Bora Bora is showing off as only it can do so I find myself a bit player in the performance. As I plunge into its crystal lagoon off a white-sand motu, a dazzling symphony of blue and yellow-tipped butterfly fish dart between my gently flaying legs.
But the show doesn’t end here. I later watch the sun’s blazing descent from the same postcard shoreline, vermillion reflections echoing the flames of Tahitian fire-twirlers stomping on the sand.
Now, as I return to my ship on a tender, a full moon rises behind the film-set silhouette of Mount Otemanu, coating my sleek Star Breeze cruise ship with gold leaf. Honestly, Bora Bora, this is more than enough seduction for a day.
I’m here in French Polynesia as part of a new approach to cruising, one which may well influence other destinations in their attitudes to this globally popular but at times controversial form of travel.
As of January 1, 2022, French Polynesia – 121 islands dotted throughout more than 3000 square kilometres of the South Pacific – announced capacity restraints on the cruise industry, limiting ships that sail year-round in the region to 700 passengers, with transpacific ships stopping by limited to 3500 guests.
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The decision coincides with the lead-up to French Polynesia – classified as an overseas collectivity of France – hosting the surfing competition in Teahupo’o for the green-minded 2024 Paris Olympics.
Some 6127 kilometres east of Sydney and 15,716 kilometres from Paris, Teahupo’o will be the farthest flung Olympic venue outside a host city since Stockholm hosted the equestrian event for the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Teahupo’o is amping up with a range of redevelopments, including its marina as well as those of Puunui in To’ahotu along with the upgrading of Hotel Puunui for the athletes’ village.
And not only is French Polynesia stunningly beautiful, it was also rated the friendliest country in the world for 2022 by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Polynesian women perform traditional dance in Papeete, French Polynesia. Photo: iStock
I have joined this cruise as part of yet another auspicious occasion: a special seven-day “President’s Cruise: Dreams of Tahiti Voyage” through the Society Islands to celebrate Windstar’s 35th anniversary of their French Polynesian tenure.
One of the original cruise companies to explore the Tahitian islands, Windstar has two ships seasonally based in French Polynesia – the multi-sailed Wind Spirit and the recently expanded all-suite motor yacht, Star Breeze.
In keeping with French Polynesia’s new “smaller is better” cruising policy, there are about 200 guests aboard, including not only Windstar’s president, Chris Prelog, but also the actual president of French Polynesia, Edouard Fritch.
“Our choice would be for 300 to 500 passengers, small ships like Windstar,” President Fritch says. “We don’t want to become like Hawaii or Fiji where tourism has taken over the population. We are convinced that our ancestors left us a beautiful legacy; we have to enjoy it and grow it, but not destroy it.”
There’s a maximum of just 312 guests on board the Star Breeze – an increase of 100 passengers after the ship was recently sliced in half and “stretched” as part of Windstar’s $US250 million Star Plus Class motor yacht renovations.
Due to both the intimate shore excursions, as well as a new immersive cultural program that invites traditional entertainers and destination experts onboard for workshops, lectures and deckside get-togethers, there’s the potential for the cruise to become a journey of the mind as well as a relaxing holiday.
In another French Polynesian measure to control tourism numbers, on Bora Bora cumulative cruise passengers cannot exceed more than 1200 guests a day, with the vulnerability of the reef and lagoon as well as shore tour capacity reason enough for the cap on numbers.
But I’m here to savour a cruise in this South Pacific paradise, not just to assess and salute its eco-credentials.So after a simple boarding procedure – COVID-19 tests are no longer mandatory for Windstar cruise passengers, though proof of vaccination and a health declaration is required – I settle into my Star Balcony Suite.
It’s on Deck 5, one of 50 new cabins added during the recent “stretch” procedure.
All of these new suites are configured with the bed by the window; or in my case, alongside doors opening onto a tiny balcony – really just a platform big enough for one person to squeeze onto rather than extended living space.
The original suites are the same size but have the bed near the entrance; guests can choose whichever configuration suits them best.
