Island hop around French Polynesia for a slice of pure paradise

Swimming in crystal-clear waters and sailing from nirvana to nirvana is a dream come true on board Windstar’s Wind Spirit

It didn’t take me long to realise I was in a paradise unlike any other I’d experienced. Within a minute or two of waking on my first morning on board one of Windstar’s sailing ships, Wind Spirit, I had crowned French Polynesia as my new favourite destination. I was hooked, ready to pack up my bags in London, sell my flat and move to this otherworldly, dreamlike utopia.

What was so enticing? Maybe it was the intense azure waters lapping against the bottom of the ship. Perhaps it was the dramatic volcanic landscape surrounding us in the cove in which we’d anchored in Moorea. Being on the opposite side of the world, with nothing but ocean and tiny isles surrounding me, also proved thrilling. Or perhaps it was simply my first glimpse of Polynesian life – sipping coconut milk to melodic local music as the sun beat down on my jet-lagged body.

Whatever it was, I never wanted to escape it.

We’d boarded the ship in Tahiti the day before, after a day of travelling from London to LA and onwards to French Polynesia. Being a lifelong daydreamer, I’d spent many moments creating my imaginary version of French Polynesia. It usually involved landscapes similar to those of the setting of Disney film Moana – the island of Te Fiti, which was inspired by Moorea and another French Polynesian island, Bora Bora. Other daydreams involved either perfectly gliding through the water as I snorkelled with shoals of fish, or strutting along the beach as waves washed up around my newly manicured feet.

The reality was a complete reflection of my daydreams – apart from those parts where I appeared in any way glamorous, as you’ll soon discover.

Water babies

Moorea is the closest island to Tahiti, with just 12 miles between the two, and it was here I lost my heart to French Polynesia. It is, I believe, far more beautiful than its more famous sister islands.

The reality was a complete reflection of my daydreams – apart from those parts where I appeared in any way glamorous, as you’ll soon discover.

Moorea is shaped roughly like a heart when seen from above and boasts eight lush green peaks that rise up from the lower lands to give the island a distinctive and rugged silhouette. 

Travelling with my adventurous husband in tow, we opted to try our hand at Windstar’s ‘Stingray encounter by jetski’ excursion for our first quest. Soon, I was zipping around stunningly beautiful Moorea on the back of a jetski. I could easily spot blacktip reef sharks and stingrays swimming through the crystal-clear turquoise waters beneath us, as we circumnavigated the island in style. 

Gripping on to my husband as we tilted and turned to avoid disturbing the coral reefs, I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. But with my ‘anything he can do, I can do better’ attitude, I soon had an urge to take the reins. However, instead of suggesting this when we pulled up at a beach for a coconut-water break, I insisted my husband swap with me in the middle of the ocean. We awkwardly manoeuvred our limbs around to change positions, as the rest of the tour group disappeared over the horizon.

It’s then I suddenly remembered that I’m a terrible driver and that I hate even a hint of adrenaline pumping through my veins. Having a complete meltdown, I almost flipped the jetski twice and then insisted on driving at a snail’s pace for the rest of the journey, causing our tour leader to bring the entire group back to rescue us and tow me – and a very embarrassed husband – back to land. Not quite the James Bond scene I’d envisaged.

Next, it was off the jetski (thank goodness!) and straight into the water, which is where visitors to French Polynesia spend most of their time. We paddled around with an endless stream of friendly sharks and stingrays before boarding our ship – only to jump straight back off into the bath-warm waters. When Wind Spirit is anchored, guests can jump off the ship’s marina into the water for a dip, head off on a paddleboarding adventure or simply bask in the sunshine on a huge floating platform. At any point, if you’re not soaking up your surroundings from the comfort of the sun deck, you’re diving straight into them. 

Sailing the seas

There’s something extremely romantic about sailing around French Polynesia, a destination where visitors are best off hopping from island to island to appreciate its outstanding beauty. Heading to just one island, as many honeymooners do when they travel to Bora Bora, would be remiss – you can’t travel for 22 hours and only see a small part of a destination. Luckily for us, every day was new as we bounced around this serene and heavenly part of the world.

