The Society Islands
As with any new destination, there is administration and service to execute. We needed to perform all the usual tasks: food, laundry, fuel and water, in addition to “checking in” with the Gendarme and collecting a certificate allowing us to purchase fuel duty free. I had also to collect Jean-Jaque’s new passport, which the British Consulate in Panama had forwarded to a commonwealth office in Papaeete that turned out to be an Air New Zealand office. After so long away from mainstream civilisation Papaeete was quite a shock…. noisy, fast cars, hustle and bustle, we had to be on our toes as we were all easily distracted. I was surprised at how alien it all felt!!
Taking the bus into town, we had one of those days where all things just slot into place. Amanda and the Boys found a play park while I was doing the admin, we had lunch in town and on the way back spent a fortune at the supermarket.
In truth the selection was fantastic and the pricing was not dissimilar to Europe. After 2 hours we had restocked Pegasus, bought Louis’ Birthday presents and completed the major part of our administration leaving us free to enjoy Louis’ 3rd birthday on 4th July.
As is the birthday ritual, we decorated the pilothouse with balloons and streamers and when Louis woke he opened his presents with a little help from Jean-Jaques, before breakfast of banana pancakes and maple syrup.
The boys had a great day and we took them to the Lagoonaruim (sort of poor aquarium) and walked back to the boat via a fun fair where they performed a good double act on the bouncy castle, running rings around the ticket collector gaining a few extra goes.
It was festival time in Tahiti, culminating in big celebrations on Bastille Day, 14th July, coincidentally Jean-Jaques 5th birthday. We planned to be back in Papaeete on 13th July so were keen to spend the week looking at the island. We decided a circumnavigation was in order so on 7/7 we set off through Passe de Taapuna and headed south to a quiet anchorage behind a motu for the night before anchoring in Teeahupo the following day.
Teeahupo is a world famous surf spot and we intended spending a few days there before moving on. Our friends on Vagabond Heart and Lucy Blue appeared that evening and so there was plenty of social for all. We spent time snorkelling / drift diving the outer lagoon area close to the reef, collecting shells and watching the fish and stingrays. The waves breaking against the reef were huge and at night we could hear their thunder, while safely anchored inside the tranquil lagoon.
The snorkelling in Tahiti was just fantastic. The vibrant turquoise shallows close to the outer reef are just amazing. Every time is different as you just don’t know what you are going to see or find. Saying that, its also weather dependant, as if overcast, windy or raining, its just not the same experience. We had our fair share of rainy overcast days as well.
We left through the Teahupo pass headed south to the wild side of “little Tahiti” the smaller southern island. The road stops at Teahupo and the villages on the south and Southeast side are cut off, with villages travelling by small speedboats inside the lagoon. We spent a few days in the south enjoying the solitude and local hospitality, and headed back up to the Tahiti Yacht Club on 12/7. After messing around with the anchor in a squall, we elected to pick up a club buoy and went ashore to settle up and find the lay of the land. I have to say that the club was lovely and felt very welcoming. The Secretary gave us a key for the showers and laundry and there was a small bar open. “Just one night? No charge - just bring back the key in the morning” We all went back ashore for showers, but sadly the restaurant was shut. We put the laundry on and headed out to find dinner.
Behind the club was a small sports hall with plenty of action and music?? We walked in and found a seat and watched traditional Polynesian song and dance for an hour or so. There must have been 60 dancers in full dress and it was spellbinding. We found out later that it was the last dress rehearsal for the Bastille Day dance competition in Papaeete. There is something very evocative about Polynesian dancing and we felt very lucky to have witnessed such a wonderful display.
Next to the stadium we found a pizza / brochette stall and enjoyed pizza sitting on stools beside the van. These vans are everywhere in French Polynesia and are really a restaurant on wheels. As you can imagine, the food is French, so quite delicious and it makes for a viable alternative with the Boys. Eating is taken seriously by the French, so restaurants tend to open later and the boys are usually just too tired to eat after 7pm. Lunch is always our best restaurant option.