Regardless of cabin layout, everything in the suites is brand spanking new, from bathrooms to carpet, upholstery, light fixtures and bed linen.
There’s really nothing to indicate that Star Breeze – formerly Seabourn Spirit – is more than 30 years old: and with the stretch – what Prelog calls “major heart surgery” – it’s ostensibly a new ship.
As well as the additional suites, the transformation includes four new fuel-efficient engines, new paint top-to-toe, new teak decking, two additional restaurants and upgraded crew accommodation.
But one thing hasn’t changed – the traditional Star Breeze flag-raising ceremony on departure, accompanied by the stirring 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Greek composer Vangelis.
Although not quite as epic as the unfurling of sails on sister-ship Wind Spirit, the commanding music seems appropriate as we head into the sunset, the surreal vision of Moorea looming on the horizon like a mythical lost island.
Inevitably, the thoughts of the cruise passenger turn to food, as it often will during this cruise. Since 2016, Windstar has boasted a unique partnership with the James Beard Foundation, working with award-winning US chefs throughout its dining programs. And with four restaurants to choose from on Star Breeze – each featuring dishes from up-and-coming culinary superstars – I’m looking forward to quite the gourmet feast ahead.
My choice tonight, as we head into the star-spangled darkness, is Candles – an intimate, open-air restaurant aft of Deck 7 that offers an ever-changing menu featuring the bounty of the land and ocean.
In the soft Tahitian breeze, we dine on offerings such as James Beard-nominated and Top Chef contestant Annie Pettry’s tomato and watermelon salad, Best Chef Midwest Paul Burglund’s roasted lamb rack, and a sugar-crusted creme brulee so delicious, I’m tempted to order another.
But enough. The gentle sway of the ship is posting an invitation for slumber and back in my suite my I leave my balcony door propped open to capture the soothing white noise of Neptune’s realm.
We’ve sailed straight into a dream, a landscape so achingly beautiful, I’m convinced it’s a painted backdrop. As I fuel up on latte and pastries in Deck 8’s Yacht Club, the Captain sounds a three-horn salute to sister ship Wind Spirit, already anchored in Bora Bora’s Tiffany-blue lagoon.
It’s rare that both Windstar ships are in port simultaneously; and, with five sails hoisted for the occasion, the elegant white yacht is quite the welcoming committee.
The drama of Bora Bora is unmistakable, its towering volcanic peaks crashing into a jewel-like lagoon so perfect, it left author James Michener temporarily lost for words. And it’s in the shallows of this reef-ringed crystal aquarium that I’m spending the morning on a snorkel safari with Moana Adventure Tours.
On a sandbar, we hover in waist-deep water as graceful stingrays dance by, winged black bath mats seemingly not averse to human touch, however hard one tries to avoid their velvet underbellies and retracted barbs.
Meanwhile, black-tip reef sharks circle minus the Jaws soundtrack, as non-menacing as the colourful rainbow wrasse, electric blue damsels and striped moorish idols that dart through the surprisingly healthy reef.
But as impressive as the underwater parade is, it’s an impromptu choral performance that resonates most with my fellow cruise passengers. Our guides are siblings Maliki, Sam, Ruma and Dan; and as we potter around the lagoon, they raise their voices in harmonies well-practiced around the family dinner table, accompanied by ukulele and bongo drums.
With the vocal cords of angels, they are captivating in their renditions, from traditional Tahitian songs to Elvis classics; and it’s a heart-warming welcome to their island home (and the popular My Island Home performed by Christine Anu is a feature of the playlist).
The next day, still based in Bora Bora, Star Breeze’s watersports program has been moved from the lower deck platform to a private motu, a five-minute tender ride from the ship.
My plans to paddleboard around the lagoon, however, soon dissipate as I luxuriate in the bath-like water, which is every dictionary definition of blue and the true essence of this seductive paradise.
