Fifty Shades of Blue*, Part I: Tahiti
February 26, 2019, Tahiti, French Polynesia — In Tahitian, ’Ia ora na, but Bonjour works just as well in French Polynesia. If I thought Chile was spectacular, and it was... then the Society Islands are exquisite.
Tahiti, population 276,000, is the largest in the Society Islands archipelago, the above-water remains of a chain of volcanoes. Tahiti rose from the sea 800,000 years ago. Beginning in the 1500s, assorted European explorers had happened upon it, as did later traders and whalers. English captain Samuel Wallis claimed it for England in 1787. The next year Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (he of flowering vine fame) claimed it for France, not knowing that England had already claimed it. Captain Cook showed up — he was everywhere. So did the Bounty mutineers, who stopped by in 1788 before pushing on to Pitcairn. Regardless of which country they came from, Europeans brought alcohol, weapons... and disease.
Historically a monarchy, the Tahitian society was changed when Protestant missionaries arrived in the late 1700s. They soon converted the reigning monarch, then imposed 19 laws forbidding these practices we associate so strongly with Polynesia: No dancing, no chanting, no tattoos, no flower costumes. Don’t know if no cannibalism was on the list, but I’ve read that on the island of Vanuatu (closer to Australia), cannibalism existed until around 1970.
Tahiti became a French protectorate in 1846, and the monarchy was abolished in 1891. In 1946 it became a French overseas territory, then an overseas collectivity (a what?) in 2003. Today 75 of some 118 islands and atolls are inhabited.
We’d made good time from Easter Island and landed about 12 hours early, enough time for our cruise director to line up a ‘destination performance.’ All I can say is, these ladies must have motorized hips. Last year’s show had a larger band, with ukuleles, which were conspicuous by their absence. Just my opinion, of course.
Our port was Papeete, the capital city, population 27,000. But this isn’t the largest city, which is named Fa'a'ā. Honestly, it doesn’t have much to recommend it from a monuments and architecture p.o.v. But its location, shot here from my veranda the next morning, is fabulous. Clouds pop up and roll over it all day, so you never know if it’ll rain. But who cares?
As we disembarked for excursions, we were greeted by this colorful uke band. Some 200,000 tourists visited last year. Other major industries are pearls, vanilla beans, yellow fin tuna and copra.
I was headed for a motor launch and snorkeling... complete with our own ukulele player. He sang a lot of Polynesian songs we didn’t know, but also led us in ‘You are my sunshine.’ He did not know ‘Ukulele Lady.’ I asked.
Outrigger canoes are everywhere. People spend their lunch hours on the water, paddling all around the lagoon. This fellow used our wake for some lift. It was giant versions of this that brought the original people here from Southeast Asia, around 200 B.C.
No snorkeling pictures, since I don’t have an underwater camera. It was heaven just to noodle around in the turquoise water for an hour, perfect visibility to around ten feet, pure white sand, lots of different fish... and the wreck of a single prop, single seater plane that had been there a while. White sand consists of pulverized fish bones, seashells and crushed coral (live coral is brownish with other colors; it turns white when it dies). The sand on black sand beaches is pulverized volcanic debris.
The afternoon’s excursion was a road trip to three ‘west coast highlights.’ The two-lane blacktop was lined with grazing land, snack bars, and houses surrounded by hedges made of all the houseplants I grew in the 1970s... all situated between the turquoise water and the lush green craggy-topped mountains.
First highlight, the Jardins d’eau de Vaipahi...
The Maraa Grottos, which lore says inspired Paul Gauguin, boasted a local man proudly showing off his tattoos.
A reconstruction of the pre-Christian sacred site of Arahurahu Marae...
With a few minutes to spare, our driver took us through downtown Papeete, which has lots of colorful street art...
Back on board for ‘sail away.’ Up on the 8th deck, the nightly-cocktail-hour solos kept popping up to go outside as the sunset became more and more spectacular... that’s the nearby island of Moorea.
Final event of the day was a phenomenal performance by Tasmanian guitarist Tom Ward. His father built the guitar. I can’t describe how talented and inventive he was — see for yourself by searching Australia’s Got Talent + Tom Ward for a youtube video.
*‘Fifty Shades of Blue’ was my Bora Bora catamaran captain’s description of the water. #