Monday, February 8, 2016

February 7th – Reaching Civilisation in Tauranga

After leaving Bora Bora, we first failed to get into the Cook Islands (down to the heavy swell), we next lost a day from our lives (not from a hangover, but from crossing the International Date Line), and we then had 5 days at sea before we got to Tauranga in New Zealand. It was safe to say that we were all looking forward to stepping foot on dry land.

And, Tauranga did not disappoint. The scenery was superb, the weather was perfect, and the New Zealanders were typically friendly (especially as this was the Waitangi Day Holiday Weekend). Actually, the locals that we met were particularly friendly, because we were meeting up with our Kiwi friends from old London days, Stu and Carmen, who drove up from Taupo with their lovely children.

Where we docked, Mount Maunganui, is probably New Zealand's premier beach resort, with a calm bay on one side, and a beautiful surf beach on the other side, its white sands busy with volleyball competitions and surf schools. With chilled out bars and restaurants all around, and all scenery dominated by the extinct volcanic cone of the eponymous Mount, this was about as laid back and idyllic a location to visit as possible.

Much to the children's chagrin, we went on a forced march up the Mount, although as we climbed the steep paths lined with lush greenery, it was the younger generation who were faring much better than the adults. As we puffed and panted our way up the Mount, the only thing keeping us going were the fabulous views all around us – the Bay of Plenty sparkling in the sun, those gorgeous beaches, and the ship looking splendid next to it all.

We had a great lunch of catching up and reminiscing, and seeing as the beers were going down quite well, it was decided that we needed to visit a local winery, the Mills Reef Winery, to taste some of the wines from Hawkes Bay. The winery was in another idyllic location, and the chardonnays in particular tasted pretty good.

There's something always re-assuring about arriving in New Zealand after a journey across the Pacific. Firstly, you're not beholden to the weather or the state of the seas as to whether you'll get in or not. Secondly, whilst there's always an exotic edge to the sights we see, the country also feels familiar and safe – a bit like coming home on the other side of the world.

If our next two stops in New Zealand prove to be as good as our time in Tauranga, we're going to have a fabulous time!

Monday, February 1, 2016

January 31st – Exploring Bora Bora’s Blue Lagoon

Bora Bora may be hideously expensive and slightly overhyped, but when you see sights like we did today, you get to appreciate why prices here are just so sky high here. Even though it was cloudy, the incredible colours of the lagoon (not just blue, but turquoise, jade and all shades in between) combined with the stunning green mountains of the island to provide some million dollar views.

I joined a snorkelling tour that took us out to the coral gardens to see a kaleidoscopic array of fish, only hyperventilating once when an enormous razor-toothed barracuda crept into view – I don't know who was more alarmed, me or the tropical fish it wanted to eat. 

They then took us to a shallow area of the lagoon that's frequented by large numbers of sting rays and black-tipped sharks. I've swam with them a few times before, so I tried my best to look as nonchalant as I could, while a few of my fellow snorkelers almost freaked out at their first view of a dead-eyed shark, or when a rubbery ray rubbed up against them. Inside, I was suppressing my screams, as I didn't want to repeat my expletive-ridden shouts from my encounters with the tunas last year in Australia. Swimming with these harmless sharks is a bit like going on a rollercoaster ride – you absolutely know that there's no real danger in it, but it's still a thrilling experience. 

So, to let our adrenaline levels ease down, we were taken to a remote motu (desert island) on the outside of the reef to have a tasty barbeque lunch, sitting out on benches in the shallow water, and to go for a swim in the warm lagoon. Sitting out here in this tranquil location, with only the views and the lagoon to occupy us, you can't help but think that a place like this doesn't really need flashy all those 5-star resorts and luxurious over-water bungalows – the natural beauty speaks for itself.

If you keep it simple in Bora Bora, there can't be many more beautiful places on this planet.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

January 30th – Paradise Lost in Papeete?

As we sailed towards Tahiti's capital, Papeete, last night, we were treated to a wonderful performance of singing and dancing by a local Tahitian group. Looking at those beautiful women doing their sensuous dancing, you could see just why Fletcher Christian and his fellow Mutineers didn't want to leave paradise to return to rainy old England.

It makes you wonder what decision Christian would have come to yesterday, if he'd (like us) walked into the sweaty concrete jungle that is modern Papeete, just as the heavens opened. With its traffic and its collection of rather unattractive scruffy modern buildings, Papeete is a long way from being the tropical paradise that most people imagine.

As the rain started, we headed to the town's best feature, its colourful market, where the goods were exotic and the people friendly. However, the prices were so high, that it makes you wonder how the ordinary Tahitian can afford to survive. With the rain really hammering down, we decided to cut our losses and return to the ship.

