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Linda Coffman

R3 ~ Cruising in TAHITI

Second in a series of South Seas adventures

by Linda Coffman

Papeete, Tahiti ~ Moorea

~ Tahiti by 4X4 ~

Only a two-hour time difference from Los Angeles, Tahiti is light-years away.  Our first order of business after check-in, a light dinner on the R3, and unpacking was to stretch our legs and explore Papeete.  

At night, Papeete appears charming and exotic.  Ambling down Boulevard Pomare we admired stylish French clothing designs in  boutique windows but found little activity.  The center of the action was immediately to the left of the R3's gangway--les roulouttes, the mobile restaurants that set up in the waterfront parking lot after dark.  It's the least expensive place to eat in Papeete and the smells were inviting to say the least.

Tourism is beginning to flourish in the islands of Tahiti and, according to Yves Valen, Press Attache to the Minister of Tahiti Tourisme, the government is making a concerted effort to improve the infrastructure to offer visitors the best experience possible.  Three cruise ships now call Tahiti home and many others make intermediary South Pacific itinerary stops in the islands.  Tourism is a growth industry and we saw great strides toward completion of the new port facility in Papeete in just nine days.  With a few exceptions, the guides on our tours spoke very good English and went out of their way to answer questions and provide us with information about their culture and homeland.

Tahiti 4X4 Safari

Our first tour took us to the "wilds" of Tahiti.  The 4X4 vehicles are similar to Range Rovers with two bench seats in the back--each seating six to eight passengers, four to a side facing each other.  Leaving Papeete behind we were soon climbing a rugged road up the mountainous central portion of the island,  following a stream through lush valleys punctuated with dozens of waterfalls.  Our convoy of 4X4s made a number of stops to examine a variety of plant species and learn their uses.  Many non-native plants, such as fruit trees, were introduced to Tahiti by Europeans.  While some of these are useful, others tend to take over without careful pruning.  Of all the flora, taro, hibiscus, and nono (a medicinal plant) seem the most useful, providing Tahitians with everything from food and medicine to leaves that can be used as cooking utensils and picnic plates.

~ Tahiti by 4X4 ~

Stopping to swim in the waterfall-fed stream was a refreshing break.  It was also exciting with the strong current and slippery rocks.  Water shoes are a definite necessity if you plan on taking a cool dip.  We made our way up impossible looking inclines to reach the Relais de la Maroto mountain restaurant for a delicious and leisurely lunch.  Our host proudly invited us to view his wine cellar with over 6,000 bottles of wine--quite unusual to find in the mountainous interior of Tahiti but, after all, this is French Polynesia.

The last stop before heading back to civilization was a sacred marae temple.  Our guide explained that this temple was from the 14th or 15th century but some date back as early at the 8th century.  Maraes were generally rectangular with a base of stone.  Unfortunately, many of these temples were dismantled when missionaries arrived--their stones were sometimes used as the foundations of churches.  Many Tahitian traditions were lost when temple prayer was halted; however their oral history was passed along through dance and song.

Did I mention this tour was "rugged"?  We were dismayed to learn that our trip back was along the exact route we'd already passed.  Our six hour tour stretched into about seven and a half and grew increasingly uncomfortable as we bounced over the bone-crushing trail back to the capital.

Successful 4X4ing

First, take along bottled water--it's hot.  Then try to put together a congenial group for your 4X4--you'll be spending the day together in close proximity.  If you plan on swimming, wear your suit (there are no changing rooms along the trail, but there are trees).  Even if you aren't swimming, bring along a beach towel to sit on--the benches are plastic and it's just more comfortable to sit on terry cloth.  Finally, don't forget your insect repellant and sun screen.  I found the perfect product before leaving home--waterproof Deep Woods OFF with 19% DEET and SPF 15 sunscreen, a two-in-one cream that was a life saver.

~ Tahiti~
Black Sand Beach

Tahiti Circle Island

All I wanted to do during our second day docked in Papeete was soak in the Thalassotherapy pool and then wander around downtown and explore the Municipal Market.  Mel chose an afternoon shore excursion--the Tahiti Circle Island tour.  In a comfortable air-conditioned bus, he set off for Point Venus, the spot where Captain Cook first landed, and then on to the impressive Arahoho Blowhole, black sand beaches, across a narrow isthmus to the smaller Tahiti  Iti where Fort Taravao stands guard, then to the lovely gardens of Vaipahi and the cascading waterfall, and finally Maraa Grotto, caverns overhung with cool ferns. 

Mel observed that the "back side" of the island was a huge contrast to both the city and the the island's  interior--the less populous coastal areas are prettier and the view across to "little" Tahiti Iti proved its beauty exceeds that of the larger Tahiti Nui.  Tahiti is not the site of the fabulous beaches pictured in tourism brochures--instead, most beaches are black sand.  Unusual and lovely in their own way, they aren't as spectacular as the white sand beaches and the water appears murky, although it really isn't.  All in all, Mel had an enjoyable tour but felt it could be done easily with a rental car and guidebook for those passengers wishing to strike out on their own.  

~ Tahiti~
Vaipahi Waterfall

Another tour offered covers Polynesian Heritage, including the Paul Gauguin Museum, the Marae of Atahurahu, and the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands.  Some people who took this tour expressed disappointment that the "works" of Gauguin are reproductions, although this is noted in the shore excursion description.  Finally, an hour long helicopter tour is available, as well as Grands Ballet de Tahiti, an evening show of authentic dances and songs.  

Would we do these tours over again?  Knowing what I know now, I'd have skipped the 4X4 and taken either the Circle Island tour or rented a  car.  From word of mouth and photos displayed onboard, the Grands Ballet was colorful and entertaining, but no more so than shows presented onboard R3 during our time in Raiatea and Bora Bora.  After browsing the shops and marketplace ashore, I returned to R3 and made my purchases there from a local Tahitian Mama who was on board to display and sell traditional handicrafts.  Her pareus (sarongs) were more colorful and the prices were very reasonable.

Each evening local fishermen tie up along the pier to the right of R3.  We enjoyed talking to them and Mel inquired about going fishing.  What would be the charge?  Nothing... he could come along for free and "help" fish.  What a shame we didn't have the time for him to join them.  They were fun-loving and friendly, sharing their exploits and sending us along our way with a bag of beignets, sweet French donuts, for breakfast as we set sail for Moorea.

~ Moorea ~
Welcoming Committee

Moorea ~ only twelve miles west of Tahiti 

Tender service began early for passengers scheduled on  shore excursions.  We chose to explore the lagoon that encircles Moorea on the Snorkel & Ray Feeding tour.  Motorized outrigger canoes were awaiting us at the dock and we set off through the clearest water I've ever seen.  From sheer crystal green to deepest azure, the range of color is breathtaking.  Lagoon waves sparkle in the sunlight and bright coral and tropical fish are visible from the surface.  

Once anchored near the coral reef, our guides began feeding the gentle stingrays gathering at our feet.  Tame creatures, if somewhat shy, they allowed us to pet them and rubbed against our legs like cats.  Leaving the rays behind we stopped next at a small motu (or island) and snorkeled among incredibly beautiful coral and brightly colored fish.  Like our earlier stop to swim with the stingrays, the underwater current was strong.  We walked along the beach toward the reef before entering the water and let the current carry us back toward the canoes and refreshing juices and fruits set up by the guides.

~ Moorea -- Private Motu ~

A word of caution... avoid touching the coral.  Reef shoes are an absolute necessity to protect your feet--coral is sharp and cuts can easily become infected.  I can attest to how painful such a cut can be, managing to slice my finger and scrape my knee while swimming.  At both locations we were advised not to wear fins.  Even poor swimmers had no trouble floating in the lagoons due to the high salt content of the water.

Moorea ranked high among our fellow passengers' choice of "favorite island" and with good cause.  It's absolutely beautiful and there were a wide range of activities to choose from to occupy our two days there.  Mel finished off the first day with his maiden helicopter ride--an exhilarating experience and source of wondrous views of the entire island and lagoon.  Not being that brave, I chose to poke around through the dockside stalls and spent the better part of the afternoon with Gudrun Beuscher, a local artist and jewelry maker.  It was interesting to contrast her life growing up in Germany with her current lifestyle in Moorea.  Without exception, the crafters and artisans in Moorea were friendly as well as extremely talented--this was the island with the nicest pareus, mother of pearl jewelry, and watercolors in Tahiti.  Gudrun confided that residents are pleased with the upswing in tourism and also their government's responsible position on resort expansion.  Only church towers can be taller than coconut trees.

~ Outrigger Canoe -- Moorea ~

As luck would have it, those participants in the Dolphin Watching Expedition came up short in regard to seeing dolphins.  When the pontoon boats returned from the Motu Beach Picnic excursion, it was pretty obvious the picnickers had a terrific time and they actually saw dolphins while they swam and snorkeled.  Afternoon snorkelers on the Snorkel & Ray Feeding didn't encounter any stingrays.  It all goes to show, Tahiti's marine life wasn't on "schedule" and often, neither were we.

~ Moorea ~
Famous Overwater Bunglaows

Moorea~another perfect day 

Our first day in Moorea ended with the R3 sailing from Cook's Bay.  Unable to remain comfortably at anchor due to night winds from the mountains, we sailed peacefully around the island and returned in the morning.

Circle Island & Tiki Village

Moorea's mountains served as the backdrop for the movie "South Pacific" and are far more impressive up close than on the silver screen.  Our bus tour included stops at Polynesia's oldest church, scenic views overlooking Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay, and the ever-present mountains.  Moorea islanders traditionally made their homes in the mountains and descended to the beaches only for fishing.  Our guide gave a broad overview of the island's history and insight into current lifestyles--Mooreans hold fast to cherished traditions.  

~ Tiki Village Pearl Farm ~

The Tiki Village may (or may not) have been a "slice of island life" but it was certainly fun in a camp sort of way.  Visitors are shown a miniature pearl farm (reached by canoe) and given the opportunity to purchase black pearl jewelry on the spot.  Resident artisans create crafts which are also available to purchase.  But the real highlight of the Tiki Village is the show--a pareus demonstration, dancing, singing, and finally audience participation.  GREAT fun and full of vitality.

~ Tiki Village ~

By this time in our excursion-taking we were beginning to notice a trend... nearly all tours were longer than the scheduled duration.  They all began on time, but seldom ended when we expected them to.  Add delay-causing dawdlers to "island" time and, for those who'd also booked an afternoon tour, it was difficult to relax by the time a morning tour was supposed to end.  We made it back to the pier in time for Mel's afternoon 4X4 tour, but without time to return to the ship for lunch.  The Moorea by 4X4 tour was one of the most scenic and made stops at a pineapple plantation and the agricultural college where exquisite tropical plants are cultivated.

Additional tours included Magnificent Moorea (a fully narrated bus tour), a Catamaran Sail, Waverunner ride across the lagoon, and Parasailing.  There was adventure and romance for every comfort level and we'd have enjoyed a longer visit on this magical island... but we were off to Huahine.  

Bon Voyage!  Linda

The articles in this series detail each of the islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, and Bora Bora) as well as the pleasures of life on board the R3.  Join us to feed sharks, swim with stingrays, trek by 4X4 and canoe, and circle Bora Bora on a waverunner!  

R3~3rd in Series Cruising in Tahiti - Huahine & Raiatea
R3~4th in Series Cruising in Tahiti - Bora Bora & Beyond

Back to R3~1st in Series Cruising in Tahiti

And finally... a special note of thanks to Brad Ball of Renaissance Cruises for making this dream of a lifetime come true.  Mauruuru roa!

Illustrations--Mel Coffman
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Coffman