Sailing the Society Islands
A three-week sailing charter in Tahiti was a replenishing break for Sail Connections' Robert Cross, whose report indicates what is in store on a South Pacific charter in French Polynesia's Leeward Islands.
Expectations and Getting Started
Tahiti is a large sailing region covering an area the size of continental Europe, with beautiful atolls wrapped around volcanic island peaks offering perfectly sheltered anchorages. The distances to sail between idyllic spots provides true blue water sailing that is as good as it gets without having to cross an ocean.
Leaving base at Raiatea
Our sailing holiday began with ten days' cruising as the number two lead boat alongside Penny Whiting MBE on one of her cabin share charters. The group of boats included some bareboat charters we had arranged beforehand, giving us the added enjoyment of sailing in the company of a small and well-managed flotilla. Following that segment of the trip, family members joined us for an independent sail around all the main islands of Raiatea, Taha'a, Huahine and Bora Bora, visiting the new and checking up on old favourites.
Here I have adapted our own course to describe a 14-day itinerary that covers the main Society Islands. This is a condensed account of our trip and is intended as an introduction to the joys of sailing Tahitian waters. A more extensive guide that serves as a skipper's reference while on charter is available as part of our charter package.
Setting Sail from Raiatea
The charter yacht bases are at Apooiti and Uturoa, located on the northern end of Raiatea in the heart of the cruising grounds. Uturoa is the main town and the markets are 500m up the road, likely a taxi ride back once laden with groceries for the trip.
Day one can be a tiring experience, and to start your charter it pays to follow a logical plan:
- Arrive at base, introduce yourself and drop your bags at the back of the boat
- Or, if the base manager is ready to do your boat briefing, get that done first.
- Make yourself at home, stow your belongings and check that the boat has all of its inventory
- Make sure there is snorkel gear for everyone
- Send someone up the road for basic fresh produce and to top up a local sim card available from the base
- Do the outboard briefing and ask to take it for a run. Make sure you are 100% happy with the outboard running under load
- All crew do the chart briefing. ask as many questions as you feel you need to
- Depart stocked up for a couple of days, with a plan to shop for full provisions on the islands as you go
- Arrange pre-provisioning of the boat with heavy non-perishables.
Stopping off in Fare
A note here on provisioning. The quaint little town of Fare on Huahine has the best supermarket of all the Islands. It is directly across the road from the wharf where you can tie up, and shopping is a lot easier than doing it all in Raiatea on day one. Bora Bora also has supermarkets so you can plan to have enough on board to cover the time it will take to get to your various destinations. Shopping during the cruise is an enjoyable sojourn into the local culture of each island.
Once away from our Raiatea base, we headed to the motus inside Passe Teavapiti south of Uturoa, with its sheltered anchorage over clear light-blue water. If considering a restaurant meal on the first night, Bay Tepua is an option. Two moorings are available for Hawaiki Nui restaurant guests, just off their dock. Here you will find a good bar, restaurant and nice swimming pool. There are local dances and happy hour on Fridays.
Passage to Huahine
Huahine lies 25 miles to windward of Raiatea, so not everyone wants to bite off this sail on the second day of charter. Our approach is to get it over with, then it's all downwind from there. An alternative is to sail further to the south of Raiatea, covering that part of the trip for another day or two getting accustomed to boating life inside the atoll. It has the advantage of providing a more windward starting point for the long starboard tack across to Huahine.
Set sail no later than 10am when making a crossing, as the winds tend to be less in the morning and the sun will be high, which is helpful for finding an anchorage as it allows you to see the contour of the bottom in clear waters.
We crossed in less than pleasant conditions, but the Catana 47 performed well through the waves. We set a reefed main to steady us rather than plugging straight into the sea under motor alone. Five hours later we sailed through the pass and into the still waters of the Huahine lagoon. The main town of Fare lies inside the more northern of the two passes, with a good anchorage off a lovely beach just inside the pass.
Cultural show in Fare
Ashore we found interesting beachside bars, pearl merchants, small boutique resorts and restaurants. From here it is just a short walk to the main town centre and its markets. Provision from here or come alongside the wharf in the morning for this purpose.
The main store stocks everything needed at reasonable prices. It is not totally correct to describe Tahiti as expensive, if you live as the locals do the prices are reasonable but if eating at resorts, yes of course it will cost. I found wine and most dry goods comparative to what I pay at home. Even the two freezers full of frozen meat from Invercargill (NZ) was not noticeably dearer than the prices we pay in New Zealand. On this note, on the way home in the duty free stores my daughter wanted the latest teenage fashion accessory headphones, which proved to be 30% cheaper duty free in Tahiti than duty free on the way into NZ.
Another bargain-buy in Fare was five freshly caught crayfish for $50 courtesy of a local fisherman on his way back from clearing his pots. It was my daughters' birthday so a crayfish feast seemed like a gift from the gods. What I didn't count on was these crustaceans having names by breakfast, personalities by lunch time and I had to draw the line when dinner was threatened by the suggestion of a Facebook page celebrating the inevitably short lives of our new friends.
