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Cruising Tahiti In Ha'i Style

(August 2001)
(Updated September 23, 2002)

Collectively, Tahiti refers to French Polynesia's five archipelagos: the Society Islands, Marquesas, Gambier Islands, Tuamotus, and Australs. Its exotic beauty has inspired James Michener to write Bali Ha'i and Paul Gauguin to paint masterpieces. Today, these French Polynesian islands remain picture perfect with white-sand beaches, turquoise lagoons, and jagged mountain peaks. Our seven-day Renaissance cruise was a great way to sample some of the island's scenery (including that of Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, and Bora Bora) and to experience Polynesia's easygoing nature.

(Editor's note:  Unfortunately, Renaissance Cruises ceased operations in the wake of September 11.   However, P&O Princess Cruises has purchased the former Renaissance vessels R3 and R4 and will begin sailing a similar itinerary as below starting December 24, 2002.)


Hailed as the "island of love," Tahiti (the island), is the largest of the 115 Society Islands and is comprised of two extinct volcanoes. Past volcanic activity has yielded dramatic mountains, lush foliage, and exotic white-sand and black-volcanic beaches. Taking the road less traveled in a 4x4 truck, we explored Tahiti's hidden wild side full of secluded grottoes, shimmering waterfalls, and gushing streams.

When not exploring the Island's natural wonders, we were visiting Papeete, the French Polynesian capital. Here, visitors will see a lively and unique mix of French, Polynesian, and Chinese cultures. Stroll beneath banyan trees and browse through the sprawling Central Marketplace with stalls displaying exotic floral arrangements and tempting fruits like coconuts, papayas, and mangoes. The market is also a great place to purchase traditional Tahitian products such as baskets and hand-carved wooden tikis. After dark, the harbor area comes alive when the roulettes (rolling food trailers) come out seducing locals and visitors alike with its smells.

Ladies, go native and place a fragrant tiare flower behind your ear (behind the right ear if you're available, behind the left ear if you're taken, or behind both ears if you're undecided)—just be careful that you don't place it facing backwards because you could be offering an "invitation." Flowers in place, spend a lively evening watching traditional Polynesian dances. Women and men don grass skirts and colorful traditional costumes while their hips thrash to a wild tempo from drums, guitars, and vocals.

Other worthwhile sites to see in Tahiti are Paul Gauguin museum, Arahoho Blowhole, Pointe Venus, and Museum of Tahiti and the Islands.


Just 12 miles across the Sea of the Moon from Tahiti, is Moorea with its saw-toothed emerald vistas. Once the ring of an ancient volcano, the surrounding jagged volcanic spires reach into the clouds, while lush vegetation perfumed by gardenias blankets the slopes and valleys below. The island's most famous landmark is known locally as the "shark's tooth," but we recognize it as Bali Ha'i, made famous in the musical South Pacific.

This paradise is where you can truly haere maru, which means "take it easy" in Polynesian. Or, you can don a mask and head out for a fabulous day of snorkeling. We opted to spend a quiet afternoon on a motu (private atoll) to picnic, snorkel, and feed the stingrays. To reach the motu, we cruised along Moorea's scenic bays all the while being serenaded by Polynesian men strumming on guitars and ukuleles. After doing some snorkeling, we relaxed under the swaying palm trees, while being treated to a coconut palm climbing show as we feasted on traditional Polynesian fare and sipped hinanos (Tahitian beer).


Huahine is surrounded by a protective mountainous reef and is made up of two volcanic mountain ranges that have become their own islands: Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Small Huahine). At low tide, you can wade from one island to another. Sparsely populated, these islands have maintained an authentic Polynesian feel by shunning commercialization.

Our lovely guide Bernadette, whose Polynesian face and mannerisms could have appeared in a Gauguin canvas, extolled the virtues of Huahine's history. She explained that the island is most known for its vanilla plantations, fishing industry, and maraes (temples located in the small town of Maeva).

We took a private covered catamaran tour around the bay to snorkel and frolic on a motu again. Like a horizontal waterslide, we were dropped at one end of a motu and rode the currents through reefs and bommies (isolated patch reefs) teeming with fish in a rainbow of colors. It was the ultimate in escapism! Afterwards, we played Robinson Crusoe on a tiny motu while lounging and admiring the view.


Raiatea, meaning "clear sky" in Polynesian, shares a coral reef and a protected lagoon with her sister island, Tahaa. Legends say how the two islands were cut apart by a mythical eel. Once known as "Sacred Havai’i," Raiatea used to be the center of Tahitian royalty, religion, and culture. Today, its main attraction is the massive Taputaputea marae, the largest and most sacred site in Polynesia.

One of the nicest things about Raiatea and Tahaa is that they remain "undiscovered" by most visitors to French Polynesia. Beaches are scarce on both islands, but they contain the best motus and snorkeling of all the islands we visited. Our motu visit was festive with pareo wrapping demonstrations.

Docked in Uturoa, Raitea's main port, we joined a private catamaran canoe tour to visit a family-owned pearl farm. There we learned how Tahiti's most prized souvenir, the black pearl, comes to be. The pearl nucleus bead (made from the mother-of-pearl of a Mississippi River mussel shell) is artificially introduced into a shell before it is immersed in the sea again for eighteen months to three years. Not surprisingly, after the lecture, we were led to the farm's store (complete with credit card machine) to purchase pearls.

Bora Bora

Located 160 miles northwest of Tahiti, petite Bora Bora (only 20 miles in circumference) is everyone's idea of a South Pacific paradise. With its emerald-green hills and chameleon-like lagoons, it is easy to understand why.

The island's major community, Vaitape, is abundant with shops and boutiques. We capped off our stay with a delicious dinner at the infamous Bloody Marys, the island's "in" place to hang out. Topped by a thatched roof and founded on a fine white-sand floor, it was originally built by stagehands who worked on the 1977 movie, Hurricane. Each evening, the daily catch by the local anglers is displayed on ice. After an explanation of exactly what's available, the host places your order directly with the chef.

Jeep tours delve into the rugged interior to witness gorgeous views of the island, ancient temples, and WWII relics. I opted for the most spectacular way to see the island…overhead. My 15-minute helicopter ride did a broad sweep round the island, flying so low over the reefs that we were able to see the rays and sharks skimming through the water. At one point, the craft climbed up and over the velvety green peaks, providing incredible views.

We also took a guided wave runner tour around Bora Bora. There's nothing like scooting through crystalline waters in a wave runner. It is a great way to view the island up close and truly appreciate the beauty at every turn.

On the Cruise

While sailing around the islands, we discovered that French Polynesia not only has exquisite beauty, but also a seductive ambiance. Passengers on the cruise (myself included) got into the spirit of the islands by wearing fresh flower leis and headpieces, and by wrapping themselves in colorful native pareos (popular souvenir cloth wraps).

Our cruise ended in Papeete, where Renaissance arranges for guests to spend a leisurely afternoon at the lovely Sheraton Hotel Tahiti before boarding the eight-hour flight back to Los Angeles. Blissfully, we whiled away our last afternoon relaxing at the gorgeous pool, and enjoyed one final blood red Tahitian sunset—a colorful end to fond memories of Tahiti and her islands.

Related Links

Tahiti Tourism

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