After lunch, there was a break in the clouds, so we ventured out for a hike along the coast. Unfortunately, Papeete sprawls a lot further back than it initially seemed, so mainly we were walking along mainly scruffy residential roads – as ever, the people were overwhelmingly friendly, which is perhaps Papeete's greatest asset. We eventually reached a beach, but it was hardly the stuff of a Gaugin masterpiece – black volcanic sand, and lots of washed up rubbish.

This was all proof that to see the best of Tahiti, you really need to have some transport to get out of the city limits – if you want verdant landscapes of waterfalls and mountains, or stunning coastlines of swaying palms and blue lagoons, Tahiti can supply all this - you just need to get out of Papeete.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

January 29th – Le Tour de Moorea

In the past we've explored the beautiful island of Moorea, by bus, by jeep and by boat; so, today it was time to explore by a different form of transport – by bicycle. This lush tropical island is incredibly mountainous, so we were sensibly not planning to climb up any of those steep volcanic peaks – instead, we were going to stick to the coast road, which (from memory) was fairly flat. 

From the pier, we went to a local hotel to hire our bikes, and the extreme unfriendliness of the worker there almost made us give up on the idea. But, we weren't going to allow his jaded arrogance to spoil our view of this island, so we handed over $20 each for 4 hours of bike rental. We'd actually toyed with the idea of renting for 8 hours, but fortunately we worked out that 4 hours of cycling was more than enough for our unfit legs. 

The bikes weren't in bad shape, although they were those fixed gear ones, where you peddle backwards to break and there's only one gear – fine for the flat, but not good for hills (as we were to find out).

So, we merrily took the coast road around the incredibly scenic Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay, enjoying the odd cooling breeze to break up the very hot and humid conditions. Even though tourism has well and truly discovered Moorea, the island still had a fairly undeveloped feel to it, and most people seemed to be enjoying simple Polynesian lifestyles here. We passed small farms, white beaches, historic churches and sprawling villages, all backed by the incredibly blues of the lagoon behind them – as we huffed and puffed our way around, the views were breathtaking in every sense of the word.

The coast road is marked by "PK" markers (Pointe Kilometrique), that denoted our progress in kilometres. As we ticked off 15kms one way, our legs were already feeling heavy and we had become hot, sweaty messes, so it was time to head back. At this point, it seemed that the wind was always blowing against us, and that we were constantly going uphill (although we didn't remember many downhills on the way out). Finally, as we got back to Cook's Bay, it was a delight to see the ship, and a chance to rest our (by now) very weary legs. The cold beer at the end of the ride has never tasted better.

Cycling is a great way to explore Moorea – next time, we'll try to find a bike with gears!

Friday, January 29, 2016

January 28th – Reaching “Dry” Land in Fakarava

After a journey of 4,000 nautical miles and 11 consecutive days at sea (aside from our 10-minute lightning raid on Pitcairn), the sight of any land was going to look good, although our first view of a rainy Fakarava, was not the best. I wasn't really prepared for the mist and drizzle that greeted us as we passed into the atoll – the palm trees on this tropical paradise were meant to be swaying gently rather than bent over double in the gale, and the island's famous blue lagoon was looking decidedly grey. 

However, the need to feel solid ground under our feet outweighed the disappointment at the weather, so we gamely caught the tender in. As we stepped ashore, the rain stopped and we were greeted by girls handing out flowers and a local band playing evocative drum music –gradually, Fakarava was turning into the exotic island paradise that we'd been expecting.

The island is basically a long sand bar, less than a mile wide, so we just wandered lazily down its one road, looking into its couple of shops and greeting the friendly locals with a "bonjour" or too. As the rain picked up and got increasingly heavy, there was only one thing to do to stop getting wet – jump into the huge lagoon that's the feature of the island. 

So, we found a stretch of beach, got our snorkels out and paddled around the coral reef – visibility was good and we saw lots of colourful tropical fish. There might not be much to do on this remote island, but when you can just step into that fabulous lagoon at any point, life can't be too bad.

The weather steadily improved as the day went on and the skies brightened, although the incredibly moist atmosphere never lifted (how do clothes ever dry here?). It was a shame that those early rain showers had driven many of the passengers back onboard, because the island was really starting to unveil its natural beauty.

As we move on into more mainstream French Polynesia, the islands will get more developed and more touristy, so it was nice to start in somewhere as unspoilt and as simple as Fakarava. If the island can look as good as this with grey skies, imagine how stunning it is when the sun shines?