The Society Islands are the western most group of islands in French Polynesia. The islands extend over 400 miles in a WNW direction. With the exception of the smaller western islands, they are high volcanically formed islands surrounded by coral reefs that are detached from the islands, known as fringing reefs. They are the largest of the South Seas islands, which made them a favored base for all the major explorers of the Pacific. It was here in 1769 where Captain Cook spent many weeks in Tahiti observing the transit of the planet Venus.
Our two day passage from Ahe brought us to the largest and easternmost island, Isle Tahiti. As we approached the opening in the barrier reef, Passe de Papeete, we were caught in a torrential rain squall with zero visibility. We could not make out the navigation buoys with the naked eye, but with our radar and GPS, we were able to enter Papeete Harbor without incident. We continued behind the reef along the well marked Chenal de Faaa, past the airport and finally anchored off of Marina Taina. Here we had easy access to the supermarket and transportation ("Le Truck") to downtown Papeete.
Robert's son, Thor, joined us in Tahiti the first week of August and spent a month with us cruising the Society Islands. Initially, we rented a car and took the 114 km "circle island tour" which circumnavigated Tahiti Nui and took us part way along the coast of Tahiti Iti. We enjoyed the beautiful black sand beaches of Pirae; Point Venus, the site of Tahiti's only lighthouse; the Botanical Gardens; the Maraa Grottos and the Blowhole, one of the island's most interesting natural phenomenon. We also passed the time swimming and snorkeling, relishing in the protected turquoise waters.
A beautiful short daysail, 12 nm to the NW of Tahiti, brought us to the island of Moorea. With it's spectacular peaks, Moorea is known as one of the most scenic islands and it had become our favorite. We entered the reef along the northern coast through Passe Avaroa and into Baie de Cook (Cook's Bay) anchoring near the head of the bay.
It was a short dinghy ride ashore where we discovered the wonders of the island, including it's valleys, waterfalls, pineapple plantations as well as remnants of the Mao'hi civilizations archeological past. There are many resorts around the island and one evening brought us to the Bali Hai Hotel for a traditional Tahitian dance show.
Our next anchorage was only 2.5 miles west through Passe Tareu into Baie d'Opunohu. For the first several days, we anchored just inside the reef in the clear shallow waters. Heading west by dinghy along the inside of the reef brought us to a popular spot where you can feed the sting rays.
These graceful velvet creatures were all around us as we stood in the shallows. We brought along some squid which they loved and would practically climb on top of us to take the food right out of our hands. Another day while in the dinghy, we noticed a baby humpback whale that had gotten separated from it's mother and was inside the reef. It spent several hours tucking underneath our dinghy for protection. It was an amazing experience to see this beautiful mammal close up. Several boaters tried to coax the baby back out the pass, to no avail. The next day, however, there were reports of sighting an adult humpback with her baby back outside the pass in the deeper ocean waters. We hoped that mother and baby were reunited. These were days that we would never forget.
We then anchored up at the head of Opunohu Bay where is was more secluded and easier to get ashore. Surrounded by Mont Tohieva and the spire of Mont Mouaroa, the scenery was spectacular. This particular bay is where Captain Cook actually anchored back in 1769. This also served as the backdrop in the film version of South Pacific. We met up with our friends, Aglim and Kian of "My Chance" and Noel and Jackie of "Mariah II".
We hiked through the countryside past horse farms and beautiful native flora. We ended up at Belvedere View Point which has the most magnificent view of both Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay with Mont Rotui in the middle. It was obvious why this is considered one of French Polynesia's most spectacular view points.
After enjoying many "happy hours" and barbeques with our friends, it was time for us to move on to some of the other islands...
Isle Huahine, also called the Savage Island, consists of two separate islands enclosed in one lagoon. Because it's off the beaten track of traditional tourism, we were looking forward to the laid back atmosphere. We left Moorea at dusk and made an overnight sail to Huahine so as to make landfall in the early daylight hours. We negotiated Passe Avapehi on the northwestern side of the island and continued south dodging the scattered coral heads going as far down into the shallow waters as our keel would allow us, finally dropping our anchor off the sandbar at the southern tip of Huahine Iti. We spent several lazy days here, definitely on "island time".
Isle Raiatea and Isle Taha'a
The islands of Raiatea (the sacred island) and Taha'a (the vanilla island), which lie within the same coral reef, approximately 20 nm from Huahine, was our next stop in our Society Island tour. At the north end of Raiatea, the opening in the reef has two channels separated by a motu, Isle Taoru. We chose the northern pass, Passe Teavapiti, to enter the lagoon, carefully watching the breaking surf as on each side of the opening the reef is partly submerged. The coastline of the islands is carved with deep bays, making anchoring difficult to nearly impossible. There are moorings available in some areas. The anchorages along the reef are strewn with numerous coral heads, again making anchoring a challenge. When the winds blew 25+ knots for a week, keeping an anchor watch was a necessity. We did enjoy a respite at the town dock at Utaroa, where a large supermarket a short walk from the dock made reprovisioning a pleasure. We also spent a day at Marina Apooiti on the northwestern side of Raiatea with our friends on catamaran "Hapai". We all had dinner out at a local restaurant to celebrate Tom's birthday. Then it was off to Taha'a. The deep lagoon around Taha'a allowed us to circumnavigate the entire island. Thor enjoyed diving the passes with our friends Jody and Bruce of "CaVa".
Isle Bora Bora
As Thor's vacation time was winding down, we headed off for Bora Bora, the Pearl of the Pacific. Passe Teavanui is on the western side of the island and is the only entrance into the lagoon. The lagoon surrounding Bora Bora is three times larger than it's land mass and is considered "the most beautiful in the world" with it's various shades of turquoise waters. Our first anchorage was in front of the Bora Bora Yacht Club. From here, it was an easy walk into the town of Vaitape. Again, we hooked up with Tom and his crew Alberto on "Hapai". Thor and Alberto went on a shark dive to see the black tipped reef sharks "up close and personal". The dive excursion takes them outside the lagoon on the ocean side of the reef. The guide actually feeds the sharks to bring them in closer. We enjoyed watching the DVD they brought back from their dive from the comfort of the Iron Mistress!!
The tourism industry is the mainstay of the island where shops, restaurants, dive excursions and resorts abound. We were amazed to find that some of the "bungalows" that extend out over the lagoon can go for $2500 per night! Our simple life aboard the boat looks better and better all the time. The snorkeling was a bit disappointing in some areas, as the coral has died off in recent years, some say due to the El Nino. Our last anchorage was at the southern end of the island off the famous Bloody Mary's Restaurant. We picked up a mooring which was free but you were expected to at least patronize the restaurant. That was not a problem for us... with Thor leaving in a couple of days, we all went out to dinner there. They are famous for showcasing the days catch on ice on a long table. The chef is there if you have any questions, and you then order your meal and tell him how you want it prepared. We all had a great time and caught up with many cruisers there. The last few days were spent swimming, snorkeling and enjoying the scenery. When it was time for Thor to head home, we took him by dinghy over to Viatape where he could catch the ferry right to the airport. A short flight to Papeete, then a long flight back to the States. Now it was time for us to prepare for the next passage...... the Cook Islands.