Chartering in French Polynesia requires good charts and an ever-present camera.
Technically speaking, if you find yourself on a charter boat in “Tahiti”, you’re actually in one of the five island groups of French Polynesia. More technically, you’re probably sipping a cold Hinano (the local beer) in the Society Islands – most likely, the Leeward Islands. But who cares about semantics? Tahiti is the word that elicits images of turquoise waters, swaying palm trees and more than any other tropical paradise, dramatic vistas that are so camera friendly you’ll never take a bad picture.
Ia ora na ("hello"). After landing at Faa’a airport in Papeete on the island of Tahiti Nui ("big island"), most people take a few days to orient themselves before stepping aboard their charter boat. For North Americans, this is easy as Tahiti is three hours behind Pacific Standard Time, so up at 6:00am with the sun isn’t hard even if staying up much past 9:00pm is.
A must see in town is the municipal market where you can grab breakfast in the form of fruit, pastries or a variety of Tahitian goodies and then spend an hour or two taking in the colors of the local wares. The first floor is mainly food and flowers and the second includes handicrafts and souvenirs.
An afternoon bus or car tour of Tahiti Nui will lead to stops at the Gauguin Museum, the James Norman Hall house (co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, 1932) and Point Venus lighthouse where both captains Cook and Bligh landed at various times. After six o’clock, the place to be is the newly rebuilt Gare Maritime, the main quay on Boulevard Pomare. As night falls, les roulottes, or food trucks, roll in and serve up delicious fish, stir fry, curry, pizza, poisson cru (marinated fish like ceviche), salads, and crepes in a fun outdoor atmosphere. It’s the cheapest and best grub you’ll find in Tahiti and a great way to spend time with the locals.
The next day, hop a ferry to Moorea, which was probably the centerpiece of your pool deck sunset the night before. Rent a moped or car and circumnavigate the lush island with its jagged peaks, stopping at the rum distillery and fruit juice factory for samples. If you’re staying the night, you will find the Intercontinental or Sofitel provide charming over-water bungalows that you’ll probably photograph a hundred times before you leave.
Maeva ("welcome") to Your Charter Yacht
After your Windward Islands sojourn, a 45 minute flight from Papeete to Raiatea, followed by a 5 minute car ride will deposit you on the docks at Apooiti marina, home of both Sunsail and Tahiti Yacht Charters (TYC). Moorings boats are around the corner but in the same vicinity. Do your technical checkout and chart briefing while the crew heads to the town of Uturoa by taxi to fill out a partial provisioning from the charter company.
Most of the charter boats in the area today are catamarans rather than monohulls and that’s a good thing. Not only are catamarans more sociable platforms for multiple couples, but their draft comes in handy in the skinny water near the motus (islands on the fringing reefs). I know that ten years ago, my sail to the back side of Bora Bora on a monohull was more of a nail-biter than it was this time on a Lagoon 380. Amazing what two feet less of draft can do.
It’s also amazing what returns in a taxi when you send six people for food – unquestionably, too much. Everything is expensive in Tahiti because most of it is shipped in, so shopping local or French brands will stretch your dollar, or franc (CFP). Mangos, pineapples, bananas, papaya, guava, coconuts and pamplemousse (grapefruit) are excellent. If you want watermelon, be prepared to pay upwards of $40 for two mid-sized melons. French wines and cheeses are terrific as is the mahi mahi mousse, a kind of fish pate that, combined with the ever-present and cheap baguettes of French bread and a chilled white wine, make a happy hour very happy.
Raiatea and Tahaa share a fringing reef so it’s easy to stay in protected waters for the first day or two. Heading up to Tahaa about two hours from the base is Hurepiti Bay. Alain and Christina Plantier, who sailed their 32’ plywood boat to Tahiti from France some 30 years ago, today provide a memorable 4x4 land tour. He’s a botanist and together they built a Robinson Crusoe homestead that is green architecture at its best. A 4-hour tour ($65) includes a visit to their home and grounds, a stop to feed coconuts to chickens, multiple gorgeous photo opportunities, a chance to sample local fruits, and a reason to learn more about vanilla pollination than you ever imagined. Alain will even provide noni, the fruit of a tree in the coffee family. Noni became popular several years ago and has been touted as a healthful magic bullet, supposedly providing everything from a slew of vitamins to a cure for cancer. And it had better be the fountain of youth because I can’t image any other reason to choke it down; it smells and tastes like boiled sweat socks.
