right now it is the 15th. Tomorrow is the 17th. Or has it already happened? I am looking for the gateway arch. But it is a big ocean. This going to make those texts and calls home tricky.
We are now en route to Fiji, where another day has been added. Today they announced the new replacement for the Samoa port: it will be Suva. We will be in two ports instead of just one. We plan a river tour to a waterfall where we will swim. After four days at sea, it will be nice to touch land again.
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