Say "Tahiti," and the word immediately conjures up precise images -- all of them unabashedly romantic. You might imagine brilliant sunsets over lush, green peaks; secluded bungalows, hovering over perfectly turquoise waters; and women in grass skirts, gyrating their hips to the plaintive strains of a ukulele.
For couples, French Polynesia is a great alternative to the more developed tropical destinations like Hawaii and the Caribbean. And, as romantic as the islands are, they are by no means off-limits to those looking for a girlfriends' getaway.
With that in mind, I booked a no-boys-allowed South Pacific cruise on Star Flyer -- a 10-night voyage to the Society Islands and Tuamotu Atoll. Between finishing graduate school and starting an overseas post-doctorate fellowship, my friend Tracy was in desperate need of some R&R. Not one to take her relaxation lying down, Tracy -- a true athlete -- was looking for water sports and active pursuits, and here, Star Flyer's sports program was a perfect match. The ship offers snorkeling, waterskiing, kayaking, windsurfing and sailing right from the ship and runs its own dive trips. Star Flyer's seven-island itinerary offered plenty of chances for lagoon-based activities -- after all, there aren't too many tourist attractions in these remote destinations.
As for me, I was looking for a change from the typical cruise ship with production shows, casinos, multiple restaurants and hundreds of passengers. Again, Star Flyer fit the bill -- it's a tall clipper ship with a focus on the sailing lifestyle, rather than onboard amenities -- two pools and two bars make up all the entertainment options. Without too many distractions, Tracy and I could focus on more important things -- like girl talk, lounging in the sun and searching for chocolate.
Even so, as our Air Tahiti Nui flight lifted off into the Los Angeles night, I couldn't help but feel a little apprehensive. Small ships (Star Flyer carries up to 150 guests) with deluxe pricing (fares for our 10-night cruise ranged from $2,885 to $5,975 per person) tend to attract older, well-heeled couples. I worried we might feel completely out of place on the ship. Would this be 10 days of awkward conversations, or would it be the much-needed getaway in beautiful surroundings we had imagined?
I decided to trust my instincts -- and Star Clippers' beautiful brochure shots of French Polynesia -- and, reassured, fell fast asleep.
Editor's Note: Star Flyer will sail the South Pacific through February 2010, when it will redeploy to the Mediterranean and Caribbean for the rest of the year. If you're looking for an alternative cruise line, Paul Gauguin offers luxury, small-ship cruises. (It's currently owned by Regent Seven Seas but will transfer to Paul Gauguin Cruises in 2010.) Aranui offers freighter cruises to the Marquesas Islands, Haumana Cruises runs Tuamotu trips on its 12-cabin catamaran, and Nomad Yachting Bora Bora cruises the Society Islands in 20-cabin yachts. You can also charter a boat with companies such as Moorings Signature Charters or Tahiti Yacht Charter.
Maeva: A Tahiti Welcome
Our arrival in Tahiti was everything I expected it to be. The air was humid, men in traditional dress played welcoming songs on their ukuleles (even at 5 a.m.), and my shuttle driver presented me with a floral lei. But -- could it be? -- it was raining. Our day-room at the Radisson Plaza Tahiti, organized by Star Clippers, supposedly had a lovely view of Moorea from the balcony, but we never saw it through the cloud cover. We took a brief dip in the pool and a quick walk on the black sand beach in between rain showers, but we mostly spent the day indoors -- napping, enjoying the sauna and eating a $25 tuna sandwich for lunch. (Did I mention that Tahiti is ridiculously expensive?)
In the late afternoon, a shuttle came to the hotel to take us to the ship. As we pulled up to the pier, I thought, "Is that the ship? It's so small!" I was about to spend 10 days with 150 passengers and 70 crewmembers…on a sailboat. (Actually, the ship is bigger than it looks -- but "spacious" is not the word I'd use to describe it.)
Embarkation was, surprisingly, a bit chaotic -- especially for those of us who flew in that day and were working on little sleep. When we got off the bus, no one officially welcomed us or told us where to go. People were milling about, and I had to find a crewmember and ask him what I should be doing. On the ship, officers and crew thrust things in our hands in quick succession -- another lei, a form to fill out, a refreshing towel, a drink. Given that we had our carry-on luggage with us, it was a bit of a juggling act. Bewildered, we looked around at the crowded deck -- should we partake in the array of snacks? Join the line into the library? Where do we put the used towels and empty glasses?
