On a traditional cruise around Polynesia, Gabriella Le Breton finds it needn’t cost a fortune to fall in love with Tahiti.
By Gabriella Le Breton
Tahiti and her islands – it brings to mind vibrant Gauguin canvasses and scenes from a Bounty advert. Even boarding my Air Tahiti Nui flight in London I received a scented gardenia from a beaming, dark-haired Polynesian. Daydreams of white-sand atolls and ultramarine waters helped sustain me through the long flight, en route for a week exploring the islands from a Star Clippers cruise ship.
Upon arrival at Tahiti’s Faa’a airport, my long-haul fatigue evaporated as we were serenaded through passport control by a cheery steel-drum band. Emerging from the small airport, I was handed a pretty lei made with local flowers and pleasantly assaulted by a heady bouquet of floral scents carried on the warm dawn air.
In the taxi to the hotel in Papeete, the capital, the local radio station played lilting songs about the beauty of Tahiti and Tahitian women and my inner botanist went into raptures over the flora – the streets are lined with a dense tapestry of oleander, hibiscus and frangipani, and overhung by gardenia trees and gently swaying palms. Inland, verdant foothills rise to towering mountains, whose peaks are shrouded in swirling cloud.
It’s easy to appreciate why artists fell in love with Tahiti. The island’s natural palette is wildly extravagant, combining the reds, pinks, greens and oranges of the indigenous flowers with the white-and-black sand beaches and vivid turquoise and glittering sapphire of the sea.
As we approached the heart of the small city, we spotted the harbour where we were due to board our modern-day clipper, the Star Flyer, the following day. As I discovered later, apart from a market, a Gauguin museum and pearl shops, there’s not much to entertain tourists in Papeete and most visitors remain in their beachside hotels.
Another thing that became apparent was how expensive everything is in French Polynesia. Don’t come anticipating backpacker prices – a small local beer costs about £3.50 and breakfast in the larger hotels £20. Given the prices, a cruise is therefore a trouble-free and cost-effective way of exploring the islands.
The 360ft, four-masted Star Flyer is the smallest ship in the Star Clippers fleet, with capacity for 170 passengers. The fleet comprises three replica tea clippers built for the family-owned Norwegian cruise company Fred Olsen. There are six cabin categories plus the owner’s suite, which means that, if you’re happy to cram yourself into a tiny bunk-bed cabin and not take part in any excursions, you could spend a week cruising around paradise for just over £1,000, excluding flights.
While the cruise’s basic cost doesn’t include drinks or excursions, it does cover meals, tenders on and off the boat and use of the watersports deck, complete with water-skiing, sailing dinghies, canoes and snorkelling equipment. The restaurant is relaxed, the food is good, there’s open seating and staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful.
For me, though, it was the elegance of Star Flyer and the thrill of sailing under wind that set her apart from other cruise ships. As the sails unfurled on our first evening and the ship surged forward, it seemed I was about to discover Gauguin’s Eden in a suitably romantic and stylish way.
And on that front, the cruise didn’t disappoint. Each morning we sailed into a new bay to spend our days exploring the island, snorkelling, swimming, sailing, waterskiing and being ferried to and from idyllic motus (reef islands). Being smaller than ordinary cruise ships, Star Flyer can access narrower, shallower waterways, meaning we were able to glide through the Bora Bora lagoon, doffing our sun hats to hotel guests taking breakfast on the balconies of their straw-roofed villas. Where the Star Flyer experience did disappoint was the entertainment.
Whereas I was hoping for serene evenings spent under a brimming bowl of stars, I found the crew and a handful of eager passengers taking part in dismal fashion shows and rowdy holiday camp-style (and inappropriately named) “Talent Nights”. Yes, it was harmless fun and thoroughly enjoyed by some, but I found it distinctly incongruous when set against the timeless beauty of our ship and location.
On one night, the cruise director gave a superb presentation about astronomy, showing us how to locate the North Star and other key constellations. Had more such events been held, perhaps fewer passengers would have felt the need to spend their evenings seeking respite from the “entertainment” on the front deck.
Come daylight, the disco deck (with music provided by a lone Hungarian with portable synthesizer) returned to normality and became the starting point for various excursions, from walking tours and 4×4 excursions to snorkelling and “seabed walking” trips (all from about £45 per person). Being able to create your own itinerary provided a refreshing sense of independence for a cruise and, when passengers are ashore, it means the ship is invariably peaceful during the day.
Feeling adventurous, I signed up for a stingray and shark swimming excursion off Bora Bora. Once we had been gently sucked on by friendly rays and swum over and under by sharks, we were deposited on the shore of a motu, where we lapped up the late afternoon sun while our guides prepared a snack of fresh pineapple, grapefruit and coconut.
Although I heard varying reports about the quality and value of other excursions from fellow passengers, those I took part in were thoroughly enjoyable. However, many of my cruise highlights incurred little or no expense and included hiring an ancient bike from a little shack in Bora Bora and cycling around the island, exploring Moorea’s Opunohu Bay in a dinghy from the watersports deck and watching the sun set into the sea from Star Flyer’s bowsprit.
Perched high on the bowsprit, listening to fish jumping out of the water below me, I mused on the fact that it doesn’t take long for even the most hyperactive soul to adopt the languorous, hedonistic Polynesian way of life. If the Spanish have their mañana, then Polynesians operate on a “next week” basis, often claiming to feel a little fiu (tired) midway through a task and stopping for a nap.
As I write this from a hammock strung between two palm trees, I realise how deeply I’ve fallen under the spell of Tahiti and her islands. I already treasure my memories of cashmere-fine beaches, the taste of freshly grated coconut and the gentle sway of the Star Flyer. And, thanks to Star Clippers, visiting these idyllic islands doesn’t have to cost an arm, or even a leg – although taking part in the Pirates’ Fancy Dress evening might cost you your pride.
Star Clippers offers seven-, 10- and 11-night voyages around Tahiti on Star Flyer. One week costs from £1,085 per person based on two sharing, including all meals and taxes, but excluding flights. Star Clippers also offers a £200 discount on flights to Tahiti when you book a cruise.
For more details contact one of our South Pacific Specialists on 01494 678400 or visit our website at www.turquoiseholidays.co.uk) . We offer a seven-night package with return flights from £2,850 per person, based on two sharing a Category 2 Cabin, including all meals and return flight from London to Tahiti with British Airways and Air Tahiti Nui.