One of the most remote holiday spots on earth, roughly half way between Australia and California -- an 8-hour flight from each -- it can take some effort to get to French Polynesia. But it's sure worth it, there are few places on earth as idyllic. The teal-green lagoons and palm-tree fringed islands are out of this world and the truest definition of beauty, romance and fantasy.
Few ships cruise in this remote part of the world and therefore the setting remains unspoiled and authentic. Currently only the 170-passenger Star Flyer (www.starclippers.com), a lovely replica of a 19th-century clipper ship with a casual onboard vibe, and Regent Seven Seas' (www.rssc.com) 330-passenger luxury mini liner Paul Gauguin, are among the few ships sailing there year-round. The 670-passenger Tahitian Princess (www.princess.com) spends half the year in French Polynesia, and otherwise, a handful of ships stop by as they pass through the Pacific. That's it.
Most itineraries include some combination of ports in two of French Polynesia's five island groups, the Tuamotu and Society islands. A vast area stretching across thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean, most of French Polynesia's 118 islands and atolls are what's left of extinct volcanoes. Many islands are surrounded by gorgeous lagoons, palm-dotted motus (islets) and barrier reefs teeming with underwater sea life. The place is simply magical.
Donning a mask and snorkel takes on a whole new meaning in these parts. Expect to be impressed. On a recent Star Flyer cruise, I was nearly moved to tears of spiritual joy while doing the "Coral Garden Snorkel Drift" near the island of Tahaa. We were taken via speed boat to a site near a remote motu. In single file, our small group glided atop the clear water in slow motion, looking down at the spectacular scene beneath us. Fuchsia sea anemones exposed their noodle-y appendages and ridged clam shells seem to smile with bright purple and green lips. I was stunned by the unreal beauty of the electric-colored Checkerboard Wrasse fish.
Likewise, divers will dig this part of world. Sharks are a dime a dozen, and many divers on a recent cruise reported seeing sharks every single time they went out, including black- and white-tipped reef sharks and lemon sharks, at a distance of anywhere from 10 to 40 feet away.
Traditional Polynesia dancers in grass skirts and coconut shell bras really do know how to shake their bottom half in incredible ways, while the folk songs and ukuleles accompany them combine for a really neat experience. Ratchet up the whole thing up another 100 points when you add a powdery white sand stage and brilliant sea blue backdrop.
No boring bus tours, carpet factories visits or shuffling with the throngs through crowded streets. Excursions have names like the "Shark and Ray Feeding" tour. From Bora Bora, hop on a speed boat and slice through the azure lagoon towards the reef and the twin peaks of Bora Bora's frame the trip. Once in the water with fistfuls of chum, the friendly stingrays descend. Next, motor to a spot known as a shark hangout for more snorkeling. Finally, the tour ends on a quiet beach that meets impossibly warm azure lagoon water. Guides scale coconut trees and hack open the fruit for a taste.
Overall, most tours are water-based -- snorkeling and diving -- but there are also excursions like a visit to Tahitian pearl farm and a scenic bike ride.
What makes French Polynesia so special is its natural features. The beautiful teal-green lagoons are bodies of water surrounding islands, which are the tips of ancient underwater volcanoes. The lagoons are contained by barrier reefs, which are created from the accumulations of coral atop the submerged slopes of the volcano just off shore. As the barrier reef continues to grow upwards, clumps of coral form tiny islets called motus. Atolls are the final stage of an extinct volcano's devolution, when the peak is completely submerged and only the barrier reef and motus remain behind.
All three ships offer mostly 7-, 10- and 11-night itineraries round-trip from Papeete, Tahiti. Popular ports include Fakarava and Rangiora, in the Tuamotu Islands, and Bora Bora, Tahaa or Raitea, Huahine and Moorea, in the Society Islands. Fares vary according to ship and season, but expect fares to start as low as about $200 per person for a 7-night sailing, including all meals and water sports, except diving.
When to Go, What to Bring
The rainy season in French Polynesia is November through April, though on a recent March 6 sailing, we had only one rainy day and temperatures were generally quite warm. Definitely bring Teva-style sandals and/or aqua socks, insect repellent, and of course some high powered sun screen, the rays are strong and you'll likely be spending a lot of time outdoors.
How to Fly
Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com) is French Polynesia's national carrier. Generally, service is doting, friendly and professional and the sweet tiare flower distributed to passengers is nice touch (it's the one Tahitians often wear behind their ears). Air Tahiti Nui flies to Papeete three times a week non-stop from JKF between June and October and twice a week via a stopover in LAX between November and May. If you're flying to and from Los Angeles' LAX, there is daily non-stop service offered. The airline also flies twice a week to and from Papeete from Sydney and Auckland and five times from Paris.
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