Island paradise and a luxury liner equals a bucket-list vacation
Welcome to Paradise,’ says our guide Mawaii as we settle into the air-conditioned tour bus.
He is not wrong. The sun shines on the French Polynesian island of Moorea and we are surrounded by lush forests, beautiful flowers and fabulous fruits. I’ve wanted to see the South Pacific ever since I first heard Bloody Mary sing “Bali Ha’i” and reality doesn’t disappoint: the three long flights from Edinburgh it took to get to the starting point Papeete in Tahiti were well worth it.
Moorea has a population of 20,000 spread over five villages, there are no dangerous animals, and crime is unknown. The scenery makes it popular with filmmakers: we stop at Opunohu Bay, where Mel Gibson filmed Mutiny on the Bounty.
Mawaii cuts her comment short for ten minutes while our driver concentrates on a single lane, very narrow and very dangerous section of road, honking at every bend to warn oncoming traffic. The reward for his efforts is a world-class view of Moorea’s mountains, sugarcane, coconut and pineapple plantations, mahogany and rosewood trees. The purity of the views is protected by the absence of above-ground electrical and communication cables – they were moved underground after hurricanes destroyed the power supply.
Chickens roam a ruined Tahitian temple, fallen into disrepair after Christian missionaries trampled traditional forms. However, it is considered bad luck to move a rock from the ancient sacred ground. However, some traditions continue, such as the Moorea Sunday roast, which involves the use of a campfire for ten hours. We didn’t have that much time, so we ate sumptuous pieces of local fruit after visiting a reproduction of the House by French artist Paul Gauguin, famous for his photographs of people and landscape.
The next day we are in Raiatea, the first Polynesian island to be populated. Our guide, Chief Tihoti, makes a striking figure in his loincloth. His body is almost completely covered in tattoos, with the exception of the right side of his face: the tattooed side tells the story of his people, while the inkless skin represents the unwritten future. Brilliant storyteller, he takes us to the sacred Marae Taputapuatea, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In ancient times, tribal leaders would gather here, by the water, trees and stone structures, to ask the gods and spirits for permission before embarking on a fishing trip or setting out in search of new lands.
We’re still in Raiatea the next day, but we’re not based in a hotel: Steve and I are on a 12-night cruise starting in the South Pacific and ending in Hawaii, visiting a fabulous selection of islands on NCL’s Norwegian Spirit. . With “only” 13 decks, the sleek vessel, which recently underwent a $100 million refit, features no rooftop roller coasters or bumper cars, meaning it’s not as packed with young families as some ocean liners.
It does, however, have an excellent selection of restaurants, from the Garden Cafe buffet that spills over to an adults-only pool area, to the popular Cagney’s Steakhouse, to the elegant Windows Dining Room, to the local restaurant, and Tepinyaki, where singing chefs slice, dice. and nibble as they prepare steak, shrimp, chicken, vegetables, seafood, and fried rice right before your very eyes.
We’re in a spacious ocean view stateroom at the front of the ship, giving us a bridge view of oncoming destinations.
Each night brings an eclectic mix of shows to the main stage, such as country music spectacular Blazing Boots or Australian juggling sensation Cameo Rascale. There are also singers, bands and DJs all over the ship, along with contests, dance demos…you name it.
After French Polynesia we have four days at sea, which sounds like a lot, but they fly by (the highlight is crossing the equator, and everyone gets a commemorative certificate) and soon we’ll be in Hawaii. Whatever you desire, active or extinct volcanoes, rainforests, beaches, even snow-capped mountains, you can find it here.
Our first stop on the “Big Island” is the town of Hilo, once a center for the region’s sugar industry, today a hub for museums, art galleries, shops, and restaurants. Skipping a trip to Volcanoes National Park, Steve and I take a stroll downtown, past ancient banyan trees, impossibly neat monkeys, and the ubiquitous palm trees, inviting beaches, and gorgeous parks. Some of the Art Deco buildings are a bit run down, but the place has a delightfully hippie feel to it.
Next stop, Maui, part of the Hawaiian archipelago, which has impressive peaks and waterfalls, but we head to the ocean. Specifically, we dive into a tourist submarine. I’m afraid a submersible isn’t for me, but the Atlantis IV is surprisingly roomy, holding up to 40 passengers. Everyone has a porthole, and onboard naturalist Brandon explains what we’re looking at, whether it’s rays, unicorn fish, resting sharks, or… SpongeBob SquarePants? I think it may be a plant. We dove to 130 feet, looking out at The Carthaginian, an old whaling ship bought for $1 by the submarine company and sunk at a cost of $350,000; now covered in algae and coral, this artificial reef is a haven for marine life and divers alike.
Before heading back to the ship, we explore the town of Lahaina, whose beachside Main Street, with its mix of gift shops and restaurants, is the epitome of quaint small town America.
To Kauai, “the garden island”, and the port town of Nawiliwili, where we find a glorious public beach five minutes from the port. I was hoping for a chance to swim in a warm blue sea and here it is, among the surfers and paddle boarders. Many beaches in the South Pacific have black volcanic sand, but here it’s postcard-gold.
Departure day arrives and we take a city tour en route to Honolulu Daniel J Inouye Airport on the island of Oahu, giving us a chance to see the statues of King Kamehameha, the leader who united the islands, and Columbia , both immediately recognizable from the classic Hawaii Five-O credits. The Portuguese district on the hills offers a spectacular view of the man-made canyons of the city’s financial center, but the place we really want to see is far below.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was the site of the Japanese bombing of a US naval base that led the United States into World War II. Today, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial includes galleries, a documentary cinema, and a Circle of Remembrance that marks the people, military and civilian, who died. While it’s busy with tourists, there’s a palpable sense of respect for the losses of the “day that will live in infamy.” I’m glad we came. Pearl Harbor was a sobering ending to the journey of a lifetime.
Martin Gray booked his trip with Connoisseur Travel, Edinburgh, 0800 1707 233. Cruise + flights from £4,605pp. All excursions were organized on board Norwegian Spirit.