We sailed at night, almost before anyone realised. The ship swivelled silently
off its berth and slipped into the harbour basin. Only when the yellow
lights strung along Papeete’s waterfront began to trickle past to port was I
sure that the voyage had begun. It was a moment I knew I was lucky to
experience, and one that I marvelled should exist at all. Outside lay
Polynesia, ahead the Sea of the Moon; beneath me spread the teak deck of a
fully rigged tall ship.
To spend a week in the South Pacific, wandering among some of its most
evocatively named islands – Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea – was one thing. To do
it under sail on a four-masted clipper was to enter an orbit of high
romance. But every Eden has its serpent and French Polynesia would be no
exception. First, though, came the romance.
The passengers, to a man, had come on deck to witness our departure. There was
a faint squeak at my shoulder and the tip of a sail – the mizzen staysail –
stirred. Then, as if by levitation, it began its ascent of the mast. The
effect was ghostly, a milky sheet rising in the moonlight, apparently
unaided. Two pale jibs materialised, followed by the soaring triangle of the
main staysail. Now the ship was alive, shaking off its temporary
hibernation. What in port had been a dead tracery of rope, stretched
haphazard against the sky, suddenly had purpose, tautened by capstans,
twitched by the wind, running through pulleys. The masts, only minutes
before stark as oaks in winter, blossomed with the foliage of July as sail
after sail unfurled, shook out its creases and swelled with the hot wind of
the tropics. Even the deck seemed to be breathing as the ship began a gentle
The helmsman spun the big wooden wheel and called out his course, 'Three zero
three.’ A woman pulled her husband away lest, in his curiosity, his shirt
became caught in the whirring handles. There was a hiss from the public
address system and as we gathered speed, Vangelis’s throbbing theme from the
film 1492: Conquest of Paradise pounded from the speakers. (It was to
provide the cheesy accompaniment to our every departure.) To my right a
woman passenger was standing at the rail. She was wearing a piratical black
eye-patch. She actually had injured her cornea but just for a second I
looked for a parrot.
Star Flyer is a 360ft steel-hulled barquentine built in 1991, one of three
tall ships in the Star Clippers fleet. For the past year it has been based
in Papeete, Tahiti, making seven-, 10- and 11-day voyages through two of the
five island groups of French Polynesia. On my seven-day voyage, which
started and ended in Tahiti, we called at five of the other Society Islands;
on the longer voyages Star Flyer reaches the remoter and less visited
The ship carries a maximum of 170 passengers. The one thing they have in
common is that they have all managed to persuade themselves that they are
not really on a cruise. And in many respects they are not. There is no
casino, kids’ club or spa, let alone bingo or floor shows. Evening
entertainment is more concert party than cabaret, with a music quiz one
night and karaoke the next. The crew put on a talent show and a Polynesian
group came on board when we were back in Tahiti.
What Star Flyer has instead are sails, more than 36,000sq ft of them:
topsails, gallants and staysails, a spanker, jigger and jibs. There are
belaying pins and blocks, winches and spars; yards, sheets, ratlines and
shrouds. Among the crew is a sailmaker-cum-rigger whose job is to sew
patches in the Dacron – not canvas, which is too heavy and hard to handle –
and work aloft with rope. He is hoisted up the masts in a harness; it is
left to the passengers to clamber up the rigging and into a crow’s nest.
There is also a halyard they can haul to raise a sail, which would otherwise
be done by electric motor. In the old days, of men before the mast, a ship
like this would need a deck crew of at least 60 to sail it. Star Flyer has
17, including officers. Yet sail it does. Its 48-year-old master, Captain
Borówka Brunon, from Poland, reckons to spend 60 per cent of each voyage
Sail defines every aspect of the ship. From the brass portholes to the
mahogany-stained panelling – and what isn’t cast in brass is made of timber
– to the ropework mouldings and prints of windjammers on the walls,
Star Flyer is a sailing ship.
The smallish cabins, with their copious storage, belong to a yacht; the bar is
straight out of Treasure Island. Open on either side to the South Pacific,
it is sheltered by a canvas awning. Along the heavy mahogany ship’s rail
there are glimpses of the mizzen mast stays and the hull of a lifeboat.
