The only real problem with going to Tahiti is that eventually you have to come home. I had been home for two days now, still under its blissful spell. But I’m sitting at dinner. My 3-year-old daughter has just finished smearing yogurt in her hair for the third time today. My 6-year-old son decided to write his memoirs on his bunk bed. A huge pile of laundry threatens to blockade the garage door. Bills await. Chinch bugs have decided our lawn makes a great Vegas-style buffet. The pool pump has gone on the fritz. My husband is caught in traffic. And no one has touched the meatloaf that took me two hours to prepare.
I close my eyes and mumble, “Pure tutae moa” under my breath. I’m praying for chicken manure.
As a way to wish someone well or invoke a special favor from God, Tahitians pray for chicken manure. It all started a few years back. It seems that missionaries who came to the area had boasted that their god was the one true god and had the power to answer prayers. So the chiefs from all around Polynesia gathered on the sacred island of Raiatea, at a sacred marae (stone temple) called the Taputapuatea marae, to test this theory. If the missionaries’ god answered their prayers, then the chiefs would accept the visitors’ story and convert. If not, they would break out the breadfruit and vanilla extract, have the missionaries for dinner, and continue their worship of their traditional god (of war), Oro.
The big night arrived. Long canoe outriggers from faraway islands lined the shore. The other chiefs gathered in a tight and hungry circle. The missionaries laid into a fervent prayer and watched the words rise up to the wide, star-filled firmament, acutely aware of the impending banquet, when some would say a miracle happened. A chicken that had been resting on a branch in the tree lifted its tail and let fly a whopper. The chicken droppings landed ignominiously smack on the head of the big chief. After a wide-eyed pause, the big chief declared it a sign from the missionaries’ God. Oro was relegated to legend. And from that point on, the good Christian people of Tahiti have been praying for chicken manure.
But I’m just praying to go back to Tahiti, soon — like, tonight.
My husband and I arrived late the night our adventure began in Papeete on the island of Tahiti. A full moon, with all of its possibilities, shone in the night sky over the outline of nearby Moorea. Fragrant wisps of frangipani rode the sea breezes, and the alluring dreaminess that has afflicted travelers and sailors for centuries wrapped around us like a magical enchantment. That was how it began.
You will hear many people say that if you travel to Tahiti you should pass through the main island and head on to Bora Bora, Moorea or one of the other Society Islands. Don’t listen to them. While the main city of Papeete on Tahiti will certainly remind you of any busy city in Europe, the rest of this island remains as alluring, charming and exotic as your imagination can envisage. Whispers of ancient legends roam the mountains and jungle-choked valleys, and the diving is cloaked in the same electric blue waters that embrace the rest of French Polynesia.
Let me just state for the record that I am a new diver. I went to Tahiti with a total of five dives under my belt, two of which took place in a lake in Florida where the visibility was about 3 inches and speedboats passed dangerously close to our dive flag every 30 seconds or so. I’d watched my instructors drool shamelessly when I said I was going to Tahiti, but until the sun pushed back the moon over Moorea, and we were headed to one of Tahiti’s most photogenic dives, the Catalina Flying Boat, I didn’t totally understand their Pavlovian response.
Inside the lagoon and within splashing distance of the international airport runway, this World War II-vintage wreck has been on the seafloor at about 60 feet since it was scuttled in 1964. I did my first-ever back flip off a dive boat, and turned stunned, floating in at least 80 feet of viz and staring at the most unbelievable array of marine life I’d ever encountered. OK, I hadn’t really encountered any marine life in my brief career as a mucky lake diver, but this was a metropolis of movement and color.
I must have looked a bit amazed, and perhaps a little bit stupid, thinking, “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out …” because the ever-gallant Bernard Begliomini from PADI 5-Star TOPdive, who was our host for the day, gently motioned for me to follow him, and we descended together into a world I secretly believed, until that moment, only existed in magazines.
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Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground Surprisingly, we passed right over the flying boat as Bernard pointed off into the distance. About 100 feet from the plane rested an old cargo ship called a geolette. As we swam closer, I could see why Bernard was anxious to start the dive here. The 100-foot cargo ship, with its wooden ribs poking up from the sand, looked like a giant skeleton. Bernard stopped to point out tiny nudibranchs and clownfish. Knowing I was new to all this, he took special care to show me all the amazing creatures he clearly, even after half a lifetime of diving, has not grown weary of: moray eels, a stonefish and an unusual (I was told later) green and yellow leaffish that actually danced and moved a bit for us. A bunch of fish I couldn’t identify but thought were cool (my husband told me later they were schools of Moorish idols, oval butterflyfish and squirrelfish) weaved in and out of the ships shadows, lit by ghostly sunbeams filtering through the open slots between the ribs. After circumnavigating the geolette, we passed by the ship’s propeller, which had a halo of some other fish (later identified as yellow butterflyfish) rising and twirling around it like fall leaves caught in a wind.
We retraced our path to the flying boat. It looked as if it had come in for a landing and just happened to end up on the seafloor, and even more than the cargo ship it seemed possessed of a ghostly presence. Completely intact with one wing resting in the sand, you could enter the fuselage (if you weren’t a brand-new diver) through a cargo door, make your way to the cockpit and get a pilot’s-eye view of the ocean. An open hatch allowed an easy exit. Sergeant majors (I knew what those were) guarded the plane, and fierce little damselfish (I recognized those, too) protected their homesteads under the wings with a respectable vigilance. Swimming away from the plane, I could feel the thrill of diving begin to work its way through my veins. I never wanted to be out of the ocean again. Not exactly realistic, I know, but pure tutae moa anyway.
More wrecks waited at another nearby site aptly called the Aquarium. Here, a Cessna and two small schooners rest in what can only be described as coral gardens in the sand filled with so many colorful, flitting fish that it looks as if it has been invaded by an army of undersea butterflies. Jittery clownfish roll and twist in their shag carpet anemones, which hang off the plane’s wings and fuselage. The turquoise water gives the place an aura of magic.
Since our itinerary included several intra-island flights, we had plenty of time to explore the terrestrial side of Tahiti. Usually, for visitors, this entails spreading a towel on a lounge chair and soaking up the lagoon life, which is fine, and we certainly enjoyed a moment or two during our trip. But my husband and I couldn’t look up at the sharp-ridged, rain forest- and waterfall-covered mountains and not feel the compulsion to explore. We were picked up by a man named Vincent from Polynesian Adventure, given a shorty wetsuit and, with a like-minded couple (Dan and Jen, on their honeymoon, of course), we jumped into a 4x4 and bounced our way to the trailhead for what we thought would probably be an interesting, but not terribly challenging, lava-tube adventure.
The trailhead turned out to be an actual lava-tube cave with a river running through it and waterfalls spilling out of its dark maw. The river itself was the trail, which is why we exchanged our cargo shorts for a wetsuit and followed Vincent into the dark. We spent the rest of the day winding our way up waterfalls, through dense and lush rain forest and several lava tubes that had formed 3 million years ago when Tahiti was a rumbling, violent mass forcing its way up from the bottom of the sea. We crawled, swam, waded and climbed through one of the coolest expeditions I’ve ever been on. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone of questionable fitness, but for people with a bit of explorer left in them, it’s one of the most genuine treks you can take, even if you’re on your honeymoon. There was nothing of the usual doting, coddling or pandering of typical tourist excursions. We all ended the day dog-tired and infinitely more impressed with ourselves.
Bora Bora Bound
The next day, we were off to a place that needs no introduction: Bora Bora. The name itself has become an incantation for romance, and fully 95 percent of visitors come on their honeymoons (Dan and Jen had just come from Bora Bora when we met them in Tahiti). We settled in at the TOPdive resort, which serves as a haven for divers who make their way to the island intent on indulging in some of Bora Bora’s big-animal action. And there’s plenty. Rene, one of the owners, had us in the water almost before we’d unpacked our bags. We headed just outside the lagoon to a place called the White Valley, which crawls with lemon and blacktip sharks.
