A South Sea Adventureby Mary Hartman
So boasted the travel literature, the cruise ship staff -- even the T-shirts sold to commemorate Society Expedition's voyage of the "World Discoverer" between Raratonga, Cook Islands and Papeete, Tahiti.
And, what an adventure it was!
You have to hand it to Society Expeditions. During the October, 1998, voyage, the Seattle-based travel company provided a lot of everything including:
A once-in-a-lifetime chance to witness an `investiture ceremony' during which residents of Atutaki, an almost-atoll in the Cook Group, installed a new island mayor. An emotional welcome to tiny Atiu in the Cooks, where a ship calls only a few times each year. So infrequent are the visits, that the islanders came en masse from their villages to see the ship in. Tiny brown-faced children peaked from behind uplifted coral, smiling and waving. Then everyone gathered for a welcome ceremony that included dancing and a buffet of island fruits befitting the Gods. Bird-watching, shelling, hiking, snorkeling, glass-bottom boating, star-gazing, on-board lectures -- enough information in six days to fill a college course in South Seas geography.
And, as if this were not enough, the cruise began and ended with three and four-day stays at luxury resorts on Raratonga and Tahiti. Seven days to luxuriate in South Seas splendor. . .days in which we stepped into travel poster settings of swaying palms, thatch-roofed bungalows, beach-front hotel rooms and coconut-flavored libations from the swim-up bar.
Who says we can't have it all?
From the moment we boarded our Air New Zealand flight in Los Angeles on Oct. 3 until we returned on Oct. 16, we had it all, including camaraderie with fellow travelers we met on the plane. Others World Discoverer passengers flew in from Honolulu. Still others had boarded the ship in Fiji. That’s because travelers could choose segments of the South Seas Adventure, such as from Raratonga to Papeete or from Papeete to Easter Island. Those wishing an in depth tour of the region could sign on for up a 30-plus day trip from Fiji to Easter Island.
How was this trip different from the "big-ship" experience? And, how was it similar?
First the similarities. The World Discoverer is a cruise ship, albeit a smaller one, and Society Expeditions takes excellent care of its passengers. Arriving in Raratonga (at 5:15 a.m., incidentally), we were taken immediately to the Raratonga Beach Resort for our pre-cruise stay. We checked into our beach-front hotel room, then watched the sun rise scarlet-red over the island. After dabbling our toes in the surf (to remind us we were a long way from home!), we snuggled down for a nap before beginning to explore the island. Then, for three days, we strolled the beaches, hiked, shopped and enjoyed Raratonga, the largest of the Cook Island group.
On Day Four, we boarded the ship, which had docked in Avarua, Raratonga’s charming "capitol." Ascending the ‘gang-plank,’ the ship’s staff greeted us warmly and showed us to our twin-bedded stateroom, which was compact but very comfortable -- not much different from a stateroom on any other cruise ship. Exploring the ship, we found -- FOOD -- a buffet of sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, chips, desserts and beverages. In fact, food was available almost around the clock on the World Discoverer. Passengers had a choice of an informal, but substantial breakfast in the Lido Lounge or a sit-down breakfast in the Marco Polo dining room. A snack buffet was available each afternoon and each day ended with a gourmet five-course dinner. Lunch was served, either as a picnic on an out-island, or, if the ship was at sea, in the Marco Polo dining room. A not-to-be-forgotten meal was an elaborate barbeque lunch served on the World Discoverer sun deck while the ship was anchored in the aqua blue waters of the Bora Bora lagoon. With crystalline waters surrounding us, the stone-faced Mt Otemanu in the background and mouth-watering food on the table, life couldn’t have been better.
Just as on a large ship, each day featured island stops, but with one important difference: The cost of the tours was pre-paid in the cruise fare. Each tour was designed to help passengers understand the people, their culture and the natural resources of the island.
Upon arriving in Papeete, Tahiti’s capitol city – a bustling, traffic-snarled town by any standards – we were whisked away to the Beachcomber Parkroyal Resort. Less than 10 miles down the coast from the noise and pollution of Papeete, the Beachcomber is a travel poster setting of palm trees, white-sand beaches, a blue lagoon, thatched-roof restaurants and a swim-up bar. For four days, we soaked it in. In fact, the most difficult part of the journey was not getting home to the real world of unpacking and heading back to work, but tearing ourselves away from the Parkroyal. Ceremoniously, we took a `last swim,’ imbibed in one last drink (served up on a hollowed-out coconut), then climbed aboard the bus for the trip to FAAA Airport and home.
How was this trip different from being on a big ship?
The answer is found, perhaps, not so much in the modest ship but in its passengers. Those who choose small ships seem less concerned with the glamour of the big ships and more attracted to the intimacy of a smaller vessel, as well as to the intellectual benefits of a "discovery" voyage. On board the World Discoverer was a world-class staff of experts in marine biology, botany, archaeology, ornithology, ecology, marine ecology and geology.
