Our good friends Carsten and Vinni invited us to be their guests on board their boat, Capri while they sailed in the Society Islands of Polynesia. This is an offer you only get once in your life so we didn’t spend much time thinking about our answer. We left Copenhagen on July 5th and were home again on the 30th of July after an unbelievable trip.
We got our first taste of the atmosphere when we deplaned at Papeete. There, before the baggage claim were three Polynesians in full costumes playing their ukuleles. We would hear this kind of ukulele music throughout the islands. Vinni and Carsten had dragged themselves out of bed before the crack of dawn (do dawns really crack? If so, why?) to meet our plane which landed at 4:50 a.m. after almost 36 hours travel. We bought fresh supplies of gin at the duty-free (so we could enjoy sundowners throughout our trip). Sundowners are an important part of cruising and are enjoyed around 5:30 p.m. since the sun goes down at 6:00 p.m.
The islands we visited are all volcano islands ringed by a coral reef. The mountains, surprisingly high, are almost impenetrable and lush with diverse vegetation. The only roads are along the coast. The population of all Polynesia is about 250,000 with most of them living on Tahiti (1000 square kilometers). The other islands we visited are Moorea (82 sq. km), Huahine (74 sq. km), Raiatea (148 sq. km), Tahaa (53 sq. km) and Bora Bora (24 sq.km).
We quickly got our swim duds on and jumped in the water. We are now authorized Vikings (winter bathers) as Carsten formally declared us. We are now at 17 degrees latitude south and it is winter here while the northern hemisphere enjoys summer. Fortunately, the water her in the winter is a chilly 78 degrees F, azure blue, clear as a window and very, very inviting.
Carsten and Vinni took us on a tour of Tahiti in their rental car. Along the way, we filled the trunk with every sort of fruit imaginable, mangos, breadfruit, papayas, coconuts and Carsten spotted a banana tree without an apparent owner and cut down a stalk of almost 200 bananas.
All the above were served every morning at breakfast with pamplemousse (a local grapefruit) in yogurt with muesli. The harvest was hung in the fruit net under the boats solar panels and the bananas tied to the targa bar. Now we truly looked the part of cruising sailors.
The Polynesians eat a lot of fish – the national dish is Poisson Cru, marinated fish, but they also eat chicken and pork. Capri has a well-stocked freezer so we were never in danger of going hungry. On every island, we heard roosters crowing at all hours of the day and night. Strange that the Polynesians import chicken while there are untold numbers of chickens running around loose. There are no foxes in Polynesia. Apparently, the chickens are just a part of the environment as far as the Polynesians are concerned. The same is true for all the homeless dogs. They wander around, sleep wherever they please, on the sidewalks and parking lots. The all look well fed and don’t seem to be in need of anything.
The sail over to Moorea is short – only 20 nm. We used the iron genua (motor) since there was no wind. We dropped the hook in Cooks Bay where the view included the cliff top that has since become an icon in the movie South Pacific.
We also visited the movie’s world famous watering hole – Bali Hai Canoe Club & Grill.
That evening a big Norwegian ketch came by and asked if we wanted some Wahoo? They had been fishing and caught a 15 kilo Wahoo and since their freezer was broken – they needed to give it someone. Carsten dropped what he had in his hands and got out the knives. The half Wahoo gave us dinner for four days, everything from grilled fillets to Poisson Cru (wahoo marinated with coconut milk, lime, carrots and pepper for a couple of hours).
After Moorea, we set our course for the longest sail we would have, the 80nm to Huahine. Before weighing anchor Vinni gave us a very detailed description of all the safety routines that are in force on Capri and explained where all the equipment, everything from fire extinguishers to how to launch the life raft. No one deck during the sail, everyone stays in the cockpit and if the worst should happen – who is responsible for sending the distress signals and who launches the life raft, who gets the grabbag, passports, papers etc. It all made a lot of sense and after all, we were going sailing where the water is over four kilometers deep. Accidents can happen even in the best of weather.
There was virtually no wind so we fired up the iron genny (engine), arriving in the middle of the next morning, anchoring up in the clearest water we have ever seen.
The main town on Huahine is Fare and it fulfills all the basic needs, a surprisingly well –stocked supermarket, internet cafe and a travel agency for the local airline, Air Tahiti Nui. The supermarket was really filled with almost everything you could desire. But, they also knew what to charge for it, a coke costs $3, a bottle of wine (rotgut) starts at $18. A shocker (Vinni and Carsten are used to it) and we wondered how the Polynesians can afford it.
