MONICA QUOCK CHAN / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
A traditional housing structure, known as a "bure," sits on the isolated island of Yasawa-i-Rara, Fiji.
South Pacific enchants with pristine, idyllic islands
A six-star cruise ship with stellar cuisine and activities provides some enchanted days and evenings
STORY SUMMARY »
"You won't remember this but you should," a fellow passenger teases my 1-year-old daughter.
There is truth to his words. My husband, toddler and I are about to set forth on a two-week, 2,000-mile cruise across the South Pacific. Along the way we will anchor in Fiji, Tonga, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.
Touted as a six-star ship, the Paul Gauguin, part of Regent Seven Seas Cruises, has won numerous awards, including a "Best Small Ships" top 10 ranking in the 2007 Condé Nast Traveler Cruise Poll. At 513 feet long, the vessel easily navigates narrow channels yet still feels spacious and sturdy. No wonder several passengers with whom we cruised have vacationed on the Paul Gauguin more than once.
With a crew-to-guest ratio of 1-to-1.5, service is exceptional. Anichini linens and Aveda bath products grace the nattily styled staterooms, which start at 200 square feet. The Carita Spa, based on the Parisian original, offers comprehensive albeit pricey services, including such exotic treatments as an Egyptian cotton cocoon facial (at $3 per minute, I had to pass).
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: MONICA QUOCK CHAN
The picturesque harbor of Avarua graces the main island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
The food might be the Paul Gauguin's most outstanding feature. Open-seating dining includes La Palette, an al fresco grill; L'Etoile, serving international cuisine plus a dozen dessert choices every night; and La Veranda, whose French-inspired dishes are modeled after Paris' famed Le Cordon Bleu. Soft drinks, bottled water and select alcoholic beverages are included. In addition, 24-hour room service ensures guests don't go hungry.
On-board activities keep passengers occupied the entire fortnight. Guest lecturers range from an astronomer to an anthropologist, and in late 2007 will even include oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau.
Professional entertainers, such as Juilliard-trained flutist Viviana Guzmán and French Polynesia's top folkloric dance group, O Tahiti E, share the stage with the ship's troupe, Les Gauguines.
Programs abound, from shuffleboard tournaments to napkin folding. PADI scuba dive certification is available, and an innovative water sports platform enables windsurfing, kayaking and water-skiing directly off of the boat. If all this isn't enough, the disco, casino and karaoke continue late into the night.
It is better to retire early, however, and save energy to explore the 10 intriguing South Pacific isles on the itinerary.
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I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
-- John Masefield, "Sea-Fever," Salt-Water Ballads
Bula! Due to political unrest in Fiji, our departure port is moved from the capital, Suva, to Lautoka. A small town on the main island of Viti Levu, Lautoka contains varied houses of worship, including churches, a mosque and Hindu and Sikh temples. Indo-Fijians, who comprise 38 percent of the population, are garbed in saris and busily sell colorful spices and produce at the central market.
South Seas Cruise
Getting there: Air Pacific flies nonstop from Honolulu to Nadi, Fiji. A one-way economy ticket costs $590. From Nadi a 40-minute taxi ride to the port of Lautoka costs $25. Hawaiian Airlines flies nonstop from Papeete, Tahiti, to Honolulu. A one-way economy ticket costs $640.
Cruise line: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Ship: Paul Gauguin, 330-guest capacity
Itinerary: 14-night cruise includes Fiji, Tonga, Cook and Society Islands (Fiji to Tahiti)
Fare: Starts at $4,095 per person, based on double occupancy. Includes most beverages, all meals and shipboard gratuities.
Note: Costs are approximate and subject to change.
On the Net
"Bula!" my husband and I call out to a family in the local greeting as we meander through a nearby village. The mother kindly invites us to see their "bure," a thatched wooden abode. Once common throughout the South Pacific, this type of housing is fast being eclipsed by more modern structures.
Twenty minutes' drive southeast of Lautoka, a pitted dirt road leads up into the Sabeto Mountains where the Garden of the Sleeping Giant lies. Featuring 2,000 types of orchids, the garden is also home to various tropical plants. The manager on duty reveals her favorite, the ballerina orchid.