In the library, we handed over passports and forms in exchange for keys. The crew processing us were overly brusque and official, but gave us no instructions about the day's upcoming events. We were so overwhelmed by the whole process that we never realized the ship's staff had kept our passports, and we panicked the next day when we couldn't find them. (We learned later we weren't the only ones who freaked out.)
Our cabin was among the smallest I've ever sailed in, but it was well-designed and made the most out of the space. Extra storage was worked in everywhere -- behind the bathroom mirror, under the small banquette -- and we had more than enough room to stow our things. Decor was appropriately nautical, and the porthole, while small, did let in natural light.
The one thing missing in the room was a daily schedule to welcome us onboard and detail the events of the evening. Uncertain whether we could leave the ship to explore downtown Papeete (our departure wasn't scheduled until 10 p.m.), we unpacked and then decided to investigate the shore excursion options. I'm used to a shore excursions desk, but on Star Flyer, self-service signup sheets are left in the library. As we read through the tour options, we realized something was not right. The signup book for Raiatea, the island where we'd been most excited about the excursions, was missing. And, instead of one book for Moorea, there were two -- for different days, despite the fact that we were only scheduled to be on that island for one day.
As we expressed our confusion to the other passengers, a new picture of our upcoming trip started to emerge. Apparently, the itinerary had changed. One passenger had accidentally learned about this from the massage sign-up sheet where the ports and days were listed; another had heard something unofficially from one of the crew. Rumors were flying -- really rough weather last week was forcing us to change the itinerary, Raiatea is only on 11-night cruises, wind speed and direction were at fault. Yet, there had been no note in our cruise documents, which had arrived only a week before our cruise. Nor was there any information in our cabins to explain the change.
Thankfully, a meeting after the muster drill outlined the new schedule -- a day at sea, two days on different islands in the Tuamotu Atoll, another sea day, then visits to Huahine, Bora Bora (with an overnight) and Taha'a, followed by two days in Moorea (one in each of its two bays). And, when we returned to our cabin after dinner, a newsletter was waiting for us with details about the next day's activities.
Still, it was a disappointing beginning.
By that time, I was rapidly crashing from lack of sleep, yet I had vowed to stay awake to watch the ship set sail. As it slipped from the pier, the bridge and sun deck became a flurry of activity -- the captain giving bearings to a mate (actually stationed behind a huge wooden wheel!) as crew members were darting about to pull on ropes and secure lines. When the sails unfurled, the air was suddenly filled with eerie strains of music that crescendoed into a bombastic instrumental song. The music was very nearly cinematic, evoking images of plucky clipper ships, braving the endless seas and large, muscle-bound, bald men, rowing in unison in the bowels of some slave ship. (At least, that's what I envisioned.) Turns out the song was "Conquest of Paradise" by Vangelis, from the soundtrack to "1492," and it is played every time Star Flyer sets sail. (Other lines, like Celebrity, have also appropriated the tune for sail away.) Folks either love it or hate it -- and everyone has a different idea of what images it conjures. (One young guest imagined a raging sea battle between our motley crew and one of the sleek, multimillion-dollar vessels we would later see anchored off of Bora Bora.)
Water Sports in Remote Lagoons
What better place to get a fix of sun, sand and water sports than in remote atolls, featuring rings of teeny-tiny islands and vast lagoons. Our first two calls were at the islands of Rangiroa and Fakarava in the Tuamotu Atoll. With only one shore excursion offered over two days and no tourist attractions at all, this was the perfect time to test the limits of Star Flyer's free water sports program, run by Kiwi Megan and her three tall, fair and hunky Swedish male sidekicks.
Tracy and I agreed that kayaking in the peaceful waters of Rangiroa's lagoon sounded positively idyllic, but kayaking wasn't available. We opted, instead, for waterskiing -- an activity I do once a year if I'm lucky. Tracy had never tried it at all. The other passengers, many of whom had already headed out to a pearl farm tour or the beach, were not as eager to get active as we were, so we ended up with the waterski boat to ourselves for an hour. We had a semi-private skiing lesson with Frederik (one of the Swedes), with no one around to laugh when we fell. Rangiroa turned out to be the perfect place to learn -- the lagoon waters were so warm and calm that it was quite pleasurable to fall into them again and again.