There are even apple barrels for Jim Hawkins to hide in. They are rubbish
We sailed all night and half the next day to reach Huahine, 110 miles
north-west of Tahiti. Looking ahead from just behind the bridge – to which
passengers have almost permanent access – it struck me that the view must
have been very similar to the one Captain Cook had on his first visit in
1769. Outrigger canoes – pirogues – came out to meet us and, in
the foreground, the bowsprit rose, as if sniffing the wind, sails piled
along its length, the jib sheets angled tight to the top of the foremast.
Beyond, across a glittering expanse of turquoise sea, was the island, rugged
and green, with trees dense as plumage.
In fact very little of that scene could have been exchanged with Cook, and not
simply because the bowsprit is steel, the sails Dacron and the pirogues
plastic. The island would have looked different too. Much of the vegetation
has arrived since the 18th century. Fruits, such as mango, papaya and
citrus, are relative newcomers. As are forest species such as pine and
acacia, whose feathery tops, flat as mortarboards, are changing the
appearance of many of the islands with their discordant horizontal hatching.
Along the waterfront straggled a line of small houses. These were not
traditional fares, made of wood and thatch to accommodate the climate, but
prefabricated bungalows designed to withstand it, with air- conditioning and
Paul Atallah is an anthropologist and no respecter of myth. He runs a tour on
Huahine dedicated to dismantling preconceptions about Polynesia. Thirty of
us piled on to Le Truck, the classic public transport of the islands that is gradually,
and sadly, being superseded by Japanese minibuses. This one, typically a
brand new lorry chassis with a wooden shed bolted on the back, took children
to school in the week and families to church on Sundays.
We drove to the village of Maeva, at the foot of Mou’a Tapu where, on the
hillside, and inconspicuous to the passer-by, is one of the densest
concentrations of archaeological sites in French Polynesia. Atallah had
worked on their excavation with Dr Yosihiko Sinoto, the leading authority on
the islands’ anthropology. We sat on the shore beside the remains of a
marae, or temple, in the shade of a sacred tamanu tree. Two fishing canoes
slouched on their outriggers, and a couple of men sat in the shadow of an
ironwood tree, while Atallah unpicked the legend of paradise: 'The idea that
the Europeans put an end to a tropical paradise is nonsense.’ The islands,
he said, were violent, populated by constantly warring families,
impoverished, and practised cannibalism and human sacrifice. Their resources
were limited to rock, bone, coral, seashell and timber.
He led us up the hill to where the bush had been cleared to expose a series of
stone terraces, the remnants of a substantial settlement with small fields,
houses and burial chambers between 200 and 500 years old. 'In Hawaii or New
Zealand this would be a National Park,’ Atallah said. 'But here they don’t
understand the significance. It’s still a colonial education with more
European history taught than Polynesian.’
French Polynesia is a French 'overseas country’ – pays d’outre mer. That means
it is French in more or less everything except traffic police and currency,
which remains the French Polynesian franc. Only in the past two years has
the Tahitian language been permitted to be taught in schools. The islanders
are French citizens; their head of state is Nicolas Sarkozy, though they
have their own, local president.
What they also have is an economy Botoxed with aid. France pumps about €1.3
billion a year into the islands, tantamount to a handout of more than €5,000
to every man, woman and child.
Per head they have a national wealth equivalent to Australia’s. Not bad for a
place that imports eight times as much as it exports, and whose major
business, tourism, has been stagnant for years. Hawaii gets more visitors in
10 days than French Polynesia in a year.
