by Sheila Gaspers
Gauguin, French Impressionist Artist and Polynesia’s beloved long-time resident, summed up “Island Life” well in his controversial art piece “Be in Love and You will be Happy”.
Since the early 1700’s, romantics and explorers have been enslaved in a love affair with the islands. The unparalleled exotic beauty of Polynesia and the free spirit attitude of its people make it a natural choice for those who wish to follow Gauguin’s dream. It is in this paradise that one can celebrate hedonism and disappear from the world for a week or a lifetime. The colorfully philosophical images of Gauguin’s work continue to only touch the surface of the mysterious aura and sexuality of these distant islands and people. “All you need is Love” seems to have found its origins in the South Pacific long before it was a Beatles’ hit. It continues to be the underlying mantra of life for this island society. Passages from Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe reinforce the myths of the “paradise found”. But it is the media that has put the South Seas on the map as Shangri-La. The Hawaii Nui Outrigger Race, the Billabong Pro Surf Competition and the countless dive resorts promising treasure hunts of sunken ships and sharks are all part of the hype that give Polynesia its new hip appeal and consumer connection.
Even the markings of the past, have experienced a renaissance. The Art of Tattoo, revered as a spiritual marking of passage for men and women has returned as a fashionable symbol of cultural identity. The word tattoo comes from the Tahitian word TATAU which means “to strike”. The ancient technique of tattooing was extremely painful utilizing primitive tools—a mallet, a sharp comb of fish teeth or bird bones and pigment dye. Today’s electronic equipment allows the tourist and local alike to safely honor this sacred tradition for under $200 (U.S.)
Hollywood has further elevated interest in Polynesia with its A-list approval of Bora Bora and Moorea, now illustrious island playgrounds of the privileged. The legendary “black pearl” has added to the glamorous buzz. The islands are key production centers for the world’s finest cultured pearls. The Robert WAN Tahitian Pearl Company dominates the market, with 8 island locations and international representation from Paris to Sydney. WAN’s coveted pearls are also featured in collections by K. Mikimoto and other luxury jewelry companies. With local shops offering near wholesale pricing, it is probably best not to wait until the traditional 30 year anniversary to secure a strand. For many whose pockets are not as deep as their passion, exploring WAN’s Pearl Museum in downtown Papeete on the island of Tahiti may be a more cost-effective option. The museum is free to the public. The displays offer insight into the pearl farming process and include several collectibles as well as a historical time-line.
French Polynesia seems to be a land where love, art and the pleasure principle abound, but access can be expensive.
Polynesia, meaning “many islands”, is divided into five distinct archipelagos (118 islands and atolls) spanning a geographic area the size of Western Europe. It no longer takes months or weeks to navigate each archipelago; travel is now possible via domestic inter-island air service and private helicopter charter. There is also a public ferry system, but the schedules can be infrequent and the boats crowded during peak season.
The Society Islands, divided into the Windward and Leeward Islands, is the favored archipelago tourist destination. Given the current exchange rates for Americans and Europeans, experiencing the islands is best done by sea. Star Clipper’s Star Flyer offers a vantage point difficult to resist.
Even before you step on board, the majesty of the Star Flyer with its towering masts and billowy sails is awe inspiring. Add in the rugged landscape, a vibrant backdrop of tropical color and verdant mountain peaks and the canvas is complete. The wind soon takes the sails and you leave the island shores and all sense of time behind. Fantasy takes over; the echoing whispers of pirates and maritime pioneers set your course for discovery.
The ships of the Star Clipper line, modeled in authentic clipper fashion, are compact and swift— well designed to navigate the hidden inlets and waterways of a small island network. Moreover, the passenger clientele are generally well-educated, adventurer types from all over the world, discerning consumers who prefer a more intimate explorer experience. Happily, you won’t find the loud cattle call crowd who frequents the mega cruise ships.
The ship offers amenities that are found on a private yacht rather than a large cruise liner. The Star Flyer is small but mighty in every way. The ship is 360 feet long with 82 cabins accommodating 170 passengers. Cabins range in size from 120-130 square feet. The Clipper Deck level (my cabin #332) offering the larger of the cabins is preferred. The interior décor follows a traditional nautical theme featuring rich mahogany wood with polished brass accents. There is a small piano lounge, library, formal dining room and a convenience shop, but you will not find a theater, spa or gym. Passengers can comfortably enjoy open air lounging on the ship’s expansive teak deck or swimming in one of the two seawater pools. For those who want action, head to the water sports platform at the stern of the ship. Here you can pick up snorkeling equipment and sign up for complimentary sport activities like kayaking, windsurfing, and water-skiing. Divers, novice and expert, will love the easy access to scheduled dive trips, certification classes and new scuba gear.
Snorkeling or just floating in a nearby lagoon is a daily regime for most passengers. Tender boats provide transport to the outlying crystal clear waters for optimum underwater exploration.
Lagoons, treasured natural resources, found between the coral reefs, are rich in marine life and fauna offering a plenitude of eye candy.
The ultimate challenge is the “climb up the mast”, an adrenalin rush that should not be missed.
The cruise is all about sailing and the unique destination versus the diversions onboard. Optional topside and underwater excursions fill each day so there is little time to be bored. A jungle hike, a private helicopter sightseeing tour and a submarine dive are among the many choices.
My top picks were many. The kayak outing was amazing. A small group of six to eight kayakers, mostly tandem, paddle the islands’ only navigable river, the Faroe. The adventure ends with a naturalist’s discovery hike into a hidden botanical garden. For a change of pace, buckle up for the time of your life with the Bora Bora Tupuna Safari Company’s off-road adventure. You will rock and roll Tahiti-style up and down jungle mountain terrain while mesmerized by breathtaking views. Or opt to join Dr. Michael Poole, renowned Marine biologist and ecologist, as he leads Moorea’s Dolphin Watching Expedition, where the spinner dolphin offers a grand unforgettable performance. If you don’t catch the tour, be sure to watch the award winning documentary, “The Ocean Acrobats”, for a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. Include a visit to a family-run vanilla plantation and an authentic pearl farm to get insight into the impact of cottage industries on the economy.
Every sunrise and sunset promises unforgettable volcanic mountain vistas, serene azure lagoon waters, endless sandy beaches, and of course, a sea freckled with motus. These tiny green & brown specs are ancient coral atolls dating back 500 million years (pre-Hawaii). Isolated & Inviting. It is on a motu where you will find French Polynesia’s most exclusive 5 star resorts and conversely the most remote uninhabited native outposts. If you are among the lucky, you will find your very own island (motu) in the sun. If not, no worries, you can play cast-away for at least the after-noon on the Star Flyer’s private motu.
Whether on land luxuriating in an over water bungalow or sailing the open sea, you will be smitten like a young lover by the mystery and exotic beauty of Polynesia. This rare pearl of the South Seas, will capture your heart and leave you wanting more.
Contact Star Clippers to plan your island escape today: