By Georgina Cruz
The angelfish glided elegantly in the azure water past our terrace and paused to examine one of the stilts of our overwater bungalow. We took its presence as an invitation to plunge right in, getting up from our lounge chairs, retrieving snorkel equipment from a wooden compartment on the terrace and descending a few steps into the blue lagoon of the Four Seasons Bora Bora in French Polynesia.
After enjoying the warm embrace of the water for a few seconds, we put on our masks and snorkels to view neon-colored tropical fish including parrotfish and sergeant majors looking like tiny rainbows of the deep. It was like swimming in a gigantic, well-maintained aquarium, in a world with a zillion shades of blue. Before we were done, in addition to tropical fish, we spotted a sea turtle and some rays too.
My husband Humberto and I have celebrated three of our last four wedding anniversaries on cruises to French Polynesia – to us, this area of the world, arguably more than any other, is dripping with beauty and romance – with our favorite being a 10-day Princess cruise that took us to six islands. And Princess, the cruise line of “The Love Boat” hit television series of the 1970s and 1980s knows a thing or two about romance. One feature that interested us in particular about this cruise was that the itinerary offered two days in breathtaking Bora Bora, where we reserved the overwater bungalow – these accommodations are the essence of romance in French Polynesia – and decided that we would let the waves take us where they may.
The Bora Bora experience was definitely a highlight of the voyage. The Four Seasons’ launch picked us up at the pier in Vaitape, steps from where the cruise ship’s tenders dropped passengers off, and it whisked us away to the resort located on a “motu” (islet) with thatched-roof bungalows extending like streamers strewn over the robin’s-egg blue and aquamarine Bora Bora lagoon. Along the way we had vistas of other green-clad “motus” ringed with white sands and of the imposing and iconic Mt. Otemanu that looks like it has been sculpted by a gigantic, talented hand. It was easy to see why the likes of Melville, Michener, Gauguin and other luminaries were captivated by the South Seas.
Pastimes at the resort, in addition to swimming and snorkeling, include kayaking and standup paddleboarding. There is a spa where guests can relax and rejuvenate, and a chapel where lovebirds can tie the knot or renew their wedding vows. One of our favorite activities was watching the sunset behind Otemanu from a terrace table at the Sunset Restaurant & Bar. The pink glow was like a halo effect on this earthly paradise – eye candy as we feasted on sushi, fresh fish and tropical fruit platters.
Our Princess cruise itinerary began and ended at Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, offering two overnights there – one at the beginning and one at the end of the cruise. Highlights of Tahiti include its highest peaks, Mt. Orohena (elevation: 7,334 feet) and Mt. Aorai (6,738 feet) that can be seen from downtown Papeete and are an open invitation to mountain climbers. A third peak, 4,291 feet tall and looking like a huge crown, is known as the Diademe (which means tiara in French) and can best be seen from the eastern town of Pirae.
Papeete is more cosmopolitan, more bustling and congested than the other Society Islands, a group of islands in the South Pacific so named because they lie contiguous to one another. Tahiti, which accounts for one-fourth of the landmass of French Polynesia (118 islands scattered over an area as large as Europe), has about 180,000 residents or approximately two-thirds of the islands’ population. Papeete must have been the place Oscar Hammerstein II was thinking of when he wrote the lyrics for the song Some Enchanted Evening (for the 1949 Broadway show and 1958 film “South Pacific” based on the James Michener novel “Tales of the South Pacific”): “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger…across a crowded room.” But really, you’d be hard pressed to find crowds anywhere.
Another Papeete characteristic: It has more of a French ambiance than the other Society Islands. To begin with, the cruise ship pier is alongside a waterfront promenade that recalls the French Riviera, and it is fun to people-watch from one of the sidewalk cafes while enjoying a coffee or local Hinano beer. Along the promenade, visitors also find chic boutiques selling French imports including wines and perfumes. Centre Vaima on Boulevard Pomare, within walking distance of the pier, is a four-level mall filled with fashionable shops and a Pearl Museum.
We toured both sides, Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and Tahiti Iti (Small Tahiti) of this South Seas island that looks like a number 8 floating on its side on the ocean. We marveled at its green mountains, volcanoes, aquamarine beaches and such points of interest as the Arahoho Blowhole (where water shoots up like a fountain on the coast); the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception with its red steeple and a wood-carved statue of the Virgin Mary with Polynesian features, and the Papeete Market (Marche du Papeete, a huge, 75,350 square feet market with plenty of local color).
The Market overflows with merchandise: Flowers, including the sweet-smelling Tiare Tahiti or Tahitian gardenia (that visitors are given by ladies in colorful costumes when they arrive at the airport in Papeete); the coveted black pearls of the South Pacific; wood carvings; sea shells; coffee; produce, including traditional vegetables like taro and breadfruit; meats and baked goods are among the myriad offerings. Grabbing an ice-cold coconut to sip while browsing is a pleasure. We, and several other passengers, picked up fresh flowers including Tahitian gardenias for our cabins and their sweet fragrance greeted us for days when we entered our stateroom.
The U.S. dollar, incidentally, is generally accepted in the municipal market and many shops. Both the Market and the Cathedral are located a couple of blocks from the cruise ship pier in Papeete and so is the city’s seaside promenade that recalls the ones in French Riviera towns. Papeete, by the way, is a very cruise passenger-friendly port: a folkloric group gave us a warm reception upon arrival playing island music and posing for photos.
And each evening, the flavors of Papeete came to us in the form of “Les Roulottes,” food vending trucks that pulled up to Place Vaiete at the waterfront and set up shop offering such Polynesian delights as “poisson cru” (raw tuna with coconut milk, lime juice, peppers and green onions), French crepes and dishes from other cuisines. Inquire here and at restaurants if “coconut crab” is available – it is a rich dish that tastes like foie gras and mixes the salty taste of the seafood with the sweetness of the coconut. We were hooked on this delight that is sometimes available as the catch of the day at restaurants in Papeete.
Farther afield from the city of Papeete, the Gauguin Museum is a must-see with exhibitions in honor of the French Post-Impressionist artist who lived and painted in Tahiti and reveled in the island’s colorful blooms and culture. There were no Gauguin originals at the museum, but exhibits shed light on the painter’s life. Other Tahiti highlights we also took in were Point Venus on the north coast, where Captain James Cook observed the transit of Venus in the 18th century, the Museum of Tahiti And Her Islands, with exhibits about the history and culture of Tahiti, and the Arahurahu Marae, a restored ancient temple.
To explore the relaxation aspect of Tahiti we got a day pass at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort, a 15-minute taxi ride from the cruise pier. Talk about another dose of “paradise”! The resort’s gardens are well manicured and lovely and the crystalline waters of the beaches are inviting. We spent time on the beach with its fine talcum-powder-like sands and refreshing waters, and relaxed on the resort’s hammocks – enjoying a cool tropical concoction while fanned by fresh breezes and serenaded by chirping birds.
“Nothing on Tahiti is so majestic as what it faces across the bay,” James Michener wrote about one of his favorite islands, Moorea, in “Return To Paradise.” Twelve miles from Tahiti across the Bay of Moon, loosely heart-shaped Moorea is another idyll in the Princess itinerary. Its lofty peaks, including Mt. Mouaroa (sometimes called the “Shark’s Tooth”) greet passengers whose ships are anchored in its beautiful Cook’s Bay or Opunohu Bay. A 37-mile road circles Moorea. Most visitors, like us, take tours to island highlights that include pineapple and coffee plantations and the Belvedere Lookout with its stunning views of Opunohu and Cook Bays and the green velvet Opunohu Valley. Other excursions available include marine biologist-led dolphin-watching tours to look for spinner and rough-tooth dolphins that frequent the waters off Moorea.
Other itinerary highlights of our Princess cruise included Huahine, Rangiroa and Raiatea where we learned about the black jewels of the sea at a pearl farm, swam and snorkeled.
The 30,277-ton, 680-passenger Ocean Princess (formerly one of the now-defunct Renaissance Cruises fleet) is elegant and intimate, with a floating country-club feel. Activities, including those related to the itinerary, abound. Our favorites were a folkloric troupe that came onboard to entertain with songs and dances of French Polynesia; talks about the culture and history of the islands, Tahitian dancing lessons, Polynesian craft making and a pareo tying session. Romantic touches on this “Love Boat” included a gala evening with a champagne waterfall.
The Lotus Spa, lounges and bars, casino, library, card room, shops and a pool and whirlpools are among onboard facilities. And when the sparkling sea breezes stimulate your appetite, there is the Club Restaurant & Bar, the ship’s formal dining room, plus a casual buffet eatery and two alternative restaurants (Sabatini’s serving Italian fare, and the Sterling Steakhouse. A fee applies in the alternative restaurants).
When we were ready to call it a day during our voyage in French Polynesia, we had a balcony cabin to retire to – our terrace was the ideal perch from which to watch this Eden go by. While in other destinations – such as cold water cruising – a veranda is not a “must,” it is worth every penny in French Polynesia. We made great use of ours including wonderful interludes entering and leaving Bora Bora, and arrival and departure from Moorea. Room service – free and available 24 hours – was a great treat for coffee, juice and rolls one morning on our veranda as Bora Bora came into view, and a snack also served on our balcony as we left Moorea. For a special occasion, Princess, a line that pioneered the affordable veranda, offers the “Ultimate Balcony Breakfast” and “Ultimate Balcony Dinner” (fee applies for each of them). These meals, which we both enjoyed to celebrate our anniversary, offer a special gourmet menu: breakfast treats include smoked salmon, pastries and quiche plus a half-bottle of bubbly; dinner delights included cocktails, four-course meal with steak and lobster tail, among other available delicacies, and fresh flowers. The wait staff was friendly and attentive, offering to take our photo as we toasted our anniversary on our veranda.
Among stateroom amenities are twin beds that convert to queen size; 100-percent Egyptian cotton linens, bathroom with shower, toiletries including body lotion, satellite television, and evening turn-down service with chocolates on our pillows – a sweet ending to each romantic, footloose and fancy-free day in French Polynesia.
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