Waterskiing from a zodiac is a little trickier than skiing behind a real speedboat. After a few false starts (not to mention a few unceremonious dunkings), I managed to stand up with a lot of determination and a little bit of extra speed from the boat. There were no other boats to watch out for or jet skis to dodge, and the entire lagoon became my own private playground. Word to the wise, though -- remember that the thumbs up sign means "go faster" not "I'm doing great." I didn't and had to hold on so tightly that I couldn't signal to slow down. Tracy never did manage to get up, but she had a great time trying.
As a side note, we quickly learned on the trip that water sports are available at the discretion of the water sports staff, based on who was free at the time you wanted to use the equipment. It's a very loosey-goosey operation, but without a proper back-of-ship sports platform -- kayaks and Zodiacs are essentially tied to the ship when it's at anchor -- you needed a staff member to gain access to the kayaks and rafts. And, as many sports team members were often engaged with scuba trips and driving the waterskiing boat, they weren't always readily available.
In the afternoon, the ship was offering snorkeling trips in the lagoon off one of the tenders -- a free service, rather than an official excursion. We signed up for the last one of the day so we could spend some time on the beach, floating in the super-salty water. Just in case the variety of fish and coral weren't fascinating enough on their own, the sports team guys brought pieces of bread, which they threw in the water near the snorkelers. I was struggling to adjust my borrowed mask near the ship, when a piece landed near me. All of a sudden, fish swarmed me in their haste for a quick snack, and I found myself in the middle of an impromptu feeding frenzy.
In Fakarava, the ship sponsored a beach party, complete with an island barbecue, water sports from the beach and a performance by local traditional dancers. Once again, our kayaking plans were thwarted -- this time because the kayaks were in such high demand that, every time we went to borrow one, they were already in use. As neither of us knew how to wind surf or sail, we opted for more snorkeling. We could snorkel right from the beach -- no boat required. I chased after schools of brightly colored fish, while Tracy gawked at coral, finding clams and other semi-hidden marine species. Because of all the coral and shell pieces mixed in the sand, we wore our water shoes while we snorkeled. I learned that water shoes are quite buoyant -- I didn't feel very graceful in the water with my big feet always bobbing along behind me.
To top off the day's adventuring, Tracy signed up for a scuba dive. She was joined both by passengers getting certified on the ship (Star Flyer offers a range of PADI programming) and other, more experienced divers (like herself), looking for an easy experience. Many travelers choose this itinerary solely for the diving opportunities, and several dives were scheduled each day. However, as a local guide is required to join each dive, I'm told prices are slightly higher than average, due to the added cost. The tours were typically 65 euros for the dive, plus another 15 euros for the services of the local guide.
Sailing the High Seas
Our itinerary included two full sea days for traveling between the Society Islands (Tahiti, Bora Bora, etc.) and the Tuamotu Atoll. I've never been the biggest fan of sea days, as I'm not a sunbather, and I was a bit concerned with how I'd manage to entertain myself on a ship with so few public areas and amenities. However, the ship's staff (namely, the cruise director and the all-purpose sports team) did a good job of mixing things up, even with limited resources.
We started each day with morning exercises at 8 a.m. Star Flyer has no gym or promenade deck, so somewhat lame European-style aerobics, led by a grouchy Swede (Oscar, our instructor, was clearly not a morning person), was the only way to stretch our legs onboard. That is, except for the day when we "walked a mile" around the ship -- a follow-the-leader act that had us stomping up and down stairways, doing loops around the tiny pools, parading through the dining room and being the recipients of bemused glances from the saner passengers, who had opted for relaxing on loungers instead.
Afternoon activities were reminiscent of camp -- knot tying, palm weaving, a shipwide scavenger hunt. Our favorite, hands down, was mast climbing -- after all, we were here for adventure! To climb the mast, we donned rock-climbing harnesses and ascended a fixed ladder up to the crow's nest, above the sun deck. You can't be afraid of heights to climb a ladder that's gently rocking back and forth with the roll of the waves, and I admit I concentrated hard on moving from rung to rung and tried not to look down or think about how high I was above the ship and the ocean. The view from the top would be impressive … if there was anything to see, other than the endless Pacific Ocean and the sunbathing passengers below. One interesting side note: On this laidback island getaway, we were not required to sign a release form before climbing to the tippy top of the ship.
We certainly did our share of lounging, reading and staring at the sea. Swimming was dicey -- windows in the bottom of the pool look out into the Piano Bar, so passengers enjoying a cocktail or an indoor sit can ogle your bikini-clad bottom. It wasn't a view I wanted to invite, so I stayed safely on deck.
The best lounging spot, again not for the faint of heart, was the widow's net. A net, woven from strong ropes, is attached to the ship's bowsprit, and intrepid guests can climb down and lie in the netting below, with views of the sea directly underneath. I spent the first few minutes gripping tightly to the net and eying the ropes, fearfully looking for any signs of imminent fraying. But, as I began to relax, I realized how peaceful it was to dangle over the water, rocked by the rhythm of the moving ship. We found the widow's net to be a great spot for watching the sun set -- that is, until I nearly dropped Tracy's camera into the briny deep.
Our second day at sea was rainy and rough, and here's where the Star Flyer program breaks down a bit. It was too cold and wet to really sit on the uncovered upper decks, and spending much time in the ship's small indoor spaces quickly led to claustrophobia and feelings of seasickness. We spent some time reading in the Piano Bar (the usually quite neglected venue was packed that day) and took long naps.
Bora Bora, Huahine and Taha'a
Shore options in French Polynesia are unlike those in other ports -- mostly because the islands are so tiny, without many tourist attractions. You'll find no zip-lines here (not to mention few museum or historic site outings). If you're not doing water sports through the ship, you can take an island tour (either via shore tour or taxi ride), book a snorkel or 4x4 tour, or go to the beach. In a few places, you can shop for French Polynesia's famous black pearls. And that's pretty much it.
But, that's part of the charm of these relatively undeveloped islands. On Huahine, we chose a fabulous (but not very adventurous) eco-cultural tour, during which a very knowledgeable guide talked our ears off for hours about the culture of the ancient Polynesians, local plant life and agriculture, and modern-day life on the island. The tour included an island tour in a Le Truck (a local bus) with a visit to see blue-eyed eels. In Taha'a, we took the island tour, which visits a vanilla farm and pearl factory. But, otherwise, it just drives around the pretty little island. Given that we're not overly fond of sitting in a car for hours (and were the only travelers shocked to find out that the famous black pearls mostly consist of a plastic marble with 1.5 millimeters of oyster secretions around them), we should have stuck with the free tenders to the motu, where other guests snorkeled, sunbathed and played soccer and water volleyball.
But, Bora Bora was different. It's one of the bigger islands, with an actual town at the port, which offers shopping, car and buggy rentals, banks, post offices and an Internet cafe. Here, too, we stuck with ship tours and had an amazing adventure.
The fun started when Star Flyer anchored off Bora Bora just as the sun was setting over the island. The ship offers a special evening tender to Bloody Mary's, a famous, sandy-floored restaurant that caters to everyone -- from casual tourists to headliner celebrities. Had Tracy and I been the typical couple on a special occasion vacation, we may have opted to go early for a pricey -- but very romantic -- dinner at Bloody Mary's. But, given that both of our significant others were thousands of miles away, we decided to go later for drinks, instead.
Our active group of passengers was this year's first to embrace drinks at Bloody Mary's with enthusiasm, and it wasn't clear we'd all fit in the allotted tenders. Monica, our cruise director, began discouraging people from going, saying the tender ride would be too long and too crowded, but we weren't going to let an uncomfortable 20 minutes keep us from our Mai Tais (which mean "good" or "well" in Tahitian, FYI).
In the end, we had plenty of time for a drink at the beautiful wood bar. (We could've had two each, but they were expensive -- about $14 each for Mai Tais and rum cocktails.) Friends of ours from the ship splurged on dinner and said it was well worth it, but we were happy just having drinks. We walked barefoot on the sand floor and laughed at the shoe check (Bora Bora's version of a coat check). Bloody Mary's is apparently also famous for its R-rated toilet flusher in the men's room, so of course, we had to see it for ourselves. When a male shipmate gave the all-clear, a few women tiptoed in -- to discover the phallic flusher hanging from a chain. Why men would enjoy something thusly shaped is beyond me.
