Westward Bound -Last Stops in French Polynesia
Updated: Oct 18
We were in the clearest bluest water watching sharks and stingrays zoom around under our boat. Part of French Polynesia’s leeward Society islands, Huahine is one of the lesser visited atolls in the group especially compared to neighbouring Bora Bora. Its casual laid-back vibe and undeveloped rustic feel made it a welcome next stop after Tahiti and Moorea. With some of the most impressive anchorages we had yet seen, we could easily have whiled away a few months there but alas, we were in travel mode again. Gone were the days of spending six or eight weeks getting to know just one coral atoll. We had a month or so to explore these last four or five atolls before departing French Polynesia for the Southwestern Pacific islands.
The decision to leave French Polynesia was not an easy one and we weighed up the pros and cons for months. Knowing how far we had sailed to reach such a paradise, and the unlikelihood of us sailing back east against the prevailing wind to return, meant we needed to be certain it was the right thing for us to do. In the end, it just felt time to experience some of what lay west. We made a deal though that we would come back on our next lap.
If we had known that some of the best gems French Polynesia had to offer were over in these Leeward islands, we might have ventured there sooner. After a glorious week in Huahine kiteboarding, snorkelling, hiking, and touring the island by scooter, we sailed to Taha’a and Raiatea. These connected islands encircled by a coral barrier reef are far more touristy than we were used to. Compared with the undeveloped Tuamotus, where we had spent over six months, here the shore was lined with expensive resorts and hectic anchorages full of charter boats. It was a bit of a shock to the system but, in spite of those things the clarity of the water and the life beneath its surface kept us entertained all day as we repeatedly swam through a maze of coral teeming with tropical fish.
We spent a morning traversing the calm interior waters of the atoll with me at the helm while Jim barked orders to ‘follow the drone!’ which had again stopped doing as it was told. After some tense moments, several 180 degree turns as well as some 2500 rpm on both engines, the drone was recovered in spite of its insistence to do its own thing. We anchored in a popular spot surrounded by more charter boats while rays of all shapes and sizes including reef manta rays swam around and under our boat giving us reason for pause and appreciation. The shouts of delighted charter guests were a reminder of just how special this place was, and we felt grateful to be there.
Leaving Taha'a, we were escorted by a large pod of dolphins guiding the way towards the iconic peaks of Bora Bora. We entered the western pass amid a feeding frenzy of sea birds diving for bait fish who were in turn being chased by bigger fish, the water almost boiling with activity. Unfortunately, we did not catch a fish even though we dragged our lines straight through the action. We made our way, carefully dodging shallow coral bommies, into a busy anchorage where we tied up to a buoy, as is the requirement in Bora Bora in all but one area where anchoring is permitted. The view from that western anchorage was stunning and we regularly had five or six sharks around our boat. It was easy to see why Bora Bora has long been a sought-after paradise holiday destination, every which way you turn, Bora Bora is a knockout viewed from every angle.
I spent hours paddle-boarding up and back to the outer reef admiring the marine life from atop my board, no need to even put on a mask to have a look, the water was so transparent.
With some good wind forecast we made haste and got ourselves down to the southeastern area where the trades would come straight over the reef and make for ideal kiteboarding conditions. With the drone firmly in its box and turned off, the half-day trip to get there was a bit more relaxing although some areas were less than two meters deep so, we had to keep a close eye on our depth gauge as well as the satellite images of the area. What we found when we arrived was a very idyllic white sand, shallow anchorage, again packed with charter boats while the land was almost exclusively taken up by resort hotels. The beach in front of where we anchored though was a bit lower key and seemed to be mainly occupied by local people living and fishing there.
We decided to take our dingy around the corner away from the shelter to scope out the possible kite spot. We could see kites in the air belonging to a local kite school that operated further around the adjacent corner. We sheepishly laid out our lines and pumped up our kite, half expecting to be reprimanded for trespassing as we had become so accustomed to in parts of French Polynesia. But here of all places, the only approach was from a curious local man who encouraged us to use the beach which backs onto land owned by his family. We kited for hours, ripping around on some of the nicest flattest water we had experienced in a long time, fulfilling many kiteboarder’s bucket list dream to kite in Bora Bora. We took turns kiting with one of us sitting in the dingy while three sharks circled, hoping for the blood they associate with a spearfisherman’s catch.
