Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Saving the best of French Polynesia for last?

Just 20 miles west of Bora Bora is the beautiful island of Maupiti, our second to last stop in French Polynesia. Like Bora Bora, it has a beautiful mountainous island surrounded by a coral reef. What is missing are all the hotels, cruise ships and tourists.  We have been in French Polynesia for 3 months and been to many great places. What we found when we squeezed in through the narrow channel in the reef at Maupiti, however, was the prettiest island and the most amazing blue water.

There is a town, where we went ashore and met up with Chuck and Lauri from Free Spirit. The town has a church, a couple of stores and a school, all of which service the 1000 residents. We walked along the road to the best beach. It was tempting to pick the mangoes and bananas we saw growing all over the place, but they all belong to someone.

Dina waved down a passing truck, and the four of us hopped in the back and got a ride to the beach. As promised, the beach was beautiful. After a little picnic, we did the obligatory snorkeling which was pretty good. As the afternoon heat started to build it was time to head back to the boats and make some cold drinks. This time we got a ride part way into town in the back of another pickup. We walked along the shore to our dinghies and Malcolm took several photos of Good as Gold and Free Spirit anchored in the beautiful lagoon. Unfortunately, he forgot to clean the salt water off the lens from the snorkeling so none of the photos turned out.

Dina, Chuck and Lauri headed into town early the next morning, to avoid the heat of the day, with the intention of hiking to the top of the island. Malcolm made sure that Dina had a camera and the lens was clean. At some point, a walk becomes a hike and at another point a hike becomes a climb. Our guidebook was good to recommended the lovely beach, but the publishers need to fix the phrase "hike to the top" in their next edition. Almost the entire hike was hand over fist, and there were some fixed ropes to help people! Needless to say, they made it and the view was awesome. Thanks to Malcolm ensuring the camera lens was clean, Dina's photos are great! Chuck used his hand held VHF to call Malcolm from the top. With the binoculars, Malcolm could see them waving. Due to the treacherous terrain, the descent took longer than the climb. The three of them made it back safe but tired.

We were anchored by the town, which was good for beach excursions and little hikes, but we needed to be anchored out near the entrance channel for what was next.

Months ago, back in the Marquesas, we talked to a French cruiser who has been cruising around French Polynesia for several years. Dina took lots of notes and wrote his recommendations on the little charts in our guidebook. The main item that stuck with Malcolm was that the island of Maupiti has a healthy Manta Ray population and they are easy to find near the entrance channel.

So, after a bit of rest for the three climbers, both boats moved a mile south. Rumour has it that the manta rays hang out every morning near the channel marker 200 meters from where we anchored. By then it was 4 in the afternoon, so we planned to find the mantas the next day. In the meantime, we snorkeled to check the anchor. Of course the anchor was fine, so was the big (5' wing span) manta ray swimming near it! It was just a teaser for what the morning would bring.

Before breakfast, we jumped off the back of our boat and we didn't have to go far before we saw a manta, then a second one and we still weren't at "the spot". We watched these two mantas for a bit and then swam toward the channel marker. Sure enough, we saw several manta rays swimming about 20 feet down and several scuba divers resting on the bottom (about 10 feet below the mantas) watching them. At first it seemed odd to have the divers down there, but it really helped us see how big these mantas can be. All the mantas were over 4' across and some were over 6' across!

The mantas were all swimming against the current so they basically stayed around the one spot. They swim with their mouths opens and filter plankton and tiny creatures for food. We positioned ourselves above them and also swam against the current. During this swim, we saw up to 5 mantas at a time. They would "fly" around each other and try to get in good positions for feeding. Malcolm took lots of photos, but didn't have the camera ready when a manta did a back flip!

With huge manta rays in your backyard, a gorgeous mountain vista and crystal clear water surrounding your "home", it is hard to pull up the anchor to leave, but we know more awaits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Another week in Bora Bora

Once Heather left, the rain arrived. We had two straight days of rain followed by a third day of occasional rain. Many other boats had arrived in Bora Bora, the last stop in French Polynesia before officially checking out of the country and heading west to Tonga, via the Cook Islands, or north to Hawaii.

As usual when there are boats moored near each other, there was lots of socializing. Most of us were on mooring balls at the MaiKai Marina. It is the closest to town, were the Heiva festivities were taking place (plus groceries, banks, fuel, propane, etc.). We would often gather for drinks and appetizers on a boat and then all go to the Heiva. Or using the internet at the marina bar would turn into a party.

With Chuck and Lauri, from Free Spirit, we rented a car to tour the island. There are some beautiful views of the central mountain as well as the stunning lagoon and the motus that ring the island. We stopped at the Sofitel resort for fancy drinks and a fabulous view then continued on to Matira Beach to enjoy our picnic lunch. From the beach we could see sting rays. We all jumped into the crystal clear water with our snorkeling gear and swam with them.

Our visas for French Polynesia were expiring so we topped up our diesel, water, propane and gas for Tubby, provisioned and spent about 20 minutes doing our official check-out with the Gendarme. That evening we watched the Heiva finals for individual dancers and orchestras and left Bora Bora the next morning.

