Tahiti and Society Islands
Travelogue 6: Tahiti and the Society Islands (25 August 2009)
Our 250-nm trip to Tahiti in the Society Islands from Fakarava in the Tuamotus (both island groups a part of French Polynesia, along with three other groups) was made in almost windless conditions, requiring us to motor the entire way. We left in late afternoon and spent two nights and a bit over a day underway, during which we saw our first traffic at sea – a couple of yachts -- since leaving the coast of Chile.
Tahiti is a big island by South Pacific standards: it takes about 5 hours to drive around and that does not include the southeast corner which has no roads, and has tall mountains including one over 7200 ft. high, so is visible a great distance away at sea although the high points are usually shrouded in clouds. It is shaped like a figure eight tilted over, as if two round islands floated together and stuck. There is abundant rainfall so it is very lush and thriving with palms of several varieties and flowers and ferns and other plants. It is the capital of French Polynesia and home to about 175,000 of the territory’s 250,000 people. It is like an urban oasis – or urban cancer, depending on how you look at it – in a vast wilderness of sparsely populated islands spread thinly over the ocean.
We rented a car and tried to drive across the interior of the island following the Papenoo valley for the most part, but we only had a tiny three-cylinder Citroen and the road/track was meant only for four-wheel-drive vehicles, and included grades of 20% that we could not climb without a long running start, so after crossing streams and dragging bottom and denting the exhaust and almost burning up the clutch, we finally gave up about half-way over. We had just inched our way through a one-lane tunnel full of substantial water puddles, a leaky raw stone ceiling and a terribly bumpy, unpaved surface (John and Dale walked through first to see if it was passable) before finding on the other side an even more incredibly uneven, rocky track that we were afraid our little vehicle could not make. It took us about an hour to drive back out.
Besides the mountains in the interior, Tahiti has a barrier reef that creates a well-protected lagoon around most of the island. This is how most people picture Tahiti: tranquil turquoise water lined by palm trees with lush verdant mountains in the background. And the picture is true enough, but superficial only. We went snorkeling in the lagoon and found only enough fish, for one thing, to inhabit a good-sized home aquarium, with mostly bleached out and dying coral, the lagoon being the most barren we have encountered. Secondly, there are few beaches and those are mostly public, overrun with people and trash and music blaring, causing some of the resorts even to haul in sand and make their own beach area. Actually the visual image I most associate with Tahiti is graffiti, on walls, fences, signs – everywhere. As a matter of fact, it is one of the worst places I have ever seen for graffiti. The youngsters here have all adopted the international hip-hop culture and are forever playing that dreadful music at high volume and sport American T-shirts and caps worn sideways or backwards and do-rags and body-piercings. Polynesia is the home of tattoos so you see a heckuva lot of those, too, although I don’t suppose any more than you would see in, say, in a biker bar in Bakersfield. Even the museums are run-down with failing signage and decrepit buildings, and much of downtown appears quite shabby. The botanical garden that I fondly remember from my last trip is today much the worse off, trails barely passable, signage broken and fading, if my memory is accurate. And on the roads it feels like there is a car per person here, so heavy is the traffic. One French lady told me she thought the traffic here worse than in Paris.
Polynesian politeness has not all disappeared yet, however, and the people when spoken to seem kind and tender. We went to the big Farmers Market – actually more than just for farmers and fishermen – on Saturday morning and were quite taken by the colors and sights and smells in the multi-storied building in the center of Papeete, the urban heart of Tahiti. The vendors were a bit jaded by boatloads of tourists over the decades, for certain, but still friendly and polite when confronted. While most of the shopkeepers throughout Polynesia are Chinese, in the market all the vendors were almost all Polynesian. The fish on display were the most interesting, especially the lagoon fish such as rainbow parrotfish and large angelfish, all of which I understand comes from the outer islands, especially the Tuamotus. There were a lot of wooden carvings and colorful pareus, which are cloth coverings for women, as well as other tourist curiosities as well as snack stands, but everyone was quite polite and smiley. In shops and restaurants everywhere throughout the island I found the staff quite pleasant, if not always efficient.
