Story and Photography By Ron W. Wetherington
Travel has been my favorite luxury for most of my life and after settling in Ocala I began one of many trips that again would take me to far-flung places around the world. This time it would be an exotic cruise beginning in Papeete, [Tahiti] the capital of French Polynesia, in the South Pacific. Leaving Ocala, I make the decision to stay at the Wingate by Wyndham and arrive the night before an early morning departure. By staying overnight at the Wingate by Wyndham at the Orlando International Airport, I was able to park for free for the duration of my trip.
After a restless night of anticipation at the airport hotel, this day came up clear with winter weather and a chill factor in the twenties. It is a winter being remarked upon for the polar vortex up north and the arctic blast down south. The hotel provides a hot breakfast and I bundle up and board the shuttle for the terminal. To my surprise and relief, I am somehow designated by the TSA to avoid the check-in lines and breeze through security without removing my shoes, belt or the need to take my laptop out of my suitcase. Things are off to an auspicious start and a Starbucks is the next stop for a cappuccino.
The flight to Los Angeles is uneventful, a code share with Qantas and American. The connecting flight on Air Tahiti is a pleasant surprise. The employees, with French accents, are dressed in traditional costume. The dinner is one of the best I have had on any flight. Landing in Papeete there are native Polynesian dancers greeting us. The warm humid perfume-filled air wraps around me like a wet blanket.
The Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and Spa is about two short miles away from the airport and along the way we could see trees resplendent with large white blossoms. Greeting us at the hotel are muscle men without shirts dressed in sarong style Tahitian dress to carry our bags. After check in, I am driven to my room in a small open truck, more like a golf cart than a highway vehicle.
The Intercontinental Tahiti Resort regularly receives rave reviews and has long been considered the premiere accommodations on Tahiti. The hotel is in an idyllic garden setting with two infinity pools and 258 accommodations including over-the-water bungalows and rooms. Posh is the word that best describes this seductive enclave.
My room is filled with fresh tropical flowers in the bathroom and on the desktops. There are polished wooden floors, canopy beds, fluffy white linens and a view off a private balcony to the lagoon. Not sure what the next day will bring but for now I drift off into a deep slumber for some much needed sleep.
I am awakened by the gentle glow of sunrise and tropical birds singing in the distance. My room on the fourth floor faces a lagoon with large swaying coconut trees and the Pacific Ocean beyond. What adventure will this day bring in this island paradise with the chirping birds and the exotic perfumed smell of the flowering trees? I feel as one who has somehow awakened in paradise.
I step out onto the balcony and the warm air envelops me with a loving embrace. My friends tell me in Ocala it is 30 degrees this morning. I am happy to be spending the next several days of our winter–their summer– in the South Pacific. The sun is coming up and I’m taking pictures from the hotel balcony looking out to a gorgeous sunrise with a full moon above. Across the turquoise waters of the lagoon, you can see the mountains of the island of Moorea. French Polynesia is composed of 118 such islands. I move as if in slow motion and linger over a gorgeous buffet breakfast with an omelet bar overlooking an infinity pool.
At 9AM sharp we board a large, modern air-conditioned bus in front of the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort. The tour guide and driver is an older lady with a jolly disposition. I take a seat immediately behind her and listen intently to her running commentary. Her name is Angela and the tour is most enjoyable. Angela answers all our questions and sings Tahitian love songs as the countryside rolls by us like a magical carpet ride.
This is a circle tour of Tahiti which goes around the island and is the best way to see everything. We begin in the capital city of Papeete which is a city of about 45,000 people. Everything is neat, clean and each house is surrounded by flowering plants and a profusion of fruit trees.
It is only 68 miles around the outer edge of the island and takes approximately five hours. The tour is worthwhile. We pass many homes, a local black sand beach and finally arrive at a majestic waterfall where we stop for thirty minutes to revel in the view. Next to a grotto and we did not miss anything along the way.
In this big world of ours, there are some special places which enchant, which simply bewitch the traveler with their charms. Tahiti is such a place. Tahiti is world famous because of the legendary art of its most famous resident, French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Authors such as Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Somerset Maugham and James Michener also have flocked here in search of that special artistic light of inspiration. And who among us doesn’t know the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty as depicted in both print and two Hollywood movies?
Later that night, I am a guest of the manager at the Intercontinental Tahiti Resort and attend the remarkable once weekly show La Soiree Merveilleuse aux couleurs de Gauguin. Absolutely one of the most colorful shows I ever have seen. The rehearsals and choreography take months of preparation. It is authentic native dance that tells a Polynesian story. Additionally, the buffet is sumptuous with every sort of meat and fish availible and a chocolate waterfalls to dip fruit. Simply, it is French cuisine at its finest.
Up early again the next morning and packing for the ship, the Ocean Princess, which is a vessel with the Princess Cruise line. It is one of the smaller cruise ships with 777 maximum passengers and 373 maximum crew. The port is several miles by taxi and after checking in I do some shopping downtown for the day. The Tahiti Pearl Market offers some of the most beautiful pearls in the world. All the shopping is within walking distance of the ship. I feel as if I have left the known world. The mise en scene is like a masterpiece by Paul Gauguin with all the ladies wearing flamboyantly bright colored dresses but very few speak English in the market.
We board the Ocean Princess which is a boutique size cruise ship and the balcony cabin is perfect mid ships. On the table is a bottle of chilled champagne, flowers and chocolate-covered strawberries. The décor of the ship is English club style mostly royal blue with porcelain planters. From stem to stern, everything is in good taste. Dinner is smart casual and I am the only person wearing a blazer that I quickly put on the back of my chair. My fellow passengers are older, obviously well-heeled and many have taken ten to twenty trips as loyal Princess Cruise customers.
The next day we are in Moorea. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen with a turquoise lagoon that looks as if it were photoshopped with emerald cliffs. There is a memorable combination of tropical beauty, native culture and history.
We take a tender to shore and board a modern bus. We pass through lush forests, coconut fields and approach a place in the center of the island called Le Belvedere. The switchback roads are a little unnerving with steep cliffs leading up to a promontory overlooking mountains but the view of the sea is worth the effort. Our ship is in the distant background in one of the two bays, in the center is a pointed mountain ringed with misty clouds touching the top. It’s no wonder that the Bali Hai parts of the movie South Pacific were filmed here. Even to this day, I know every word of every song in the musical South Pacific.
The next morning, as the sun is coming up, we are cruising into Bora Bora. Legendary Captain James Cook first sighted Bora Bora back in 1769. Generations later, over 6,000 U. S. service men and women were stationed in Bora Bora during Operation Bobcat of World War II.
After a light breakfast, I decide to take the coast road passing numerous shops selling black pearls. After several hours, we reach Matira Beach, the only white sand public beach. We then make a final stop at the iconic Bloody Mary’s, one of the island’s most popular restaurants. It’s an experience as you walk on sand floors, sit on coconut stools under a thatched roof surrounded by exotic plants. Lunch is on our own at a lovely beachfront restaurant and the set menu has the potential to flag a red alert on an American Express credit card. After shopping in the very small city center, I return to the ship on the tender ready for a late afternoon nap.
I start the next day at sea with an early sunrise as the clouds whiff by a puffy blue tinged with pink. On the horizon, is a deep blue ocean almost flat with no land in sight. In my cabin, I savor breakfast made up of coffee, pastries and the obligatory orange juice. Next, I make my way to the pool deck, a lovely place with deck chairs and a helpful pool boy dispensing large blue striped towels. After 45 minutes of bright sunlight, it is time to go in rather than suffer from a sun burn.
Lunch this day is special on the top deck in the small exclusive dining room with today’s theme of a British pub lunch of fish and chips. The waiter is a young man from Mexico working under contract with the cruise line for six months. Like most vacationers I am not counting calories and finish the meal with bread and butter pudding. Rich and I can already feel the weight gain from the variation from my regular diet.
Next, I trot off to the Lotus Spa for a “top to toe” indulgence with all of the following: full body Swedish massage, foot and ankle massage, Shiatsu scalp massage and rehydrating facial. The masseuse is from Thailand and a bit rough as I could really feel the pressure.
The evening is formal attire but on a Princess ship this is jacket and tie not black tie. My table-mates are a jolly group, a professor from Berkeley, two ladies from Yorkshire England and another couple from Melbourne Australia. We laugh so much, especially the British ladies with their hilarious jokes. We close the dining room each night.
The cabaret show is Las Vegas at Sea with the usual component of magicians, singers and dancers. All great fun and a long evening.
My table-mates go to the bar and disco upstairs and I retire for the evening to write and read especially exhausted from the sun.