Before embarking on the trip, passengers received a 70-plus page book detailing the history, geology and natural history of the region, along with island profiles. As the trip progressed, passengers enjoyed previews of each day’s events and, during evening talks, reviews of what they had seen. In no way, for example, could a passenger emerge from this voyage without understanding the evolution of islands, from volcanic origins to coral atolls. Nor, could one leave the cruise without an appreciation for the lifestyle of the islanders, themselves.
In a nutshell, on this cruise, more passengers used the card room, which doubled as a well-stocked library, for research rather than for playing cards. On-board lectures took the place of lavish entertainment. And, the shop keeper, who presided over the ship’s tiny boutique, also doubled as the hairdresser and drove one of the zodiacs! It was a small and close-knit ‘family.’
The World Discoverer also boasts one urgent difference over the big ships: Not, in our experience of seven cruises, have we encountered such a thorough safety demonstration as on this ship. We were briefed for every possible event, including a "man overboard," situation, with the experienced seaman apologizing for what seemed to be sexism, but explaining that in the language of the sea, no phrase existed for "woman overboard!" The half hour presentation began at our muster station and concluded with a well-orchestrated explanation near what would be our lifeboat. The World Discoverer earns special kudos for its pre-occupation with safety!
This lush island, part of the Cook’s southern group, was discovered by the Rev. John Williams of the London Missionary Society. Judging from the number of churches on Raratonga and elsewhere in the Cooks, Williams may well be credited with one of the most successful conversions in history. Though the guidebooks say that 60 percent of the people belong to the Cook Islands Christian Church, one resident-in-the-know volunteered that "There isn’t an atheist or an agnostic in the place." That’s probably because ,in addition to the CICC, are Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. Even Bahai Faith is here. But, one other god also rules: Tangaroa, the god of fertility whose well-endowed carved wooden figure appears here, there and everywhere, including a huge statue in front of one of the island’s emerging businesses, the Perfume Factory in Avarua, where travelers can find a nice selection of island-flavored perfumes, soaps and liquors.
One good way to see the island is to get out and walk, which we did with Pa Teauraa, who operates Pa’s Cross-Island treks. . .a grueling four-mile hike in a north-south direction across the peaks running through the center of Raratonga. The hike, is strenuous. It’s either for the fit or the foolish, but it is a great way to see the interior of Raratonga with its jungle of wild hibiscus, king ferns, poisonous Ora pa pau plants and dozens of other rainforest species.
My brother-in-law and his wife, Terry and Barbara Hartman, who were traveling with us, saw the island in a decidedly more sane way: They rented motor scooters, which provided a day of touring at their own pace. That evening, my husband and I hitched a scooter ride with Terry and Barbara in the drivers’ seats, and in the light of a full moon, we zipped off to "The Flame Tree" restaurant – one of the world’s "to-die-for" dining experiences.
A word of caution, however. When eating out in the Cooks or anywhere else in the South Pacific, be wary of "island time." Snack before you go, then order a nice bottle of wine and plan to sip it slowly...very slowly. The Harvard-educated manager of the Raratonga Resort Hotel, who runs a first-class operation, confided to my husband and I that his most difficult problem is finding and retaining good help, especially in the restaurant. The waitresses are sweet and accommodating, but they aren’t slaves to a clock. In fact, in the Cooks and elsewhere, the only clocks we ever saw were atop church steeples, and every one of those told a different time. But, what to heck -- each was right twice a day. And, hadn’t we come to the islands to forget about sch edules and clocks?
Atutaki, 155 miles north of Raratonga, is one of the outer islands of the southern Cook Group. It is a popular day trip from Raratonga, with flights landing on an airstrip built by the United States during World War II. We, however, cruised there overnight on the World Discoverer.
Dubbed the Bora Bora of the Cook Islands because of its large triangular lagoon, Atutaki takes visitors back to the old ways in the South Pacific. It also provides perfect snorkeling, birdwatching and a splendid sandbar jutting away from an uninhabited island in the middle of the lagoon. If ever anyone wanted to get away from it all, here’s where to do it. Surrounded by the huge lagoon, with endless ocean beyond, one is about as far away as one can get and still be on the planet.
Atutaki provided two once-in-a-lifetime highlights: A picnic feast composed of yummy island salads and grilled fish on One-Foot Island, a motu, (or out-island) that is part of the coral reef enclosing the lagoon; and an investiture ceremony, installing the island’s new mayor or chief. This once-every-10-years (or so) event, coincided with the World Discover’s arrival, and the islanders shared the rites with the travelers at a marae, a historical religious site deep within Autitaki’s jungle. After 30 minutes of ritual music and dancing on the forest floor, the handsome young chief , who had been waiting in the trees, was hoisted by his fellow islanders onto a palate and was carried before the audience. The whole experience felt as if we were part of one of the old "Can you top this?" TV episodes.