I did my now-expert back flip off the boat and descended. With other divers on the boat, we settled around a coral head in which one of the divemasters had stashed a tuna head. The scent wafted over the fields of hard coral and soon three, then four big lemon sharks started nosing around. And they weren’t alone. Striped grunts, Moorish idols (see, I’m starting to figure out what I’m looking at), surgeonfish and a massive titan triggerfish showed up as well. The titan triggerfish, always enterprising, got a tight grip on the coral holding down the tuna head and, like an Olympic weight lifter, heaved the coral away with its mandibles. I was fascinated by the lemons. Here were these huge creatures just gliding around like wisps of air. Beautiful, untamed, dignified, and then ripping into the tuna head with a fury so focused I couldn’t help but be reminded of Moby Dick. I could’ve stayed for hours watching them, but as quickly as they’d come, they disappeared into the shadows, one swimming within just a few feet of me. I tried staring him down, just to see if he’d notice me, but he moved by me, like a royal dictator, completely uninterested in my obvious adoration and awe. The chicken-manure prayer was working. Later, it went into overdrive, during a lagoon drift dive from Toopua to Toopua Iti.
We were meandering along in the aquariumlike sea as I was enjoying my first sensation of being carried along by the water, when Rene put his hand up to stop. He’d come to a halt at the edge of a sand valley, through which about 50 spotted eagle rays were passing. Their elegance and grace were startling enough that I think I forgot about the breathe-in, breathe-out stuff and got caught up in the reverie of this magical creature.
Turtles in the Mist
Another thing you will find everywhere in Tahiti is images of turtles. The turtle is a sacred animal in these islands. Tahitians believe that eating turtle meat will make them more virile, since it was once the preferred and exclusive meat of the chiefs. Seeing one in the wild, however, is not as common as it used to be. Perhaps there were at one time a lot of very virile men in Tahiti. (And I don’t mean the honeymooners.) But there is a movement to protect these amazing animals, and one of the places working toward this goal is, oddly a hotel called Le Meridien Resort, which houses the South Pacific’s only turtle sanctuary in its lagoon. Guests are only allowed to snorkel with the 1- to 5-year-old turtles. There’s a marine biologist on staff to answer any questions you might have. After five years, the turtles are released back into the wild.
A Night of Indulgence
Besides the sharks, there was one other thing my husband couldn’t stop talking about: his favorite restaurant in the entire Pacific, the restaurant at TOPdive Bora Bora. I have to admit I was skeptical. Days of amazing dives, sharks, turtles, a huge grouper I saw on my own and pointed out to everyone else (I’m good at the huge stuff that bumps into me) had left me just wanting to relax in the room and enjoy being with my husband, away from the kids. Tahiti is really good for that, too. But he insisted that I would not be disappointed.
I couldn’t imagine that we could outdo our culinary extravaganza any more than we had already. But on our last night in Bora Bora, we took full advantage of our stay at TOPdive and enjoyed one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The food was delicious and well prepared, but what truly makes it an indulgence is the unbelievable wine list. Brothers Rene and Lucien Schmidlin travel France and other parts of the world to find the finest selection of wines anywhere and have them sent to Bora Bora. I have now been ruined. My $8 bottle of BV had to be let go unceremoniously when I returned home. That, and chocolate cake will never be the same. Go there. Just eat it.
The next morning, early, we set off for Moorea. My husband had told me many times that Moorea was a special island. When we arrived, I could see why. Moorea is like Shangri-La. OK, all of Tahiti is like Shangri-La, but Moorea especially. Huge mountains of green rise up out of crystal-clear lagoons. There is a peace about Moorea, a quiet calm that even exceeds the other islands’, as if it is saying, “I know who I am.” Famous Cook’s Bay is on Moorea, along with Opunohu Bay, where Cook actually arrived, which we could see from our hopelessly romantic overwater bungalows at the Sheraton Moorea.
