Published in: Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Features > Society Islands (Page 1/1)

Society Islands

The Society Islands of French Polynesia are legendary for their beauty, but the geography of the islands also makes them the ideal spot for a yacht

The word Tahiti has become set in the western consciousness as being a place of respite for weary sailors and explorers, or a temptress that reduces the seaman’s discipline – borne of freezing temperatures and harsh conditions – into a lazier, easier temperament, suited to life in paradise. The legendary story of the mutiny on HMAV Bounty occurred in Tahitian waters. There are to this day, places and bays named for Captain Bligh and Captain Cook. Paul Gauguin, the French painter who ultimately exiled himself in French Polynesia, created his masterworks amid tropical splendor, with his most celebrated work, Where do we come from? Where are we? Where are we going?, in effect an existential cry for answers in a place where the traditions of disciplined work may not have seemed so necessary.

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French Polynesia is in fact a collection of five enormous archipelagos, located nearly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Tahiti is the name of the biggest island, and it is the home of about half of French Polynesia’s 260,000 inhabitants. Spread over an area the size of Western Europe, French Polynesia offers year-round cruising, stunning geography, a huge array of marine life, a surprisingly well-developed infrastructure, and a welcoming culture. There are plenty of reasons to have a yacht in French Polynesia.

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One of the first things that strikes you when you arrive in French Polynesia’s capital, Papeete, is the amazing mountains. Never before had I seen such crazed shapes and nearly unnatural peaks. It makes you think you’ve come to some otherworldly realm. Formed by volcanoes roughly ten million years ago, the jagged ridgelines and steeply angled mountains that almost defy gravity are the first big tip that you’ve arrived at a unique place.

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The Society Islands archipelago is the main archipelago of French Polynesia (though by no means the only one worth exploring), and is the base for explorations further afield. On these islands are deep canyons, waterfalls, verdant forests, and black sand beaches. Surrounding these islands are the coral fringes that play an important role in making French Polynesia the yachtsmen’s dream. For in it lies one of the key aspects of what makes the Society Islands such a wonderful place to visit with a yacht: They’re sinking.

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Well, not exactly sinking, but the existing islands of French Polynesia (those that are not atolls anyway) are in fact subsiding back into the sea, at a rate of three centimetres every hundred years or so. After their period of volcanic activity had ceased, the subsiding began. The coral fringes that formed up around the shores of those islands now mark the outmost extent of what used to be much larger islands. As the islands have subsided back into the sea, those outer reefs created natural barriers. Placid lagoons now exist between the shores of the retreating islands and the reefs. One day, millions of years from now, the Society Islands, along with the rest of French Polynesia, will have subsided beneath the sea, creating a set of atolls very similar to the Maldives, which were formed in a similar way.

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As rain fell on the volcanic islands, another happy incidence occured: rivers formed that eroded deep valleys, and these fresh water sources poured into the sea, creating natural breaks in the coral reefs. As a result, most islands of French Polynesia have lagoons surrounding them, with deep-water entrances for yachts and boats of all stripes. There could not be a better playground for yachts if you wished for one.

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At most Society Islands, there are lagoon pools that can be visited by tender that let guests jump into waist-deep blue-green seas and be joined by giant rays, black tip sharks and possibly a dolphin or two. Visitors can also try their hand at everything from wakeboarding, kite-surfing, snorkeling or Scuba diving.

Forget the fact that you’ll be tempted to take pictures every second – it only gets in the way.

Tahiti is the main island in the Society Islands, and the centre of the French community of expats. In the capital, Papeete, one finds lanes with French colonial airs and palm-fringed streets. Plenty of boutiques offer jewellery using fine Tahitian black pearls and what could be called designer floral shirts. Papeete is also the first port of call for most yachts, and its protected harbor (not far from where Captain Bligh and the crew of the Bounty put ashore). Papeete, though not a major attraction, is nonetheless worth a stroll for a day. You are sure to encounter impromptu bands of singers strumming away at their customised ukuleles and guitars. Occasionally, you may spot a French Gendarme on patrol.

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In Papeete, and at all the major resorts, one finds cuisine that bears the hallmarks of French influence. Much produce, cheeses and dairy products miraculously appear in restaurants, thanks to the almighty commitment of French people to enjoy French food. A must-try dish is Poisson Cru (literally, raw fish). This is a South Pacific dish of raw fish that’s been marinated in lime juice and dressed with coconut milk, onions and other assorted goodies. It’s addicting.