This palm-clad island is also the setting for Windstar’s signature Destination Discovery Event – an island barbecue featuring Tahitian delicacies such as poisson cru (marinated raw fish), baked moon fish, pig-on-a-spit and freshly-caught lobster, followed by Polynesian fire dance performances.
The food is extraordinary – quite the feat, considering all equipment was shuttled to the island earlier that day. And as for the dancers – well, let’s just say the athleticism and grace that caught the eye of Bounty mutineers back in 1789 still leaves modern-day onlookers gasping. Poor old Captain Bligh didn’t stand a chance.
Raiatea in the Society Islands. Photo: Tahiti Tourisme
The island of Raiatea was once the centre of religion and culture in the Society Islands and is said to be the starting point of the great Polynesian migration, its seafarers following the Pleiades constellation to settle in Hawaii and New Zealand.
Meaning “far away heaven” and the second largest island in French Polynesia, Raiatea is just across the lagoon from Taha’a – the only two Tahitian islands to share a barrier reef.
Legend has it that the two islands were separated by a giant conger eel possessed by the spirit of a princess it had swallowed. Enraged, the creature burst through the centre of the original landmass (then called Havai’i), creating the strait between the islands.
As I kayak along the tranquil Fa’aroa River – the only navigable river in French Polynesia – I’m on the lookout for this sacred eel that now slinks along the sandy riverbed.
While we don’t spy any eels, this reasonably strenuous paddle (the wind-whipped inlet crossing before entering the river proper is somewhat of a workout) is a horticulturalist’s delight, a lesson in Tahitian flora as our guide Vivien points out mape chestnut trees, breadfruit, red ginger plants and the anemone-like flowers of the hotu, or poison fruit tree.
Back on board, the cultural immersion continues with a lecture – rather, a theatrical performance – by Tihoti, the last chief of Raiatea. A tatau artist covered in ink, this ambassador of ancestral culture shares the significance of the Polynesian markings, which symbolise a person’s standing and role within traditional society.
“All the symbols on the body are an enigma, things that mean something inside. In your society, you have books, all the history and knowledge is there. For us, tattoos are our library.”
Taha’a, also known as Vanilla Island for its vanilla crops. Photo: Gregoire Le Bacon
We’ve up-anchored and moved just a few kilometres to the other side of the lagoon, gazing out over pretty, lush Taha’a.
Known as the Vanilla Island, Taha’a grows 80 per cent of French Polynesia’s much-coveted vanilla crop; and while it’s small business in global terms (Madagascar yields 2500 tonnes of vanilla in a good year, as opposed to Taha’a’s 35 or so), it’s enough for the heady, sweet aroma of the hand-pollinated beans — the second-most expensive spice after saffron — to permeate the tropical air.
After an afternoon spent lazing on the shores of Motu Mahaea — a private island where the Star Breeze crew have set up a barbecue lunch, we return to the ship for another feast: dinner in Cuadro 44.
Star Breeze’s latest offering, this intimate, 38-seat Spanish restaurant is the work of James Beard Foundation-celebrated Anthony Sasso, executive chef of the Michelin-starred Casa Mono in New York City.
Inspired by Sasso’s travels around Spain, the tapas-style menu is best shared among friends, with small plates including paella croquettes, pulpo Gallego (charred octopus) and potato tortilla followed by platos grandes, ranging from a Moroccan cauliflower dish for vegetarians, to pork belly and lamb chops for carnivores.
Every bite is a sensation, fresh ingredients shining in an edgy, modern presentation. Grab a seat at the counter overlooking the galley for an intimate view of the well-oiled kitchen team at work.
Cycling around Moorea’s pineapple plantations. Photo: Gregoire Le Bacon
In the Society Islands beauty pageant, Moorea steals the spotlight, her eight mist-swathed, craggy peaks looming above a translucent lagoon and the twin sapphire inlets of Cook’s Bay (Paopao) and Opunohu Bay.
Today, I’m eschewing underwater temptations for a vigorous bicycle ride around this supermodel’s foreshore, climbing past pineapple plantations and an ancient marae to the heights of Belvedere Lookout for spectacular views back towards our ship.
