After seven wonderful days on our Windstar Cruise in French Polynesia, we sailed back into port at Papeete, Tahiti. Fortunately, we had decided beforehand to extend our stay in French Polynesia by booking rooms at the Hilton Moorea property on the north shore. Having seen many dreamy pictures of overwater bungalows in exotic locales, we decided to give the bungalows on Moorea a try and we were not disappointed. Our budget would only afford two nights, but that was better than nothing (rooms can run about $1,000/night or more, depending on location, meal plans, season, etc.).
We chose Moorea because its proximity to Papeete (only a short ferry ride away), rather than an expensive flight back out to Bora Bora.
From the ferry dock in Moorea, we found a taxi to take us to the Hilton, about a 20 minute ride to the northwest around the coast. The luggage claim was a bit of a zoo, I wish I would have gotten a photo of the chaotic scenes of several ferries and luggage stacked up at the terminal–almost comical. No problem finding our bags however.
There is no lack of things to do in this setting – hit the beach, hit the pool, have a casual lunch, paddle board, jet ski (a blast in the nearby stunningly scenic bays), snorkel, take an island tour, etc. (See our post on our cruise stop in Moorea). Our hotel package included a wonderful buffet breakfast. We ate dinner one day at the hotel in a beachside cafe and the second evening we got a taxi to a restaurant on the beach a few miles down the coast.
There’s nothing like waking up in the morning, stepping down to your own private swim platform and jumping into the calm water for a quick swim and watching rays and other fish swim by.
Ok, if you REALLY want to get away from it all, the island of Huahine in French Polynesia may be your spot. This was the last stop on our Windstar Seven-Day Cruise. Huahine is 86 km (54 miles) southeast of Bora Bora, and to the east of Taha’a and Raiatea.
Huahine has a population of about 6,000 and is actually two islands, Huahine Nui (the north island, larger) and Huahine Iti (the south island, smaller), which are connected by a short bridge. Both islands are surrounded by a reef as is common in French Polynesia.
Huahine Nui Tour
Given the quiet nature of this island, we decided to “wing it” for the day and managed to hire a car and driver to take us around Huahine Nui (the north island and where most of the population lives). There wasn’t much of a tour desk (basically a park bench) when we arrived via tender from the cruise ship, but I think there was a number to call, or someone called for us, and we secured a driver. There is one road circling the island.
Below are a few pictures from our morning excursion on Huahine. What a lovely, quiet day in another idyllic spot in French Polynesia.
The tour was 2+ hours, and in the afternoon Windstar offered our last water skiing opportunity with their small boat so I went skiing in the bay with a few other passengers. A great way to end seven fun-filled, relaxing days in French Polynesia!
The highlight of our 7 day Windstar cruise in French Polynesia was Bora Bora. We sailed here in the evening after a wonderful day in Taha’a, just 18 km to the south. Our visit to Bora Bora lasted 2 days, allowing us a bit more time to truly enjoy this amazingly beautiful island. Having heard about exotic Bora Bora since childhood, it was a little surreal actually visiting this fabled island and enjoying its many charms.
Bora Bora is pretty quiet – all you see is a small town (Vaitape), some scattered homes, various beach parks and a few restaurants. Most of the resorts (and airport) are on the motus (islets) surrounding the lagoon and main island. Our time was filled with the following activities over our two days:
We started our visit to Bora Bora with a tour that took us completely around the island. This adventure gave us a feel for the island and various views of the island, motus and lagoon.
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
This tour was arranged through Windstar. Our guide knew how to attract the fish for our viewing pleasure! Our guide was very kind and enjoyable, and like so many tour guides, had musical talents!
Private Boat Tour of the Lagoon
We arranged this tour ourselves at the tiny tour desk at the Viatape dock, and it was really worth it. We had the boat and driver all to ourselves. We circumnavigated the island and our captain took us to different spots around the lagoon where we could snorkel, play with the friendly rays, get amazing views of Bora Bora, and swim with the black-tipped reef sharks, just outside the protected lagoon in open, deep water.
Also arranged through Windstar, I took my first dive ever in Bora Bora. While there were several experienced divers in our group, there were also several of us for whom this was a first experience. We received instructions and then did a 30 minute, 6 meter dive (about 20 ft). What a blast. I really loved the dive and what better place try it out than Bora Bora!
Evening Dinner and Show
Windstar hosted a dinner and show on a motu not far from our ship during our overnight stop. The meal, show, and stunning setting made this a very memorable event.
From Raiatea, we cruised a few kilometers across the strait in the evening to our next stop, the island of Taha’a and Motu Mahaea, an islet in the reef that surrounds Raiatea and Taha’a. What a great day this was! I had decided to take advantage of the morning cruise excursion, which was a “drift snorkel tour” on the northwestern side of Taha’a. For many passengers (and the rest of my family), they enjoyed the free day on Motu Mahaea, where the cruise line has a nice set-up — lounge chairs on the beach, kayaks, paddle boarding, beach games, snorkeling and swimming, in addition to a great BBQ lunch. I was able to join the rest of the my family on Motu Mahaea for the afternoon after the morning snorkel.
