The Leeward Islands
The delight of rubbing shoulders with legend
How many idealised images of Polynesia have we carried in our luggage as we take off for Tahiti? The Legend of Paradise lost, the austral Eden, the bewitching Tahitian women… It has to be said that since our most innocent childhood, we’ve all had our fill of these idyllic clichés. The rebels from the Bounty and their mutiny, the popular French singer Jacques Brel and his Marquesas Islands, the paintings by Gauguin, as well as the nudes by the photographer Als Sylvain.
The imperative antechamber to the last great journey, the endless flight towards the Antipodes (reckon on a minimum of 22hrs before you can finally set foot on the island of Raiatea) is torture, a time suspended between impatience and doubt. An eagerness to dive headlong into one of the greatest fantasies in yachting. A fear of the setback of a disenchanting setting. Aren’t there things you’ve always dreamt of where it is better to save yourself from them for fear of losing them?
It’s too late for all that in any case! Without the slightest respite, the plane doors barely open, Polynesia draws us towards her tempting sweetness. We are greeted by a virtually triumphant musical welcome, dances, leis and the transparent warmth of the locals. Unanswerable mermaid songs!
We barely graze the industrious island of Tahiti, and its capital Papeete, despite their unquestionable tropical charms. We have no desire for a concentration of tourists and swarms of reps, and even less so the tarmac and traffic jams. We quickly head off towards the famous Leeward Islands, headed by Bora Bora. We hasten to join Chris Marie’s boat, a spacious Moorings 4600 charter, and cast off with the appetite of a horse.
Ahead of us, four gardens of Eden
Boasting eleven precious days to explore the archipelago, we focus our programme around four of the islands closest to our marina, to the detriment of Tupai and Maupiti. A lot further away, the latter would have called for us to keep up a steady pace, without stopovers. Ultimately, it comes down to the eternal question of choice, which is an integral part of every voyage.
Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine, Bora Bora, we roam around the four mountainous islands with similar silhouettes. The high massifs in the centre (Mount Tefatua stands at over a thousand metres!) feature steep slopes and limitless shades of green. Narrow living areas beside the sea are wedged in against the rock. A hallowed island par excellence, Raiatea is not only the largest of the four but also boasts the wildest interior and is the very centre of Polynesian culture. Mythology has it that the island was the first to emerge from the waters and it still features numerous religious relics or marae, whose spiritual power seems to have remained in people’s minds. With the exception of the charter companies, which have all laid their foundations close to the little airport, tourist activity is rare here.
Sharing the same lagoon, the agricultural Tahaa is the island of perfumes and cultures. Vanilla, copra, taro, bananas, mangoes, star apples, pineapples and lemons… The climate is favourable for such a land of plenty and it is generally worked extensively as a result. Along its shores, several pearl farms fertilise oysters to produce the black pearl of international renown.
Huahine, “woman island”, retains a timeless authenticity, which isn’t spoilt by the small family hotels and boarding houses. Life here still seems gentler than elsewhere, and the nonchalance is highly contagious. Its nickname stems from the shape of its landscape as you enter the Fare pass, which is said to portray a woman lying down, legs tucked up, in the birthing position.
Finally, Bora Bora, “the pearl of the Pacific”, is a concentration of picture postcard landscapes, despite the profusion of hotels on stilts. A Mecca of luxury tourism, the moorings here are strangely deserted and wild, to the great delight of our crew. The famed beauty of the landscape, behind which the setting sun blazes each evening, lives up to the legend. No issues with the backdrop then.
“Ia Or ana!” Ah, the famous Tahitian-style hello murmured gently at each of our encounters… The welcome is immutably warm and sincere, making us forget our status as fleeting visitors. Everywhere a totally relaxed village spirit reigns on such a human scale. Indeed it’s hard not to secretly envy the few Popa’a, these “White skins” who have dared – through sheer madness or wisdom? – to definitively set up home in these enchanting places.
The atmosphere that colours the Leeward Islands will be etched on the memories of voyagers with an indelible seal. There are the auditory reminiscences from when, early in the morning, the fun signs of a new day beneath the tropics are heralded by the anarchical crowing of the roosters, echoing about the land, with backing vocals provided by the grating, monotonous chant of the insects. There are olfactory reminiscences too in the heady perfumes of the leis hung in our saloon, which blend with the powerful aroma of the forest, tumbling down the black basalt sides of the massifs. Added to that, there are an infinite number of visual reminiscences too.