Fortunately, I have a secret weapon – my chariot is an e-bike, the electric motor kicking in to take the pressure off my burning calf muscles as I tackle the steep gradient. For future reference, I’ll never ride a regular bicycle again.
Despite ample lounge space in the Compass Rose and the panoramic Yacht Club, Tahiti’s balmy weather lends itself to outdoor relaxation; and on this cruise, the social hub is definitely the Star Grill, deckside near the swimming pool.
Whether sitting around the bar scoffing the world’s best (and most potent) pina coladas, or grabbing a bite from the grill menu designed by James Beard-awarded Stephen Raichlen (creator of the Barbecue University at Colorado’s Broadmoor Resort), this casual hangout is the place to dine under the stars, listen to live music, and compare shore notes with newfound friends.
The turquoise shores of Moorea. Photo: Windstar Cruises
To accommodate tourists visiting Tahiti during the Games, there’s a renewed focus on supporting local guesthouses and homestays, with floating accommodations and cruise ships also being used during the event.
“There is a high demand for immersive tourism,” President Fritch said. “That’s the reason why we are actively and financially supporting the creation of Tahitian guesthouses. We are supporting it because parts of our market would like to experience more of the daily life of the Polynesian, to feel that mana.”
From a guest perspective, it’s this authentic, local experience of the Tahitian islands – which receives as many visitors per year as Oahu does in a month — that sets Windstar cruises apart from its larger competitors.
It’s not quite the local experience I could have possibly conjured but the President of French Polynesia has invited every guest from Star Breeze to his presidential palace in Papeete for a cocktail party.
As Star Breeze makes the short commute from Moorea to the Tahitian capital, guests fuss over hair and makeup, donning their most glamorous finery for the special occasion.
Fine wine and canapes are served in a fairy-lit garden where there are Tahitian dancers and a black pearl fashion parade.
The grounds are as glorious as expected, ablaze with tropical flowers; while the interior of the two-storey colonial mansion (I sneak a peek, a generous security guard allowing me access up the spiral staircase to the upstairs balcony) is grand and imposing.
But this is Tahiti; and true to its grass-roots core, there are chickens strutting through the palace grounds. Chooks are everywhere, in fact ruling the presidential roost.
It really doesn’t get more authentically South Pacific than that and after all of those languorous days aboard a floating palace it’s the perfect leveller in a truly paradisiacal part of the world striving to welcome the world back but on its terms.
Windstar’s seven-night Dreams of Tahiti itinerary is available year-round in 2023 on Wind Spirit from $7331 a person twin share (March 9-16 2023 sailing). Star Breeze will replace Wind Spirit and make the region its home year-round from February 2024. Phone 1300 749 875. See windstar.com.au
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Papeete via Auckland. An overnight stay in Auckland may be necessary, depending on connections. See airnewzealand.com.au
The writer travelled as a guest of Windstar.
Tahiti may have a reputation as a luxury destination but budget options – small guesthouses and home stays – are being supported by the government to attract a more rounded traveller keen to experience the culture of French Polynesia firsthand.
Black pearls are unique to the Tahitian Islands, the mysterious dark colouration due to the black-lipped oyster it is grown in. Visit a pearl farm to learn about the grafting process, or pay a visit to the pearl museum in the high-end Robert Wan store in Papeete.
On the west coast of Taha’a, a strong current in the lagoon makes snorkelling a breeze as you drift through a coral garden located between two motus — unique in Polynesia, with a spectacular variety of tropical fish and amazing corals.
Once visited by kings from neighbouring islands, this important ceremonial, political and funerary centre on Raiatea today holds great significance for all Polynesian people, symbolising their origins and connecting them with their ancestors.
It may set you back a deeply tanned arm and a leg, but what more romantic place to honeymoon – or just hang out with a loved one – than the iconic overwater bungalows of Bora Bora or Moorea? Go on, you know you want to.