The lagoon at Huahine extends along the western side of the island, with just the two passes to the north and none at the southern end. Huahine is actually two islands connected by a bridge. Take an excursion to the other side as an alternative to the longer detour on the boat to a part of the lagoon that offers limited cruising. The two days this would take was not on our itinerary.
The main lagoon is a most scenic experience boasting the best beach in the Society Islands. Huahine has only the one large resort with more focus on eco-tourism. Nevertheless, the signs of life ashore are not what could be described as rustic or native, the houses along the coast displaying a distinct level of affluence. The locals are doing just fine without intensive tourism, giving this island a friendliness that is genuine. The restaurants and bars had a good feeling to them, leaving us with something often missing from the more popular spots in Tahiti: a sense of having received value for money.
Huahine was an all-round good experience and Fare rated our favorite town.
Southern end of Raiatea
We sailed out through the northern pass of Huahine late morning in clear sky with the faint outline of Raiatea on the horizon. As we cleared the lee of Huahine the wind settled to a steady 15-18 knots broad reach at a comfortable 8-9 knots of boat speed. The sailing was enjoyed by all as we relaxed, held on course by the trusty autohelm, keeping a watch out for the occasional boat and an eye on the kids sitting on the tramp watching for whales and enjoying the motion of the boat as the water flowed steadily below them.
Kids at play at anchor in Raiatea
Three hours later we entered the lagoon and crossed to Fa'aroa Bay. The majority of the cruising in Tahiti is on the reef side of the lagoon, rather than directly off the island itself. So Fa'aroa Bay for its contrast is recommended as a must-do part of the itinerary. The bay is something like a fjord, with high, steep sides, cling to which is the coast road that here supports a stretched-out and sparsely populated village. At the head of the bay is a river alongside which lies an old botanic garden and signs of early colonialism. The use of outboards is prohibited on the river, and we found the best way to explore without local knowledge was by guided kayak. The excursion made for a relaxed and charming evening listening to the background noises of life ashore, retained by the perfect acoustics of the valley.
Next morning we made our way to Marae Taputapuatea, where early Polynesian mariners are said to have set sail to colonise the land they called Aotearoa, (New Zealand). This is a sacred religious site and is interesting with stone structures open for close inspection.
After our morning walk we moved along to anchor on the sand to the south of Passe Teava Moa. We spotted over on the main island the blue roof of a modest resort, which proved an excellent stop for lunch and refreshments.
All fed and watered, it was time for a quick swim and then onwards around the island. Next stop was a small lagoon-within-the-lagoon, on the western side of the motu inside Passe Nao Nao. Care must be taken here as a reef 50m out from the shore restricts the anchorage to only a few boats. With clear visibility we navigated into the shallow lagoon and manoeuvred close to the beach to drop anchor and settle back towards the reef. We discovered here the most amazing snorkelling spots, with 4 metres of water above the reef allowing for a great diversity of marine life. And allowing plenty of space to explore the depths as well as enjoying the view from the surface. I give this a 9 out of 10 on places I have snorkelled, and second equal to one other place we shall come to later.
Southern Raiatea to Taha'a
The following day we set out early for the northern end of Raiatea and then on to Taha'a for the night. The west side of Raiatea does not have a lagoon navigable in a charter boat. So we cleared the lagoon through the second Passe Toamare, taking in the view of the leeward side of the island along the way. There is not much of note on this side. A small village sits just inside Passe Toamare with a well-recommended restaurant, but today it was not on our agenda. We had another amazing sail out to sea, clearing the effects of the high land which can create strong gusts, then gybing back onto starboard to head for Passe Raotoanui and turning hard to starboard to pick up a mooring off Anapa Pearl Farm.
It's likely someone will be in the market to shop for pearls on your Tahitian charter. For us the idea of buying them in Raiatea rather than Bora Bora or back in Papeete appealed in providing better value. We also had a most enjoyable guided tour of the farm, including a snorkel amongst the pearl cultivations.
Going ashore in Taha'a lagoon
Taha'a shares the same lagoon as Raiatea, making this voyage a continuation of passage along the coast and past the more populated regions. A short sail took us to Apoopuhi Bay to pick up a mooring. This bay has previously been known as the Taha'a Yacht Club, but has since been sold as a private residence with the moorings under the management of the pearl farm on the headland. We were to learn that the deal is you can use a mooring if you buy pearls. By now we had our allocation of pearls, but we would definitely return on a later trip.
With the weather holding but a windy couple of days set to follow, our plan was to head for Bora Bora now, leaving us a couple of days up our sleeve to return this way and see the rest of Taha'a.
Broad reaching under blue skies over an emerald sea shedding foam, we glided down the waves heading for the iconic peaks of Bora Bora. Once inside the lagoon we turned to starboard to anchor in an expansive shallow area between Topua Motu and the outer reef. Everyone was keen to swim and it was a lovely first night watching the sunset over the horizon after one of those great sailing days.
