With unparalleled diving, clear waters and sparsely populated villages, these islands in any other part of the world might be overrun with tourists and traffic.
But what makes Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia so enticing is also what makes it so rare, and exactly the sort of place for yachts.
French Polynesia sits like a welcome mat for mariners crossing the ocean, the first group of islands they find and featuring a wealth of the ocean’s most sought-after gems: fish, mammals and coral reefs in abundance.
Tahiti and its islands are officially a French territory called French Polynesia. The island of Tahiti – the largest – is the main port of call and has the only international airport of the country. There are daily commercial flights in and out, and guests also can fly in on their own jet. Most guests arrive from the Panama Canal, about 4,400nm away.
French Polynesia has 118 islands spread over a territory as wide as Western Europe and divided into five archipelagos. Navigation conditions and access to the various islands are without restriction and no cruising permits are required. Tropical weather dominates year round, with more rain showers falling between November and March.
Superyachts typically visit two groups of islands: the Society Islands, of which Tahiti is part, and the Tuamotus, a long chain of atolls northeast of Tahiti. Each offers different experiences (the atolls are coral reefs encircling lagoons; Tahiti has high and lush mountains). Within each archipelago, distances between islands do not exceed a few hours and are usually done at night.
French Polynesia has a population of only 260,000 inhabitants, half of whom live on Tahiti. There are opportunities for both water- and land-based activities year round, but the area suits nature lovers best, though there are also high-end resorts such as the St. Regis or the Four Seasons.
Provisioning is easy thanks to the network of daily commercial flights but also because French Polynesia imports fresh food and produce from the United States, New Zealand, Australia and France.
There is a new, modern hospital run by French doctors, giving the islands a health care system on par with that in France.
The Society Islands
The Society Islands feature the famous sharp and lush mountains many people associate with Tahiti, but the archipelago also includes Moorea, Raiatea and Bora Bora, among others. Access in and out of lagoons is through natural passes where rivers once flowed. Coral doesn’t grow in fresh water, hence the breaches in certain areas of the reef. There are perfect anchorage spots in the bays of the various islands.
An ideal itinerary of seven-10 days departs from either Tahiti or Moorea, going to Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa (the only two islands in the same lagoon) and finishing in Bora Bora. Guests can fly back to Tahiti on commercial or private jet from there.
The Society Islands offer a good combination of land and water activities. Humpback whales come to the area to mate and give birth during July and November, and there is good whale watching between August and October. It’s even possible to snorkel with them when conditions allow. And there are reef dives, a manta ray spot in Bora Bora and dives with lemon sharks. The islands are home to 12 species of shark.
There are 78 atolls in the Tuamotus. Six of them, with Fakarava being the most famous, are part of a UNESCO biosphere. Great anchorage spots and a unique marine life abound.
A sample itinerary of seven-10 days has yachts sailing downwind from Fakarava, cruising from the north pass of the atoll to the south pass via the lagoon (called Tetamanu or south pass Fakarava: a must-see and a must-dive), then back to the north of the atoll to cross to Toau (which boasts 11 inhabitants), then to Apataki and finally to Rangiroa, the second largest atoll in the world featuring two passes to explore during a dive.
In Rangiroa atoll, there is a pod of wild dolphins in one of the passes. Over the past 20 years, they have become accustomed to divers and now frequently visit seeking a cuddle.
Guests can go on a wine tasting at the Rangiroa vineyard. A French businessman in love with Tahiti and wine had the crazy idea to develop a vineyard there about 15 years ago. It is really worth tasting their couple of varieties of white wines.
At the south pass of Fakarava lie a couple of old human skulls. Nobody touches them but it makes a great place for a treasure hunt. The same area is famous for its desert pink sand beaches, a perfect setting for a picnic or party.
In Toau, there’s still a large number of coconut crabs, funny-looking blue creatures with huge claws that live on land and feed on coconuts. You can lure them with fresh coconuts to come out at dusk.
Rangiroa hosts a nice luxury resort — a great place for a spa treatment — along the lagoon.
And, of course, the Tuamotus are the cradle of black Tahitian pearls and there are pearl farms nearby.
It is possible to cruise both archipelagos in a two- to three-week charter as they are so close. It takes between 17 to 20 hours to cross from one set of islands to the other. Charter guests often stay overnight in one of the resorts and then join the yacht 24 hours later once it has relocated in the Tuamotus, either in Fakarava or Rangiroa. Doing it the other way is possible but the resorts are more high-end in Bora Bora and Moorea (the Society Islands).
French Polynesia does not have many constraints in terms of diving. If on a dive charter, a yacht must use a dive instructor holding a French dive license to comply with local regulations. That regulation does not apply to yachts in private use, however.
Dive conditions are terrific year round. Most dives are shallow (no more than 95 feet) and visibility is excellent, making diving fun for beginners and experienced. And there are several marine sanctuaries in the area, including the UNESCO biosphere.
The Tuamotus are famous for drift dives. The current around them is fairly strong and can reach up to 8 knots in various passes. Drifting in the current allows divers to see a lot of fish, including pelagic. Guests will report they feel like they are flying.
The Tuamotus are also home to marine life that guests can interact with, including schools of hundreds of sharks, wild dolphin in Rangiroa, groupers’ reproduction and frenzy in Fakarava, and reef fauna.
Christelle Hollar gave this presentation onboard S/V Hemisphere to charter brokers and managers at the Antigua charter show in December. S/V Hemisphere, a 146-foot (44m) catamaran, begins a year cruising the area in July. Hollar is operations and communication manager with Tahiti Private Expeditions, which specializes in diving around Tahiti and has assisted more than 60 yachts there. For more information, visit www.tahiti-private-expeditions.com.