At five o’clock, the Huahine Yacht Club woke up. The Yacht Club is the town’s best and most popular watering hole. A pitcher of beer only costs $9, so it is no wonder that the place is popular. While we were quenching our thirst (cruisers have an inborn thirst), we studied the other patrons and began noticing that a number of the “women”, both guests and waiters (waitresses), were men. Some of them were clearly “mahu”, meaning men who have been raised as girls from birth and live their lives dressed as women. Mahus are an accepted part of the society. Why boys are raised as girls is not exactly clear. The others, more flamboyant “women” were “raerae” or homosexuals. There is some discrimination against them, although quite a few are truly beautiful.
We rented bicycles to go exploring. Huahine has an interesting history. We know it has been populated since at least the 1100’s. We wanted to see the well preserved “Mara” (called Pae-Pae in Marquesas), the stone platforms used for meetings, religious and ceremonies. There is one Mara in Polynesia that has been of international importance (Taputapuatea on Raiatea) and a host of other local ones. On each platform there is a stone alter and a small house (for housing the gods). Taputapuatea was the central Mara for all the Pacific, with chiefs from the entire region, including New Zealand, Hawaii, the Australs, the Cook islands etc. visiting. In the mid 1700,’s the Mara was attacked and destroyed by warriors from Bora Bora. Despite this, Taputapuatea is still a legend and in 2017, it was entered onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
At the edge of the small village Maeva there is a large gathering of Maras, most of them local although several, because of their size, undoubtedly were for the entire island. We hiked up the side of the mountain to the large Marae Tefano. In the middle of the platform, a huge Banyan tree has grown (Ficus benghalensis), a member of the fig family. Not far from there we saw an impressive two-story Mara – Marae Manunu, 60 meters long, 7 meters wide and 3 meters high, dedicated to the war god Tane (previously called ORO), who was also the god of Huahines fish. At Maeva there are also maras dedicated for the construction of canoes, axes and rope. The highest and mightiest chiefs on Huahine all lived at Maeva.
We were lucky to be able to buy tickets to the final evening of dance at Huahines Heiva. “Hei” means to gather and “va” means an organized gathering. Heiva dancing is the high point of the year in French Polynesia. The early missionaries forbade it as they considered the dancing far too erotic, but the Polynesians continued the tradition in secret. After the French annexed the area in the late 1800’s the Heiva is again allowed and is still the absolute high point of the year. At Huahine, the dance begins with different groups competing. The dance starts with 10-15 men dancing and thereafter they are followed by a male solo dancer and a female solo dancer. Then another group comes on stage. The male soloists spread their legs and clap their knees while holding the rest of their body still. The female soloists somehow manage to keep their entire body still while shaking their derriere at unbelievable speeds. They then make sensuous motions with their arms and head, all the while the derriere is shaking so fast you can barely see it. Each dance troop has its own orchestra, composed of various drums and the orchestra members are also dressed in colorful costumes and headgear. The spectators are lively and cheer and whistle whenever they feel something is done especially well. The spectators also wear colorful clothes and there is a wonderful ambiance even though the sale of alcohol is forbidden.
The next morning we sailed for the twin islands of Raiatea and Tahaa that lie inside the same coral reef. The winds favored us and we were able to sail the entire way on sails alone, making 6-7 knots. Capri is a fast boat, despite being heavily ladened. We were unable to find a mooring ball, so Carsten and Vinni went to a marina and announced that it was the first time in over 14 months that they were at a pier – the rest of the time they have been at anchor. We were here to get our gas bottles filled and did so at the boatyard in the next harbor.
After the short stay on Raiatea we sailed across the bay to the neighboring island – Tahaa. We were intent on snorkeling at a famous “coral gardens, but before we got there we passed the well-known pearl farm, “Love Here” and went in. “Went in” means anchoring up and taking the dinghy in. We were assigned a knowledgeable guide who showed and explained the entire process, form the extraction of the finished pearl to the seeding of the new pearl (the oysters can be used three times). The first seeding takes 18 months. When the oyster has been seeded, a small hole is drilled through the end of the shell and a thin thread passed through. It is then hung on a line in the seawater and will begin producing the pearl. When the oyster has been used three times, it can’t produce any more, the closing muscle is scraped out for sale to restaurants, and supermarkets, the shells are sanded down until they are pure mother-of-pearl, polished and then sold.
We visited the pearl museum in Papeete, so we had a good idea of the process, but this was the real thing. There was, naturally, a duty free shop attached to the pearl farm (what else?), where Marianne found a beautiful pearl ring she fell in love with and bought. Vinni didn’t see any here, but found one later in a pearl shop on Bora Bora.
Motu Tau Tau (the Coral Garden) was the fantastic place we had heard about for snorkeling. A motu is a small island with palm trees in Polynesian. At Motu Tau Tau there is a luxury hotel with individual bungalows on poles out in the water (cost: $800 per night at 2016 prices).