Before arriving on Atiu, we heard a half dozen pronunciations for the island, including "Achew," as in a big sneeze. Finally we did what the islanders did and pronounced it "Ahh-tu."
We could travel to the ends of the earth and never find a warmer welcome than we received on tiny Atiu, population about 900. The wild ride through high seas on the zodiac from the ship, through a perilously narrow opening in a concrete harbor wall was quickly forgotten by the beauty of the islander’s words, smiles and gestures. "You will be greeted with native dancing and a buffet of island fruits" we were advised, while still on board ship. But nothing could have prepared us for what lay ahead-- the heartfelt prayer and words of welcome from the village elders, the dancing and, indeed, the elegant fruit buffet.
"Thank you Lord for bringing these visitors to our land from overseas. Thank you for the good weather. We pray these visitors will have a good time on our small island," intoned the pastor. Then the welcome: "It is an honor and a privilege to have you on our small island, a place that is not even on the world map. Welcome. Welcome. Welcome."
At every turn of our voyage, we had received a lei – even when disembarking the plane at the airport in Tahiti at 4 a.m.! But on Atiu, the leis were extra special -- many more petals and more fragrant. Three island women lined up to place the long circles of frangipani flowers over our necks and to plant a kiss on our cheeks. I had to know: How many flowers and how much time to make those leis -- 138 in all ?
" Flowers -- about 220 and 20 minutes to make each," volunteered one the matriarchs as she also presided over the lavish fruit buffet – mangos, papaya, oranges, bananas, coconuts at every stage, dried sugar cane (yum!), watermelon, and the sweetest pineapple on earth – all artfully arranged as if the islanders were cum laude graduates from a Bon Appetite cooking school.
"Ten to 15 cars will be waiting at the dock for your drive around the island," the tour director had told us the evening before. My husband glanced around. No cars. Just flatbed trucks with benches. We hopped aboard.
With virtually no traffic on the island, about the only ‘danger’ were low-growing branches, and we quickly learned to duck for those. The narrow coral-based road formed a smooth roadbed; so did the side road – two tracks leading into the jungle and to a coffee plantation.
Atiu is proud of its small coffee industry. Along with coffee, the people on Atiu export some pineapple, oranges and taro to New Zealand. A visit to a women’s cooperative, which featured a variety of soft goods for sale; a stop in one of Atiu’s tiny villages; another stop to view Captain James Cook’s landing spot in 1777; and our day on this special island was committed to indelible memory.
If you’ve ever wanted to visit an uninhabited tropical island, this is your chance. A few years ago, Mopelia, barely a mile in diameter, boasted a population of a hundred or so souls, who spent their days harvesting seed oysters that were sent to pearl farms to grow the famous South Seas black pearls. Then, cyclones struck and the population fled for its life. It hasn’t returned.
In April and November, 1997, the area was devastated by cyclones also forcing the island’s seabirds -– a mixed colony of about 100,000 pairs -- to move a mile or so down the beach. Their original nesting area was reduced to the denuded trunks of exactly two palm trees and an island full of vegetative rubble. Cyclone rubble in the new area furnishes hiding places for nests, although some of the birds, namely blue-footed boobies, often lay eggs out in the open. In fact, Kay Kepler, the field ecologist who accompanied us on a bird-watching outing of Mopelia, cautioned us to be careful where we walked, lest we step on an egg. Proceeding gingerly, soon enough we came upon an unattended egg sitting almost ground level on a tiny ‘ledge,’ of branches covered with leaves. A few feet further came the prize: A papa boobey taking his turn on the family nest. As for mama, at least for the moment, she’d flown the coop -- er, the nest!.
Ah! Bora Bora! Island of legendary beauty, dubbed by author, James Michener, the most beautiful on earth. All week, we had been coping with the El Nino syndrome – big threatening rain clouds that sometimes delivered both rain and somewhat choppy seas.
"Lord, if you can arrange it, please bring sunshine when we visit Bora Bora."
The sun came out, casting rays on Mt Otemanu is it rose above the island’s main village of Vaitape. It also lit up the Bora Bora lagoon, which among the islands we visited, also is the lagoon with the most visible "pass" – an opening in the coral reef through which ships can enter. Thanks to this pass, the World Discover could penetrate the lagoon and anchor near the island. For other stops, the ship stayed at sea.
We arrived on Bora Bora on Sunday, timing that precluded much shopping and that completely nixed a visit to the legendary Bloody Mary’s bar, an elegant South Seas outpost with a thatched roof and white sand floors. But, if the secular was out, the sacred was in, and it was worth the sacrifice to stop at one of Bora Bora’s churches for a peak into the sanctuary, where we watched fervent god-fearing adults deliver Sunday School lessons to giddy children.