The next morning we wandered around the town of Vaitape. A necessary Internet stop ate up way too much of our time -- I guess we got a little over-excited about finding a good connection. (There was a cafe in Huahine, but we didn't have much time to check e-mail.) So we never did get a chance to rent bikes or buggies to explore the easily navigated island. But we did pass tourists driving around in the adorable two-seater contraptions, and it looked like fun. Still, we were excited to head back to the ship to prepare for our meet-and-greet with hungry stingrays and sharks.
The snorkel tour was our afternoon activity. Local guides took us out on the reef, first to a shallow area where we started off easy by feeding the stingrays. Stingrays are very graceful creatures, with fins that look like wings, so they appear to be flying through the water. Although they do have poisonous stingers in their tails, they are more likely to swim away than to sting you -- and in fact, the stingrays we swam with are so used to interacting with humans that they're quite docile. The deal is you take a piece of fish and drag it through the water, and the stingrays come right up your arm to eat the fish because their mouths are on the undersides of their bellies. I admit that I don't like touching sea creatures and typically dropped the fish before the stingray could touch me, but Tracy had sting rays following her around like puppies, begging for more food. It really was quite cute…from afar.
Then we were off to meet the sharks. We let the guides feed the black-tipped sharks first so they would be sated and not interested in tasty human arms and legs. Then we all nervously jumped in. I'm a big scaredy cat when animals are concerned, but I quickly realized that if I stayed away from the sharks, they wouldn't come after me. Even more than the sharks, I was amazed by all the colorful fish that swam up to eat the sharks' leftovers. We were completely surrounded, and the water was so clear that we could even see scuba divers below us, tracking a lemon shark amid coral formations on the seabed.
After our shark and ray encounters, we stopped at a motu for a delicious snack of local fruits and coconut. On the boat ride back, the guides kept us laughing with their ukulele versions of "You Are My Sunshine" and "Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye."
Sailing Under the Stars
I've always been intrigued by the stars and constellations, and I came prepared on our trip to the South Pacific. Alas, my printout of the French Polynesian sky was impossible to decipher in daylight, much less after sunset -- apparently, when you try to fit an entire sky, with all the stars marked, on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper with very light inking, the end result is practically unintelligible. The captain gamely pointed out the Southern Cross and Scorpio to us -- the two constellations I can actually identify in the southern half of the world -- but that exhausted his knowledge of the night sky. I soon convinced some new shipboard friends -- two honeymooning couples from England and Mexico -- that star hunting was a fun evening activity, and we pestered everyone from Blanco (the bartender) to Vlad (the third officer) to show us constellations. It was actually an enjoyable way to spend some of the evenings out in the remote seas, and it resulted in interesting conversations with both passengers and crewmembers, as well as an impromptu bridge tour at midnight.
Our Round-Moorea Tour
On Moorea, we decided to take adventure into our own hands and rented a car. We wanted to go up to the Belvedere -- which we'd heard was the place to go for fabulous views over the island's two bays -- and generally explore the island, but the only way to do that on a tour was to take an off-road vehicle. As neither of us was keen on driving an ATV, and we liked the idea of planning the day's itinerary on the fly, we decided on the car rental option.
Before we left for our trip, I'd emailed the Avis rental car company in Moorea and inquired about car rates. The full-day rental cost us about $112, plus 15 bucks for gas, which is pretty steep, compared with rental rates in the U.S. But, pretty much everything in French Polynesia is two to four times more expensive than at home. Plus, if we'd chosen Star Flyer's ATV tour, we would have paid $132 per person, so we actually saved money, compared to our other options.
– Moorea is one of several islands that claims to have inspired James Michener to write about the mythical Bali Hai in "Tales of the South Pacific." The author didn't actually visit the island until after the book was finished, but Moorea's jagged volcanic peaks, dressed in dense greenery and presiding over the island's twin bays, could inspire even the most prosaic traveler. The views are stunning from any angle -- looking up at the mountains from the water or back at them from the road or looking down to the bays from up in the peaks. (Contributing to Moorea's beauty is the fact that all electric wires are buried underground.) That's why Tracy and I put the Belvedere -- and its easily accessible, hilltop viewing area – at the top of our list of Moorea activities.
