Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 26th – If Paradise Was Half as Nice as Aitutaki

Right – forget all the superlatives that I've been using about all those other Polynesian Islands! We have 100%, definitively found Paradise here in Aitutaki, in the Cook Islands. This is an absolutely stunning island.

What makes this place paradise?

Could it be the most incredibly beautiful lagoon I've ever seen? So many colours that it took your breath away, while the inviting waters were as warm as a bath.

The atmosphere of the whole island is so laid-back – the friendly locals constantly shout "kia oranas" (hellos) to you as you pass.

What's on the land was beautiful too – its low hills covered in lush forests and grass land.

And to think that we almost didn't get in here to paradise. Ships have to anchor outside the lagoon, and the swells meant that the tender was bouncing around – so much, that the Captain very nearly cancelled our call, before thankfully the waves died down enough to let us in.

Only 2,000 people live on the island, so there's not much to see in the friendly little capital, Arutanga itself. So we hired a couple of bikes and did a full circuit around the island – we did about 20kms in total, but the roads were flat and fairly smooth, and most of the gears on our old bikes actually worked.

Every view we got along the way was wonderful, but for the very best views on the island we climbed the steep paths up to the top of the 124 metre high Mount Maungapu – where we were treated to some unbelievable 360 degree views across the whole island and its incredible lagoon. If we weren't already panting from the climb, our breath would have been taken away by the superb panorama.

We decided not to snorkel on the oceanside beaches, and instead headed to the stunning O'otu Beach looking across to the lagoonside islands, where we set up camp in an idyllic beach bar for a swim and lunch. It was another surreally beautiful setting of white sands, swaying palms, turquoise waters and scarcely another tourist in sight (apart from a few luxuriating cruise passengers).

Having found paradise, it was tempting to stow away here and never leave, but we got back on our bikes and continued our tour de Aitutaki, just getting back to Arutanga as the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down. I suppose this drenching was a reminder that there's no such thing as paradise. But, I think we got pretty close!

Monday, January 29, 2018

January 24th – Raiatea’s Untouristy Charms

There's a formula for French Polynesian tourism – blue lagoon, green mountains, white sand beaches, and ultra-luxury hotels. Raiatea has the first two covered, but without any beaches of note it has never attracted the luxury market. And that's Raiatea's charm – it's an uncomplicated, unsophisticated (in a good way), untouristy place that retains the atmosphere of French Polynesia as it used to be, before tourism arrived.

Plus the presence of away!), and he didn't believe in work, in having electricity, or possessing money.

Of course, a guide who tourism – he saw himself as a challenge to it.

And, as we toured around this absolutely beautiful island, it was hard to say why it's off the tourist agenda. There were lushly vegetated mountains, stunning views over the lagoon, and a laid-back pace of life that seemed to be rooted in a back-to-basics attitude from the friendly locals.

The main attraction was pretty spectacular too – the Marae Taputapuatea – a complex of about 6 different sacred Marae, temples which were the very centre of Polynesian beliefs for about 1,000 years before the missionaries arrived. The marae has been well restored and is in a stirring location by the sea – the great explorers (who supposedly colonised the rest of Polynesia from here) came here to be blessed before they passed through the sacred pass of the reef, and into the crashing waves of the Pacific.

What makes the site even more interesting is that this was the only marae that had an international dimension – chiefs from New Zealand and the Cook Islands would sail here (incredible feats of navigation in themselves) to get blessed. Even today, the marae is a site of pilgrimage; and even though it didn't have the same force of mystical power that I detected at the moai of Easter Island, you could feel that this was a place of enormous significance.

It was a roasting hot day, but after the tour had ended, at 5pm Tracy and I embarked on another Raiatea rite of passage – the climb up the 300 metre tall Mount Tapioi that sits behind the island's sleepy capital, Uturoa. It's a really pleasant grassy path that takes you up through the rural landscape up the side of this mountain, getting steadily steeper (and sweatier) as you approach the summit. But, after a fairly exhausting 40-minute climb, the breathtaking views from the summit made it all worth it, as you looked over the lagoon to Raiatea's twin island, Taha'a, and then across the ocean to the jagged outline of Bora Bora in the distance. It made for a truly spectacular sight.

Having feasted on the views, we then raced to get down before the sun set, reflecting that this must be a pretty good place to live. It's less crowded and less westernised than over-developed Tahiti. While it's not as visually stunning as Moorea or Bora Bora, it still looked pretty good, and it's certainly a lot more genuine in its atmosphere.

Raiatea's hotels may be hostels, the buses may be uncomfortable, the guides may be unconventional, but I hope that tourism doesn't discover Raiatea for a long time yet. I like French Polynesia "as it used to be".