Drift Snorkel Tour
Our snorkel spot was on the northwestern reef of Taha’a, with a spectacular view of Bora Bora providing the backdrop. The channel has a strong current and you literally just drift along with the current taking in the underwater sights.
There are a few resorts out here on this part of the reef of Taha’a, which would be a nice place to stay, and maybe a little less expensive than Bora Bora.
After our great snorkel tour, we headed over to Motu Mahaea, to join many other passengers for an afternoon BBQ and fun on the beach.
After Moorea, our next stop was Raiatea. Although it is the second largest island (of the Society Islands) and home to the “second largest city” in French Polynesia, the island is blissfully undeveloped. Waking up early and walking out onto the deck as we sailed along the coast of the island and into the port of Uturoa was the way I’d love to start every day! (More information below about Raiatea’s significance to the history and exploration of Polynesia).
Geographically, Raiatea shares the same lagoon with Taha’a (our next stop) and both islands are close to Bora Bora.
Raiatea was one stop where we decide to “wing it” from a tour standpoint. We got off the ship, found a small tour desk and eventually we were able to secure a guide who gave us a fabulous tour of the island.
Raiatea has significant cultural and spiritual importance to the native population because it is the geographical center of eastern Polynesisa (a triangle can be formed between New Zealand, Raiatea and Hawaii), and it is considered the ancestral homeland of the Maori people, most closely associated with New Zealand. A traditional name for the island is Havai’i, which sounds very similar to Hawai’i, which also has a close link anciently to Raiatea. It is believed that ancient Polynesians set out to explore the Pacific from this island. Learn more here.
We visited the sacred temple site of Taputapuatea, where our guide gave a great history and navigation lesson in the sand (taking a stick and drawing out symbols, maps, and terms in the packed sand). This sacred spot was the launch site for exploration and a worship center for Polynesians across the Pacific.
We also visited the home of a friend of our guide (I’m sure everyone on the island knows each other). This gentleman was from San Francisco originally and has lived on Raiatea for many years, in a very simple fashion. His home was essentially a small wood framed structure with metal siding and swing out “windows”. He lives largely off the land with what he can produce. He offered us some lovely fruit dishes and we enjoyed visiting with him. Not a bad way to retire!
Before heading back to our cruise ship, our guide took us to a pretty spot with a nice view of the southern part of the island, where he shared a little more about this wonderful slice of paradise.
Our next stop was just a few kilometers across the strait which separates Raiatea from Taha’a. Our next day was going to be all about playing in and enjoying the water – stay tuned!
There is often a debate of “should we go to Moorea or Bora Bora?” Let’s just say you can’t go wrong with either island – both are stunningly beautiful. Moorea has the advantage of being closer and easier to get to from Papeete, Tahiti. We left Papeete in the evening (see our first French Polynesia post for more information about our cruise) and sailed over to Moorea, just a short distance away (10 nautical miles or ~18 km). I could hardly wait for daylight the next morning to check out what is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I wasn’t disappointed. Our ship anchored in Cook’s Bay, one of two main bays on the northern shore of Moorea.
We signed up for a 1/2 day photography tour with the cruise line, the idea being to make us great photographers – ha. The tour guide was from “mainland” France and living the dream in Moorea. We made 4 stops on this tour.
First Stop: North Shore Lookout
We drove up a very steep, narrow little ‘road’ to get to this lookout, and it was worth it.
2nd Stop: Belvedere Lookout
This is probably the most photographed spot on Moorea, with the stunning Mount Rotui in the background, and picturesque bays on either side of the mountain. This lookout is in the volcanic crater known as Opunohu Valley (the heart of the volcano that became island of Moorea).
3rd Stop: Opunohu Valley
From Belvedere Lookout, we drove down into the Opunohu Valley, which has a very remote feel, with a few dirt roads and overgrown pineapple fields.
4th Stop: Vanilla Bean Plantation
One of the main cash crops in French Polynesia (more specifically the Society Islands) is vanilla. French vanilla is the world’s best, and learning how they grow these beans gives one an appreciation for why it is so expensive (and flavorful!). Most plantations are small and family-owned. The effort to grow vanilla beans is intense, and mountainous nature of these islands makes it hard to find suitable areas for growing this crop.
After our photography tour, we were able to spend the afternoon at leisure. One of the advantages of Windstar cruises is their swim platform and free water sports activities. We took out a couple kayaks and then I did some wakeboarding in Cook’s Bay! What a blast. Wakeboarding in Moorea – an experience I’ll always remember. Unfortunately I did not get pictures!