Before the ship sailed there had been time to kill on Tahiti. Time is not the
only thing on the island that should fear for its mortality, judging by the
yarns the locals tell. The intrigues of recent Polynesian politics involve a
plot straight out of John Grisham. Allegations of vote rigging, corruption
and cronyism, and the disappearance in 1997 of an over-inquisitive
journalist, Jean-Pascal Courand, make the machinations of Mutiny on the
Bounty look like a tiff in a skiff. The government elected last April was
the eighth in four years. 'Tahiti has its drawbacks,’ Paul Theroux wrote in
his 1992 book, The Happy Isles of Oceania. 'It is expensive, traffic-choked,
noisy, corrupt and Frenchified…’
It was Sunday morning and the Tahitians were at prayer. Those who weren’t were
keeping their heads down in respect for the ones who were. The roads were
deserted. In the village of Punaauia, Holy Communion was being celebrated in
a church that could have been a naive woodcut. It was painted carmine and
cream and had a pencil-sharp steeple and lancet windows dabbed with stained
There was a congregation of about 200, Protestants, in common with more than
half the population. Despite being French, fewer than a third are Catholic:
the London Missionary Society got there first. More than half the
worshippers were women, dressed in white, and wearing either straw hats
wreathed with flowers or 'head crowns’ of little white gardenias called
tiare. The priest wore a loose white shirt and a heavy lei of frangipani
blossom. It was hot. Children ran in and out of the open doors; women fanned
themselves by the open windows. At the back of the church, occupying one of
the varnished pews, six musicians were grouped round a large amplifier.
The service was in Tahitian and the singing, accompanied by keyboard, guitars
and a ukulele, braided with gutsy harmonies. When it came to the Eucharist a
cloth was carefully removed from the altar to reveal a sort of sacred buffet
efficiently arranged in wooden trays, one for the bread, one for tiny
glasses of wine and one for the empties.
Paul Gauguin, the Post-Impressionist painter, took a house at Punaauia on his
first visit to Tahiti in 1891. It was also where Marlon Brando made his
first home after filming Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando’s widow, Tarita, still
has the house; Gauguin’s descendants only got his name. His son Emil, who
died some years ago, was a farmer, his grandson Ato, a hotel receptionist.
Soon after his arrival Gauguin wrote to his wife, 'Tahiti is becoming
completely French. Little by little all the ancient ways of doing things
will disappear.’ He should see it now. Mankind has only ever found paradise
in order to lose it or, in French Polynesia’s case, to nuke it. For 30 years
France tested nuclear weapons on two isolated atolls in the Tuamotus. The
tests stopped in 1996 but, one way or another, France has been paying ever
All of which has gone to create a sort of brat state, one that has income
without output and the promise of Paris coming up with more. There is
effectively no income tax, yet the schools are good, health care is free and
there are excellent roads and a national airline that runs at a loss.
The things that are taxed are the things that visitors buy, not the
breadfruit, coconut, taro and fish that the locals pick, grow and catch for
themselves. Some of the prices make your credit card curl: £25 and £30 for
continental breakfast in hotels is impressive by any standard. (Against that
the ship is good value. Or it was: the shipboard currency is the euro.) What
is impossible to price is the utter eye-pricking, spine-tingling, camera-bursting
beauty of the place. Even the curmudgeonly Paul Theroux allowed that, 'it is
impossible to belittle its natural physical beauty’.
I snorkelled over coral among a confetti of fish off Moorea, kayaked on
Raiatea, and on Tahaa learnt how to pollinate vanilla by hand, flower by
flower, with a toothpick. I ran the gauntlet of black pearl shops on Bora
Bora and saw the latest set of overwater bungalows there at the new Four
Seasons resort. It has a wedding chapel and spa: the chapel looks like a
beachside cabana, the spa could be a cathedral.
But the abiding memories are of colours beyond the wit of chemistry, of
lagoons bluer than eyes and their diadem reefs, the inky ocean beyond; of
cloud steaming off the carcases of ancient volcanoes, clad to their summits
in pelts of vegetation, both thick as fur and fine as flock. And in the
foreground, etched like a Victorian engraving, the masts, yards and rigging
of the clipper that delivered us. If ever a machine was meant to be, it is a
tall ship in Polynesia.
South Pacific essentials
Peter Hughes travelled with Turquoise Holidays, which offers a seven-night
package with return flights from £2,850pp (01494-678400; turquoiseholidays.co.uk).
The price is for two sharing a superior outside cabin, and includes all
meals and return economy flights from London to Tahiti via Los Angeles with
British Airways (britishairways.com)
and Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com).
It does not include excursions. For information on the cruise, visit
starclippers.com. Star Clippers is offering its passengers a discount of
£200pp on flights to Tahiti for all sailings in 2009.