By Julie L. Kessler
The Greek family-owned Variety Cruises, known for its small sailing ships of less than 72-passengers that sails Greece, West Africa, and Mediterranean destinations, in January commenced with two new itineraries in French Polynesia. To this end, Variety brought over its 150-foot, two-masted motorized sailer, the 20-year-old Panorama II, from Greece to Tahiti’s capital, Papeete. This was accomplished not by sailing it there, but far more eco-friendly, it was shipped on a float-on, float-off, super yacht transport vessel.
The third week of January I sailed on Variety’s second Tahitian voyage, on its 11-day, 10-night cruise commencing in Papeete that was scheduled to sail the Society Islands and the lesser-visited Tuamotu Islands, including Rangiroa, Tikehau, and Makatea.
Panorama II has 12 windowed cabins on the main deck containing approximately 100-square feet, 12 porthole cabins on the lower deck with about 90-square feet, and one slightly larger cabin, number A1, on the top deck with a separate seating area, measuring about 110-square feet.
Though cabins are small by river or ocean cruise staterooms standards, they are slightly larger than live-aboard dive ships. Panorama’s cabins possess very comfortable bedding, an in room safe, mini-fridge, and sufficient storage space. Bathrooms have granite-style countertops, built-in hair dryer, make up mirror, and strong water pressure in the good-sized shower.
The 49-passenger maximum capacity ship (we had 45 passengers on this voyage), had 20-person crew. The main deck houses the small bar, coffee/tea station, reception area, indoor lounge where daily briefings are held, and a small outdoor lounge area. Two kayaks, two paddle boards, and snorkeling equipment are also housed here for easy entry into the water. The upper deck has the dining room and main outdoor relaxing area with comfortable chaise lounges.
All meals are buffet style, and served at set times daily, changing slightly depending on the excursion schedule. As the chef – and most of pleasant crew – is also Greek, there were often dishes paying homage to their homeland such as Greek salads, Moussaka, lamb, and fried calamari, served alongside chicken, salmon, tuna, pastas, and burgers. Fresh island fruit and good cheeses were available at most meals. Dress is very casual, and most wore shorts and flip flops for the trip’s duration. All specialty coffees – espresso, cappuccino, cafe au lait – and all wine, beer, and spirits, were all á la carte, as were excursions.
In terms of eye candy, few places in the world compare with the South Pacific in general. Growing up in Hawaii, I’m no stranger to island beauty and warm, pristine waters. Even so, the mere mention of French Polynesia in particular, correctly conjures up ethereal visions of a heavenly paradise with far more than 50 shades of warm azure waters, colorful marine life, and kind, hospitable Francophone Polynesians. And did I mention the delightful French coffee and to die for baguettes at port cafes and restaurants?
One thing to keep in mind with sailing vessels like the Panorama is that due to their smaller size, happily they’re able to dock in more remote locations not available to their larger cruise sisters. That said, also due to its smaller size, any inclement weather will be felt since there are no stabilizers other than its sails. Thus, sailing in and out of Papeete harbor and between the Society Islands in January was rough going owing to the significant Pacific rollers rendering several passengers seasick. Though I don’t get seasick, it was nevertheless uncomfortable and difficult to sleep. During a few meals dishes and glassware crashed to the floor, but the crew didn’t skip a beat.
Additionally, a significant northern swell caused the captain to eliminate entirely sailing to the Tuamotu Islands. For many passengers, this was very disappointing as it was the main reason for embarking on a 10-night, rather than seven-night sailing trip. Thus, if experiencing these lesser known Tuamotus are important to you, or if it’s a repeat trip to French Polynesia and you wish to go beyond the Society Islands, it may be best to take a seven-night voyage then fly onward to the Tuamotus pre- or post-cruise to ensure your arrival.
Our first stop was Raiatea, 120 miles from Tahiti. Docking in the sleepy capital of Uturoa, I jumped on an excursion to Faaroa Botanical Gardens that resembled a horticultural heaven, with chattering Kingfishers, nearly extinct fruit doves, and endemic cicadas. At Taputapuatea Historic Site and Marae – temple ruins – the largest in French Polynesia and classified in 2017 by UNESCO, we were guided by Tihoti, whose full body tattoos were beautifully distracting.
Nearby, the tiny, hibiscus-shaped island of Taha’a provides about 80-percent of Tahiti’s vanilla. Here a drift snorkeling excursion was particularly pleasant as a small boat dropped guests off in the water at the starting point, where we snorkeled downstream for about 30-minutes and then collected for a repeat spin.
On Bora Bora, known for its eyepopping overwater bungalows and dreamy white sand beaches, I took a cultural tour that circled the island stopping at several intoxicating viewpoints, a pareo making center, and near Anau, part of a bunker with cannons left by the US during WWII near the island’s highest point, Mt. Otemanu.
During a Sunday morning jog, I passed locals wearing their finest floral dresses, haku leis, and flower encrusted hats as they made their way to church. It was nearly painful to jog by converted food trucks with the intoxicating aroma of beignets, sweet breads, and other local sweets. As I continued, fruit-laden mango trees teased me mercilessly with their perfumed offerings.
To arrive at a stingray ballet and shark snorkeling excursion, we rode 30-minutes through Windex-colored waters. Plenty of three-to-six-foot black tip sharks and large rays frolicked about and happily, were thoroughly disinterested in making my limbs a part of their rounded diet.
Our next stop Huahine, about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti, is actually comprised of two islands: Huahine Nui, the northern and larger island containing four villages where two-thirds of the 6,400 inhabitants reside, and Huahine Iti, with another four villages. The two islands are separated by French Polynesia’s longest bridge of 240 feet.
Several gorgeous motus – small islands – some habited, dot Huahine’s eastern coast. On motu Murimahoa, we lollygagged in warm waters while our host prepared a lunch of ceviche with coconut milk and rum punch.
Sailing on to Maharepa, on the north side of Mo’orea, I took another boat excursion, this time to near Ta’ahiamanu Beach, to see the famous spinner dolphins. Nature didn’t disappoint and the grace of these acrobatically blessed magnificent mammals is a sight to behold.
We then sailed further west on Mo’orea to nearby Opunohu Bay. Surrounded by dramatic jagged mountains and replete with picturesque small sail boats, it’s here where the HMS Bounty once anchored in search of breadfruit to carry to Jamaica, leading ultimately to the famous Mutiny of the Bounty. Oddly, it did not occur at nearby Cook’s Bay. Regardless of geographical misnomers and open rebellions, this is a bay of breathtaking beauty.
Our last stop was at Tahuna Iti, a bird sanctuary supported by Tetiaroa Society, a stone’s throw from the famous Tetiaroa atoll, once a retreat of Polynesian high chiefs, then owned by Hollywood high priest Marlon Brando. In balmy waters, we traipsed the island’s perimeter where boobys, terns, and frigatebirds all vied for attention. This was understandably Brando’s slice of heaven.
Regardless of whether you opt for the seven or 10-day Variety Cruise itinerary, being in French Polynesia will likely result in prolonged feelings of happiness, muscle strain from too many high-fives, and an insatiable desire to loudly sing. Happy travels!
If you go: International flights to Papeete generally arrive late at night, so travelers will need to arrive a day or two before sailing to ensure embarkation and to explore Tahiti’s offerings, including the Notre Dame, Central Market, and black sand beaches. A lovely spot to hang one’s hat on a secluded black sand beach, yet only 20-minutes from downtown Papeete, is Le Tahiti by Pearl Resorts on Matavai Bay. Polynesian hospitality prevails in a picture perfect setting, with an enormous seafront pool, restaurant, fitness center and spa.