After a morning stop at one of Tahaa’s many black pearl farms (most businesses are open by 7:00 am) it’s time to head for one of the passes. Depending on the length of your charter, you may choose to bash to weather first and visit Huahine about 22 miles east. This is the least developed of the bigger Society Islands and you can enter from either Avamoa or Avapehi pass and anchor near the town of Fare. I found that a great way to see the island was to rent a bike and ride over the northern tip to visit the stone fish traps in Lac Maeva, the many maraes or religious sites, the copra drying beds, and the sacred eels in the fresh water river. These eels average 5 feet in length, have blue eyes, and will embarrass themselves for a taste of canned fish.
It’s too far to make the downwind run from Huahine all the way to Bora Bora during daylight, so break up the trip and re-enter Raiatea’s reef via Irihu pass. In Faaroa Bay you can take the dinghy on an Indiana Jones-esque trip up a river. The river can be narrow and shallow and a paddle or drag over the shallows without the use of the outboard is sometimes necessary. Back near the reef, three miles south in Onoa bay is Marea Taputapuatea, one of the major religious sites on what is known to Tahitians as the Sacred Island – Raiatea, mother to all the other islands, including the "first born," Bora Bora.
The First Born
Sometimes, the weather is such that Huahine is out of the question on a week-long charter. Many boats run immediately down to Bora Bora, the most photographed and mystical of the islands. You can almost hear the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song Bali Hai when entering Bora’s Teavanui pass on the west side. Turn right and duck in behind Topua motu, the remnants of an ancient volcano, for an afternoon kayak paddle followed by a quick run to the village of Vaitape for ice. We’ll take more Hinano too, mauruuru ("thank you"). Try dinner at Bloody Mary’s, a palapa style building with a sand floor that serves great fish in a tropical atmosphere. If you’re lucky, grab one of Bloody Mary’s moorings. If you’re not lucky, head around the corner to drop the hook in shallower depths because near the central islands, the water is deep, dark and usually fouled with something. One of the boats in our group dragged up a huge anchor chain from something that might have sailed by a century ago.
In the morning, it’s time for the trek to paradise on the back side of Bora Bora. Check your charts often. In fact, be zen and become one with your charts. In our most recent fleet of ten boats, two grounded within the first two days. Binoculars and the depth sounder will become your best friends when negotiating the reefs. And remember that in French Polynesia, it is NOT Red, Right, Returning. Having the hook down before the sun gets low and the glare obscures the shallow reefs is key.
It’s easy to become obsessed with Otemanu, Bora Bora’s main mountain that rises 2,300 feet above the crystal lagoon. It is hard to resist as a backdrop to just about every photo, including ones taken from Le Meridien’s beautiful deck bar where you can enjoy a fruity cocktail for $25. As I said, nothing is cheap in Tahiti.
Snorkeling along the central reef or through the Lagoonarium ($55), a kind of underwater zoo, is a nice way to compare the mantle colors of the clams that embed themselves into the coral heads. Anchoring is easy so long as you avoid the coral heads because in a tussle with one of them, you’re bound to lose. A second night can be spent four miles south near another beautiful motu where you can then enjoy some early morning drift snorkeling. You have to love any place that gives directions like, “Best anchorage is near the five tallest coconut trees on the white sand beach.”
It’s possible to make it back around Bora, out the pass, and across open water to Raiatea in one day, but be prepared for 20-30 knot headwinds in the afternoon and a lot of pounding. Then settle in for one more idyllic evening, maybe on a mooring by Taravana Yacht Club on Tahaa, to soak up the last sunset and grab another Hinano.
Most of the Society Islands are around 16 degrees south latitude so the days are short, the temps are steady between 75-90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the tide is about a foot—which can make a difference if you’ve got a keel perched on a coral head. The diving is not always clear or colorful, the motus are often private or reserved for hotel guests, and the prices are steep. But the people are friendly and the scenery is incomparable. Even if you chafe at the thought of $25 cocktails, you can't beat the view.
For a detailed one or two week itinerary, read Tahiti Itineraries.