The economy in Tahiti is really suffering. It depends on three things: tourism, pearls, and fish, all three of which are in decline. Tourism is down, I heard, 30% from last year which itself was down from the year before. About 5000 jobs have been lost this year and while we were there a general strike was called, but only about 700 people marched and so the strike collapsed by noon.
Prices in Tahiti are exorbitant for everything, from $40 haircuts to $110 per day tiny car rentals. Eating out is expensive, but the food I found wonderful with the exception being McDonalds (there are three of them in Tahiti). Although one of my crew prefers cheeseburgers to all else, I like to try new dishes, and had some spectacular ones there, like pork in green curry and coconut sauce, snapper with a ginger and honey sauce, and that kind of thing. But I had to pay though the nose to get it, such dishes costing about $35, not including the ridiculous beer and wine prices. The three of us eating out could easily exceed $200 with no starters and no dessert.
One food I was disappointed in was the bread, the classic French baguette, that I remembered so fondly. At every restaurant they bring out a basket with several slices, like tostadas at a Mexican restaurant, but without exception the ones we had were all bland, like they were made in a factory. I don’t know if the reason was due to the decline of my taste buds as I age or because the bakers have all changed to a cheaper or a more efficient recipe that hurts product quality. On Mangareva the bread was good, I thought, and it was a great disappointment to find it so mediocre elsewhere.
There is an independence movement in French Polynesia that is fairly strong, and while it is obvious that the infrastructure depends on French taxpayers, the Polynesian independistas think they will still be able to milk that source for funds after independence because of the guilt the French government carries for the nuclear tests they performed on two atolls in the Tuatmotus for decades. Frenchmen we met think the Polynesians too lackadaisical to run their own country, saying the Polynesians work hard only in spurts, then take off for a while, and are too prone to cronyism and corruption because of their extended family ties. In one of our few interactions with Polynesians, a fairly prominent woman complained that the French are stupid when it comes to practical things, and there is deep resentment among her people for having been conquered and colonialized by a foreign country with a totally different culture and language. There is evidently a big cleavage between the two communities. Polynesians make up about 80% of the population and the French/Europeans (including some Americans) about 15%, with the Chinese making up the rest.
We stayed at a marina during our entire stay in Tahiti, and it ending up costing about $120 a night, which I think is way too high. It will likely be the only time we stay in a marina until we reach New Zealand and put the boat to bed for a few months. The marina was first class with three great restaurants and top-of-the-line infrastructure, but we had to Med-moor which requires backing onto a long wharf after dropping the anchor to pull the bow out and keep the stern of the boat from rubbing against the wharf. After tying the stern to the wharf, you then have to get from your boat to the wharf. At first we used our dinghy lowered in the water to climb into and out of until the marina provided us with a long carpeted 2” x 12”, called a passerelle. The most common homebuilt passerelle we noticed was an aluminum ladder with aluminum or wooden planks on one side with small floats as cushions under the ends all of which was held up by various tackle configurations.
One day we had a gale that blew up to 40 knots, hitting us beam on, so that we could not leave the boat, both because it was impossible to walk on the passerelle or even launch the dinghy, and also because we had to tend to lines, some of which the marina provided tied to underwater moorings out in front of our boat, always afraid that one would part and we would crash into the multi-million-dollar, 84-foot-long, fully crewed Oyster yacht next to us.
We met several nice French people at the marina and partied with them on four different nights, twice at our boat. Without exception, whether man or woman, they were all quite talkative and several quite animated with the stereotypical expressiveness and gestures of Latins which I find quite both amusing and attractive, but all were quite polite, good-natured, and intelligent. And of course they all spoke excellent English, whereas I speak French at student-level only and John and Dale know less than a handful of French words between them, so our French friends, like most Europeans, were more cosmopolitan than us, provincial good-ol’-boys from Texas. The French were all rather more slender than Americans like me, and the women somewhat chic in their apparel, as were some of the men. Most smoked. We also had several other quick visitors come aboard who were simply eager to view up close such a curious-looking vessel as Anna. All in all, I had a good, but very expensive time in Tahiti, and would recommend it highly with qualifications.
