“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” – André Gide (1869-1951), French author and winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize for literature
We know them too well. The little free radicals that nip away at our psyches – work, traffic, taxes, kids, parents, money, health, war, weather. There is less time than ever for ourselves, tempers are afire, nerves are worn, something’s gonna give!
Husband and I needed a true escape. A month-long cruise around several islands of Hawaii and beguiling French Polynesia appealed to us. The voyage was to be round-trip San Diego, CA, with numerous days at sea in a total journey of nearly 10,000 nautical miles. We would follow in the adventurous wake of ancient Polynesian and European mariners and to the lands associated with more contemporary luminaries such as Paul Gaugin, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jacques Brel and Marlon Brando.
Following a fun, traditional New Year’s Eve blowout with special pals in San Diego, we embarked on this voyage at the start of a brand new year.
‘But a month is too long!’
Many wondered how we would get along with each and amuse ourselves for such a long time. This was so not a problem. One can choose to be as active, or not, all day and not just at the cruise-cliché feed trough!
As on all cruises, myriad physical activity is possible – deck walks, yoga, pilates or spinning classes, tennis, ping pong, swimming or putting. Some ships have climbing walls, elaborate water slides, surfer wave pools. There is always a well-equipped gym with helpful staff and personal trainers. I took up Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese moving mediation and gentle martial art. Am an absolute beginner, it will take a lifetime to learn, let alone master. It was tough to balance poses on a rocking deck, occasionally in strong winds, we were often rewarded with exquisite scenery. On a long cruise, you can really reshape your fitness program and body.
There is always a well-planned personal development program based on the travel itinerary. We were treated to informative talks on corals and other sea beings, human influence on marine ecology, birds, orchids and the magnificent stars in truly dark skies. There were interesting lectures about navigation techniques and bare-bones vessels used by ancient Polynesian and later European mariners. From more recent history was a series about ocean-based battles of World War II that occurred right in the arenas in which we travelled.
Of great interest were talks about our ports of call – their history and geopolitical significance, what to see, do, and the best shopping. An expert informed us about creation, quality and costs of fabled, lustrous Tahitian pearls. Did you know they come in hundreds of colours, not just ‘black’? Husband updated and fleshed out his computer skills in a modern computer lab led by a ‘techspert’. The ship’s ‘lifestylist’ orated about ancient and modern health and exercise lore, beliefs and techniques. How we could improve the all-important triumvirate of body, mind and spirit.
There was a good lending library and computers for public use. A movie theatre showed fairly current movies each day. There were classes in various crafts, delectable culinary instruction by ship’s chefs, fun and games of many sorts. There was daily instruction and matches to keep any bridge aficionado occupied. Many of these addicts rarely ventured outside the game room, emerging only for necessary nourishment!
Food was unfortunately always excellent though my new BFF is VFF (that’s veggies, fruit and fish). A specialty restaurant offered exquisite menus and special occasions. Entertainment was quite outstanding. We could enjoy live classical strings, jazz or boogie the night away in several venues. We were treated to superb nightclub-quality music, dance, magic and mixed burlesque performances in the large showroom.
On sea days, onboard shops were open for necessities, souvenirs and jewellery. The casino beckoned for a little entertainment and to coax a ‘donation’. Bingo too, tantalizing us to win the big one! I enjoyed almost daily group trivia quizzes, sometimes rewarded with little prizes. The tougher questions caused heated discussion at dinner time, sometimes with perfect strangers! I am still pals with a few folks on trivia teams from cruises past.
Ah, the places we visited…
After five days at sea, we arrived in Hawaii, a journey that would take just a few hours by air from San Diego. The history, volcanoes, gorgeous islands and waters of this island state must be explored. Take a helicopter over the still-bubbling volcanic landscape or among cliffs, waterfalls and rainbows of Hawaii’s stunning coasts. Snorkel gorgeous coral and fishy waterscapes. Kayak with sea turtles. Visit the moving USS Arizona memorial. Having previously travelled to and around Hawaii, we chose to just walk about these ports of call.
We learned about atolls and how they are formed. Over a long period of time, coral attaches as a ring to a volcanically-formed ‘high’ island. Eons later, the island erodes away or submerges, leaving behind just the coral ring. This may erode into separate ‘motus’ or islands around a central lagoon to which there may or may not be navigable channels. Central lagoons can be quite large. An atoll is not always habitable by humans but is always sanctuary for a rich variety of marine life. Most atolls are at very low sea-levels. Any rise in global water levels from human activity would be dire and is cause for concern.
Two sea days from Hawaii, we arrived at the atoll known as Tabuaeran or Fanning Island, one of the Line Islands in the archipelago nation of Kiribati in the region known as Micronesia. Ocean currents are strong here, the lagoon is relatively small and gaps between the motus are not navigable. So mother-ship remained adrift off the atoll and we tendered to a really different world!