Like their islands, Polynesian waters do nothing to dent this blasted legend of austral paradise. Even the colours really go to town, from the emerald greens to the dazzling acid blues. Boats essentially navigate the waters inside the atolls, in the vast lagoons protected from the ocean swell. The deceit of the coral is perpetual as it lurks beneath the surface, making careful scrutiny of the seabed a must. So calm are these lagoons, that touching the bottom is an everyday occurrence and running aground pure and simple on a reef in a strong ocean swell, isn’t as rare as all that. We shudder even thinking about it…
Despite these hazards, the anchoring possibilities are only limited by our wishes and, of course, how good a pilot one is. Just a stone’s throw from a village or a deserted beach, at the foot of cliffs buried in dense vegetation, in deep water surrounded by clumps of pore coral, or in the lee of a motu or reef islet… We’re here on our own or, failing that, accompanied by two or three yachts a long way off! It’s absolute luxury, especially when some bold little common dolphins swim about our midst.
Aside from the sailing and the escapades on shore, diving takes up our days. Caught up by a real hunger, we linked together a series of underwater trips, ranging between simple pot luck or on the basis of precious advice. From our peregrinations, three spots emerge as unmissable. The Garden on Tahaa is honeycombed with corals in a shallow channel traversed by a strong current, where you can let yourself be carried along in a slaloming action. The Aquarium in Bora Bora features a clump of pore coral surrounded by an hysterical concentration of fish of incredible variety. Finally, and perhaps above all, the Tuiahora headland on Bora Bora contains a fault right inside the lagoon measuring twenty-thirty metres in depth, which plays host to a colony of manta rays. Lively but exceptional!
The bewitching charisma of the Polynesians
Sumptuous landscapes, wild or charming anchorages, aquatic flora and fauna teeming with life… all this is the stuff of the perfect cruise and you’re sure to take back loads of memories from it. However, the finest treasure of all on our trip will remain our encounters with the Polynesian people, so highly spoken of by the discoverers Wallis, Cook and Bougainville, who were the first to contribute to the legend. It was an encounter made possible by the welcoming nature and the openness of the islanders, by limitless numbers of details and juicy slices of daily life. The sweet beauty of the Tahitian womenfolk, their eternal, fresh, fragrant flowers slipped behind the ear or assembled into a necklace. Then there’s the art involved in preparing the fish, be it raw, half-cooked, with coconut or with taro. And there’s the way they greet each other so nonchalantly in the street, and the way they thank each other, so calmly, never hurried…
The spiritual dimension of Polynesian culture is just as meaningful and it is tinged with a great pride in belonging. Particular care goes into the survival of the mythology, notably through the preservation of numerous religious relics, with a thought to the marae.
We don’t literally believe in the founding legends, but at the same time, there is always someone who reports that he knows a person, who knows another person, who came across the ghosts of some warriors in the middle of the forest.
This spirituality is translated by folklore which is omnipresent through the dancing, singing, music and even the tattooing.
In this way a number of youngsters form part of the traditional dance groups and train hard all year round, several evenings a week, with the sole aim of participating in the grand Heiva i Tahiti festival in Papeete. Their relationship with water is just as amazing. Fantastic sea people, the Polynesians don’t seem to miss an opportunity to go and reacquaint themselves with the liquid element. Open boat fishing day and night, either offshore or in the lagoon, underwater hunting, surfing, trips with the family or romantic escapades, swimming and diving, sporting excursions aboard omnipresent canoes with an outrigger, the national sport… Even the fearsome tiger shark finds favour in their eyes; indeed it is an integral part of nature here as they believe it to be a reincarnation of a dead soul.
Surrounded by it on all sides, we are ourselves inevitably impregnated with this timeless spirituality, which is apt to be mystical. However, we don’t go so far as to tempt fate with the first big shark we come across or get a Maori head tattoo. Instead we readily adopt the nonchalance of the locals, and even, let’s admit, secretly dream of spending some very long holidays here. We do just enough so that, once back on home soil, our enthusiasm can but fuel the Polynesian legend !
Tourist information :
GIE Tahiti Tourisme 28, Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75005 Paris - France - Tel. : +33 155 42 64 34
Air France www.airfrance.fr
Yacht charter :
Fert Yachting 022 730 47 81