A visit to Bora Bora wouldn’t be complete without a hike up the mountains or a visit to the famous Bloody Mary’s bar and the Bora Bora yacht club. We ticked off all three and then prepared to depart for the next atoll to the west, Maupiti.
Bora Bora is the last, most westerly port where it is possible to check out so, after completing the formalities and filling our tanks with fuel, we would be visiting any other atolls in French Polynesia ‘under the radar.’ I felt a bit nervous that we were going to be leaving the country after one year. There was no flexibility to reverse the decision once checked out because you must be out of French Polynesia for six months to be allowed enter again on a yacht. In addition, the pass at our next stop is notoriously tricky and weather dependant. In the wrong conditions we could find ourselves unable to attempt to navigate safely through and would need to keep sailing. We had a lot of ocean miles ahead of us to complete our Pacific crossing and arrive safely in Australia towards the end of the year before the beginning of cyclone season and so we departed even though the conditions were not ideal.
After an uneventful passage we arrived outside the pass at Maupiti. The conditions were borderline untenable with the wind gusting up to 20 knots and the swell was just over two meters from the southeast. However, after milling around and studying the white water, Jim decided it would be feasible, if a little nerve wracking. He was correct in his assessment, and we got through just fine.
Maupiti, we heard, is one of the most beautiful atolls in French Polynesia. Its waters are a sublime collection of blues and aqua marines with fine white sand -all very inviting especially after hiking to the peaks of the big mountain around which the atoll is formed. We did that a few days after arriving and the view from the top will stay with me for as long as I live. It was also another kiteboarding heaven, and we were lucky enough to have windy conditions for about three days.
Before departing we were hoping to get some last-minute fresh supplies but after tying up our dinghy and going ashore to the tiny village to investigate, we discovered that the food market is held only once a week on a Friday morning at seven am. Sadly it was Monday.
In one of the little grocery stores though, we managed to buy a dozen eggs after we were told in a hushed tone that there was only one box left and it was spoken for, but the new owners had neglected to pick them up. Eggs, we had learned since being in these leeward islands, are like gold dust and after paying for them we put them discreetly in our shopping bag feeling quite smug. The supplies in Bora Bora had been dreadful and expensive so we had a sum total of six old potatoes, half a cabbage and some sprouting onions that probably should have been binned. This would not get us far in the sea miles ahead but at least I could add carbonara back onto the menu with the addition of these eggs.
Before leaving we walked the road that leads around the whole island underneath the overhangs of rock face draped in greenery and fresh tropical fruit. Children raced around on bikes while adults hung out in doorways sheltering from the sun. Every house we passed had a tomb-like structure in the front garden. On Maupiti they bury their deceased family members in graves in front of their houses, a tradition we would see repeated in other Pacific islands further west.
Our last stop in French Polynesia was the atoll of Mauipha’a. Another very beautiful untouched atoll but this was different. Unlike even tiny Maupiti with a population of about 1,200, there are only nine people currently living on Mauipha’a. The land fringes the interior lagoon where we were anchored and is a coconut plantation. The only people who live here are homesteaders, shipped in, literally from their home atoll of Maupiti. They are there to work the land and harvest the coconuts for Copra. They have nothing but what they hunt, grow, and build themselves. No medical facility, no shops, no school, no church, no internet, nothing. And yet, they do have the dwelling they have built themselves, the gardens they tend that produce the vegetables they eat and the abundance of fish they manage to catch.
We pulled our dinghy up on the beach in front of where one couple live to introduce ourselves. The man was wading in the shallows spearfishing while his wife sat under the shade of a tree chatting in French to some other cruisers. We were introduced to their two dogs and two cats. One of the dogs, we noticed, was tied up to a tree as it barked animatedly at us. ‘He has eaten all the chickens’ we were told. And so, in Mauipha’a they also have a shortage of chicken’s eggs, but they eat the eggs of seabirds instead. We were kindly given about thirty of these small, speckled grey eggs and were assured they are quite tasty if a little fishy.
