After 18,000 miles of coastal gunkholing and passagemaking, we recently found the sweet spot of cruising life in a little square of tropical ocean. It covers an area smaller than Denver, but has the perfect balance of endless blue seas and vibrant green mountains, of calm coral-protected anchorages and sporty navigational challenges, of totally secluded bays and fancy cheeses at the grocery store.
Affectionately called “the Leewards” in this part of the world, this group of nine islands is part of French Polynesia’s Society Islands, so named by Capt. James Cook for their proximity to one another. The Leewards take up a mere 153 square miles of ocean just west of Tahiti, and they leave a lasting impact on any who are lucky enough to visit.
We arrived in the Leewards toward the end of a two-year wander through French Polynesia. In our adventures, we foraged for fruit in the lush green mountains of the Marquesas, dove with sharks in the perfectly clear lagoon water of the Tuamotus, and toured several black pearl farms in the Gambier Archipelago. Throughout the islands, we clambered up steep paths for stunning vistas, crept through sketchy atoll passes, slept well in perfectly still sandy anchorages, and spent hours in the water exploring the reefs and spearfishing for dinner.
I’d highly recommend spending two (or more) years cruising French Polynesia. If that kind of time is just not feasible, then the lovely Leewards offer a perfect bite-size taste of the best of the larger island group. They have clear, calm lagoons like in the Tuamotus, but with lush green mountains rising from the center, reminiscent of the Marquesas. And they are so close together, the next island is never more than a pleasant day sail away. Perhaps most alluring about the Leewards is that each island in the group has its own personality and character. Our favorites were Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora and Maupiti.
Raiatea is the largest and most populated of the Leewards, and makes a great jumping-off point. It is only a short flight from Tahiti, and several charter companies have bases there. For cruisers exploring on their own hull, Raiatea is also home to arguably the best and most comprehensive boatyard in French Polynesia. There are dozens of anchorages and mooring fields around the island, from quiet anchorages along the outer reef to convenient mooring balls near yacht services. It’s even possible to tie up to the wharf in downtown Uturoa for just a few dollars a day (only recommended in settled weather) to really become part of the community.
Being on the more populated islands like Raiatea provides an opportunity to experience not only the excellent French cheese selection, but also local cultural events such as the va’a races and dance competitions. Even the dance practices are impressive. Once on an evening stroll, we heard drumming and peeked into a courtyard where a local dance group was preparing for an upcoming festival. Spectators promptly invited us in to watch, and my chin dropped when I saw the way the dancers could move their bodies. The drumming filled the space and pulsed through the room. The energy of that combination took my breath away, and that night will always stand out as a highlight of my time in French Polynesia.
Raiatea shares its lagoon with its baby sister, Taha’a. While the two might be related (it is likely they were once part of the same giant volcano), their personalities are vastly different. With less than half the population of its big sister (5,000 to Raiatea’s 12,000), the culture and pace of life are even more relaxed on Taha’a.
Known as the Vanilla Island, Taha’a produces 80 percent of the vanilla exported from French Polynesia. Several companies offer tours of the local vanilla plantations, and they are well worth it. The vanilla plant is a type of orchid and, characteristically for orchids, difficult to cultivate. The bees in French Polynesia have not discovered the delights of the vanilla flower, so each flower must be pollinated by hand. It is a laborious and beautiful process.
A tour of Taha’a is not complete without a visit to its local rum distillery, Pari Pari. Here, they distill small batches of rum from sugar cane grown right next door, re-energizing a crop that is native to French Polynesia (Western traders carried the crop to the Caribbean in the 18th century). The vanilla-flavored rum includes a whole vanilla pod, grown and dried just down the street.
Snorkeling the lagoons in the Leewards is also spectacular, and nicknames like “Coral Gardens” and “the Aquarium” are accurate. It is possible to swim with sharks in the pass, meet friendly rays on the flats, and float over bustling underwater cities full of reef fish. Every island we visited had interesting snorkeling and diving opportunities.
Still, though the lagoon around Raiatea and Taha’a is protected from swell and perfect for snorkeling and cruising, the area is not without its hazards. The lagoons are dotted with reefs and shallow sandbars that can easily wreak havoc on a wayward boat or a distracted captain. Depths can change abruptly, so we always try to travel with strong sunlight overhead, so we can identify the color variation that indicates shallow water. Also note that the red and green navigational markers are opposite of the U.S. system; red is on the left upon entering the lagoon.
Just 20 miles west of Raiatea lies the famous Bora Bora, often touted as one of the most beautiful islands on the planet. The combination of azure lagoon water and dramatic peaks certainly does make for postcard-worthy photos. In World War II, the United States set up a small base on Bora Bora, but luckily the spot saw no combat throughout the war. After the base shut down in 1946, many American troops were reluctant to leave, and I can see why.
Today, Bora Bora is one of the most-visited islands in French Polynesia. Mazes of overwater resorts stretch along the outer reef, offering glass-floor underwater viewing to guests and a distinctive landscape from the peak of Mount Pahia for anyone intrepid enough to clamber to the top. The 2,159-foot climb is not for the faint of heart, with steep, rope-assisted sections and a startling lack of switchbacks, but the trek is well worth the stunning views over the lagoon and out to neighboring Raiatea, Taha’a, Maupiti and Tupai.
The local community in Bora Bora is trying to minimize the impact of tourism, and specifically boats, on their fragile reef system. As a result, there is no anchoring allowed in Bora Bora. Instead, there are clearly designated mooring ball areas, all managed by the same company. It is possible to pay by the night or for a month and then use any available mooring ball in any of the designated areas. This setup does not detract from the beauty or the adventure, though; the snaking route along the back side of the island to get to the southeast corner kept us on our toes. At times, we were midchannel with only 2 feet of water between the reef and our 6-foot keel.
Maupiti, 25 miles west of Bora Bora, is one of the least-visited islands in the Leewards (that has a navigable pass) and maintains a unique old-world charm. The island is only 4 square miles with a local population of about 1,200 people. It is laid-back, enchanting and picturesque. One reason fewer cruisers visit Maupiti is that the pass to enter the lagoon is narrow and can be challenging, so entering is only recommended in settled swell conditions. Once inside the lagoon, though, the water is calm and anchoring is easy.
A walk around the island perimeter only takes about an hour. The hike to the top of Mount Teurafaatiu, Maupiti’s highest peak (1,250 feet), is milder than Bora Bora’s, with equally fantastic views from the top. And as with most of the Leeward islands, Maupiti has a lagoon with fantastic snorkeling along the reef systems. Lucky snorkelers might get to swim with manta rays that come to the “cleaning station,” a known spot in the reef where wrasse congregate and clean the rays that come swooping in.
Across the board, French Polynesia is home to some of the friendliest people on earth. Everyone we met in the islands was welcoming, patient and generous. We don’t speak French very well, but coming equipped with a few basic French phrases went a long way toward getting to know people and enriching the experience. It has also been fun to pick up Tahitian greetings and phrases; responding to the locals in their own language breaks the ice and leads to opportunities to make new friends, share some laughs, and leave with great memories.
I could easily spend another two years meandering through the islands of French Polynesia, from the fruit trees and lush hillsides of the Marquesas to the shark dives and insane underwater visibility in the Tuamotus. I know if I got that opportunity, though, I’d spend most of my time in that perfect little postage stamp, that sweet spot of clear water and tall mountains, relaxing in calm, secluded bays surrounded by stunning views while eating fancy cheeses in the Leewards.
Photos John Guillote