Saturday, January 27, 2018

January 23rd – A Dreamy Day in Bora Bora

Today was one of those pinch yourself moments. Two weeks ago, I was in rainy old London, but now here I was, sailing through the beautiful waters of Bora Bora's stunning blue lagoon, listening to an evocative band of wonderful Polynesian singers, about to go swimming with wild sharks. Life can be surreal sometimes.

You can't get many better natural settings than this – to a soaring backdrop of jagged green mountains, the range of colours in the sparkling lagoon looked like they'd been photo-shopped for a magazine article rather than coming from nature. However, photos really can't do them justice.

We first went snorkelling over the coral garden, which seemed to be in quite good health – lots of purples and blues in the coral – while, there were lots of exotic tropical fish munching on the coral or flitting around in front of my mask. Then, the excitement levels went up as we approached the area of the lagoon where the sting rays and sharks normally hang out.

Some people moan that the experience is akin to a petting zoo, but these are wild animals in a totally natural environment. Admittedly, they know to come here because they're used to getting fed, and the sting rays have got quite used to being handled; but, believe me, when you're eye-to-eye with a dead-eyed shark that's been circling you for the last few minutes, the adrenalin begins to pump.

Our guide quickly spotted that my fellow escort, Simona, was petrified of the rays, so he delighted in grabbing them and thrusting their rubbery bodies, flapping and splashing, right onto her. To his massive amusement, she predictably screamed and grabbed hold of him like her life depended on it. If that part of things wasn't quite as nature intended, the whole experience was great.

To get over all that excitement, we sailed over to a private island where we had a barbeque picnic, cold beers, and tables in the warm shallow waters all set up for us. It was all so perfect that it didn't feel real.

Somehow, I have ended up in an alternative universe where the real world doesn't get a look in – everyone is happy, the views are unbelievable, even the sharks are friendly. I don't want to wake up!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

January 22nd – Paradise Regained in Tahiti

A lot of people are left disappointed by Tahiti. Inspired by the story of the Mutiny on the Bounty and the idyllic paintings of Gaugin, they come expecting this to be an unspoiled paradise.

However, the reality is that the capital, Papeete is a bit of a concrete jungle, and that the island suffers from all the traffic jams and litter problems of 21st century western life. That means that you really need to get out of the city to experience Tahiti at its best.

So, in the morning we did a tour that took us to the Tahiti Museum (which gave us a rather dry background of the island's geology, culture and history), then visited a black sand beach pounded by the crashing surf, then visited a lush garden, and finally called in at a dripping grotto near the coast. None of the sights were mind-blowing in their own right, but it was good to be reminded that this is a place that has natural beauty in spades.

But, if that was a gentle start to the day, our evening really was spectacular. We joined the first Silversea World Cruise Experience of 2018, that took us to the Marae Arahurahu for an evening of superb song and dance in a truly stirring setting. No expense had been spared in putting together a programme of mesmerising dance – dance that was incredibly high-energy, expertly choreographed and fluidly graceful at the same time. As night drew in, the fire dancing was amazing to behold – it had us on the edge of our seats in case they burnt themselves, but you were soon being entranced by the shapes of the twirling flaming batons being spun with tremendous skill and athleticism.

To a background of constant drums and music, and some lovely food too, it almost became sensory overload. I don't think that I've ever seen folkloric entertainment of this high quality.

This was cruising paradise!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

January 21st – Life’s a Beach in Moorea

When you wake up to the view that we did this morning – an impossibly picturesque array of prehistoric-looking jagged green mountains fronted by a gorgeous blue lagoon – then you know exactly why we sign up for the World Cruise each year. There can't be many more exotic sights than Moorea.

Our plan today was to hire bikes and do a long cycle around the island, but unfortunately that plan was scuppered because firstly we were coming into a different bay from last time, so the bike hire companies weren't right at the tender station, and secondly it was a Sunday, so the hire companies in this area were all shut.

However, the upside of it being a Sunday was that the traffic was light, so we decided to go on a hike along the road instead. We were heading for the nearest beach which was about 5kms away, which meant that once we had finally reached there, we were by now totally sweaty messes.

But what better way to cool down than to luxuriate in the inviting turquoise shallow waters of Moorea's stunning lagoon? People pay multiple thousands of dollars to get to lie out on these exclusive stretches of soft powdery sands, but all beaches in French Polynesia are public so we stretched out our towel under the shade of a swaying palm, and enjoyed those million dollar views for nothing.

The water was just below bath-like temperatures, and in the stretches of coral there were plenty of colourful fish – perfect conditions for snorkelling. Then, to get rid of the seawater taste, of course you have to cleanse your palette with a refreshing beer at the beachside bar (for once, at a reasonable price).

It made for a totally idyllic day enjoying the simple pleasures in life. If only our day hadn't ended with a long 5km walk back!