A couple of days into our cruise around French Polynesia’s Society Islands on board the elegant four-masted Wind Spirit, I realise why the atmosphere is so laid-back. I haven’t heard one single passenger complaining. About anything.
There are only 129 other people on this cruise and an air of relaxed conviviality settles over the ship from the time we embark in Papeete. The idyllic surroundings of dreamy tropical islands and tranquil sapphire seas are also pretty conducive to an upbeat mood – but the warm, friendly crew is probably the clincher. They sing while they work, enjoy a joke and seem to know what sort of cocktail you’d like before you do. What’s not to love?
And love is certainly in the air, with 10 honeymoon couples on board, but this island-hopping itinerary attracts active solo travellers and small groups of friends as well as romantically minded couples. You can do as much or as little as you like; there are plenty of shore tours to choose from, or ask Cruise Director Jeffrey or Voyage Leader Ana for advice about the best spots for hiking and biking independently. The ship provides bicycles and these two know the islands intimately.
You might want to join a ship’s excursion to explore ancient marae sites, see how pearls are farmed, visit a traditional village, take an eco-tour – or make use of the water toys from the ship’s watersports marina. These include kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and Hobie cats as well as masks and fins for snorkelling. I spend several happy hours swimming around the giant floating mats that are attached to the marina’s platform, the kayaks get a good workout and the snorkelling trips are an absolute standout.
Wind Spirit’s dramatic sail aways have everyone on deck to see the sails unfurling, accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise. When we set sail from Moorea on the second night of the cruise, we are treated to a spectacular rose-hued sunset and the equally spectacular sight of whales swimming close by – everyone is quietly thrilled.
Dinner at Candles on the open deck is one of Windstar’s signature experiences, along with an amazing poolside barbecue on one evening plus special shore events that are laid on once or twice on every cruise. You have to book for Candles but there’s no extra charge; tables are set up outside the Veranda restaurant on Deck 4 and the menu includes simple, fresh dishes – delicious fish, salads, lamb and beef skewers. Perfect for a balmy evening under the stars.
Our first shore event is held on the private island of Motu Mahaea. We arrive early in the morning at the anchorage off Taha’a, an island covered in aromatic vanilla plantations, and we’re ferried – at our leisure – across to the motu by tender. The spa team has already set up al fresco massage booths, yoga on the beach starts at 9.30am, the water toys are waiting for us and the bar staff put on an entertaining cocktail demonstration. Chef Darin and his galley crew create a superb spread for lunch, including one of the best paellas I have ever tasted.
Back on the ship that evening, a local storyteller, Heimau, comes aboard to regale us with stories about his life as the son of a village chief in a tiny village on Raiatea. He is 79 years old, has 19 children by five different women and is immensely charming and funny. The sad side to his tales, he tells us, is that the younger generation of French Polynesians aren’t that interested in tribal traditions – which is one reason he likes to share them with visitors like us.
Wind Spirit anchors for two days off Bora Bora, probably the best-known of the Society Islands. It’s home to some of the world’s most expensive over-water villas and its famous Bloody Mary’s bar-restaurant has attracted top-name celebrities for nearly 40 years. You can read a list of them on the wall of fame at the entrance: such renowned artists as Jimmy Buffet, Julio Iglesias and Ron Wood have played concerts there and a galaxy of Hollywood stars, from Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda to Cameron Diaz and Johnny Depp, have dropped in for dinner or a drink or three over the years.
We make do with a quick lunch at Bloody Mary’s after a morning’s snorkelling on a Viator small-boat trip, still semi-dazed from the amazement of swimming with black-tipped reef sharks, a gazillion tropical fish and then hand-feeding stingrays. Snorkelling in these clear, turquoise lagoons verges on the addictive; if you want to go to the next level, Wind Spirit offers introductory scuba-diving sessions in Moorea and Raiatea as well as dives for certified divers at most ports of call.
Another special shore event takes place on our second evening in Bora Bora at Motu Tapu, a little private island that lies a short boat-ride from the ship’s anchorage. After a magnificent, Tahitian-inspired feast – courtesy, once again, of the hardworking Chef Darin and his crew – we are treated to a powerful display of fire dancing by a group of local performers. The music, sinuous, sensuous bodies and wild moves with flaming torches are mesmerising – and the velvety black sky and silhouettes of palm-trees form a backdrop that couldn’t be reproduced in any movie.
The seven-night cruise is bookended by pre- and post- stays at the luxurious Le Meridien hotel in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia on the island of Tahiti. It’s taken me a week to get my head around the fact that this vast area of the South Seas – some 118 islands scattered over 4,000 square kilometres – is French territory.
While not surprising, it is interesting to learn that there are more hotel rooms in Las Vegas than in the whole of the Austral, Gambier, Marquesas, Taumotu and Society archipelagos put together. That fact alone makes cruising in French Polynesia an irresistible proposition. Sorry, did I hear somebody complaining? •
Photography by Windstar Cruises.
About Wind Spirit
Wind Spirit has four decks and accommodates a maximum of 148 guests and 101 crew. All cabins have double portholes and are 17.5 square metres, except for the Owner’s Suite, which is 20.5 square metres.
All have queen beds, flatscreen TVs with DVD players and Bose SoundDock speakers for Apple iPods.
AmphorA restaurant offers gourmet, course-by-course cuisine in the evenings and Veranda restaurant offers casual buffet and full-service dining for breakfast and lunch. All dining is open seating. Dinner on deck at Candles is by reservation only.
Facilities include a spa, watersports platform, lounge, library, small casino, pool and whirlpool.
Wind Spirit sails seven-day round-trip cruises from Papeete to the Society Islands, plus 10-day round-trip cruises from Papeete that take in the Tuamotu Islands, year-round.