Food in France and by influence French Polynesia is a way of life. The range available in Tahiti was vast and varied, but many imported items were very expensive. Baguette, butter, pate and some cheeses are subsidised, readily available in most islands. We stocked up on pate, Camembert, pickles, cured meats and sausage, which was our daily lunch, and Amanda bought what we required for dinners on board. She is really very talented at shopping and will buy what we need. I am no use in the supermarket as I’m always looking at the prices…“do we really need 4 of those” etc. However I never complain at the fair Amanda presents at sea and our table is always full of varied and delicious food. I have now rationalised my supermarket experience to fulfilling specific tasks with the boys….18 litres of milk ok,…4 dozen eggs…”.right I’m taking the boys off for a coffee / juice”. This is now much better for everyone
Leaving the Yacht Club the following morning we wound our way through the coral and exited the pass. Accompanied by a pod of dolphins, a rare sight in French Polynesia, we motored 5 miles back up to Papaeete. We needed to get back up to the shops to buy the rest of JJ’s presents and get ready to meet Grand Mere who would arrive on the 15th.
We anchored out by the reef and I amused the boys (swimming) while Amanda went and finished the shopping. The boys went to bed excited and we decorated the pilothouse with balloons and pirate paraphernalia and wrapped JJ’s presents. His main present was a boogie board, which he had specifically asked for, and he was delighted to open it the following morning.
The plan was to meet the Vagabonds and Blues in the anchorage by Tahina Marina on the afternoon of the 14th as we were hosting a joint Pirate party for the boy’s birthdays. Everyone turned up at about 4 and there was lots of fun on board. Treasure hunts, party games and lots to eat. Amanda had prepared sushi for openers at JJ’s request but the real winner was a watermelon full of melon balls with a chocolate dip, and of course the Pirate cake. Everyone had a great time and the Boys went to bed happy and tired.
Grand Mere had arrived in Tahiti late on the evening of 14th and we planned to go to the Hilton early the following day for breakfast and swimming in the pool. We arrived at 8am and the Boys had a great time swimming then we all had breakfast, a real treat. OK it was pretty expensive, but I do love an all singing all dancing hotel breakfast.
It was decided that I would leave the others in the hotel, and I went downtown to sign out with the Gendarme, as we planned to leave for Moorea, just 12 miles to the West, the following day. Mum and Amanda went off to Carfour after lunch for a few last minute items…a pair of fins for Grand Mere… and we had a great evening on board with presents for the boys and lots of goodies from the UK. Star of the show were a pair of Crocs each for reef walking, a present from Edwin my younger brother, and a large jar of Branston Pickle for the excellent cheddar we had found in Carfour. The Boys number one were a power ranger’s suit for JJ and a Spiderman suit for Louis. They both love them, and are hanging up by their bunks today.
We set off for Moorea in good time, sailing in light winds under Genoa arriving in Opunohu Bay at lunchtime. This is a beautiful bay and we anchored in 4 meters of crystal clear water on sand. After lunch we swam off the boat and went ashore for a walk and swim A lazy afternoon. We had an early super and by 7.30 we were all in bed. (On Board we tend to eat and go to bed early. It just seems to be the correct rhythm to be in bed by 8 and up by 6.)
Our plan was to try to get to the northern islands and spend most of our time there before Grand Mere had to leave for the UK. We had a weather window and I was keen to make the 80 mile passage in fair weather, but was conscious that Grand Mere needed to get acclimatised to Pegasus first, hence our trip to Moorea. The following day we moved to a shallow sheltered anchorage, known romantically as the Club Med anchorage, and spent the day snorkelling off the boat, shelling on the Motu and watching stingrays being fed. By 4pm we were back on board ready to pull up anchor and depart for Huahine.
We were in no great hurry, again wanting to arrive in daylight, so sailed under Genoa alone, making 5+ kts in a slightly confused sea. We arrived at the pass at 8am and made our way down the West side of the island and finally found a sheltered spot to stop for a couple of days, swim, shell and relax. Huahine is a little off the beaten track and has few tourists so local interaction is more genuine. We spent a memorable hour with a local farmer who cut drinking coconuts and gave us Paw paw and bananas for the boat.
There was a growing desire on board to get to the shops. With impending windy weather we decided to head for the next island of Raiatea and the old capital of Uturoa. It was a short hop of 30 miles downwind and we arrived at a sheltered anchorage early afternoon. We organised a taxi and spent the following morning in town, stocking up with stores and wandering round the various shops.