It wasn’t too sad for us leaving Moorea that evening, because we knew we were coming back after our cruise for a stay at the Hilton Moorea Resort, also located on the north shore. I’ll do a separate post on that part of the trip.
My wife and I had wanted to visit French Polynesia for a long time – who hasn’t dreamed about this remote idyllic paradise as a place to spend a romantic vacation? Luckily, we made the trip just before the pandemic, and we’re so glad we were able to go. The challenge for us was how to visit – pick one island and stay at a resort? Or visit two islands? Do a cruise? Although cruising isn’t usually our first choice for a vacation (we prefer more independent travel – hence the name of this blog), cruising can be a great way to go for certain locations, and French Polynesia is one of them, especially if you want to see as many islands as possible and do so relatively economically. Air travel between the islands is expensive, as are the resorts (especially the over water guest rooms!).
There are only two major lines that cruise exclusively within the islands – Windstar and Paul Gauguin. It was a bit of a toss-up for us between the two, but we chose Windstar and we were very happy with our choice. Our particular ship provided a bit of an actual sailing experience – the four sails help propel the ship (in addition to diesel engines) and what we especially loved was the fact there were only 150 passengers. Paul Gauguin is more like a typical (although smaller) cruise line/ship that accommodates about 300 passengers.
Because the ship is small, by the end of the cruise you at least recognize most of your fellow travelers and have become friends with some of them – through participating in some of the same sightseeing tours and onboard activities. With fewer passengers the port stops and embarkations don’t seem overrun and it’s more like a large family reunion on shore and at dinner as well as for the entertainment. The crew is also very friendly. Early one morning while at anchor in a beautiful bay in Moorea I went up to the bridge and had a casual conversation with the Executive Officer – he showed me the bridge controls and gave some great insights about his experience and cruising in the islands.
One night they held a crew talent show and I have probably not laughed as much as during that show – some of the skits were hilarious! Most of the time onboard we just enjoyed sitting on the deck, watching the sea and islands and enjoying the fresh air. The ship also had a water sports deck, where you could borrow kayaks, snorkel gear and use a floating swim dock. They also had a small outboard motor boat that took us water skiing and wakeboarding simply at your request for free – I got to do both, and that was a blast! At the end of this post, I provide a few tips and comments about this beautiful country and Windstar cruises.
The staterooms were a reasonable size, the food was excellent, and there were just enough entertainment options on board to keep us occupied (if desired) without it feeling like we were at a Las Vegas casino hotel.
Our cruise visited 5 islands (7 day cruise, see map below) and we decided to stay an extra few days afterwards on Moorea in an overwater bungalow–highly recommended (Hilton), and then we toured a bit of the island of Tahiti on our last day before our flight left for the mainland that evening.
Since our cruise started and ended in Papeete, Tahiti, I’ll show a few images of this island and city and in future posts we’ll cover the other islands we visited.
We’ll share more of the French Polynesian islands in future posts. Here are few tips and observations for visiting French Polynesia and cruising the islands:
French Polynesia is not Hawai’i. Outside of Papeete (population of about 100,000), the towns on the islands are VERY small, and the islands (even Moorea) feel remote. While there are a few high-end resorts on several of the islands (especially Bora Bora), in general the islands are very quiet and rural. It’s not hard to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago.
This is the South Pacific – plan for rain, but mainly short bursts. We went in November, a shoulder season, and had great weather overall, with occasional cloudy skies and some showers. The ocean water was warm and very pleasant for water sports. Plan on diving or snorkeling. We saw lots of friendly sharks and rays.
There are activities on board the ship, but they are limited, and there’s just one small shop. If you want 24/7 entertainment, this may not be the cruise for you. Personally, we enjoyed the quiet downtime.
Arranging port tours. There is always a question in my mind as to whether to sign up for the cruise ship tours (which tend to be more expensive) or plan one on your own once you get off the ship at a port. We did some of both. Since these islands have small populations, we weren’t sure what the availability of tours/transportation would be when we got off the ship, and so we booked several tours ahead of time as part of the cruise. Don’t expect a ton of tour guides mobbing you as you get off the ship (we were actually ferried to shore in tenders at all stops), usually there was one little desk with a tour agent, and that was it! In Bora Bora we decided to wing a tour of the island, and had a great time doing a land tour and private boat tour of the lagoon (HIGHLY recommended – seeing the island from all sides was really great, and the water adventures as part of this tour were great too). In addition, I did a diving tour on Bora Bora as part of the cruise offering. I would say in general it made sense to book through Windstar for these islands.
The French Polynesians are extremely friendly and relaxed, they take the tourism in stride and are rightly so very proud of their history and culture. There are ancient connections between the natives of Hawai’i, New Zealand and French Polynesia. Since this is an “overseas collectivity” of France (part of the French Republic), you do find some caucasian French citizens making their home here.
English is widely spoken, along with Tahitian and French of course.
Papeete is about an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles.