French Polynesia
Luigi and Manly, 1991

We flew from Chicago to Los Angeles on American Airlines and on Qantas to Papaete (the main city on Tahiti), arriving there about 3:00 in the morning of Monday, January 28; we were taken to Le Royal Tahitien Hotel in Pirae, a suburb of Papaete, in time to get a 3 hour nap before an 8:00 breakfast.

The hotel comprises several two-story masonry buildings overlooking nicely kept grounds and the ocean. Each room has its own balcony and is pleasantly air conditioned. The dining area is partly in a thatched-roof hall and partly outside, all looking over the black sand beach. Storm drainage feeds a meandering pond full of water lilies that bloom in the morning, and the trees scattered about the grounds include royal poinciana, mango, coconut and avocado, and bushes include hibiscus, frangipani and bougainvillaea. Luigi had fruit and bread with jam for breakfast and I had "poisson cru" which is translated on the menu as "raw fish." It was actually fish that had been marinated in lime juice and then mixed with green peppers, carrots and celery or cabbage, covered with coconut milk and served in a coconut shell. I found it very tasty even though the waitress thought I must have been crazy to have it for breakfast.

The temperature there was hot enough so that we preferred to avoid going out in the noonday sun. People who live there said it was unusually hot. Swimming at 4:00 in the afternoon was delightful, though the water was so warm that there was no incentive to swim to get your blood flowing and warm yourself up. The hotel is located on the southwest side of a bay; waves crashed over and a reef about a mile to seaward, dividing the green water near shore from the dark blue of the ocean. Unlike the other islands we visited, Tahiti is of both volcanic and coral origins

Shortly before 10:00 Tuesday morning we and seven others started a Circle Island Tour with a Hawaiian driver named "Cousin Kevin." He is married to a daughter of one of the more prominent Polynesian families of Tahiti, but being from Hawaii he speaks English like an American -- both as to accent and content. He pointed to a large flowering bush and announced that the flowers on the top were hibiscus; those near the bottom were low-biscus. The tour paused at Point Venus where Lieutenant (later Captain) Cook observed the transit of the planet Venus across the face of the sun and at the Gaugin Museum which has no original Gaugin paintings but has good exhibits of carving and other Polynesiary. Nearby is a botanical garden. Lunch was at an American restaurant that features hamburgers and was followed by visits to a couple of grottos (old lava tubes with water a few feet deep and ferns growing on the sides). Also the remains of a pagan temple. There was a brief stop at a small liqueur factory that made their products with local fruits; here we were given samples of a beverage that was quite tasty when served over ice. Returning to the hotel we had to pass through Papaete where the traffic was terrible and slow because it was the hour at which parents pick their children up from school.

A cough that started when I got off the airplane had gotten worse and I ran a slight fever, so I stayed in bed after our return and Luigi brought me a ham and cheese sandwich made differently from others I've had: two slices of bread, each covered with ham and then cheese and then broiled open-faced until golden brown -- very good.

I spent the next day mostly in the room but Luigi went out for a swim before breakfast and later went snorkeling at the beach. At the end near some rocks she saw some fish and a lot of rubbish. She left when the fish began investigating her more closely than she was investigating them.

The food at the hotel was uniformly good, and the local beer, called "Hinano" is very good. The waitresses are Polynesian; one of the younger ones has a tattoo around her left ankle in a pattern two inches high that copies the blossom of the Royal Poinciana.

On Thursday afternoon we checked out of the hotel and were driven in the hotel's van to the dock where the Aranui was docked. Dinner was served shortly after we boarded; we were assigned to the first sitting and ate with Whitey and Marian Leyrer and Ray Hunt, whom we'd met at the hotel. Sailing was scheduled for 7:00 but did not actually occur until about 10:00.

Friday, February 1, was at sea all day. In the afternoon a middle aged Polynesian woman entered our stateroom asking for laundry. The line I had strung down the middle of the room was filled with the mornings wash, but I still had some dirty clothes left and gave them to her. She sat on my bed and carefully wrote the identification of each item in a notebook and then stapled (with two staples) a ticket bearing our room number to each item, even socks, one by one. The laundry was returned, nicely washed but not ironed, during dinner. The ship anchored about 10:00 at the Island of Takapoto, a coral atoll about 300 miles northeast of Tahiti.

On Saturday we and most of the other passengers went ashore by whaleboat for our first landing -- a wet one that required clambering out of the boat and walking about 20 yards on a coral shelf to the beach. Because the tide was out the whaleboat could not reach the dock. We walked along the island's one paved street for its 150 yards and then a quarter of a mile to the lagoon side of the atoll where we were taken by home-made catamaran with outboard motor to a beach across the bay. The water was warm and provided fair snorkeling.

A local pearl farmer gave a lecture with examples on the culturing of the black pearls which can be grown only in local oysters in French Polynesian waters. They start by inserting a bit of shell from a Mississippi River clam. We were served a nice picnic lunch with rose wine in plastic cups, fried chicken, vegetable salad and pate. When we returned to the landing, the Aranui's whaleboats were still unloading cargo; they took us back to the ship on the return voyages. The passengers would wade out to the whaleboat and climb in; when any hesitated a burly Polynesian crewmen lifted him or her bodily into the boat. While awaiting our turn we watched the whaleboat being unloaded by hand as the crew and some men from the island formed a human chain and passed sacks of cement from one to another to the dock where they were piled up. Eventually the whaleboat was lightened enough to float over to the dock and the last (and largest) items were unloaded by a forklift.

Sunday was at sea and on Monday we reached our first Marquesas Island, Ua Pu (pronounced "Wa Poo"). Here the ship was able to tie up at the dock and we could walk ashore without the need for whaleboats. Like the other islands of this group, Ua Pu consists of valleys running from the high interior down to the sea; the valleys are separated by ridges of varying heights that end in precipices at the sea. Some of the more adventurous walked over a ridge to a nearby beach where one got caught in an undertow (but was rescued) and another had an asthma attack. Luigi and I and others of good judgment walked to the crest of the ridge and then returned and explored the village where we found that Rosalie's store sold a 1/2 liter of cold Hinano beer for 240 Francs (a French Polynesian Franc is worth about 1.1 cents). At lunchtime our first Polynesian feast, at Rosalie's Restaurant, included Pacific lobster, squid, marinated raw fish in coconut milk, roasted breadfruit (which tasted like congealed feathers) purple banana poi, roast sweet potatoes and bananas, stewed goat meat, and sweet little fresh bananas. Also wine and generic fruit juice and watermelon. A visit to a local Catholic church showed us the most Polynesian Virgin Mary (complete with fresh floral leis) I'd ever seen. The Aranui sailed to the Island of Nuka Hiva that evening.

At Taiohe, on Nuka Hiva, the ship was tied up to the dock but, because of the shallowness of the harbor at that point, was still far enough away so that passengers had to be taken by whaleboat to a landing point elsewhere on the waterfront, though the cargo could be unloaded by the ship's cranes directly onto the dock. From here on for a week or so the days pretty much resembled each other, with trips ashore in a whaleboat, visits to whatever local archaeological or other sight was to be seen, swimming and maybe snorkeling and then back to the ship. Sometimes we had lunch ashore and sometimes we had lunch on the ship as it cruised to another harbor where it had cargo to unload or pick up. Unloaded cargo was mostly sacks of cement or sugar, drums of gasoline or diesel fuel, beer, frozen chicken parts and potatoes or onions. Cargo taken aboard was mostly empty beer bottles and copra and fresh fruit. There were several woodworking shops where we were permitted to buy if we chose. At one we noticed a very low, elaborately carved one-person bench or stool with a white projection at one end that looked like a shoe-horn with teeth; it turned out to be a coconut meat scraper.

On Nuka Hiva we were taken on a long drive up from the harbor across a high ridge (where we had a picnic) and down into another valley called Taipivai -- it was the valley about his stay in which Herman Melville wrote Typee. At that time each valley was inhabited by a separate tribe of Polynesians whose only contact with each other was warfare. Now the valley appears to be one large coconut plantation. The hillsides looked so steep that I would expect a coconut to fall from the tree and roll down to the road at the center of the valley and then roll down the road to the waterfront, but others doubted that this was the way things happened.

On the Island of Hiva Oa we were taken to a small graveyard where we saw the graves of Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brel. At the entrance was a large wooden crucifix on a pedestal and I saw bees flying in and out of the statue. Evidently they had found a home in Jesus. On Fatu Hiva people still make tapa cloth by beating the inner bark of a tree against a rock with a wooden paddle and they decorate the cloth with ink drawings. Luigi bought a small piece for 500 francs. Back on Hiva Oa we saw the grave of the last Polynesian ruler of the Marquesas, Queen Pomare who was buried with her favorite artifact -- a bicycle. Nearby were several tikis (graven idols of stone) one of which looked like a Santoran of the Dr. Who television series. We stopped at a beach for some swimming; I removed my glasses for the occasion and failed to note that one young female passenger swimming with me had not bothered wearing the top of her bikini. At Ua Huka the ship pulled into a bay so narrow that there was barely enough room for the captain to turn the ship around. Then the anchor was dropped to seaward and whaleboats took lines from the stern of the ship and tied them to bollards on opposite sides of the bay. After another feast at the restaurant on this island we noticed a pig wandering about with a cooked lobster in its mouth. It was called a "gourmet pig;" I suspect that its destiny is to attend one final feast.

At the village of Hatiheu I used the can-opener blade of my Swiss army knife to husk a coconut and nearly filled an empty Hinano bottle with the water from the nut. Here we had a final Marquesan feast with pork that had been cooked in the traditional manner. We saw them shovel the dirt from the top of the pit, then remove the burlap and the banana leaves covering the pigs and then taking the split pigs from the banana leaves on top of the hot rocks that had been put in the pit six hours before. The result is very tender, moist and tasty with little fat; I recommend it to gourmet cooks everywhere. Accompanying the feast was a local band that played a Polynesian variety of rock music with a huge log-like drum, three guitars and a ukulele; there was also some dancing and singing in Polynesian. We returned to the ship in one of our few rainstorms after the whaleboat was no longer needed for copra. Copra is husked and shattered coconuts that have been dried; it is put into 50 kilogram burlap bags and tossed lightly by pairs of Polynesian crewmen into a cargo net in a whaleboat. In addition to being strongly built, these men all have tattoos -- none saying "Mother" or bearing facsimiles of a flag, but in patterns of some artistic endeavor and possibly merit.

On the way back to Tahiti we stopped for several hours at the atoll of Rangiroa. This is one of the largest atolls in the pacific, comprising an oval of islands and reefs surrounding a lagoon about fifty miles long. The Aranui anchored in the lagoon a few hundred meters from a magnificent hotel comprising a large dining hall, separate administration building and two or three dozen cabins, all with palm thatched roofs. Some cabins were next to the beach and some were back a few meters. Near the landing the beach is fine white sand, but it is stony farther away. The snorkeling was magnificent, with many coral heads around which we saw dozens of different kinds of colorful fish. I saw several giant clams and sent a current of water into one by waving my hand; it closed promptly, making me glad I did not stick my finger in it. We were back on the ship for lunch and then reached Tahiti at 6:00 the next morning.

More resting at Le Royal Tahitien. Saturday morning, February 16, Luigi and Marian Leyrer took Le Truck into Papaete and browsed around the various stores. Taxis are expensive and the natives and wise tourists use Le Truck which costs a hundred francs and runs all around the island. It is a truck with benches down the sides and a third bench that runs down the center of the back of the vehicle.

Phil Small, who had been on the Aranui with us and his wife, Audrey, were also staying at the same hotel, and they made reservations for themselves, us, Whitey and Marian Leyrer and Gil Farkar to have dinner Saturday evening at the Belvedere restaurant, which is in the hills 1800 feet above the shore. As part of the 3900 Franc price for a meal the restaurant staff fetches customers in a bus so that they won't be driving the very narrow, winding road up to the restaurant, and then driving down that road in the dark after a big meal with lots of wine. The rain and clouds disappeared just in time for us to see a lovely sunset over the hills and valleys below, the City of Papaete in front and the Island of Moorea in the background to the left.

On Sunday we caught the 9:30 A.M. Qantas flight back to reality.