Traveling with the girls and leaving the spouse, boyfriend, kids and/or dog behind is a god-given right ranking up there with freedom of speech and weekly pedicures. For women, the need to get together to blab is primal, and a heck of a lot cheaper than a psychiatrist.
I recently spent a week with my two best pals from college, Chrissy and Rachael, sailing the high seas of French Polynesia out of Papeete, Tahiti, aboard the Star Flyer, a 170-passenger tall ship dripping with charm. Here's why it was a perfect girls-only getaway.
1. The adventure. Just the idea of being in French Polynesia is exciting. Roughly half way between Australia and California, this remote cluster of 118 islands and atolls is way off the beaten path and literally thousands of miles from the closest continent (thus no Internet or phone service for passengers). Knowing Polynesians traversed these waters in their canoes for millennia and explorer Captain James Cook and his cohorts poked around the Pacific hundreds of years ago added a historical context to the far-flung corner of the globe. Plus, it was just darn refreshing to be so connected to nature without a shopping mall, high-rise hotel or behemoth white cruise ship in sight. In fact, when conditions are right, the four-masted Star Flyer shuts off its engines and moves under sail power alone, creaking and bucking in the surf as ships did centuries ago.
2. The scenery. The electric teal green water of the lagoons is stunning, especially around the islands of Bora Bora and Tahaa. Our itinerary included stops at two of French Polynesia's five island groups, the Tuamotu and Society islands. Since most islands are the remains of extinct volcanoes, many are surrounded by lagoons, palm-fringed motus (islets), and barrier reefs teeming with underwater sea life. It's so gorgeous, the whole place feels unreal.
3. The ship. You'll never want to set foot one of those regular ole cruise ships ever again. Since we're not the five-star hotel, Prada-wearing types, the quirky, old world-y Star Flyer was perfect for us. Dripping with charm and oozing authenticity, the sails, rigging and teak decks make this lovely replica of a 19th-century clipper ship a swashbuckling non-conformist in the world of gigantic boxy mega ships. Still, no one wants to rough it. Built in 1991, modern creature comforts include carpeted cabins with televisions and private bathrooms, plus a small pool on deck and a pretty dining room.
4. The peace. With no blaring music, shrill slot machines or screaming kids vying for our attention, we could devote all of our energy to each other, the friendly crew and the other passengers. Sans many manmade distractions, we had the time to indulge our hobbies and latent interests. Who knew Rachael was an amateur astronomer? We hit the open decks night after night to star gaze as the ship rode the waves. She stared up into the inky black sky and called out the names of constellations, marveling at seeing them from the southern hemisphere for the first time. Chrissy could feed her Scrabble addiction, setting up her portable board on deck under the sails. She also had the time to do a half dozen dives to spot countless reef sharks and I reveled in just leaning against the rails with the wind in my hair and my thoughts roaming freely. One lucky late afternoon I spotted dolphins playing along the bow, and another day it was sheer delight spotting the twin peaks of Bora Bora in the distance.
5. The snorkeling. I had never understood the real appeal of snorkeling until I signed up for the "Coral Garden Snorkel Drift." After a relaxing speed boat ride to a remote motu near Tahaa, in single file, our small group glided atop the clear water, looking down in wide-eyed wonder. Slowly floating through the water in a place like French Polynesia and gazing down at such amazing specimens of nature filled me with an incredible feeling of peace and awe. From the fuchsia sea anemones that exposed their noodle-y appendages to the clam shells ridged with bright purple and green, and the florescent pinks, oranges and greens of the Checkerboard Wrasse fish, I was blown away. The divers in the group felt the same way about their excursions.
6. The cabin. The forced intimacy of a 130 square-foot dorm room-like cabin fostered true confessions, not to mention wise cracks and unsolicited fashion advice. I took the bunk and my two friends claimed a pair of twin beds below, and we were never more than two feet away from each other; the close quarters seemed fitting for our reunion. The closet space was surprisingly adequate, and the tight bathroom encouraged us to keep showers short and sweet.
7. The cocktails. Location, location, location. Can't beat sipping a mai tai atop a chunky wooden bar stool as you watch the sun set through the rigging of a tall ship. Unless, that is, you're leaning up against a palm tree on a tiny palm tree-fringed motu sipping a can of the local Hinano beer as a troupe of traditional Polynesia dancers shake their grass skirts on a white sand beach just a few feet away from the turquoise sea.
8. The spa. It would have helped to a drink first, given the location of the Star Flyer's "spa." Amounting to no more than a lean-to up on deck behind some diving equipment, the therapist had created a cute little spot accoutered with flower petals and new age music. I found the signature Thai massage, which involves being stretched and bent like a pretzel, veryyyy relaxing, not withstanding the hut's lack of a door and my fear of being spotted in a compromising position by a passerby.
9. The eye candy. Once you hit your 40s, flirting is more than idol play; it's a loaded last dance of affirmation before the wrinkles and heat flashes take over. Being among the youngest passengers on board upped our value. From Vitaliy, the deadpanning mate from the Ukraine, to the lean blond model-y cruise director Frederick and hunky tattooed snorkeling guides in Bora Bora who knew how to work the crowd, we enjoyed the jokes, the winks and the chivalry. Whenever possible, Chrissy chatted up a fellow passenger and diver stud she named "Lance Armstrong" and I shamelessly knocked back endless glasses of water on my Air Tahiti Nui flight between Sydney to Papeete. The male hosts were clones of The Rock and I was mesmerized by their muscular arms every time one leaned my way to serve a drink.
10. The memories. Priceless.
The Star Flyer sails in French Polynesia all year around doing seven-, ten- and eleven-night itineraries round-trip from Papeete, Tahiti. Ports include some combination of Fakarava and Rangiora, in the Tuamotu Islands, and Bora Bora, Tahaa or Raitea, Huahine and Moorea, in the Society Islands. Fares start as low as $1,845 per person for a seven-night cruise, including all meals and water sports (except diving). For more info contact Star Clippers at www.starclippers.com or tel. 800/442-0551.
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