The islands of the Pacific are like the pearls for which they are famous - small yet precious archipelago strings, their natural lustre embellished by small bespoke cruising and the absence of mass tourism. JOY DODDS reports.
THE Pacific’s far-flung archipelagos of atolls and waters overlooked by volcanic peaks with untouched flora and fauna have mesmerised and empassioned Man for centuries – and today discerning travellers are following the inspiration of explorers such as James Cook and travelling in made-to-measure small versatile ships – with the accent on luxury today.
Consider French Polynesia, also known as the Society Islands. Comprising 118 islands spread across an area as large as Europe, its islands only occupy a land area 1/16th the size of Tasmania. Turquoise waters, sensual refracted light, majestic pyramid slopes and coconut trees create a glorious verdant paradise, a land of brightly-coloured hibiscus, taro, copra and breadfruit. This sweeping paradise is best explored by small bespoke ships with zodiacs that allow perfect access to remote sites like the canoes and rafts of yesteryear.
The beauty was epitomised by writer Paul Gaughin and artist Henri Matisse’s love affair with Tahiti, French Polynesia’s main island and its capital Papeete. However the soul of the archipelago is found further afield on islands such as Rangiroa, immortalised by Jacques Costeau for its beauty; Moorea with its volcanic peak Mt Rotui; Raiatea, the Secret Island with its grottoes and shipwrecks; Huahini and the superstar, Bora Bora.
Bora Bora, “first born” in Tahitian, has been called The Pearl of the Pacific which inspired the Broadway musical “South Pacific”, based on short stories by James A Michener, and was the location for the film “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Visitors can stay on pretty motus that encircle the island in over-water bungalows on stilts as well as more glamorous hotels, swim in turquoise lagoons beside sea turtles and manta rays and breathe in the whole idyllic environment overlooked by Mt Otemanu.
Gaughin also fell in love with the nearby Tuamotu Archipelago, a stretch of almost
80 atolls east of the capital, including Fakarava. Unlike most Pacific islands, Fakarava is non-volcanic but rather a flat footprint in the sea, making it a world-famous snorkel and dive site. The marine Garuae Pass is a 1600m-wide site of canyons and coral hills which became part of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2006.
Sounds like Paradise? Well exploring Tahiti and other legendary Pacific islands in Melanesia and Micronesia has become a reality, via small ship and even yacht expeditions that use centuries-old seamanship skills that can navigate these atolls, cays, coral formations and crystal-clear lagoons, yet offer 21st century luxury. In short, specialist companies such as PONANT offer a luxury alternative product that goes beyond the boundaries of traditional cruising and with ample shore time in unusual ports of call. What’s more, small ships such as “L’Austral” and “Le Soléal” offer cuisine, wine and service akin to a boutique Parisian hotel. Expert lecturers open up new worlds of appreciation and meaningful understanding of these little-known islands, such as nearby Huahine Island, the site of Polynesia’s most extensive archaeological remains which include a sacrificial marae and open-air stone temples. The opportunity to explore such out-of-the-way sites with expert commentary makes this truly unique.
The Marquesas (“Eternal Spring”) Archipelago, discovered by James Cook, is another case in point. Small ship cruising and fleets of zodiacs enable access to its natural beauty of lagoons backed by volcanic landscapes, as celebrated in the songs of Jacques Brel. As well as experiencing thousands of old and mysterious petroglyphs and the arts and crafts of today’s local sculptors, small ship cruising makes it possible to get up-close-and-personal with locals as well as the vivid marine life while swimming and snorkelling in turquoise waters. To add to the fun, this year’s sailing will be in the company of famed French sailor and writer Olivier de Kersauson.
PONANT’s itineraries extend far beyond French Polynesia to take in the eastern edge of the Pacific bordering South America. Easter Island, part of Chile despite the locals’ efforts for independence, has fascinated the world since its discovery by Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen on Easter Day, 1772. Its famous moai, the 20m megalithic vestiges carved in basalt by the Rapanui people on the slopes of Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, are a UNESCO World Heritage site. En route are the remote Gambier Islands, 1600 kms west of Tahiti and French Polynesia, including its largest island, Mangareva, known as “the floating mountain”. Its coral reefs provide the breeding grounds for the oysters that produce exquisite black pearls, considered the most beautiful in the Pacific. Local pearls have even been used to provide the building materials for St Michael’s Cathedral built in 1848 in the town of Rikitea on Gambier Lagoon.
Out of the way? Out of the ordinary? Out of this world? Yes, but it’s all possible with small ship expeditions.
SELECT YOUR PACIFIC SAILING ITINERARY
PONANT Yacht Cruises & Expeditions offers 13 itineraries covering 10 Pacific countries, all culturally and naturally diverse. In addition, new destinations such as northern Papua New Guinea have been added, joining Polynesia, New Caledonia, Hawaii, Soloman Islands and Guadalcanal, Indonesia and Easter Island. The New Zealand itinerary includes the SubAntarctic Islands of Macquarie, Campbell, Auckland and Snares, as well as North and South Island ports. Cruises to Northern Australia, including Darwin, proceed to Indonesia (Manado) and Malaysia (Kota Kinabulu). This is in addition to cruises in Antarctica, Asia, Northern Europe and the Baltic; the Mediterranean; Alaska and Canada; Russia and the Arctic Far North; South America and the Caribbean.
CRUISES TO FRENCH POLYNESIA
Hawaii and French Polynesia with Olivier de Kersauson – L’Austral – 17 Sept 2015 - Honolulu (Hawaii) - Papeete (French Polynesia) 16 Days French Polynesia and Easter Island
L’Austral – 25th Oct 2015 - Papeete (French Polynesia) - Hanga Roa (Easter Island) 14 Days
OTHER PACIFIC CRUISES
At the heart of Indonesia
Le Soléal – 15th Nov 2015 - Singapore - Manado (Indonesia) > Singapore 11 Days
Expedition to the mysteries of Melanesia
Le Soléal – 9 Dec 2015 - Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands) - Noumea (New Caledonia) 11 Days
Christmas in the heart of the Pacific
Le Soléal – 19 Dec 2015 - Noumea (New Caledonia) -
Akaora (New Zealand) 11 Days
Expedition to the Subantarctic Islands
Le Soléal – 29 Dec 2015 - Akaroa - Christchurch - Milford Sound 16 Days
Milford Sound to Auckland
Le Soléal – 13 Jan 2016 - Milford Sound - Auckland 10 Days
The best of Philippines
Le Soléal – 15 Mar 2016 - Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia) -
Hong Kong 11 Days
Papua & Great Barrier Reef
Le Soléal – 22 Feb 2016 - Cairns - Darwin
Visit en.ponant.com or contact PONANT –
1300 737 178 - for more information.
Clockwise from above:
Overwater bungalows at dusk, French Polynesia;
The famous Moai of Easter Island;
Coral garden, Taara island, French Polynesia ;
Bora Bora, the Pearl of the Pacific;
Snorkeling in clear tropical waters, French Polynesia.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media