But in Tahiti at the marina, spending money hand over foot, I lost the feel of being self-reliant that we usually have when cruising on a sailboat, and felt more like a pampered tourist at a resort. In retrospect we probably should have gone to other anchorages around the island – I think there are about 30 – but after over 5000 nm we were busy doing repairs and upgrades, buying this and that, getting haircuts, doing laundry, eating at the excellent restaurants at the marina, and socializing with charming, intelligent people in the evenings, so we took the path of least resistance and just remained at the marina, rather than venturing out.
From Tahiti we went to Moorea, a beautiful mountainous island surrounded by a gorgeous lagoon just 10 nm from Tahiti. Under the surface, though, we found its lagoon a bit more populated with fish, but still the sickly-looking coral and reef. Our anchorage had absolutely stunning views, some of which were used in the movie, South Pacific. We did nothing there other than snorkel and take a long dinghy ride, although we spent two nights. We thought of Moorea as a bedroom community for Tahiti, which we had our fill of, and therefore were not curious about it, which is really not the right way of picturing such a gorgeous place, although for certain many people commute back and forth between the two islands each day.
Next we made an overnight trip to Huahine, 90 nm from Moorea. Like several passages so far, we wanted to arrive at the pass into the lagoon in daylight, and the only way to ensure that we would do so was to travel all night, so we left Moorea at dusk and arrived at the pass about eight the next morning. Then it took another hour plus to motor in the lagoon to our first anchorage. Our passage from Moorea was made in about 18 knots of wind, by the way, so to time things right we had to reduce sail to the very minimum (using a deeply-reefed staysail only) and still we were doing from 5 to 7 knots.
Huahine is another island – typical of the Societies – that has both mountains with jagged peaks and a barrier reef with a lagoon. There are several areas of the lagoon that extend far up into the island, actually dividing it into two at one point, which is bridged by a narrow old structure, and there are very beautiful sections with outlooks on the lagoon, great green peaks extending up to about 2200 feet high, tall tree-lined roads, and a nice, quiet rural feel. Snorkeling there was quite colorful and pleasant in very shallow water, and there were certainly more fish there than in either Moorea or Tahiti, but still nothing like in the Tuamotus. The main village, Fare, is also sort of quaint, and hosted one day a big open-air market for manioc, a giant root grown by Polynesians. They blocked the main street along the waterfront with a giant tent, and evidently there was judging and bidding for bundles of manioc. To move them they tied the bundles to a thick bamboo pole which in turn was carried on the shoulders of two stout men, like native bearers in a Tarzan movie.
We had met some charming French women in Tahiti who gave us the name of an American artist named Melanie who has lived for about 20 years on Huahine, and so I looked her up to see if she produced anything I would like to buy. She lived outside a village in the north of the island next to a swamp, and her place – made in the traditional style with local materials – was swarming with mosquitoes. Having been warned that dengue fever is rampant in these islands, I was hesitant to linger, and not really caring for her stereotypical Polynesian paintings of traditional landscapes and people, done I think mainly for the cruiseliners that stop in these islands, I left as quickly as I politely could having bought nothing. But her dwelling and her workshop were quite fascinating, made of bamboo and pandanus leaves woven into panels mostly, roofed with palm fronds, with a high open ceiling and windowless and doorless openings, and both she and a friend were interesting and I wished I could have stayed longer. Nearby we went to a large archaeological site that used to be a series of temples and now comprises a series of marae, or the stone bases that the buildings – all of vegetable matter – were at one time placed upon. There was a museum also built in the ancient style with bamboo lashed together and pandandus and palm leaves, quite large and tall and it extended out over the lagoon.
