I love the fact that the detours of this brief journey called life are filled with surprises. In mid to late February, when the South was blindsided with snow amounts unseen in the Mid-Atlantic area since the early eighties, I was fortunate enough to be able to escape the cold and head far west to French Polynesia, which oddly enough, had not been on the bucket list.
The excitement of months of planning the trip itinerary and the anticipation of the actual arrival of departure replaced the trepidation surrounding the thought of being squeezed into the claustrophobic seats in economy air travel. Even the thought of the length of flight time was assuaged with the serendipitous moments that were remedies for uncomfortable glitches such as hours of waiting for de-icing before take-off, and the change in a particular flight. Although we arrived intact at LAX, our luggage didn’t. It wasn’t until the next day that we could return to the baggage claim and retrieve it. It wasn’t upsetting, though. The time change was welcomed along with a more relaxing break before boarding the flight to Papeete, Tahiti.
Actually, I was amazed that the eight and a half hour flight seemed somehow much shorter. I can rarely sleep while going somewhere so before I knew it (and after watching four movies), Air Tahiti Nui was serving us our first Tahitian ( pronounced Ty-shun) meal along with the Tropical Juice, which became a favorite staple while on vacation in the Society Islands.
As an artist and former teacher of art history, I was thrilled to be walking in the footsteps of the French artist Paul Gauguin around Papeete, which turned out to be much larger a city than expected. After getting settled in at the Intercontinental Hotel, our residence for two days, our B2KD group toured the island with William Leeteg, whose artist father is renown on YouTube for his nudes on black velvet. A visit to the Vaipahi gardens revealed a lush fern grotto where Gauguin supposedly would swim daily for hours. On the way around the sights on our tour, we were informed that unfortunately The Paul Gauguin Museum, which housed both reproductions as well as some original paintings, had recently closed, which was disappointing news. A true highlight for me was being “christened by the Blowhole”, an experience I would compare to the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri in Italy. It actually emits a sound which could be described as similar to that of a native blowing a conch shell, and the accompanying geyser lends its own surprise while viewing.
The explorer James Cook was actually there three times. His fate was being cannibalized except for his head, which was wrapped in leaves and sent back with an apology of “we ate your captain.” I discovered that every French Polynesian island has a Cook’s Bay, which proved to be a challenge to our mission of locating the “one particular harbor“of Jimmy Buffett fame. I am glad to announce that the mission was successful, and its subject is the first painting completed within the Tahitian series, and is being revealed now here.
I highly recommend the Paul Gauguin Cruise line as a convenience for travel from Tahiti to The Society Islands. As a mid-size ship, they are able to access many of the locations while larger cruise ships cannot. The service is excellent due also to the staff of two hundred plus to, in our case, less than two hundred passengers onboard. (Full capacity is usually around 362 passengers.) You can find out more details about this cruise, the ship, and departures on the pg cruise website.
In Huahine, our first stop, our personal tour guide, Bruno, a local Frenchman, led us around the island with a population of 6,000. The Tahitians live in nondescript colored fare (houses). Most do not pay rent so the men use extra pay on cars. There is no cold or homeless because of a surplus of fruits. Older people still think young like teenagers only there aren’t many who live long due to high cholesterol. Burials are in yards rather than cemeteries, and there was one fatality in a tornado of 1988. Our group was introduced to the tamanu, uru, hotu, white basil (chewed for relieving tooth ache), the odorless orange pagoda, and the kapuk trees. One of the most unique visits was to the canal ditches where the local women were feeding sardines to enormous brownish gray blue-eyed eels with poor vision in shallow water.
The next destination was Taha’ A (TAH HA AH). Aro, our island guide there, was one of the happiest people I have ever met. One of the things I noticed most about the Tahitians was their smiles and friendliness.( I guess I would stay happy too if I was living in paradise on a daily basis.) Aro met us at the port and drove us around while introducing us to the taro root, like a sweet potato, only green, noni, from which a malodorous energy juice is extracted, hibiscus, used for cooking, toilet paper, cleaning snorkel masks, local rope, and the white colored skirt material worn by Tahitian dancers. He also made a flute using a sharp bladed machete, and demonstrated how to play it, then gave two as gifts. A trip to a vanilla farm followed in a local shop, where I drank out of the tasting jar, when I was supposed to take a spoon and sample it. Of course, the women thought it was funny that I was the first visitor to do that. Aro told us that there are ninety five farms on Taha’A, and vanilla was introduced to the Polynesians from Mexico and Madagascar. A compost of dried coconut shells creates moisture around the beans. When the pollination is completed, the color is brownish gold. The less burnt variety is more flavorful. A demonstration of pearl farming was informative and then followed up with time for pearl shopping. I did not know that there was such a variety of sizes and colors. Our visit to the island ended with information about the miro, cut into fruit, and good for relief from a mosquito bite itch, the faro tree, used for housing, and the hinano, which is the name of the female goddess that appears on the label of the islands’ beer and localized sportswear.
The visit to Motu Mahana, a private island owned by the cruise company, taught us a few lessons about French Polynesia: you don’t stand or sleep under a palm tree; coconuts weigh a lot more than you think, and fall quite often! Two, you must wear rash guards to protect yourself from the sun, sea urchins, and sharp coral. Also, while snorkeling , reef shoes are definitely necessary. Three, the intensity of the sun requires even those of us who are used to it to slather on a crazily large amount of fifty plus SPF.
I had heard about Bora Bora, and had seen the travel photographs within the magazines. Here is where you definitely experience those “OMG” moments. Our “three hour tour” with Piero was within an outrigger, with stabilizers on each side made of fiberglass to ensure smooth sailing through shallow azure and sea foam colored water. The highlight of the day was photographing the rest of our group snorkeling with manta rays and long black tipped sharks. Overwater bungalows were seen from resorts such as Intercontinental Bora Bora, St. Regis Resort, and Thalassos Spa and Resort, true honeymoon destinations. Our boat name, Keishi, we learned, is the gray color of pearls. The visit to the island of eight thousand eight hundred would have been incomplete without locating the famous Bloody Mary’s Bar, where a plethora of celebs such as Jimmy Buffett and Hollywood’s finest, have their names painted in white at its entrance. The awaited visit for us would come the next day since we found out that it was closed for a private party the first evening.
Our final tour was on the island of Moorea (MO OH RAY AH). Accompanied by our French tour guide, Francky Franck, we sat within the truck 4×4 and literally rode up the steepest mountain to an obscure farm where one pays admission after the ride on the “honor system”. (The panoramic views at the top are worth the scary, yet exhilarating climb getting there.) If you go between July and November, you are likely to see the whales. Although the roads are abysmal, the recycled water from the reefs around Opunohu and Cook’s Bay are better than other islands, and power cables are underground. Remember earlier: our mission was to locate Cook’s Bay, and we achieved it on this tour. Yes, that one particular harbor. Magnificent, with that neon sea foam color… Interestingly, Captain Cook was never here. He was cannibalized in the Sandwich Islands, and the descendants of the Pitcairn survivors of the famous Mutiny on the Bounty today have their own artisans’ website.
Look closely. Can you locate the two faces? One was intentional, and the other I discovered upon completion of the palms on the right. Seemed uniquely appropriate for the theme. I was told by Francky of Francky Franck Tours to be sure to include the “hole” within the first one. (No more clues.)
Want to see more? Visit my website to see more of my paintings and gifts online from the home page.
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Planning a trip to Tahiti? I strongly suggest Jan Prince’s book on the islands.
Would I leave you hanging without more pics? How would one describe them in one word?