Shortly after we arrived on the island, our friend Bernard met us and took us out to a sandy patch called Stingray World, about five minutes from our resort. A young, local French couple had rowed an outrigger to the area and had brought a significant amount of fish scraps for the rays. The seabirds were joining in, too, all in a swirling festival of action. We arrived with Bernard at the climax. We jumped into the water just in time to see several blacktips curiously approaching the site. The small blacktips circled and darted in jolting movements, the birds dive-bombed and squawked, and the rays all but launched themselves out through the surface.
The next day we were back to the famous sharks. On our first dive at the Tiki, about six lemons, which had no notion of personal space, a couple of grays and about 30 blacktips joined us on the outer reef. For about 30 minutes they were our personal entourage. By now I was blasé about sharks. They’d long lost their ability to make me shudder. It happens in Tahiti. They’re always there, like a shadow on a sunny day. In fact, you knew something was off if the sharks weren’t milling around.
Back to the Meatloaf
I’m looking at my family and remembering Tahiti. I think the next time we go, we may have to bring everyone along, yogurt and all. Tahiti is not a place you want to keep from anyone. It’s a place you need to share, to discover together. I still don’t have a single word that could possibly encompass it all, but I am sure when I invoke pure tutae moa the sharks and rays, diamond-blue lagoons and allure will all come welling up through the floor and sweep me off again to the most adventurous and romantic place on the blue Earth.
MUST DO IN TAHITI
Lava Tubes Adventure
Polynesian Adventure will take you by 4x4 deep into the volcanic heart of Tahiti, where you’ll hike up a river and waterfalls in the lush interior rain forest and through several lava tubes.
1. Catalina Flying Boat
2. The Faults of Arue
3. St. Etienne Drop-Off
MUST DO IN MOOREA
Personal Photo Safari
Here’s the drill: Get a rental car for the day, grab plenty of film or digital media and be prepared to stop every 10 feet for a once-in-a-lifetime shot. Every inch of Moorea is a postcard waiting to happen.
1. Stingray World
2. The Tiki
3. Opunohu Canyon
4. The Roses
MUST DO IN BORA BORA
Mandara Spa treatment
On a hilltop overlooking the Bora Bora Nui Resort, Mandara Spa offers an extensive line of treatments — a great start is the Bora Bora Indulgence, two hours of pure Tahitian bliss.
1. Anau (for giant mantas)
2. The White Valley
DECO STOPS: TAHITI
The Society Islands offers plenty to do beyond the famous sybaritic passions. If you’re fit and like a good adventure, hike the Lava Tubes with Polynesian Adventures while on Tahiti. For shopping, check out the market in Papeete, where you’ll find everything from shell leis and vanilla to Tahiti’s renowned black pearls. Sea kayaks can be rented from any resort, and a tour of the crystalline lagoon is a must. Of course, Gauguin fell in love with Tahiti, and a museum of his works is in the town of Taravao. Dozens of stone temples (marae) dot the mountainsides. Surfing is available, or for something more sedate, check out the Botanical Gardens. On Moorea, everything is stunningly beautiful, but start out on an outrigger with snorkel gear and indulge in the amazing colors of the lagoon. Rent a car and take the road to Belvedere for some nice marae and one of the world’s best scenic overlooks of both Cook’s and Opunohu Bay. Hike the lush forests along the Three Coconut Trees Pass (advice: take a guide). On Bora Bora, take a four-wheel-drive excursion into the interior. A motu picnic provides a great romantic getaway. Indulge in some spa pleasure at the Mandara Spa at the Blue Nui Resort.
Special thanks to TOPdive, Le Taha’a Resort and Spa,Sheraton Moorea and Sheraton Tahiti, Mandara Spa, Le Meridien Bora Bora, Tahiti Tourism, Air Tahiti Nui, Avis-Tahiti and the gallant Bernard Begliomini.
As the official publication of the PADI Diving Society, Sport Diver is the magazine divers turn to each month to find out what’s going on in their world. Sport Diver is the ultimate source for up to date information on dive culture, equipment, travel, training and PADI Diving Society activities.