This morning I am awakened by the pitch of the ship and I look out to see whitecaps on the ocean for the first time. Not rough but enough to know you are at sea. The sky is cloudy for the first time. I order room service and have coffee and orange juice, writing some notes on my laptop with the slow satellite connection for email. My friends tell me it was 26 degrees last night in Ocala. I am sitting here with the sliding glass doors open to the balcony feeling the balmy sea breeze. These trade winds refresh my soul.
There is an abundance of activities and groups on board. But during these five laconic days at sea, I hit the pause button and reflect on the past, present and future courses of my life. In the course of everyday life in our age of ubiquitous social media, the sound of one’s own wheels can drive one crazy. It is healthy to escape from the maddening world from time to time. The Ocean Princess offers a complete and total escape. Over high tea, I make some resolutions about my future. Later in the day, the maître‘d arranges for a waiter to pick up the champagne from my room that was given to me by the PR department. They put it on ice and serve it to everyone from our table for dinner. I toast to new friends and adventure. I am suddenly the most popular seafarer at our table.
Up early the next morning for breakfast and join Al, the professor from Berkeley. Later I did my laundry in the machines located conveniently down the hall from my room. Come back to the room with a surprise. Fox News on my television announces that there are 50 to 60 foot waves as we are approaching Hawaii. According to the news reports, surfers are flying in from all over the world for the unusual surf. I am slightly alarmed but purchase Dramamine in the gift shop to be prepared. However, the Dramamine is not needed as our seas remain calm for the next few days and I am lulled into tranquility.
When the Ocean Princess docks at Hilo, Hawaii, I am ecstatic. As both reinvigorating and relaxing were these past days at sea, land has never looked so good. Today’s tour of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park does not disappoint. The lava landscape is dramatic. The Kilauea Volcano is active and spews lava into the ocean. I also tour a Macadamia nut factory and while the Hawaiian Macadamia Granola looks delicious, I satisfy myself with a cup of authentic Kona coffee.
Back to the port and I take the shuttle to Walmart and find very good Aloha shirts that I will probably wear to a luau. As the ship slips out of the harbor at sunset, I luxuriate with a cappuccino on the rear deck watching the whales breach. Some tourists wait a lifetime for a sight so spectacular. I rarely have experienced anything this beautiful.
The next day we dock in Lahaina on the island of Maui and I take another volcano tour. At 10,000 feet, the views are that of a wonderland. We then drive onward to Maui Ocean Center, The Hawaiian Aquarium. Native Hawaiians have a unique relationship with the sea and its life and this center pays tribute to that.
Deciding which Hawaiian delicacy to dine on is a real dilemma. Many Hawaiians and tourists alike choose a Spam dish. Spam is a canned luncheon meat and over five million cans of it are sold each year in Hawaii. They even have Spam festivals dating back to WWII. Instead of Spam, my lunch is a Hawaiian special of Mahi Mahi which is a delicately flavored dolphin fish not to be confused with the marine mammal. I then continue to see Marine Life Presentations before returning to ship late afternoon.
My visit to Kauai known as the “Garden Isle” is filled with breathtaking vistas. Its vibrant botanical gardens are enchanting. Consider also that many visitors to the Hawaiian Islands use helicopters to go from one island to the next. For the sheer ease of traveling and not having to pack and unpack between various hotels, a ship such as the Ocean Princess is admirably suited for seeing all the best that Hawaii has to offer.
My last day in America’s fiftieth state is spent in the capital city of Honolulu. I know I am back in the good ole U. S. of A. in Honolulu finding many of the same stores that are stateside. I can see why so many honeymooners come here as it is such a romantic setting.
But my words are inarticulate when it comes to describing the gamut of my gripping patriotic emotions as I tour the Pearl Harbor Memorial. Fresh tears spring to my eyes when I think of my dearly departed Father’s service to our nation during World War II as he did his duty in the United States Navy while he was stationed in Honolulu. Long moments pass touring the U.S.S. Missouri, U.S.S. Bowfin and U.S.S. Arizona Memorial remembering all the brave men and women who gave “the last full measure of devotion,” to use Abraham Lincoln’s words, in defense of freedom.
After some rerouting due to the onset of winter ice storms, I find myself once again in our Sunshine State. Some claim that Hawaii is the most beautiful of these United States but nothing could beat how good Florida looked to me as when my plane lands at Orlando International Airport. Newly rejuvenated, all that is left to do is drive home, unpack and purchase a frame for my “Crossing the Equator” certificate I got aboard the Ocean Princess.
It is not every day that life does more than just imitate art. Days where life is art are rare. My itinerary in the South Seas was the stuff of which dreams are made. Truly, it was paradise found.