After departing Lautoka, the cruise ship Paul Gauguin heads for the Yasawas of "Blue Lagoon" fame. Only 25 miles northwest of Lautoka, the island chain is surprisingly isolated. It seems that almost the entire village near where we dock on Yasawa-i-Rara turns out to greet us. The curving beach and limpid waters comprise a scenic backdrop for the thatched bure; nearby, villagers cook over an open fire.
Savusavu, on Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu, clearly draws more tourists than Yasawa-i-Rara, as evidenced by the bevy of yachts in its quaint harbor. Yet the town itself, with just one main street, is relatively quiet. Up the hill are steaming hot springs where schoolchildren warm up their lunches.
Dense verdant foliage rapidly surrounds us as we head away from town toward the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. At the kid-friendly establishment, each child is assigned a nanny, and tots play at the on-site Bula Club. The snorkeling here is naturally impressive, and we espy such wonders as an electric blue starfish and hovering translucent squid. Back on shore, a lithe fellow wielding a pointy stick heads out to spear fish. A lingering glance at the picturesque shoreline, with its graceful palms and azure water, is a perfect way to remember Fiji.
MONICA QUOCK CHAN / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Traditional pandanus leaf weaving is demonstrated at the Tonga National Center.
Tonga has never been colonized and today is still a kingdom, giving you the makings of a unique nation. Even its name sounds mysterious.
Tonga comprises 171 islands that are home to 100,000. More than 65 percent of the population lives on Tongatapu (Sacred South), with the majority congregating around the capitol, Nuku'alofa (Abode of Love). Men wear the skirtlike "tupenu," while women often adorn themselves with a "kiekie" belt of pandanus tassels. No Happy Meals here; fast-food franchises are banned. The Sabbath is strictly observed, with check-writing and even flights disallowed on Sundays.
The Tonga National Center is our first stop, but the cultural performers are operating on island time and nowhere in sight. While waiting, we wander through the exhibit halls, studying artifacts, carvings and portraits of the royal family. Afterward, we watch tapa (bark cloth) being made, pandanus being woven and, lastly, a kava ceremony followed by traditional Tongan dances.
A drive across the island takes us past the Royal Palace and the highly decorated Royal Tombs. The king's true residence is a European-like estate with an unfurling driveway. Farther along, Tongatapu's prison is surrounded merely by a low-lying fence; there is nowhere in the tiny country for criminals to hide even if they did attempt to escape. Haamongaa Maui, an ancient trilithon, stands on the eastern end of the island. Dating back to A.D. 1200, it was perhaps once a royal gateway or used to track the winter and summer solstices.
Heading west brings us to the Flying Fox Sanctuary, where hordes of squawking fruit bats protest being awakened from their daytime sleep. The sight of the upside-down creatures is eclipsed, however, by the appearance of a gargantuan spider which sends us gladly scrambling back into our overcrowded, non-air-conditioned van.
Mapu'a'a Vaca (Chief's Whistles) is perhaps the most stunning spot in Tonga. Here, five kilometers of blowholes let loose in succession. Stretching along the coast as far as the eye can see, the "whistles" shoot upward as high as 100 feet.
By late afternoon we are all back aboard the Paul Gauguin. It will take us two days at sea to reach our next destination.
Rarotonga and Aitutaki
After crossing the International Date Line, we draw nearer to the Cook Islands. Sparsely populated with only 14,000 inhabitants, more Cook Islanders live overseas than in their native country. New Zealand is a common destination for emigrants, which accounts for the otherwise odd preponderance of Kiwi-accented English.
Rarotonga is the main island, easily circled via the 20-mile Ara Tapu (Sacred Road). The arrival of larger cruise ships is a challenge to the local infrastructure (imagine 2,000 passengers descending on a population of 10,000), but the Paul Gauguin's 330 guests are manageable.
Passionate about dancing, Cook Islanders smile often and place a high value on community. Deceased family members are buried in front yards. We peer over a congregation's decorated hats into one of the many Protestant churches, hoping to catch some of the harmonious worship. The country is unexpectedly modern, and indeed, with its beautiful lagoons, the Cook Islands could be the next French Polynesia-like vacation destination.
Modernity aside, the tropical laid-back atmosphere persists. At Paka's Pearls in Avarua, gregarious Kamehameha Schools graduate Paka, clad only in board shorts, is ready to hit the beach by midafternoon. Then again, it is Sunday and most places are closed, so there is not much else to do except enjoy the beauteous white-sand beaches, such as those near the dappled waters of famous Muri Lagoon. For the more adventurous, Pa, a native healer and naturalist distinguished by his blond dreadlocks, conducts nature hikes and cross-island treks.