For the most part, driving was easy. Our car had manual transmission, so Tracy had to drive because I've never learned to drive anything but an automatic. She struggled with the unfamiliar stick shift for the first 10 minutes but was fine after that. You can't get lost on Moorea because there's just one main road that circles the island. We were following the island tour in my Frommers guidebook, which didn't always have the best descriptions of where to stop. So, most of the time, I'd be calling out, "Stop! The scenic view was back there!" Tracy would hit the brakes, pull a somewhat sketchy U-turn, and we'd backtrack to a makeshift parking spot to hop out and take photos.
Once we reached the Belvedere, we were not disappointed by the views. The lookout is a great spot for panoramic shots -- we even saw a teeny-tiny Star Flyer in the bay -- and we had a mini-adventure dodging a family of hens and chicks as we pulled our car out of the lot.
While the Belvedere is certainly the main attraction on the hillside, we spent quite a bit of time at other interesting stops along the road. One small parking area is next to an ancient Polynesian archery court -- archery was a skill reserved for the royalty who lived on the mountainsides -- and a path led through the eerie, green light of the forest to several other marae (religious sites).
Farther down, the Agricultural School offers self-guided tours of its farms. It's a great way to take an hour-long walk and see all sorts of plants and trees that grow in the South Pacific. Our favorites were the itty-bitty baby pineapples, peeking out from behind the green leaves of their plants. Much less appealing was the stench of hogs as we passed by the animal section of the farm. Back at the main building, we quenched our thirst with fresh smoothies, made from tropical fruits that were grown at the school's farms (best lunch ever) and tasted a flight of native jams, such as guava and papaya.
Our experience on Moorea was, ultimately, more scenic than adventurous -- we spent the rest of the day driving around the island, taking in the views. But there was some adventure! Hands down, our scariest moment of the day was refueling the car prior to bringing it back to the Avis office. The Avis representative had pointed out the closest gas station to the office, so we stopped there and asked the attendant to fill the car up. But, when we handed him a credit card to pay, he said they only took cash for purchases under 2500 French Polynesian francs (about $32). Refueling after a drive around the entire island was only going to cost us about $15, but we didn't have quite enough cash. Of course, the entire conversation was taking place in Tracy's high school French, so communication wasn't perfect. After a few moments of panic -- should I run back to the office and see if they'll change my dollars into Polynesian francs? -- a compromise was reached: we paid the full 2,500 but got the rest back in cash.
Campy Fun for Evening Entertainment
Although we found plenty of ways to entertain ourselves at night on Star Flyer -- typically gathered around the bar -- crew members did host evening entertainment every night. Most of it was good ol' campy fun -- like Pirate Night, when we all ransacked our luggage to come up with pirate garb: a paper eye patch and parrot for Tracy, an empty bottle of rum for me and pirate pants made from a Tahitian sarong for one of our shipmates. Then, four passengers (including the two of us) with clever costumes were chosen to compete in what can only be described as a sort of piratical Olympics. Contests included knot-tying, guessing the weight of a heavy bag of "booty," blowing up a balloon until it popped and then chugging a beer. (I'm still unclear how these last skills make one a successful pirate, but never mind.)
Other evening events included a newlywed/not-so-newlywed game, during which a German passenger showed off his vocal chops by serenading his beloved with a rousing rendition of O Sole Mio, and blindfolded wives identified their husbands solely by their ankles. Another highlight was a fashion show of Star Clippers logo clothing. The models were a mix of passengers and sports team crew, who used the library as their backstage area. That meant, every time the door swung open at the start of a new catwalk, we could catch glimpses of the Swedish sports team guys in their underwear while they changed from one outfit to the next. That titillation, plus the hijinks of the very amateur models, certainly spiced up an otherwise potentially dull event.
However, the nicest evening activity was a very old-school take-off of Princess Cruises' "Movies under the Stars" feature. The crew erected a white sheet on the aft sundeck, set up lounge chairs in rows and played "Mutiny on the Bounty" -- a movie that takes place in French Polynesia. Granted, it was so peaceful (and the movie so dated) that we all fell asleep, but it was a pleasant way to spend an evening.
