Cruising the vivid waters of French Polynesia aboard Oceania Regatta

Bora Bora
Bora Bora. Photography: Stéphane Mailion.

Beyond the glorious sunsets and sublime snorkelling, cruising French Polynesia is a deliciously indulgent experience that reveals a storied region of richly-layered cultures

The fabled isles of Polynesia have long exerted an irresistible appeal for European explorers, artists and writers, and cruising on a small ship is a wonderful way for us mere mortals to experience some of the region’s many extraordinary attractions. I say ‘small ship’ with good reason – some of these incredibly beautiful islands have tiny populations that would be overwhelmed by a sudden influx of megaship passengers. By contrast, the chic Oceania Regatta hosts a more modest 656 guests, so it can easily dock in the larger ports of Papeete and Raiatea, but also access the more remote atolls and islands that larger ships can’t reach.

Over 10 blissful days, Oceania Regatta drops anchor in lagoons so vividly colourful you need to remind yourself you’re not in a famous Impressionist painting, or on a movie set for the latest iteration of Mutiny on the Bounty. Our voyage loops in a leisurely manner between the Society, Marquesas and Tuamotu archipelagos and, as the ship sails across longer stretches of deep-blue shimmering ocean, we begin to understand why the early Polynesian settlers were such skilful navigators. Several thousand years ago, successive generations of ‘wayfinders’, as they are known, travelled across vast areas of ocean, in wooden double-outrigger canoes, to find land, using only their intricate knowledge of the stars and observations of sea and wind patterns to guide them.

A return to tradition

Onboard speaker Dr Tobias (Toby) Sperlich, a cultural anthropologist who is an expert on Polynesia, presents a series of engaging talks that help open our eyes to the complex geographical, social and cultural histories of the islands we are visiting. Community leaders, too, bring their lived experience to the mix. On a shore excursion in Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, for example, our local guide takes us through Notre Dame cathedral in the village of Taiohae, where we learn that in the 19th century the French Catholic missionaries all but destroyed the Polynesian way of life. The first cathedral was built on the site of an ancient, sacred marae, women were forced to cover up, and tattoos, dancing and singing were banned. The building you see today was in fact rebuilt in the 1970s, the original bell towers now serving as the entrance to the compound. Inside, 12 stations of the cross were carved by an acclaimed contemporary Marquesan artist, and one wall features stones from each island in the Marquesan archipelago.

As the 4WD caravan tour makes its way along Nuku Hiva’s steep, winding road into the lushly volcanic Taipivai Valley, past once-hidden villages that evaded the worst of the missionaries’ influence, we are struck by how isolated – and absolutely spectacular – this island still is. Writer Herman Melville famously based his 1846 novel Typee on the few weeks he spent there after deserting his whaling ship and, in 2001, it was chosen as a suitably remote, challenging and photogenic location for a series of TV’s Survivor.

Natural diversity

The low-lying Tuamotu islands of Rangiroa and Fakarava are dramatically geologically different from the mountainous Marquesas and Society islands. Rangiroa is the biggest atoll in French Polynesia – the entire island of Tahiti would fit into its centre – and Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotus. The turquoise waters of these islands’ coral-ringed lagoons are home to a mesmerising array of tropical fish, rays and reef sharks, attracting divers from around the world. But you don’t need to be a qualified scuba diver to immerse yourself in this magical marine life – swimming off a tour boat with snorkel and mask (no fins required) will keep you entranced for hours.

Fakarava was once the ancient capital of the Tuamotus and, while it is still relatively untouched by tourism, visitors can explore the atoll’s idyllic pink sand beaches on foot, scooter or bicycle, and join boat tours from Rotoava village to swim, dive or snorkel. Although the ship doesn’t provide shore excursions to this destination, it’s easy to jump on the tender that drops you at Rotoava.

The Tahitian way of life

Tourism, whether micro or mainstream, is the mainstay of French Polynesia’s economy and, post-pandemic, its scattered island communities are simultaneously rediscovering their ancient traditions and languages, welcoming visitors, and dealing with the influx of French ‘Covid refugees’, which is posing new challenges for locals.

Tahitian pearls are another major source of income, which seems to be a very good reason to invest in a string of the highly prized, precious ‘black’ gems. Or, while you’re at the source, visit a pearl farm to see how master grafters work with black-lipped oysters to produce these exotic, iridescent beauties. An excellent ship’s excursion in Raiatea takes us to the exquisite overwater Anapa pearl farm where you can observe the delicate grafting operation, and maybe add something rare and valuable to your personal jewellery collection. Afterwards, plunge into the surrounding ocean for yet more snorkelling while you take a reality check.

A taste of the islands

On Moorea in the Society Islands, I join one of Heimata Hall’s highly recommended Tahiti Food Tours. Born and bred in Moorea, the entertaining and charismatic Heimata is a US-trained chef who loves introducing visitors to local food you might not otherwise sample. Stopping off at roadhouse cafes, street stalls and, finally, the peaceful Moorea Tropical Garden in the mountains, we taste our way around dishes that have evolved from the Society Islands’ fusion of Polynesian, Chinese and French cultures. It’s fun, fascinating and an opportunity to chat about everything from local politics, religion, language and, of course, food.

Speaking of which – Oceania Cruises’ tagline is ‘the finest cuisine at sea’. This is a big call, so intensive research is required. Over the course of the cruise, my cruise buddy and I dine in every eatery onboard Regatta, and each one impresses. There are two specialty restaurants, Polo Grill and Toscana (bookings are essential but there’s no extra charge), the aptly named Grand Dining Room, casual poolside Waves Grill and our favourite lunch and dinner venue, The Terrace Café. Standout culinary treats are the Chef’s Market Nights, regular events on Oceania’s ships that highlight the cuisine of the regions they are sailing in. In this case, freshly caught tuna, roast suckling pig, Tahitian specialties such as Poisson cru, chicken fāfā and sweet treats involving coconut milk, banana and vanilla are on the menu.

Our cruise comes full circle back to Papeete, Tahiti’s busy port and capital city. Flights back to Australia depart horribly early the following morning, so we book into the laid-back waterfront Te Moana Tahiti Resort to soak up our final, sky-blasting sunset while basking in the horizon pool until the last possible moment. Until next time … Māuruuru roa and au revoir.


Oceania Cruises’ Nautica, Regatta ’s identical 656-guest sister ship, sails eight 10-day Papeete round-trip cruises in January and February 2024 and 2025. Fares start at $8,410 per person for a Concierge Level Veranda Stateroom.

For any special offers, please check with your travel adviser or see

For information about independent tours, including Tahiti Food Tours, see

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