The coral gardens are a 30-meter long, 50-meter wide natural channel between two motus. The one end is right out to the reef and as the tide comes in all the snorkeler has to do is walk down the beach to the outer end of the channel, get in the water and the current will carry him (her) the entire length of the channel. The only effort the snorkeler has to expend is steering clear of the coral heads. There are fish galore here, not only in quantity but also in types. There are so many that it is difficult to be able to identify them all. The corals are magnificent but unfortunately have very, very sharp edges, which Tonny first discovered when he got out of the water and discovered that he had a big cut on one heel.
Carsten kept busy with his underwater camera. He was filming, keeping an eye on the fish staying away from the coral heads so he wouldn’t get cut and keeping a sharp eye on Tonny who was a beginner snorkeler all while coping with 1-2 knots of current carrying him along. Vinni kept her eye on Marianne. Both Vinni and Carsten are experienced and serious divers, explained in detail how to use the equipment, and stayed with us the whole time so we felt completely safe and secure. As you can imagine, we were euphoric, when we got back to Capri and Carsten noted with satisfaction, “Tonny – admit it, if you had realized 50 years ago what a fantastic experience it is to snorkel you would have learned it back then (I’m a marine biologist and this was the first time in my life I had snorkeled). Yes, I admit it – had I but known!
I was able to identify most of the fish and you can see them (with their Latin names) in the pictures below.
Next morning we weighed anchor, luckily it weighed without major issues, even though the chain was wrapped around a small coral head at the start. The trade winds had come to life and we made 7-8 knots in 16-20 knot winds. Bora Bora lay on the horizon and Bora Bora is the island that comes to mind for many when talk falls on Polynesia.
We anchored directly below the two famous mountaintops and could easily dingy into town to shop. 10,000 people live on Bora Bora, virtually all are somehow employed in the tourist service business. Airplanes and cruise ships deliver at steady stream of guests to the island and its many hotels and pearl shops. The first evening here we treated our hosts to dinner at St. James restaurant (great restaurant). St. James has its own dinghy dock so we could dinghy right over from Capri, have cocktails on the terrace and afterwards some very tender steaks and wonderful fish – last but not least good wine.
Bora Bora lures tourists with its crystal clear water and unmatched snorkeling. The first place was Motu Toopa on the outer reef. It was easy to find, we simply followed the tourist boats. Snorkeling here was wilder than I had ever imagined, with 6-8 large stingrays swimming around and between us, an array of smaller fish and 8-10 meter long black-tipped reef sharks circling as Indians circled the wagon trains in western movies. The sharks are peaceful and won’t bite as long as you swim slowly and peacefully. If you have a fear of sharks – snorkeling here will either cure you or give you a heart attack. We saw similar stingrays at Coco Beach on Moorea. They are also peaceful and (generally) don’t sting with their whip-like long tails. The tails have a poisoned tip and if you are extremely unlucky and get stung right in the heart – it can kill you. The famous Australian crocodile explorer Steve Irwin was stung in the heart by a ray while filming and died from the poison. Carsten made some wonderful videos of the rays and the sharks.
We thought, “It doesn’t get any better than this”, but we were wrong. The next morning we dinghied around the Motus for an even wilder snorkeling area. We rounded the tip of the island and passed the Conrad Hilton hotel here. This hotel features very exclusive bungalows set out in the water (prices – starting at $600 per day in 2016 prices). We reached the snorkeling area and could see the bottom and the corals down there. Never have we looked through such clear waters – here it was 30-35 feet deep and it was like looking through a window. Snorkeling here was like swimming in an enormous aquarium filled with every imaginable type of fish, colorful corals and inside one of the corals, a huge moraine eel. His giant head peeked out and when he did swim out from the coral, we could see he was at least two meters long. He just poked out to see what was happening, then turned and swam back in. Carsten got a great video of him.
Home again on Capri, Carsten opened the bar for our daily “sundowner”, A G&T with double dosed gin and ice cubes (from Capri’s ice cube machine). We played Mexican Train, a domino type game. Vinni and Carsten are well trained since this a game played by most cruising sailors. Try as we might (and we did try) we simply couldn’t beat then, coming in with a poor showing of 3rd and 4th place after a couple of weeks of playing.
Our stay on the good ship Capri ended the next day. Vinni and Carsten set us ashore in Vaitape harbor (cry, cry, cry) and we took the shuttle ferry to the airport and began our long trip home. We left Capri after three weeks and a bag full of unforgettable memories. Our hosts Vinni’s and Carsten showed us an unbelievable time and we can’t thank them enough.