I was keen to stop and put the anchor down for a few days. We had decided that we would spend most of the remaining time in Bora Bora, and as the weather looked good that day we made an uneventful 30 mile passage arriving at the pass Teavanui just after lunch. I had read our cruising guide, Charlie’s charts and selected a sheltered anchorage behind a sandy spit, showing a good beach and walk over the Motu to another Motu…. Sounded lovely.
On arrival we found that those intrepid explorers messes Hilton and Intercontinental had visited sometime after our guide and built a sprawling hotel on the site. What a shame. This was very much the story with Bora Bora. Most of the beautiful spots had hotels on them with little huts on legs protruding into the lagoon and signs declaring the beaches private. It really was quite developed, and the overall impression was that of paradise spoilt. That said, the developments and indeed Bora is designed to be viewed from land and I’m sure if one were staying at the four seasons it would be breathtaking.
We searched and found some beautiful spots in the south of the island and spent 10 days in various anchorages, swimming, walking, shelling etc. Grand Mere had found the addictive nature of shelling and was building quite a collection, so much so that I think she had a concern about her baggage allowance!
The weather was varied. We spent 2 days on a buoy next to a restaurant called Bloody Mary’s where it rained all day and blew 45+kts. Not too taxing in your little hut at the four seasons but a challenge on a boat with 2 small children. We walked, played on the (quite filthy) beach in the rain but had a good lunch. It all changes quickly when the sun comes out.
Grand Mere’s departure was looming and we decided we would fly her back to Tahiti from Bora rather than waste a day on a windward passage.
Those of you who have been to Tahiti from the UK will know what a long process it is. Mum left on a Monday from London and arrived on Wednesday night in Tahiti. But I have to say that she organised it pretty well. On advise from the travel agent, and on the grounds that her knees are “just not what they were”, she played the wheelchair card which effectively meant that she queue barged her way across the globe. In addition she is the only person I know who can have 2 family size suitcases accepted as hand luggage. It certainly made her trip less stressful, perhaps not the airlines!
It was time for Grand Mere to leave and we were all sad when we took the shuttle ferry out to the airport to say goodbye. We had last seen her in Lanzarote in October 2008 and who knows when we will see each other again. We all had a wonderful time and the Boys simply loved having their Grand Mere with them, sharing the close intimacy as you do on a boat.
It was also time for us to leave Bora and French Polynesia. I had been listening to the SSB following the passage of boats heading west and knew that the next leg to Tonga would be difficult. The weather predictions for this region are notoriously inaccurate as the South pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) can forcefully influence the region. Wind strengths were being seriously underestimated and the vessels that left the week before were being hammered in 40+ kts on predictions of 25’s. The seas can be pretty big as well with 4-5 meter seas reported. The boats that headed on a more northern route, close to the Cook Island atoll of Suwarrow or Suvarov seemed to have better conditions. We decided to remain flexible and see what the conditions dictated. The weather worsened for a few days and after we had re-provisioned, carried out pre flight checks….mast inspection etc, .and generally sorted our selves out, we left Bora on 6th Aug headed west.
I was glad to be leaving. The Society Islands are beautiful, but lack the expectation of discovery that we enjoyed. They suffer from being rather hyped and certainly overdeveloped. Finding real Polynesian spirit was difficult and we were looking forward to making our way back off the beaten track a little to discover atolls and island less frequented, offering a more intimate experience. In addition I was looking forward to some good sailing. I hadn’t put the main up for over a month and we hadn’t had the kite up since it was repaired 3 months past when in the Marquesas. Hopefully we would have a good trip to either Tonga direct (1300 miles) or Suwarrow (700 miles)
We are discovering, cruising the Pacific, that on arrival you really know very little about the intended cruising ground: nothing is relative as you have no experience. Moving downwind through the islands you constantly realise that there are islands now upwind that were passed over in favour of the visited mainstream islands. You are so fully immersed in the whole learning curve of Pacific sailing, weather, passage routes, food, money, tradition etc that disappearing off to unheard of islands is just a step too far, and too daunting to favour the unpopular over the popular, especially for those with novice status such as us. I’m sure current experience will open future adventure. I wish we had more time! To fully research the islands and passages, explore the more remote, outer islands, that would be a thing…….already, life is just too short.
See our photographs of The Society Islands at