A couple of thousand happy folks live here without running water or widely-generated electricity, but with a church, school and intermittent internet. Only visitors are our ship, some private yachts and small cargo vessels that pick up what Fanning Islanders offer to the world (mainly Norway). That is, seaweed which thrives in the central lagoon and is used to thicken prepared foods. We were greeted by gentle singers, dancers and vendors of shell jewellery or small woven rattan items.
A few more days on, we reached Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, between French Polynesia and Samoan Islands. This archipelago nation is self-governing but in ‘free association’ for purposes of external affairs with New Zealand. A four-wheel drive excursion took us to lovely verdant hills and valleys.
A sea day later, we became fully immersed in French Polynesia, beginning with Raiatea and Taha’a in the Society Islands group. These are a lovely pair, relatively unspoiled, primarily engaged in agriculture (vanilla!) and tourism. We snorkelled in crystal-clear blue water amid stunning scenery. On to Bora Bora, Papeete on Tahiti and Moorea. The dormant caldera of Bora Bora is fabled inspiration for South Pacific’s fictional Bali Hai. Global economic woes have dramatically reduced tourism. Some resorts are shuttered and rotting behind chain-link. Tourism via cruise ship (guilty!) has also had an influence. Papeete is a busy little city, with traffic, sirens and suburbs. Off the beaten track, it offers breathtaking scenery, black sand beaches and a dramatic dormant volcanic caldera. We thoroughly enjoyed Moorea’s more unspoiled scenery and nice snorkelling.
On to Rangiroa, a massive atoll in the Tuamotus, with over 400 motus, about 100 navigable channels and huge central lagoon. Our ship anchored in relatively calm waters inside the lagoon. Calmer lagoons in these atolls promote better growth of large, black-lipped oysters and, ergo, dazzling black pearls. Here, we toured a pearl farm and ‘invested’ in a few for gifts. Our last stop another sea-day away was mainly uninhabitable Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. Cliffs rise straight from the ocean and beaches are negligible. But the isolated Marquesas island archipelago was once home to Gaugin, Melville and Stevenson. Nuku Hiva was recently site of the reality show, Survivor-Marquesas.
Some ‘aha’ moments, few not
Sunsets and rainbows to make one cry. Whales spouting and breaching off Maui. Sleeping on the balcony in balmy temps, lulled by sweet sounds of waves and hum of mother-ship machinery. Daily dates with husband at the thermal spa-ah! Snorkelling in crystal-clear blue waters near thatched cottages-on-stilts, just like in the photos! The Milky Way seeming near enough to reach out and touch. The Southern Cross in all it’s five-star glory, every night! Delish fish for dinner, often. A Bloody Mary at Bloody Mary’s on Bora Bora. Losing January 14 as we crossed the International Date Line, then gaining two January 17’s. Crossing the equator, twice. Flying fish, dolphins, and porpoises. Sweet smelling tiare flowers, gentle folk and welcomes. The lovely church on Nuku Hiva, carved wood statuary blending Christian and Polynesian symbols. My first ‘green flash’ above the setting sun. Enjoying movies and concert DVDs al fresco on a big screen on ship’s stern.
With the good can come the ugly. Gastro-intestinal illness can hit. Beyond passenger suffering and the ugh factor, complex, costly clean-up and detox is needed. Our ship had a brief brush with this. A few folks came down with a GI illness while we were several days out at sea. The ship went into preventive mode for eight days. No public access to shared items and we collectively got over it. The key is to just use lots of ubiquitous hand-sanitizer (should have bought that stock!) and as we were regularly coaxed, ‘wash your hands, wash your hands’.
While snorkelling, we accidentally got some serious coral scrapes. Lucky for us, this coral was probably dead and did not cause infection. Longer cruises can cause crabby passengers – just avoid them. As happened elsewhere while we were at sea, liners can have unintended accidents. The potential loss of life is sad and thankfully rare. Piracy is also possible, and also thankfully rare. Longer or round-trip cruises can have a higher average passenger age. Older retirees can afford the time and funds and the round trip is convenient for them. Though essential for most of us, shipboard internet can be a double whammy of painfully slow and expensive.
Do take a good pair of binocs and a capable camera. If you snorkel, take your own mask to avoid the unknown. Take a first aid kit for small or medium mishaps as the ship’s clinic and dispensary can be costly. Take extras of necessities as you will not find them on most island stops. You need sunblock and hat as equatorial sun is brutal. Try to underpack. Black goes really well with black, you will never see fellow passengers again and you don’t have to attend every single formal night (there were seven on our cruise!).
A long ocean voyage to exotic lands feeds your inner adventurer, slakes thirst for new experiences and rejuvenates in so many ways. Learn, grow, take up new activities, meet new folks or not. Dance into the wee hours with your rediscovered lover. Divest of bad habits, adopt good ones. Cleanse mind, body and spirit.
This journey was a destination in itself with zero frantic sightseeing. We gained at least temporary clarity of mind and are set to face life challenges that surely lurk. A shiny, happy start to this leap and Chinese New Year of the Dragon, of certain political upheaval all over the planet and dire Mayan end-of-times prophecy!