First few days in Bora Bora

We had a nice afternoon sail to Bora Bora. There wasn't quite enough wind so we used the motor, along with the sails, to give us an extra push. We could see Bora Bora in front of us the whole way. Somehow that makes it a bit nicer and a bit easier. 

Bora Bora is a rugged volcanic island surrounded by a coral reef. The mountain is quite spectacular and the waters are beautiful. Heather hadn't been to a beach in French Polynesia yet and didn't get to go to any beaches when she visited us in Mexico! Most of the nice beaches on Bora Bora have resorts on them and are private, but there is one nice public beach. We anchored nearby, packed our dinghy (Tubby) with a picnic lunch, some beach towels and books, and spent a lovely afternoon on the beach.

Back at the boat we moved for the night to a mooring ball in front of the famous restaurant bar "Bloody Mary's". The idea is that they provide the mooring balls and you go in and spend money. We checked our shoes at the door (the entire floor is sand) and went to the bar where Dina ordered a Bloody Mary, Malcolm ordered the little known Spiced rum and Dr. Pepper, and Heather ordered a tall blue thing with a piece of fruit on the rim.

During WW2 there was an American base on Bora Bora and there are a few remnants of their stay. In addition to the huge airport runway and some decaying concrete docks, there are some gun installations. We moved the boat north to get closer to one of these and a nearby marea with petroglyphs. Malcolm and Heather went exploring while Dina stayed on the boat (it was too deep to anchor securely). The petroglyphs were not that great, but the gun installation provided a great view and a reminder of how things were in the past.

The annual Heiva was in full swing while we were in Bora Bora. During the day there are sports, crafts and agricultural contests such as javelin throwing, weaving and fruit production. At night there are choral, dance and orchestral contests. The evening events are quite elaborate. The dancers' costumes are impressive and the mostly drumming orchestras are intense.

After visiting 4 islands, Moorea, Raiatea,Tahaa and Bora Bora, Heather took the high-speed ferry to the airport in Bora Bora for her flight to Tahiti and then home to Victoria.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Exploring Raiatea and Tahaa

Our next stop was the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa.  It was a 15 hour sail, so we left Moorea in the late afternoon in order to arrive the next morning in the daylight. The wind was good, but the seas were a bit sloppy. It was a bit uncomfortable for us, and not what we wanted for Heather's first offshore passage. She was a little seasick, but was quite stoic and managed to sleep through most of it.

The two island of Raiatea and Tahaa share the same barrier reef, so we could explore a lot while staying inside the calm waters of the lagoon. As we entered the lagoon near the SE corner of Raiatea, Malcolm was quite impressed with the various shades of blue water and Heather was quite happy the boat was no longer rocking.

Our first stop was at Hotopuu Bay. This bay is quite deep so we had to find an underwater hill where we could drop the anchor. Malcolm and Heather took Tubby out to explore Taputaputea marae (ancient Polynesian temple) at the entrance to the bay. This marae was the most important religious and historical site in Polynesia at one time. After walking around the 5 acre site, they took Tubby out to get a better look at a motu (little island on the reef) and watch the waves crashing on the outside of the reef.

The next morning we went a short way north to Faaroa Bay. We anchored at the head of the bay and took Tubby up the Aoppomau river. The river winds through the tropical jungle, with palms overhead and yellow hibiscus lining the bank. Along the way we met a local, James, who lives beside the river on his family's farm. He invited us up to see the farm where they grow vanilla and various fruits. We bought a bunch of bananas, lots of star fruit, a few papayas and a soursop (like a cross between a pineapple and a watermelon).

We continued north to the main town of Uturoa, and anchored near the reef just off the town. After anchoring, we did a little snorkeling right from the boat. The next morning we hiked up Mount Tapio for a great view of these two islands, the lagoon, the island of Huahine 15 miles east, and the island of Bora Bora 20 miles west. It was clear enough for us to also see Maupiti, which is about 40 miles west. After that, we grabbed a few drinks at a waterfront cafe with reasonable Internet access, reprovisioned at a large grocery store, and went back to the boat.

We motored north through the lagoon to Tahaa, and stopped at Haamene Bay. We heard the Hibiscus hotel had free moorings and a turtle rescue operation. It was a lovely hotel, in a lovely location, but they had to shut down the turtle sanctuary a few years earlier due to new government regulations. That was quite disappointing. In the past, cruisers would be allowed to take the tagged turtles to release them at a certain location nearby. That must have been amazing!

Since there were no turtles, we continued on. We circled the island to the north and anchored near Motu Matarare on the west. Here there is a small channel, between two motus on the reef, where the current comes in and carries snorkelers over some lovely coral populated by lots of tropical fish. This spot is so popular that the fish are accustom to people and come close hoping to be fed. We did this drift snorkel twice. Malcolm took lots of photos and some actually turned out okay.

The weather looked good for a nice afternoon sail to Bora Bora, so we left Tahaa and headed west.