North of Rarotonga lies Aitutaki, where the pristine lagoon flaunting countless shades of blue is the primary attraction. Diving is said to be spectacular, but with a 1-year-old in tow, we "settle" for some of the best snorkeling in the South Pacific and head out in a glass-bottom boat.
The surprisingly shallow lagoon is dotted with sea cucumbers ("We throw 'em like snowballs," states the skipper), and a wide variety of tropical fish and coral. Most amazing are the giant clams, with their cyan lips and pulsing valves. One mollusk near our boat appears several feet across.
"That would make a lot of clam chowder," observes a snorkeling tourist wryly.
Across the lagoon are a number of "motu," or small islands, including Tapuaetai. Better known as One Foot Island, its unique passport stamp is indeed in the shape of a footprint.
"Life on Rarotonga has become too fast," replies the skipper when I inquire why he left for Aitutaki. Recalling sleepy Avarua, I wonder how any places could be more relaxed. Yet strolling around Arutanga, even on a weekday, lulls me into a state of somnolence (or is it the heat?). The one-room post office is 15 minutes from closing. No one is playing on the rugby field. A few mo-peds scoot by. The most activity seems to be at a courthouse of sorts, where someone drones on in a monotone. The musicians who greeted us in the morning have long since retired, and we board the final tender back to the ship.
MONICA QUOCK CHAN / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
An octagonal Protestant church, left, near Papetoai, Moorea, was built in 1827 on the site of an ancient "marae," a gathering place for ceremonial use.
Fabled Bora Bora, vacationland of the rich and famous, is the next port of call. Craggy Mount Otemanu stands guard over the paradisiacal lagoon and its surrounding coral reef. Swanky resorts feature overwater bungalows with Plexiglas floor panels for ogling marine life, and ladders that plunge from balconies straight into the lagoon.
While savoring world-class cuisine, restaurant patrons can behold tropical fish swimming directly below or enjoy the vast red-hued sunsets. Bloody Mary's is a popular eatery where the views and the sand floor add to the ambience. Water sports abound here, and there are plenty of troupes ready to perform exaggerated Tahitian dances. Finally, there are the ubiquitous black-pearl shops.
"You haven't been to Bora Bora unless you've bought a black pearl," jokes a waiter.
Sailing past Raiatea brings us to the Paul Gauguin's own private motu, Mahana, near Tahaa. Despite the mosquitoes and menacing-looking sea urchins, we enjoy the bath-water temperature of the translucent water, where shiny blue damselfish dart in and out of violet coral.
Vanilla and pearl farming are the main industries on tranquil Tahaa.
Moorea is the next stop, and we dock in magnificent Opunohu Bay, adjacent to the equally impressive Cook's Bay. The lush yet rugged mountains frame the cobalt bay for yet another Kodak moment; French Polynesia's scenery does not disappoint. On land, Toatea and Belvedere Lookouts yield breathtaking views, and a slippery hike takes tourists up to Afareaitu Falls. Several "marae," ancient gathering areas used for ceremonies, can be found in Opunohu Valley. Closer to the bay, Papetoai Temple is a unique octagonal church constructed on the site of a former marae. Activities on Moorea range from four-wheel-drive "safaris" to dolphin watching.
Just 12 miles or a 10-minute plane ride from Moorea is French Polynesia's main island of Tahiti. Yet Tahiti feels worlds away with its speeding taxis, neon lights and high-rises. There are certainly places worth visiting, like the bustling market (Marché de Papeete), nearby Place Vaiete with its food trucks and entertainment, the pink Evangelical Church of French Polynesia, and the informative Museum of Tahiti and Its Islands.
Still, the capitol, Papeete, is like a transition between the idyllic South Pacific paradises that we have just visited and the urban reality of home. Hawaii is distinct from these other isles, and life at home is a far cry from cruising on the Paul Gauguin (do I really have to clean, cook and work again?).
Still, there is a part of our vacation that is reflected here in the spirit of Hawaii, and when I gaze at our islands' ocean splendor and sweeping beaches, our dreamy cruise experience doesn't seem so far removed.
Monica Quock Chan is a Honolulu-based freelance writer and former marketing executive. She has lived in Europe and Asia, and traveled to more than 50 countries.