TravelQuest in the South Pacific
The Gauguin is based at Papeete in Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia and part of the chain known as the Society Islands. The island is mountainous, with numerous black-sand beaches, lagoons, and two extinct volcanoes, Its scenery and people were often painted by the French artist Paul Gauguin, who lived in Tahiti during the 1890s.
Our South Pacific cruise itinerary is dictated by the location of the solar eclipse’s path of totality across the Pacific Ocean. Still, we always incorporate at least part of the Gauguin’s usual itinerary, which takes us to a number of Society Islands. These include Huahine, possessing lush forests, wild landscapes, and quaint villages, and Raiatea, the most sacred island in the region, where cliffs and waterfalls descend from Mt. Temehani into verdant landscapes. Bora Bora’s jungle-clad peaks, hidden lagoons, and white sand beaches are dominated by the iconic volcanic peak of Mount Otemanu. It is often called one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
Taha’a is a quiet isle known as the “Vanilla Island” because of its numerous vanilla farms. Just offshore of Taha’a lies Motu Mahana, the cruise line’s private island retreat featuring white sand beaches, swaying palm trees, and crystal-clear waters. The lagoon is perfect for swimming and snorkeling, and kayaks are available. Add a seaside barbecue of local specialties, drinks from the floating bar, and traditional Polynesian music and crafts, and this stop becomes a perfect Polynesian day.
Moorea, a very short sail from Tahiti, is often our final stop before the end of the cruise. With its blue lagoons and palm-lined beaches, dramatic peaks and lush valleys, Moorea is a scenically striking island. It’s thought to have inspired the mythical “Bali Hai” in James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.
On two trips we pushed the Paul Gauguin to her limits by sailing far to the east of her normal itinerary. Our goal was Pitcairn Island, best known as the remote South Pacific island where, in 1790, mutineers from the HMAV Bounty found refuge after seizing the ship as it sailed from Tahiti. Even today, landing on Pitcairn is difficult, and sadly, we were thwarted on both sailings. But we hope there will be other opportunities to experience this unique island.
During our South Pacific cruise in 2020, we stop at several of the previously mentioned islands, but we also make landfall at three that we haven’t visited in many years: Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, and Fakarava. Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa are the two largest islands in the Marquesas. This archipelago of some 15 volcanic isles in French Polynesia is located 900 miles (1,400 km) northeast of Tahiti. Unlike most of French Polynesian, the Marquesas lack protective barrier reefs. This means the island’s shorelines are exposed to the might of the Pacific Ocean and are indented with bays or end in abrupt cliffs that are pounded by the Pacific surf.
Beautiful Nuku Hiva is the second largest island in French Polynesia. It’s sometimes called “The Mystic Island” thanks to its verdant valleys, cascading waterfalls, and ancient ruins overlooking surreal blue bays. Taiohae, a charming seafront village and the administrative and economic center of the Marquesas, is an excellent place to find local hand-crafted goods. A short sail to the northwest is Hiva Oa, a realm of deep valleys, thick rainforests, and plateaus covered in exotic flora and lush vegetation. It’s also famous as the resting place of Paul Gauguin.
Fakarava is one of the largest Tuamotu Archipelago atolls, a French Polynesian chain of nearly 80 islands and atolls (plus innumerable reefs). Stretching in a long northwest–southeast arc just northeast of Tahiti, it is the largest atoll chain in the world. Fakarava is designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to the many rare birds, plants, and crustaceans that dwell above and under the water. Here, the snorkeling and diving is superb.