Unveiling Tahiti’s Allure With Variety Cruises, Aboard Panorama II

Guest post, credit Nicholas Kontis for story and photos 

When travelers conjure images of French Polynesia, not surprisingly, the first island to come to mind is not Tahiti but the supermodel island of Bora Bora, with its luxurious hotels like the Four Seasons Bora Bora, complete with expensive, over-the-water bungalows and unblemished panoramic views of omnipresent Mount Otemanu. 


I was excited to join a seven-night sailing through the Society Islands with Variety Cruises, a Greek small-ship cruise line, aboard their 164-foot (50-meter) Panorama II


But there’s more to this storied archipelago than Tahiti and Bora Bora. After short visits to these famous destinations, I was excited to join a seven-night sailing through the Society Islands with Variety Cruises, a Greek small-ship cruise line. Aboard the 164-foot (50-meter) Panorama II, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit multiple off-the-beaten-path islands. With its 25 ocean-view cabins serving 49 guests and 16 crew, the twin-masted private yacht offered an immersive cultural voyage more than a beach holiday.

Variety’s Society Islands sailings include seven- and 10-night cruises, both departing and returning to the capital of Papeete. We opted for the shorter cruise to Moorea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Taha’a and Raiatea. The longer voyage ventures further to the rarely visited Tuamotu archipelago, stopping at Makatea, Rangiroa, and Tikehau. 

We were greeted in Papeete by Panorama Captain Andreas Sifnotis, a Greek seafarer who has spent his life sailing to the world’s far ends. The gregarious captain quickly reminded me of my name: St. Nicholas protects all sailors and ships, and with Saint Nicholas Day, December 6th, rapidly approaching, I should feel safe. Soon, I met more Greek crew members and Indonesian housekeeping and kitchen staff. All are friendly, asking me where I’m from while reminding me I’m in for an unforgettable excursion. 

Sephora, the cruise director, is a native of Raiatea, which we will soon visit. The charming hospitality leader would serve as our entertainment guide and head of household to 36 guests. Indeed, the ship is one big happy family, and the crew’s passion and energy are infectious. 

The voyage begins at 3 p.m. when passengers board the Panorama II and are given a flower lei and a tropical cocktail. After a welcome dinner of shredded veal shank with a mustard sauce of grilled salmon, we sail one hour from Tahiti, known as the “big sister island,” to Moorea, the legendary Bali Hai island of James Michener’s “South Pacific.” 


See Variety Cruises ships and sailings here Variety Cruises


Islands Visited

Moorea 

Most expedition cruises operate with a set plan. Following breakfast, there is a morning expedition, lunch aboard the ship, and an afternoon tour option. But an essential aspect of expedition cruising is to arrive with an open mind or at least a willingness to “be flexible.” Due to weather conditions or wildlife sightings, the ship can easily change course. Each voyage is unique. 

Moorea is the most inspiring backdrop in French Polynesia for many locals and visitors. The island is known for its turquoise lagoons, white sand beaches, and eight colossal jagged peaks.

The program for Moorea begins at 8:15 when tenders travel to shore for the dolphin excursion. We’re joined by American marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole, who has lived in Moorea conducting research projects since 1987. Poole lends his expertise to explaining the geology of French Polynesia and the habits of whales and dolphins. The highlight occurs when pods of acrobatic spinner dolphins are displayed, twirling mid-air as if launched from cannons from the sea, spinning vertically and horizontally like ballerinas. An afternoon drive around the island in a 4×4 open-air safari vehicle was followed after dark by a 12-hour overnight trip to the island of Huahine.

Huahine

The Garden Island of Huahine is a tropical paradise island often overlooked on island-hopping trips. We arrive on a Sunday when–Sephora informs us–most shops will close at noon. We spend the morning on a guided 4×4 tour of ancient sacred sites. It is a cultural immersion in Polynesian geology, botany, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, economy, history, and traditions. An afternoon boat trip to a motu (islet) for a traditional cooking class is followed by a snorkeling trip. In the evening, local musicians boarded the ship and performed Tahitian songs.

Bora Bora

Like Santorini in Greece, Bora Bora is French Polynesia’s most visited island. The volcanic island is set in a radiant lagoon. Delve deeper into the seductive Shangri-la, and you’ll find a robust marine life teeming with tropical fish. Variety guests spend the morning visiting four different snorkeling spots, petting stingrays, and watching eels slither by. The ship docks in the main town of Viatape, where shops, bars, and cafes are just steps away. Later, in the evening, the Variety hospitality team slices up a massive tuna for a sashimi appetizer. 

Taha’a

One of Tahiti’s best-kept secrets, the tranquil island of Taha’a produces 80 percent of the aromatic vanilla in French Polynesia. It is also acclaimed for its exquisite pearl production. We spend the morning at the Motu Pearl Farm, where experts from the family-run business explain the cultivation of Tahitian pearls, followed by a trip to the Ferme Bio Organic Vanilla Farm. Later in the day, we snorkel, letting the current guide us as we drift past colorful coral and schools of brightly hued fish at the island’s renowned coral garden. 

Raiatea

Variety anchors at our fifth Society Island, historic Raiatea on a partially rainy day. Known as the “Sacred Island” and the second largest of the Society group, Raiatea was the second capital of French Polynesia and the home of Sephora, our passionate cruise director. She reminds us that Raiatea’s Taputapuatea marae is the holiest place of worship for all Polynesians. 

The day’s activities include a trip down the Faaroa River, the only navigable stream in French Polynesia, on a motorized outrigger canoe, followed by a guided tour of the open-air Taputapuatea shrine—the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in French Polynesia. The motor yacht remains docked for the day at the island capital of Uturoa, where my wife shops for jewelry and I buy a few Polynesian shirts. 

On Board

Each suite is designed with two single beds or one double. I found rooms easily manageable, but some guests found cabins and bathrooms restrictive. Three excellent meals are served daily in the upper-deck restaurant. A daily happy hour is held in the cozy communal entertainment living room from 5 to 7 p.m., followed by dinner. Snorkel gear is lent to passengers.

I ask Sephora about working with Variety and her passion for her homeland. 

“Travelling with Variety on small ships allows me to establish a genuine connection with the visitors, sharing the authentic Polynesian experience with them,” she says. “The world offers so many breathtaking landscapes, but something remains unique to this country: the generosity and the warm and welcoming smile of our people. Their joyfulness is like no other; their natural talent for music, dancing, and arts; their knowledge of the sea and environment—and finally, their ability to appreciate the smallest things in life.”

“I think I would call myself an experience director more than a cruise director. We are selling more than just a floating hotel with entertainment. It is a whole life experience if you are ready to open your heart to this.”

Long, pebbly, white-sand beaches, flanked by crystal-clear waters with schools of multi-colored fish, are the norm on this traversing of a few of Tahiti’s favorite islands. As irresistibly and equally attuned to close encounters with cultures, people, and marine animals, Variety Cruises’ immersive sailing of Tahiti is an unrivaled experience. 

Getting there

Air Tahiti Nui, Delta, French Bee, and United fly nonstop to Papeete’s Faa’a Airport (PPT) from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Air New Zealand and Qantas fly from Auckland and Sydney, respectively; Air Tahiti Nui operates a nonstop flight to Tokyo.


See Variety Cruises ships and sailings here

Variety Cruises
M/S Galileo
M/Y Callisto
M/Y Harmony G
M/Y Harmony V
M/Y Pegasos
S/C Panorama
S/C Panorama II

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