Next we motored in less than 5 knots of wind to Tahaa, 25 nm away to the West, which shares a lagoon with Raiatea, the larger of the two islands. It was another beautiful anchorage up a deep bay that is considered a hurricane hole with hills and cliffs all around including two nearby peaks over 1800 ft. We went for a snorkel and I ate interesting and highly-overpriced reef fish at a restaurant that evening. Then the next day we moved down to Raiatea about 15 miles where we anchored just below a magnificent peak that was 3389 ft. high, most of the time shrouded in clouds. We went for a very interesting night snorkel and saw beautiful lionfish which are highly toxic. The corals at both Tahaa and Raiatea were again lackluster, not colorful or interesting, rather blanched, and with little diversity. We didn’t rent a car at either island (although I have rented one at Raiatea before and driven all around the place when I stayed there for a week or more on my previous boat, Green-on-Blue) largely due to the fact that on Huahine I rented a small and rundown Renault that cost $200 a day, and was afraid to rent again.
After only one day each at Tahaa and Raiatea we went to Bora Bora, a center for the resort industry, again about 25 nm away. The peak there at 2385 ft. is photogenic due to its interesting shape and is probably the most famous of all the various island peaks in this part of the world. We checked out of French Polynesia with the Gendarmes and topped up our fuel tanks, and went for drinks at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. There we met two singlehanders (i.e., people sailing alone), one German and one Canadian, both of whom were terrible know-it-alls and real jerks. It’s pretty easy to see why they’re alone. The Canadian was especially obnoxious and boasted that he would be passing us in his boat, a Santa Cruz 50, the next day, but he got his comeuppance as we were at least a knot faster all the way on the journey to Maupiti. We stayed only the one night in Bora Bora and did not attempt snorkeling. It has several resorts, all apparently with over-the-water cabanas. I must say that the French and international resort developers have had the good taste not to sully the landscape with steel-and-glass concrete high-rise buildings, and invariably favor the much more native and natural-looking cabanas.
The sail to Maupiti, another 25 nm run, was some of the best sailing we have done in some time, and was a fine beam reach with 14-18 knots of wind, and with a high boatspeed of over 12 knots.
Maupiti is known for its difficult pass into the lagoon in certain weather conditions, but we had good conditions and no problems. The pass is narrow and long and there were substantial breakers on both sides at the entrance and we found it interesting and somewhat loud, but hardly exciting. We anchored in a corner just out of the pass, had lunch, then went for a drift snorkel down the pass, which was really disappointing – worse than even Tahiti, so not interested in visiting another village, we went back to Anna, hauled the anchor, and left.
Goodbye French Polynesia!
The reason we rushed off was that we were simply bored and ready for a change. For one thing, John and Dale complained that we never really got a chance to meet Polynesians due to our failure to speak French. We also have grown jaded about anchoring in another harbor with magnificent surroundings, and only being able to snorkel among substandard reefs, with lots of tourist boats scurrying around. However, overall the cruising in the Society Islands, beginning with Tahiti in the East and ending with Maupiti in the West, is without a doubt some of the most beautiful in the world, with at least, say, five great anchorages per island. We were simply tired of sailing or motoring a couple of hours and then anchoring, and wanted to make a longer passage and end up at an English-speaking island that, we hope, has better reefs to snorkel and scuba dive in, and that is less tourist-oriented.
For you sailors, the Society Islands would be ideal for a couple of weeks on a charter cruise. There are several bases in Raiatea, including the Moorings, and from there you have approximately 20 wonderful anchorages, several with free moorings, within about 25 miles.
Dale and John have proven their worth as more-than-capable crew on numerous occasions, both being more mechanical than I am, and usually a step ahead of me in ascertaining and solving problems with any of the boat’s systems or rigging. We have spent over three months together just about every waking moment, and luckily have had few flare-ups of tender egos or tempers, and get along as well as can be expected considering the constant contact. Both John and Dale are easy-going and non-demanding, and I think I am very lucky they consented to come along. It takes someone who is open to compromise to live in such close quarters without a break for such a long time, and certainly both of them possess that virtue.
On leaving Maupiti our log read 5432 nm. Our next port, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, is about 450 nm to the southwest.