The Great Photo Tender Caper
One of Star Clippers' signature events is the photo tender. This is when the ship anchors, puts up all 36,000 square ft. of sails and sends interested passengers out in the tenders to take beauty shots of the ship under full sail. (Your friends at home won't know the ship isn't moving…)
Because this activity requires very calm seas, many sailings don't get to experience this special photo opp. We were lucky -- on our first morning in Moorea, we woke up to a sea as smooth as glass and the excited murmurings that the photo tender was on. Tracy and I eagerly joined the queue for the first tender out.
We snapped way too many photos of the majestic Star Flyer. Port, starboard, aft, bow, close up, zoomed out with the mountains of Moorea behind -- every angle was covered. But then something strange happened. We were hovering near the ship, waiting for the other tender to unload, when our tender driver turned the boat around and started speeding away from the ship.
Chaos ensued -- where were we going? Turns out that the waves had picked up, making it too dangerous for us to board the ship in the open sea. Our tender was headed into one of the bays, and Star Flyer would follow us in and pick us up there. We were really bouncing around. Tracy and one of our honeymooning friends got doused by an especially large wave that came over the side of the tender. Adventure on the high seas!
We found out later that, onboard, the crew was racing to take down all the sails so the ship could motor in after us, and most of the passengers still on the ship were confused and concerned about just what was going on. Meanwhile, our tender was beginning to seem very small and confining, and the rough seas were starting to get to some of the passengers.
But just when we were starting to fret, a silver flash off the side of the tender caught my eye. I turned around for a better look and indeed, a light-colored creature was launching itself out of the water, spinning around and splashing back down. "Dolphin!" I cried, and everyone rushed over to look. A couple of spinner dolphins -- so named for their rotating leaps out of the sea -- were frolicking in the bay off to the side of our boat. They were the first and only dolphins I managed to see on our entire cruise, and the serendipitous sighting made us all forget that we were unexpectedly spending much of the morning stuck on an orange tender in the middle of the South Pacific.
Much to my surprise and delight, my French Polynesia cruise on Star Flyer was more adventurous and warmly convivial than I anticipated. Our fellow cruisers may have ranged in age from teens to 70-somethings, but most were game for exploring islands, snorkeling, diving and climbing the ship's mast. I didn't hear very many complaints -- even though cabins are much smaller than the typical luxury ship's accommodations, and dinner wasn't quite as fancy.
Our fears of being surrounded by snogging couples and looked at askance for our partner-less status were also unfounded. Star Clippers cruisers are genuinely friendly, and every day at sailaway, I stood on the deck talking to yet another interesting fellow passenger. Some of our best friends on the ship were honeymooners and couples celebrating their anniversaries -- these folks were quick to invite us to dinner and engage us in conversation, rather than hide out in their cabins, wrapped up in their private, romantic worlds. The ship's crew was more friendly and accessible than on larger vessels. We ate dinner with the captain, first officer and sports team members on various occasions, and the off-duty officers and activities staff often joined us at the bar after hours.
French Polynesia, I discovered, is big enough to accommodate all kinds of travelers. Couples on romantic getaways can enjoy sunsets over the bow of the ship and quiet moments on remote beaches. Adventurous types can try a myriad of water sports, all conveniently set against a beautiful backdrop -- not to mention plenty of hiking and biking opportunities on land. Girlfriend groups will enjoy shopping for pearls and other island handicrafts, as well as hitting the spas on the islands or the ship. Even the few families we met were having a fabulous vacation, and the kids easily entertained themselves by making up pool games, ordering fancy nonalcoholic "mocktails" at the bar and playing at the beach.
But ultimately, to enjoy a Star Clippers cruise, you need to embrace the call of the sea. There's no casino, show lounge, gym, waterslide or night club on Star Flyer, so you've got to enjoy hanging out in the widow's net gazing out to sea, watching the crew scramble to hoist the sails or searching for stars at night. Plus, no matter how romantic you think the South Pacific is, you won't be feeling "in the mood" if the ship's natural rocking motion makes you nauseated or if your honey is green and popping Dramamine.
So, all you solo travelers, girlfriend groups and adventurous types, listen up! You, too, can enjoy the lush islands of French Polynesia -- just skip the pricey, over-water bungalows and cushy, luxury ships, and opt for a more honest experience on Star Flyer. It may be small, but there's room onboard for everyone.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor