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South Pacific Cruise

Author: travelmel (More Trip Reviews by travelmel)
Date of Trip: February 2007

If French Polynesia is regaled as a relaxed place, Huahine is the inspiration. When we stepped off of our tender boat and onto terra firma in Huahine, I felt at odds with myself. The impulse to "go, go, go" was squelched by an overwhelming sense of calm and a somewhat deafening silence. There were no cars or taxis zipping along the one slim road fronting the tender pier. Just my fellow cruise passengers and I in awe of the lush jungle-like foliage creeping up the steep mountains.

This is how small Huahine, population 5,000, really is, at least according to ship lore: A passenger chatted with a local longing for something from the states -- beef jerky. The passenger offered to send some, and was instructed to address the package this simply: her name, Huahine, French Polynesia. The jerky got there, no address required! It was this port in particular that gave us a sense of "old" Polynesia, not something fabricated for tourists.

Around the island, you'll see 400-year-old stone fish traps that the locals still use today (mahi mahi, marlin and tuna are abundant here). Some of Polynesia's coolest archeological sites -- stone and coral temples -- are on Huahine; the town of Maeva was once a seat of ancient Polynesian government. There's a lookout point called Belevedere, where panoramic views of Maroe Bay took my breath away; from here there's a clear view of the ship at anchor, looking for the entire world like a tiny tub toy in the vast aqua water, but fog prevented a great photo.

After a ship-sponsored tour, which included a stop at a museum in a hut over the water, Mike and I grabbed Princess' $5 shuttle into Fare, Huahine's main town (it's too far to walk, and public transportation is extremely limited). There are a few shops here selling colorful pareos (silk wraps) and vanilla beans, a pretty beach within walking distance, and an oceanfront restaurant where we had grilled mahi mahi sandwiches and Tahiti-brewed Hinano beer -- the first of many seafood lunches and cold brews we'd enjoy ashore.

Bora Bora
I have to confess: We were prepared not to like Bora Bora. I know that sounds insane, but I chalk it up to too much of a good thing -- I read too many travel articles online by jaded writers who condemned it the most tourist-y of the Polynesian ports due to crowded bars and restaurants, and overpriced bungalows. And quite frankly I couldn't care less where Nicole Kidman spent her honeymoon. But I couldn't have been more wrong....

Besides a day in Papeete at the beginning and end of the voyage, the ship only overnights in two ports -- Raiatea and Bora Bora -- but it leaves Raiatea early on the second morning, whereas it doesn't depart Bora Bora until late in the afternoon on the second day. So, because we essentially had two full days, we booked a pair of ship-sponsored excursions.

The first day, we took a 4WD island tour; we were fortunate to be the last of our group off the tender, and ended up having a safari vehicle all to ourselves (they usually hold about 10). The ride is bumpy -- we were warned of that ahead of time -- but the fact that there were no bodies cushioning us on either side of the wooden benches also meant that for each sharp turn or dirt pile, my behind would slide to and fro, or bounce clear off the seat. It was great fun, even though my arms were sore the next day from holding on for dear life!

On day two, we did a helmet dive, which has piqued my interest in learning to scuba. You don't even need to know how to swim to participate in this tour; the idea is to give you a scuba experience -- definitely up close and personal, as they say, with the underwater world -- without having to become certified or learn any new techniques. Each helmet supplies oxygen so you can breathe normally and best of all, your hair doesn't even get wet.

After a short ride on a motorboat, one by one we walked down a ladder into the water. Once the water is about chest-high, the weighted helmet is lowered onto your shoulders; then you descend the ladder (about 15 ft.) until reaching the sea floor at which point all you have to do was walk around and enjoy the view of the fish and coral! The helmet is heavy -- about 70 pounds -- but once you are beneath the surface you don't feel it.

Mike and I, in awe of a particularly plump yellow and blue fish, kept passing our underwater camera back and forth to snap shots. However, the glass of the mask distorted distance a bit (things that looked dangerously close, like sharp coral rocks, were still quite a ways away), and I missed the strap on one pass and accidentally let go of the camera. In a flash, it floated up to the surface and started bobbing away from where our boat was anchored. Our guide Jean Paul, in his dive gear, rescued it for us -- and took a snapshot of us together in our outfits.

In addition to saving our camera, Jean Paul was incredibly professional and a lot of fun. Each person gets a chunk of French baguette to feed the fish; he took my soggy bread and rubbed it all over the front viewing panel of my helmet. I'll never forget seeing what had to be a hundred bright striped fish dive-bombing my head for a snack. Thankfully, nobody could hear me laughing and shrieking inside of my helmet but me.

Whether you choose to venture into the water as we did or relax on Bora Bora's beaches, don't miss a visit to Bloody Mary's bar and restaurant, named after a character in James Michener's novel and the subsequent "South Pacific" musical. The institution is famous in part as a hangout for the elite. When you pull up (you'll need to take a $5 per-person taxi or shuttle, as it is not within walking distance) there are two huge wooden boards printed up with the names of celebrities who've been there, from Rod Stewart to Jimmy Buffett.

But beyond that, it's truly earned its bragging rights for being a really fun place. The sand floor is tropical and casual, and you can check your shoes at the front door if you want to feel it between your toes. Even the bathrooms are an attraction. They are al fresco, though you go in private thanks to "walls" of bamboo and foliage; in the women's room, there's a gorgeous waterfall sink and in the men's, a funny phallic toilet flusher (yes, I peeked in!).

I'm glad we went to Bloody Mary's for lunch as opposed to dinner -- I saw a lobster entree on the menu for 6,500 francs, about $65! I was continuously reminded, and shocked, by how expensive everything on these islands really can be. Aside from fish and some local produce like bananas and coconuts, everything (beef, grain) is imported, mostly from France and Australia, both some distance away.

But hitting up fancier eateries for lunch instead of dinner is a great way to experience local favorites without blowing your food and souvenir budget in one fell swoop. My cheeseburger with the restaurant's "special sauce" was much more reasonable and hit the spot after eating nothing but fish, fish and more fish ashore. All tastes best washed down with a super spicy Bloody Mary, the apropos house drink.

It is often said that the fictional island in the musical "South Pacific" -- Bali Hai -- was based on Moorea, and the island is as idyllic as any set designer could dream up: soft sand beaches, clear azure water and jagged mountains that appear to pierce right through cottony clouds. I was amazed by how pristine the landscape is -- even the power cables are buried underground so as not to mar Moorea's natural beauty.

You can swim or snorkel right from the shore, but we decided to take in the atmosphere on the ship's secluded motu (small island) "beach break" excursion because it all but promised a stingray encounter without the crowds and hype of, say, Stingray City in Grand Cayman. Indeed, a very friendly stingray swam right up to Mike and me while we were floating in the bathtub-warm water off the motu. I thought I'd be scared; as gentle as they seem who can forget what happened to Steve Irwin, the gutsy host of the wildlife documentary series "The Crocodile Hunter" who died after a stingray attack in Australia while filming a show. But Irwin's case was rare and with a different type of creature.

This stingray tickled my leg as he passed by -- which made me giggle and squirm -- but I have to say I never was certain if it was actually his body that touched me or simply a current of water conducted by his motion. I was impressed by how graceful they are underwater, gliding around the docked boats and human visitors, getting so close without ever bumping into anything. It's like they are equipped with mini GPS systems!

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