Our next stops involved a short sail to Raiatea, ‘the Sacred Island’, and neighbouring island Tahaa. Few tourists visit, despite the fact both are believed to be the first islands to have been settled in French Polynesia, so those who do head to either island get a true sense of local life.

Motu Mahaea, off the coast of Tahaa, provided a different experience altogether. This private island is used exclusively by Windstar guests, who spend the day splashing around until they become prune-like, while sipping on rum cocktails and feasting on freshly caught fish. But what distracted me most was the horizon, and how the blues of the sun and the sea would blend into one another like an oil painting that has run and blurred. 

The South Pacific is a destination many dream of visiting, and while Tahaa, Raiatea and Moorea might not be on everyone’s radar, Bora Bora will certainly have cropped up in many travel fantasies. That’s no surprise – the destination is a honeymoon haven. 

But when you’re sampling a bigger slice of French Polynesia, Bora Bora doesn’t stand out from the other, equally superb islands. The only difference is the sheer number of luxury resorts on Bora Bora’s mainland and the adjacent motu islets. Bora Bora does hotels well – there’s certainly no slumming it here, with over-water villas and perfect white sand beaches in all corners of the island.

My highlight, however, wasn’t on land, but underwater. In one excursion in Bora Bora, I donned what appeared to be an astronaut’s helmet for a sea safari, again getting up close to stingrays, angelfish, clownfish and damselfish. But even the snorkelling here was soon overshadowed by my experience the following day on the hippyish island of Huahine, where the locals are as laid back as you can get and the fish swim in their masses. I dived in and, within seconds, my mask was attacked by a sea of colourful creatures that had no fear of the intruder who had just jumped into their territory. 

It’s a place which, even months after leaving, I’m still daydreaming about – and longing to pack my bags and return. 

BOOK IT:

Windstar offers seven, 10 and 11-day sailings in French Polynesia. The seven-day Dreams of Tahiti cruise leads in at $4,199. Air Tahiti Nui offers flights from Los Angeles to Papeete from £759. 

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Windstar’s WIND SPIRIT

US cruise line Windstar’s Wind Spirit sails around French Polynesia all year. It operates three itineraries, the most popular and most regular of which is the Dreams of Tahiti cruise.

 

The 148-passenger tall ship is an old vessel, and while it feels a little dated in parts, the charm of a traditional ship is appealing. It boasts four masts, so it can switch off its engine and sail from island to island when the perfect conditions arise. 

The vibe on board is as far from stuffy and pretentious as you can get. Everything is relaxed, in keeping with the chilled-out, island-life mantra the locals embrace. There is no strict evening dress code other than no shorts in the main dining room. 

On the downside, the public areas are a little sparse, and there isn’t much to do in the evening other than gamble in the small casino, sit on the top deck and drink, or take advantage of the extensive DVD collection and have a movie night in your suite. During the day, this isn’t a problem, though, as you’ll be calling at yet another insanely beautiful island.

Windstar might not have a huge presence in the UK, but it’s one of cruising’s best-kept secrets, with small, charming sailing ships and excellent service.

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What’s new French Polynesia

InterContinental Bora Bora Resort has partnered with ultra-high-end hotel The Brando to create four new overwater Brando Suites. These will provide guests with a stopover on their way to The Brando, located on the atoll of Tetiaroa 150 miles away. Rates at The Brando start from £1,960 per villa per night, including breakfast. The new Brando Suites start at £1,652 per suite per night, on a room-only basis.

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United Airlines has started a year-round route between Heathrow and Papeete, with a stopover in San Francisco. The airline offers three flights a week between the US city and Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. 

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Conrad has opened a new property in Bora Bora. Conrad Bora Bora Nui(pictured) is located by a private cove on Motu To’opua, which is a 45-minute flight from Tahiti. The property has 114 villas and suites including two multi-level, presidential overwater villas with plunge pools.

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Hollie-Rae Brader

Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.

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