Around the island of Tahiti, there are a multitude of beaches for surfing or kite-surfing. Almost everyone lives along the coast, with few settlers living in the mountains. One is likely to find people milling about the beaches in search of something else to do. Life in French Polynesia is slow (naturally). The Polynesians who settled Tahiti and the surrounding archipelagos either found or brought with them all the plants they would need to help them subsist very comfortably. Indeed, virtually everything that Polynesians needed could be found growing abundantly throughout the islands, with little need for cultivation.

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There are no snakes and very few dangers on the islands, so it’s quite possible for people to explore inland on the main island. Hiking along some mountains is possible, though here guides are recommended. Several of the tallest peaks on Tahiti and the Society Islands are quite steep and experienced hands are necessary.

Just 15 kilometres off from Tahiti is the much smaller island of Moorea. Here, one finds Opunohu Bay, the actual location of Captain Cook’s first landing in Polynesia. It has been immortalized in numerous paintings and sketches, and even appears in the 1984 film, The Bounty. At anchor in this bay, one can wake up in the morning to what has to be one of the world’s most picturesque sites.

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On a shore-side excursion, our guides take us to the top of Magic Mountain, which overlooks Opunohu Bay. You definitely need a guide – there’s a hidden entrance and an honour-system paybox. People are expected to pay about US$2 to help the locals with upkeep of the road. And you should pay it, because the switchbacks are steep and in some places, the road follows the top of a ridge that is not much more than the width of the car, with steep drops on either side. The final look-out point is such that if you step too far past the rope line, you’ll certainly fall at least 100 metres before the brushes slow you down.

The crazed geography of Tahiti’s mountains continues as we drive back down from Magic Mountain and on to a road that takes us inland towards a place called The Belvedere. It’s another natural look out point, but here we find ourselves at the base of an enormous rock face, which is actually an ancient volcanic crater rim. Turning north, we see a young volcano that separates Cook’s Bay with Opuhohu Bay (where Cook really landed).

We encounter some of the rock formations that delineated Polynesian places of spiritual and religious importance. These formations take the shape of long rectangles of compiled stone, with head stones up at one end that mark an alter of sorts, the mark of an original Polynesian village.

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As we proceed down the road towards Cooks’ Bay known as the Pineapple Road, we are greeted with a sight of real bucolic splendor. It is a pineapple plantation, with acacia trees and tropical pines all around. Villagers can be heard singing their community songs, and for a moment, you can almost imagine a Polynesian village untouched by the forced march of progress. For the villagers themselves, of course, it is life as usual. For a pair of eyes that have been glazed by the tall buildings and pollution of Hong Kong, it is a wonder.

In Bora Bora, on the eastern side of the Society Islands, we find perhaps one of the largest lagoons, with just one entrance into the lagoon area. Here, there are dozens of resorts, all with a mix of on-water luxury bungalows that face towards the main island and Mount Otemanu, the mountain that dominates the vista. This island is the stuff of honeymooning, though that’s no reason to ignore the near-perfect conditions for kite-surfing, the many abandoned islets that are perfect for a quiet beach barbeque, or the near-tame marine life. On a short excursion into the lagoon and just outside aboard a small launch with wooden outrigger, we find giant sting rays quite ready to nestle up to us in waist deep water, waiting to be fed. We are then surrounded by black tip sharks and even lemon sharks looking for the same.

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Marine life is ubiquitous in French Polynesia and often, quite literally engaging. During the dry season (March to November), humpback whales are often spotted and with some good guidance, yachtsmen may find themselves in Scuba suits (with rebreathers, as Cetaceans regard the bubbles from normal Scuba gear as threatening) quite literally face-to-face with the Ocean’s largest mammals.

Rangigora Island, in the nearby Tuamoto Archipelago, is said to be a great place for dolphin spotting, with a pod of dolphins that have actually gotten used to the presence of divers and seem to find their company intriguing.

The Society Islands are just the beginning for exploration in French Polynesia. This is, after all, a group of islands that covers an area the size of Western Europe. Several of the more far-flung islands offer atolls, traditional Polynesian arts and crafts (almost all the locals are covered in tattoos) and near-tribal circumstances. It was a very appealing thing to be enjoying this much beauty and serenity from the aft end of a boat at anchor in a Polynesian bay. As the sun came up and began to shine through morning clouds, it touched on the wisps of fog that were playing over the jagged mountain tops. A cup of coffee, and then all is perfect.  

                                                                                                             - With special thanks to Tahiti Tourism and Tahiti Private Expeditions