Later as we lazed in the cockpit reading, we heard the sound of an outboard motor approaching. The same couple had come to offer us five fish they had just speared and would not accept anything in return. They asked us if we would like to know anything about the atoll and we were soon discussing the fish and also a short hike. They told us to come to their house and the man would show us the path behind where they live that leads to the outer ridge of the atoll. Jim cleaned the fish after they left but one slipped out of his hand and into the water. Within two minutes there were four large sharks waiting for the next round of snacks. The step, covered in blood and guts were slippery and I saw Jim move away from the edge and the sharks.
That evening we took up their offer and were guided through their garden to the path where the hike starts, we were amazed by all the vegetables they managed to grow considering these atolls are made of coral and don’t naturally tend to be very fertile. The 30-minute hike through the coconut plantation was fascinating and we could see various dwellings they have built along the path. Along the shore on the interior side of the atoll there were dozens of juvenile sharks not even the length of my forearm. At so young an age they are quite skittish, and we could see them swim away quickly when they sensed the vibrations of our steps nearby. As we finished the hike the couple insisted that we take a seat and the woman reappeared from her kitchen clutching two coconuts with a hole in each so that we could drink refreshing coconut water. Papayas were then placed on the table in front of us as well as more eggs. We were overwhelmed by their obvious joy at giving us things and it seemed so true to me then that the people who have the least so often give the most. We made to leave but were asked if we would like to join them for lunch the next day. I was almost speechless at this kind gesture, and we jumped at the chance.
We returned the following day bringing some spare things we thought they might appreciate and a bowl of pasta salad as a contribution to the lunch. We were shown into their home where we sat at a basic wooden table surrounded by decorative souvenirs; baseball caps and t-shirts bearing the names of previous visiting yachts hung from the walls and they beamed at us as we admired their place and the things in it. They proudly recounted various people and boats they had met like us and these mementos were a sign of their continued connections with cruisers over the years. I realised I had never experienced this level of hospitality anywhere in the world.
A large plate holding the enormous coconut crab they had caught was laid down on the table as well as just caught, freshly sliced sashimi. We had rice and spicy sauce on the side followed by dessert of fresh fruit from their garden. The food was absolutely delicious. The time spent over lunch was an important and rare window into the world of people living a kind of existence we’d never even heard of and we had the opportunity to learn a bit about their life and work on the atoll. The man has a heart condition and has to take it easy although we didn’t see him doing much relaxing. He always seemed to be hunting for fish or working on harvesting the copra. It was also worrying to hear that the copra ship only comes to collect and bring them home when they have met a certain, incredibly large quota of copra production. The ship hadn’t returned for them in two years by the time we met them. I wondered what it must feel like to be so near and yet so far: just over one hundred miles from your home island but completely unable to go there and see family or friends. Without any internet or postal service their only emergency lifeline to the world outside the atoll was via one satellite phone shared by all nine inhabitants.
At a bonfire on the beach with the ten or so other cruising boats we heard of the other generous gestures by the same couple. One afternoon they brought a few families to the outer edge of the atoll and taught them the best way to catch lobster and on another occasion after dark they led people into the coconut forest at night and demonstrated how to hunt and kill coconut crabs. Their desire to give and share knowledge seemed unending and I felt terrible that we hadn’t had the forethought to connect with their families in Maupiti and provide a means for them to obtain needed supplies in bulk; an opportunity to help that would make a big difference to their comfort levels. Another reason to return to French Polynesia next time around.
We were fortunate to spend eleven days in Mauipha’a while we waited for a weather window to go west. In that time, we were able to really slow down and just enjoy the simplicity and uncomplicated way of life there as demonstrated by its inhabitants. In the middle of June however the east wind began to blow again, and we were ready to leave with our bellies full of fresh fish and our hearts and minds so warmed by the people we had met. It was the perfect goodbye to what had been an amazing year in French Polynesia.