Me and 5 of my friends went sailing/scuba diving/exploring in french polynesia.
Just returned from an amazing charter with the Moorings out of Raiatea in French Polynesia. A little too overwhelmed at the moment to write a full trip report, but here are some observations…
Tahiti and French Polynesia is spectacular! The islands are very lush and the mountains huge in comparison to the Caribbean (Tahiti Nui has mountains 7,000ft+). The lagoons, particularly on Bora Bora and Huahine, are the most remarkable shades of blue you can imagine. It is really like floating in thin air. I have some pictures that will give you an idea, but they can’t do it justice.
Arrived in Tahiti from Sydney, Australia a few days before the rest of my crew who flew in from NYC. It is definitly worth spending a couple days on Tahiti and exploring Papeete and the surrounding area a bit before your charter. The roulettes in Papeete are the best place to grab a quick dinner, local style. Try the local specialty, poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk or a number of other ways). Chinese food is also great and cheap throughout the islands (there is a large Chinese population). Also, fresh baguettes are available wherever you go.
In Tahiti, get on one of the safaris to the interior of the island. Fantastic views from high in the mountains, with waterfalls, rivers and swimming holes, etc. It is also worth taking the ferry over to Moorea if you have an extra day on Tahiti. Ferries run all the time. I think there are a couple of companies to choose from.
Moorings base in Raiatea is a first class operation. Raiatea is about an hour flight from Papeete, and compared to Tahiti it is very quiet and laid back. The islands of Raiatea and Tahaa share the same lagoon. They are in the middle of the charter cruising area in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. To the east is Huahine, and to the west is Bora Bora.
You can do some sailing within the lagoons when space allows, but at times narrow channels and shallow depths will force you to motor. In many cases you can pull right up to the barrier reef and anchor almost anywhere for the day. There is spectacular snorkeling along there barrier reef everywhere you go. You do need to watch your depth, the color of the water, and coral heads. Water depth can drop dramatically from 150+ft right down to just a few feet in just seconds. Good news though is that it is almost always easy to see the changes, and the major hazards, as well as the barrier and shore side reefs are well marked. Important to remember that it is red-LEFT-returning in FP.
On Tahaa, I recommend the dinner and Polynesian dancing show at Le Hibiscus. We picked up a mooring there on our first night and had a great time. It was pricy though. On Raiatea, don’t miss the Anaperls Pearl Farm. You can take tour and snorkel this pearl farm located in the middle of the lagoon, and the prices are very competitive. Also don’t miss a dinghy trip up to Faaroa river…very cool and exotic.
Within the lagoons on FP, you will have many short sails or motors similar to places like the BVI. However, traveling from Raiatea to either Bora Bora or Huahine will require longer sails (20 to 25 miles). Still, these are easily done in a day, and you can almost always see the islands, because of their height. It is important to familiarize yourself with the pass entrances through the barrier reefs, and use the alignment markers provided to properly line up the pass entrance. The location of the reefs in particular from outside the pass can be deceptive, and the pass entrances almost always have large waves and strong currents.
Bora Bora is an amazing island with unsurpassed natural beauty, but it is also the bussiest and most tourist of the Society Islands (busy and touristy in relative terms of course – no high rise hotels here). It is worth renting a car or taking a guided tour around Bora Bora. There are great hikes, including some WWII canons left by the US. Can recommend Bora Bora Yacht Club for a mooring ball close to the main town, Vaiatape. They have water and can arrange rental cars, etc. Bloody Marrys is another cool place for dinner and drinks, although we felt a little out of place being totally surrounded by honeymooning couples.
When you’re at Bora Bora, make sure to head over to the east side of the island and visit some of the motus (small islands along the barrier reef). The water here is the clearest we saw anywhere, and you are almost sure to see plenty of manta rays, sharks, dolphins, etc.
The island of Huahine is very sleepy compared to Bora Bora, but we really enjoyed that. There are almost no tourists there…just the occasional surfer hitting one of the famous breaks on the barrier reef. Walk through the small village, Fare, and visit the roulletes at night. Port Bayourne is a beautiful area surrounded by mountains on all sides.
What else…we chartered a Moorings 433. Great boat, although with the 5’7″ draft you do need to be careful in some areas, particularly on Bora Bora. I prefer the sailing characteristics of monohulls, but FP might be a good place for a cat if you’re into that. Moorings, as I mentioned, runs a great base here. It’s small so the service is very personal and attentive. It is a good idea to arrange at least some provisioning with the Moorings, because groceries and supplies can be hard to come by, and you will likely be starting your charter the morning you fly into Raiatea. Moorings also broadcasts an English language weather report each morning on VHF 68 around 8-8:30 (good to know even if you’re chartering with another company). Sailing conditions where very good during our charter. 15-20kt winds most of the time from the NW switching to a more typical E-SE later in the charter. Seas can be very big and choppy on between Raiatea and Bora Bora/Huahine, but inside the lagoons the water is almost always calm.
Temperature was perfect. It is winter in FP and it was a bit cooler and less humid than you would find in the Caribbean this time of year. Mid 80s during the day, cooling off a lot at night. Definitly bring a windbreaker or fleece for night during the winter. We had one day of rain, and a few brief tropical showers, but other than that a lot of beautiful sunny weather.
One thing about anchorages…many of the best anchorages are in much deeper water than you may be accustomed to. Think 50-90ft. The holding was very good though, and the water is so clear you may still be able to get a good look at your anchor. You can pick up a mooring ball at many private restaurants, tours, etc., and they are generally free so long as you buy a drink, eat dinner, etc.
Another recommendation…learn some French! We had one French speaking crew member and that was a real lifesaver in some of the smaller towns and villages. Don’t expect that everyone will speak a little English…many outside of the main tourist areas won’t. Almost everyone speaks some French, and of course the locals also speak Tahitian.
FP has a reputation for being very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. As I said, we ate a lot of meals at the roulettes, and these were our favorites anyways. You can get inexpensive and huge meals at the roullettes, as well as at smaller road-side shacks and local hangouts. Avoid the hotel restaurants if you want to save some money. It is worth going once or twice for the shows though. You can find small grocery stores to provision throughout the trip, but you may be unfamiliar with some of the products. You can always find fresh baguettes (good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner), as well as the many local tropical fruits and fresh fish. Flights to FP can be expensive, but Air Tahiti Nui does run specials all the time. Go to their website and sign up on their email list and they will email when they have something. To get to Raiatea, you will need to book connecting flights on the major domestic carrier in FP, Air Tahiti (different from Air Tahiti Nui). You can fly to Papeete, the capital, direct from New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Tokyo, and a couple other places. It is about a 13hr flight from NYC and an 8hr flight from LAX.
SCUBA diving….awesome! We did a couple dives on Raiatea, a couple on Bora Bora, and another night dive on Raiatea. You will almost always see sharks and lots of them…lemon, blacktip, whitetip, maybe others. Mantas are common too, and huge schools of all sorts of fish. Diving is fairly easy – generally in the 60-100ft range. Some of the best dives are in the passes, and there can be a lot of current there.
We also saw plenty of dolphins all over the place, and humpback whales breaching outside of Huahine!
In conclusion…FP is a absolutely amazing and beautiful place. I could say a lot more about it and I know I left a lot out…if you have questions definitly let me know. Also, check out my pictures from the trip here:
Pictures and videos from myself and other crew members will be online shortly at our new website: www.sailearth.com, so check that out in the next few days.