"Don’t go into the church," our guide cautioned. "You will distract the kids."
Well, she didn’t say, "don’t peak into the church. Like kids in Sunday School everywhere, the youngsters on Bora Bora were only too happy to be distracted. Giggly little brown faces, punctuated with big brown eyes, greeted our flashing cameras. Oh, for more than just a peak!
The afternoon offered a chance for snorkeling, swimming, wandering through Vaitape, cruising over the lagoon in a glass-bottomed boat or lazing around on the beach. Michener was right: Bora Bora has it all!
Tahiti and Moorea
"Tahiti" often is a catch-all term for islands of the South Pacific. We dream of going to "Tahiti."
Arriving in Tahiti, means arriving in its traffic-choked capitol, Papeete, which resembles a lot of cities with too many cars and too much noise and pollution.
"Tahiti’s not much," visitors will say, after that introduction.
Don’t believe it. Even Papeete boasts a splendid crafts market – a huge edifice a couple of blocks back from the water front, where natives ply their wares – woven baskets, purses and hats, as well is island clothing and all manner of shell-made items. The market is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.
Then, board "Le Truk," Tahiti’s answer to mass transit, and head out. Le Truks are privately owned "buses" – wooden enclosures built onto truckbeds and equipped with wooden benches on either side and sometimes down the middle. OSHA wouldn’t put up with them, but Le Truks ply the island and stop anywhere to let people on or off.
Our stay on Tahiti was the stuff of dreams. Part of our cruise-tour package was a three-day, four-night stay at the Beachcomber Park Royal. Here is the South Pacific people want when they think "Tahiti." The Beachcomber sits on 30 acres of manicured lawns groomed with palm trees and flowers – dinner plate-sized hibiscus, jasmine, frangipani, bougainvillea and a host of glorious trees and shrubs.
Tucked amongst this botanical garden are the thatched-roof bungalows that house the restaurants and bars. Those who are out to splurge can take up residence in an over-water bungalow. For our part, we luxuriated in a water-front hotel room overlooking the island of Moorea, an hour’s ferry ride away.
The Beachcomber has a mesmerizing effect. You just want to stay there. Sightseeing seems to take second place. We did see some of Tahiti’s sights, but always with an eye on getting back to the Beachcomber.
Aside from the crafts’ market which is well worth a visit, additional Tahiti outings would include a visit to the Museum of Tahiti, west of Papeete as well as a stop at the Lagoonarium, where you can look eye-to-eye with a reef shark and watch the noontime feeding frenzy – fish eating fish. A caretaker drops chunks of raw fish into the lagoon and the chase is on. Big fish gorge first; the tiny guys get the leftovers.
Other members of our group raved about Safari outings into Tahiti’s interior, where waterfalls plunge hundreds of feet into tropical pools and fragrant jungle replaces white sand beaches. Dinner at the hilltop "Belvedere" restaurant also was declared a must. Ahhh. . .so much to do and so little time.
But, resist the Beachcomber’s temptations at least once and take time for a trip to Moorea. This was our "swansong" – our last outing before boarding Air New Zealand for the flight home. It’s a trip to remember. Many fly there – it’s seven minutes from FAAA airport, but if you can spare an hour, take the ferry and be part of the color of inter-island travel.
You can do Moorea on a guided tour or you can rent a car or a motor scooter. But plan to do something when you get there because there’s nothing to do at the ferry slip on Moorea. We rented a scooter. Again, with our traveling relatives in the drivers’ seats, off we went to explore the island. In four hours, we took in the Sofitel Moorea (another Beachcomber-type resort), circled Captain Cook’s Bay, chugged on our scooters to Moorea’s Belvedere high point – and looked over it all, including turquoise blue water that redefined the meaning of turquoise.
And, now we are home, but it’s not quite the same. Oh, home is wonderful. We wouldn’t trade it for anything. . .honestly. But, we’ve been to Paradise and we know it’s there.
A telephone call to Friendly Cruises and you can go to Paradise, too. Those travelers who want it all – a small ship, education, adventure, deserted islands, friendly people and picture-postcard Polynesian resorts – will want to consider a voyage on Society Expedition’s "World Discoverer."
Although at least three other cruise ships ply the waters of the Society Islands, the World Discoverer is the only ship – unless you are fortunate enough to own a yacht – that can take you throughout the South Pacific. If you want your South Sea Islands "fix," this is how you get it.
** The World Discoverer also travels to Antarctic and the Arctic, with 1999 voyages around the "Ring of Fire," from Japan, the Russian Far East and to Alaska. South Pacific trips will include an itinerary similar to that of 1998, along with one excursion that will take travelers into New Guinea.