Beyond Gauguin’s Palette

Polynesia’s beauty delivers serenity bathed in infinite colors


Places that are hard to reach are often the best for relaxation, tranquility and getting close to local culture and nature. Except for Tahiti, most of the islands of French Polynesia are not easy to visit, but I can categorically state that the trip is worth the effort. You’ll fly into Tahiti and connect via Air Tahiti Nui to the island(s) you choose or take a ferry from one to the other. I recently visited five: Bora Bora, Ra’iatea and Mo’orea of the Society Islands, Tahiti, one of the Windwards, and 870 miles northeast of Tahiti lies Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas,. Though Mo’orea and Tahiti are in different archipelagos, each can be seen from the other, which makes Mo’orea a fast ferry ride away from Papeete, Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia.

While French, there is little evidence of Europe on these islands. French is spoken (along with native languages) but they do not use the euro as their currency. I had no problem spending dollars in the shops, and I saw others using euros.

Bora Bora was added to my bucket list long before such lists had a name. I can’t remember why, but likely my desire to go there was prompted by art, literature and perhaps a movie or two. I just know that from an early age, I wanted to visit Bora Bora. I thought it so exotic. Years of anticipation can often deliver disappointment, but this was definitively not the case with Bora Bora. What first struck me are the infinite blue shades of the waters and the lush green landscapes. The flowers and foliage, the birds, the sand and the brilliant colors of the locals’ attire and homes pop against the blue-greens of the land, sea and the sky. No picture, no painting nor movie footage could do it justice.

We took a powerboat cruise around the lagoon of Bora Bora while our captain steered the boat with his feet as he played his ukulele. The ukulele is ubiquitous in Polynesia, and many are so beautifully made. I found myself wishing I played to justify purchasing a treasure. Our boat paused over a shallow, sandy spot and as soon as the engine quieted, sting rays and white-tipped sharks approached and began to show off. Our captain jumped into the water and caressed a particularly friendly sting ray from which the barbed stinger had been removed. He had the stinger on the boat and let us see how lethal they can be.

Boat captain playing ukulele in the lagoon of Bora Bora

The town of Viatape is home to about half the island’s population of just over 10,000. Tourists come for the snorkeling, scuba diving and the notably luxurious accommodations on stilts above the crystal blue-green waters. The view of Bora Bora from the International Space Station offers a terrific perspective of how the island is shielded from the sea as it is surrounded by a coral reef with only one break creating the Teavanui Passage. Mid-sized cargo ships and small cruise ships can enter the lagoon, but the mega-ships are forbidden. The iconic peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu provide the backdrop for the picturesque lagoon. The landscapes are stunning, the water and its inhabitants are magnificent, and the people are as charming as we could hope. I loved everything about Bora Bora.

Bora Bora as seen from the International Space Station

I didn’t have a chance to explore much of Tahiti except for snorkeling one of its reefs. I have snorkeled on many fabulous reefs in the Atlantic but never in the Pacific. I saw fish I had never seen but many that were familiar. It was a wonderful experience, as was the catamaran trip out to the reef.

Papeete is a city, much like any other seaside city. Meh. But the vistas of the lush greens of the mountains-and-valleys backdrop was stunning. Had I had more time on Tahiti, I’m sure I would have found the charm and beauty that has been so widely extoled. I did enjoy the flower market and the fabric stores boasting the most incredible flowered prints I have ever seen.

The last island on our sojourn was Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands, 870 miles northeast of Tahiti. Of the five islands I visited on this trip, I saw the most of this one and it was fabulous. Tranquility, beauty, flora, fauna and breathtaking vistas were delivered. The people pretty much live off the fruits, literal and otherwise, of their island including one of my tropical favorites, breadfruit. Breadfruit chips are crispy, salty and delicious, much like a potato chip, but to me even better. It also makes a wonderful mash. If potatoes grew on trees, they would be breadfruit. Letting them ripen delivers a completely different experience. If you go to Polynesia, you will likely be introduced to breadfruit, one way or another.

We stopped at the top of a mountain to appreciate the view of the bay below and to my great delight there was a Marquesan imperial pigeon or Upe (Ducula galeata, if you’re into biological names) resting in a nearby giant fern. Formerly critically endangered, the species was upgraded to endangered in 2008. This regal bird is distinguished with an oddly shaped protrusion above its beak (a cere). I was thrilled that it lingered long enough for me to take its picture. This is no small bird with weights averaging about two pounds compared to our common pigeon at eight to thirteen ounces.

Down from the highlands as we explored the island on a Sunday, we stopped at a beach on a little bay where about forty people were picnicking and playing bocce ball while children rode their bikes and played tag. It reminded me of the small-town community gatherings we’ve all seen in old movies. The charming scene brought warmth to my heart and a smile to my face.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get back to the South Pacific, but I would love to think that I might. In my travels throughout the world, I have never ranked my stops, but this journey would be close to the very top if I were asked to order them. Because each place is unique, it’s impossible to pick a favorite, but the South Pacific islands of French Polynesia are beautiful, tranquil, isolated, and interesting. I could have stayed much, much longer. If I am ever again asked for a honeymoon-destination suggestion, I know I’ll say, “You can’t beat the South Pacific.”


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