Lanky palms, ultramarine waters, soaring peaks, a rich cultural heritage, a celebrated list of visitors-turned-residents–and all of it blended with that French je ne sais quoi…makes Tahiti the perfect beginning and end point for an adventure that will take us counter-clockwise around Polynesia.
We began our first full day driving the island's outer ring road that follows the dazzling coast and offers incredible inland views of verdant valleys and rugged peaks. Our amicable Tahitian guide studied in New Zealand and returned "home" to share his love for his island with visitors. As we drove he pointed out papaya, breadfruit, banana, and mango trees… truly the fruits of paradise. Papeete, he told us, means "water basket" from the natural spring that the town was built around and to which islanders came with large baskets to carry water home. At the wonderful Museum of Tahiti and her Islands, the exhibits presented a comprehensive look into the five archipelagos of Polynesia whose culture reaches back thousands of years. And the Gauguin Museum displays prints of the prolific painter who lived on Tahiti from 1891-93. We boarded the Clipper Odyssey in the late afternoon and set sail as a spectacular sunset silhouetted the neighboring island of Moorea.
As we approached the Tuamotus, it wasn't hard to understand how early explorers might have missed them— the tiny coral atolls barely break the surface of the water. We dropped anchor off Fakarava, boarded Zodiacs to shore and were greeted by four lovely young girls whose arms were draped in flower leis… as we bent down to accept the gift around our necks, they kissed our cheek! Dances, drumming, a feast of fresh coconut, fish ceviche, and fresh oysters delighted us. A birding contingent set off to spot numerous species, including both blue and white Pacific egret, and captured both the sounds and sight of the endemic Tuamotu reed warbler, on video—a real coup! Divers did a good test run, and many of us went snorkeling over small corals—spotting football-size spider conch and trocas shells.
We continued southbound past dozens of small islands, some capped only by a half dozen palms. Hikuero, our destination, had us on "adventure alert" since none of us—not travelers, not staff, nor ship… had ever been here! In fact, no ship of this type has ever dropped anchor offshore—or brought visitors to walk the coral-strewn beaches, the copra plantations, or to explore the pristine coral gardens just yards away. A tiny cluster of children came out to the small stone pier to talk with us in a few words of English, a few words of French, and many gestures and smiles… Puffy clouds, indigo skies, perfect temperatures in the upper 70’s, and a gorgeous atoll—and that's how you spell expedition!
In the water, snorkelers were treated to an amazing 150-foot visibility and nearly 75 species of fish. A highlight was a massive school of yellow and black striped convict tangs, accompanied by groupers and large coronet fish… quite a spectacle. In the afternoon, as we sat on deck sharing stories, we spotted the blow of first one whale, then another, and another… humpbacks! The captain turned the ship (which impressed the passengers to no end!) and we stayed for nearly 20 minutes watching a few glorious breachings, flukings, and general cavorting in the water… At evening recap we saw fantastic underwater footage from the day's snorkel and dives and above water of the whales in the dazzling afternoon light… Onward we go, sailing to Mangareva in the Gambier Islands.