Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea – the very names are enough to conjure an image of South Seas romance. This is the home of swaying palms, powdery white beaches and turquoise lagoons, where dramatic volcanic islands rise cloaked in rain forest out of the Pacific Ocean and coral atolls float serenely on its surface.
Getting there, though, is terrible – 23 hours from the UK if you’re lucky – because this is just about the most remote region on the planet. But after that, as they used to say, things can only get better. They do.
You are met in Bora Bora, a short flight from Tahiti, by the hotel manager of the ship and Gilles, the butler, who proffers a glass of champagne on the beach while your luggage is taken on board. At this point, you begin to realise this is no ordinary cruise. This is seriously five-star yachting.
It also happens to take place in paradise. These islands are like Gauguin paintings come to life. There are flowers everywhere, lush vegetation and the people are simply beautiful.
The lagoons move through every nuance of colour, from opalescent blue to turquoise to deepest emerald. Beyond, the Pacific is the darkest blue of all until it crashes white and foaming against the reef.
Unlike many islands in the Pacific, French Polynesia was made for small-scale cruising. The lagoons are huge, with wide passages through the reefs, and offer deep protected waters once inside.
And it seems right to see the islands from the water, not only because it’s the best way to appreciate their spectacular beauty, but because they are home to perhaps the greatest sailors the world has ever known – from Cook and Bligh to, centuries earlier, the ancestors of the Polynesians who came from South-east Asia in huge double-hulled canoes, or vakas.
It is only, though, in a vaka or a super yacht – not a conventional cruise ship – that you could navigate your way through these reefs. And the Ti’a Moana, one of Bora Bora Cruises’ two identical ships, is as super as they come.
For a start, it defines the South Seas version of intimate, casual luxury. There are no tannoy announcements, and meals, activities and excursions are all strictly a la carte. And then there is Walter, who, despite his name is Polynesian, and who comes along each evening to have a chat about what you might like to do next day.
Unpacking and laundry are done for you as a matter of course. You can have a massage on the beach or an ‘amuse bouche’ for elevenses of lagoon-fresh tuna sashimi. The crew wear pareos (Tahitian sarongs) and bare feet, except for the captain, who is in shorts. “Hi,” he says as I step on board from the launch. “I’m Mattieu, the captain.”
Soon after this greeting, we’re off across one of the most beautiful seascapes in the world, eating lunch as only the French can produce it with perfectly al dente vegetables, tender mahi-mahi and delicious wines.
During that first lunch, a waiter rushes up to point out a turtle swimming across the lagoon, its small brown head like a periscope above the water. The next morning, there is a school of dolphins leaping joyously out of the waves.
The first afternoon, we make our way around Bora Bora’s shimmering lagoon past beautiful resorts, many with thatched fares (Tahitian houses) built on stilts over the translucent water, miniscule against the wild, green beauty of the island and the old volcanoes and dramatic outcrops of rocks behind them. On the other side of the lagoon, tiny motus (islets) with coral beaches and swaying palms beckon.
We’re heading for Tevairoa Motu, where we will spend the afternoon snorkelling, swimming, kayaking and lazing around on the beach until it’s time for afternoon tea and, when darkness falls, a showing of “Tabu”, filmed in Bora Bora in 1928 and watched under the palm trees and a shimmering canopy of stars.
The next morning we awake to a new lagoon shared by two islands, Taha’a and Raiatea. Taha’a is shaped like a hibiscus flower and, later, I’ll take a leisurely stroll through one of its villages, past coconut groves and tiny beaches to be back in time for a guided snorkel through a stunning coral garden.
Later still, we cruise the lagoon around Taha’a past a necklace of perfect coral motus until we see the sun set against the breathtaking background of Bora Bora.
Being in the tropics, most of the time on board is spent on deck. The top sun deck is a huge open area with a bar at the centre, a Jacuzzi and big day beds scattered with cushions and even rugs in the unlikely event you may ever feel chilly.
Candles in glass lanterns light up at dusk and an outside cinema can be rigged up in the evening. Meals are served either outside (under a canvas canopy for shade in the day) or in the gleaming restaurant, with its huge windows and splashes of lagoon blues and turquoises against the soft warm wood colours of the furniture.
The food is sensational, with such creations as scallops carpaccio, papaya and sweet potato soup, roasted venison, and, of course, wonderful fish straight out of the sea.
The cabins are just as good. Every moment you are not in your room, it is tidied and cleaned, with fresh hibiscus flowers and vanilla pods left to scent the room. At night, a candle (actually cunningly run on batteries) gives your cabin a flickering romance. They had even placed my book on my bed, open at the page I’d left off reading.
The whole ship features wonderful artwork dedicated to the beauty of Polynesia – whether swaying dancers or swimming turtles – in charcoal, sculpture and photography.
The next morning, we are in Huahine, another forgotten paradise of natural beauty. But one, we learn, that comes at a price. On Hana Iti beach – where we will spend a relaxed day – there is little sign of the 1995 hurricane that destroyed completely what was arguably French Polynesia’s most luxurious resort.
Where once unique villas were built into the volcanic rock face or the boughs of trees and a restaurant seemed to float on a manmade lagoon covered in blue water-lilies, now there is just a beautiful private beach where we swim and snorkel by day and, at night, have dinner under the stars, while a group of local women cast a spell with the traditional songs of the island.
The next two days are spent around Raiatea, an island of enormous significancein Polynesian culture. It is traditionally the place from which all Polynesians came – and purportedly Captain Cook’s favourite island.
The Marae Taputaputea is one of the biggest and most important sacred sites in the whole region with a huge “ahu” platform for religious ceremonies – the place where humans met the divine. It was also where justice was administered and genealogies recited and today, it is said, it retains its psychic power.
So, if there’s something you want to be rid of, write it down, take it to the marae and burn the paper – preferably under a full moon – and it will dog you no more.
Polynesian culture is, thankfully, still going strong and nowhere more so than in the sensual dance of the South Pacific, with its fierce warriors, grass skirts, swaying hips and hypnotic drums.
On our final night, we sit in a fare on Raiatea harbour and enjoy the magic of the ote’a, the traditional dance of Tahiti that was at least partly responsible for the Mutiny on the Bounty. Those sailors knew they’d found paradise.
And today? The luminous beauty of Polynesia is casting the same voluptuous spell.
BOAT BUTLER SERVICE
If you don’t feel you are getting enough luxury, you can use the boat butler service.
Gilles will provide you with a private beach for any meal of the day and set up a table with flowers and silver, a chef to cook for you on the beach and, for dinner, singers, a fire and then privacy and a mosquito-netted mattress!
And it’s not just the beach. The tender is used for a sunset or moonlight escape, complete with candles and champagne and towels if you fancy a dip. Or how about a chocolate fondue in the Jacuzzi?