The next day we made our way through the narrow passages to the south of the island and circumnavigated Bora Bora, ending up anchored just inside the Coral Garden in the south-east. This is a known place for satisfying on-board demand for snorkelling. By then the wind had risen, which detracted from the experience in this relatively exposed spot.
Bora Bora's natural aquarium
The next day we anchored off the resorts with their bures extending out over the bay. Well-dressed charter boat crews are welcome ashore, but phone ahead first or risk being turned around by security at the dock. Once accepted you find yourself in that indulgent resort state, being overcharged for everything bar taking a breath, but feeling very satisfied. There are times that resorts can be a welcome intermission on charter.
We headed up to the open-water aquarium, to watch reef sharks and rays sharing a caged-off area with all manner of smaller fish in a stream of water flowing between two motus into the lagoon. This is a staged event, but nevertheless a most enjoyable experience. Snorkelling in the open lagoon brings encounters with rays and abundant marine life generally, but the sharks are less common and the aquarium was very good for that.
The next day we called into the Bora Bora Yacht Club, picked up a mooring and went ashore for lunch. The management were helpful supplying us with water and ice, and the lunch itself was very good and reasonable. Following this we went to the Marina Mai Kai just around the corner and picked up a mooring. Marina berths are available there, but they are mostly set up for larger vessels. The restaurant there included a band and a shared experience with well-heeled super yacht owners, all of us enjoying good food at reasonable prices.
Back to Taha'a
Heading back to Taha'a, we left early enough to make the open water crossings in time to reach the other end while the sun is high. The trip from Bora Bora to Taha'a is on the wind, and first thing in the morning the trade winds tend to be lighter and more from the north, which provides a better angle into the wind. We made this passage with one long port beat up to the lay line to easily fetch the pass on starboard tack. The passage was a bit lumpy but pleasant enough and the progress out to sea provided a glimpse of a couple of whales.
As an aside, there is a one-way charter option that ends at Bora Bora with a flight back. But it is expensive and as most of this leg is sailed in the lee of Taha'a it is a reasonably pleasant on-the-wind sail.
We turned to port inside the reef and headed around Taha'a in an anti-clockwise direction, stopping in the shallow water out from the Le Taha'a Resort. If resorts are of interest this is the best to be found. It just seems to integrate better with the world around it than the overly exclusive resorts of Bora Bora. Its quality is 5 star+ and the buffet breakfast is a pleasant treat late in the holiday.
The best part is what the resort calls the Coral River. A stream of incoming water flows between two motus. Here the fish are regularly fed by resort guests and so are plentiful and friendly. Take water shoes rather than flippers, anchor the dinghy and walk up the side of one of the motus and drift down in the stream. This is our other 9-out-of-10 snorkelling experience, though very different to the one we had enjoyed at Raiatea. Here the water is shallow and it is best to go at high tide.
Sunset at Fa'aroa Bay, Raiatea
The next day we made our way around the island, stopping to snorkel once more at one of the many motus. With dinner in mind we chose Bay Hamene, which has two restaurants of note. The first is the Hibiscus, which has a cultural evening on Saturday nights, which if pricey was overall an entertaining evening enjoyed by everyone. A newer restaurant is at the head of the bay, which we can recommend for good food amid pleasant surroundings at reasonable prices.
On our last day in the Society Islands we took it easy, relaxing and enjoying the slower pace we had by then become accustomed to. Late in the afternoon we made our way back to the marina to refuel and pack up the boat ready to depart in the morning. We enjoyed a fabulous outdoor concert in the park adjacent to the marina. By this time we felt that we belonged here in Tahiti, celebrating a balmy evening in paradise with the locals.
The Best Sailing Holiday for you in Tahiti
Our crew left this trip inspired to return, next time sailing from the main island of Tahiti to the Tuamotus and ending in the Society Islands. That course offers the prospect of some wonderful downwind sailing and new places to explore along the way. The new Catana 55 Carbon would be the boat to do this on, making fast passages in luxurious comfort. If that does not happen, a cabin share on the Eleuthera 60 stationed in the Tuamotus may have to do.
Bora Bora is on everyone's itinerary and it is an awesome experience sailing up to this dramatic landform. Taking in Bora Bora means Huahine will not be on a seven-day itinerary. Ten days enables the charter to cover more ground and we suggest that's the minimum time to cover the three main Society Islands. Take two weeks, and include Huahine or Maupiti but not both. It takes longer again to cruise all of the Society Islands.
We have the best bareboats available in Tahiti at the best comparative rates. Furthermore a boat charter can cost no more, sometimes less, than a similar-duration holiday at a resort. On a charter, your yacht is your luxury Tahiti resort that takes you to the best places in the company of friends and family. Our full cruising guide, backed by all our knowledge and experience gained chartering in the South Pacific, is yours when you book your sailing holiday through Sail Connections.