Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Suwarrow – A Dream Come True

One of the beautiful Seven Islands at Suwarrow

In between Bora Bora and America Samoa there is a tiny little island called Suwarrow.  There are no airports, no grocery stores, no townspeople and certainly no hotels.  The only way to get there is by boat and the only way you can stay is if you bring your own place to live.  Suwarrow is part of the Cook Islands and because there is no one living there except for the 2 park rangers – it is completely untouched.  It’s a truly magical place and I can’t help but think if heaven exists on earth, Suwarrow must be it.  

Harry was a great guitar player and
entertained us with songs several times
We arrived early one morning after a 4 ½ day passage from Bora Bora.  We were delighted to see several of our favorite boats already anchored and loved being greeted by them as we made our way in.  Better yet, Charlie – one of the park rangers – soon showed up in his boat to usher us to a primo anchoring spot.  Little did we know then that Charlie would be such a big part of making our stay here so amazing.

After an easy visit from Harry and Charlie to get officially checked into the Cook Islands, we cleaned up the boat and enjoyed several social calls from friends, welcoming us and letting us know there would be a “happy hour” at 4pm that night on the beach.  Turns out BBQ’s and happy hours are a very common occurrence here at Suwarrow as it’s a great way to meet the other boats and good entertainment for Charlie and Harry – who have no internet and very little power – and so are living a “back to the basics” sort of existence.

Charlie's angels - he really loved the ladies!  ;)
While those gatherings were a lot of fun and we thoroughly enjoyed socializing with the other cruisers, it was really the island and the caretakers that provided the magic of this place.  It’s tough to explain, but it’s pretty incredible thinking about how you are out in the absolute middle of nowhere in the Pacific Ocean, experiencing nature as it’s meant to be – without human interference.  We had traveled thousands of miles to be in this place and to live these moments – and I’ll be honest that it was a little mind-blowing at times.

Charlie teaching us how to dance...I
definitely need more practice!
There are so many things to experience here – but the only way to see some of them are to have Charlie take you out on a tour, with you providing the fuel for the trip.  You see, the government only gives these guys a specific amount of fuel and provisions….and unfortunately while we were there they were so low on fuel that they couldn’t even keep their generator running long enough to keep their freezer cold enough.  So they rely on “donations” from visiting cruisers to keep them going, including any fuel we could spare.  So!  If you want to go touring – you provide the fuel!  

So many birds - careful where you step - eggs everywhere!
We took the tour with two other boats (Bravo and Mystic Moon) and it was amazing.  First stop – Bird Island (real name Gull Island), where thousands of birds are roosting and raising their families relatively untouched by man – the circle of life right before your eyes.   You had to be very careful where you walked as there were unguarded eggs everywhere.  It definitely reminded me of our visit to Isla Isabella back in Mexico – with a comparable amount of birds – just not as many trees for them to roost in.  

Another boobie for Jeremy!  ;)

Sooty Terns taking flight on "Bird Island"

One of 100's of baby birds

Charlie with some monster coconut crabs
After the birds it was time to visit “The Seven Islands” home of the infamous coconut crabs – and what a sight to see!  While most of the crabs were in the 8-10 inch range, Charlie brought some out to show us that were HUGE!!!  Check out the difference in coloring between the two crabs in the photo and note the powerful claws that could take your finger off in one quick clip – not to be trifled with for sure!   After some refreshing fresh coconut water (straight from the source) we were off to go snorkeling among some of the most amazing coral I have ever seen – spectacular!  Over all it was a GREAT tour thanks to Charlie and the good company of our friends on Bravo and Mystic Moon.

Kathy (Mystic Moon), Cyndy (Bravo) and I
enjoying some thirst-quenching coconut water

Manta ray photo care of Bravo since BV
doesn't have an underwater camera - thanks guys!
Another amazing sight was snorkeling with huge manta rays that make their home here.  While they can be much larger, the ones we swam with were about 10-12 feet wide and we saw as many as three at time just a ¼ mile from where we were anchored.  Manta Rays are “filter eaters”, so they swim along with their huge mouths open, filtering water through their gills while there are “plates” along the gills that trap the plankton that they eat.  They spend most of their day feeding as it can take up to 60 pounds (according to mantary-world.com) to keep them well fed.  Watching them glide around taking in food is really something – kind of peaceful in a strange way as they are incredibly graceful creatures and we felt very lucky to be able to witness them in the wild.

The beach at Suwarrow - site of many happy hours
Soon many of the boats departed and it was just us and one other boat left.  No complaints here though as Charlie had been hard at work brewing up a fresh batch of coconut beer and we were happily there for its unveiling.  I had expected something that would taste a little like moonshine, so imagine my surprise when it was more like a slightly sweet, delectable and fruity drink – DELICIOUS and DANGEROUS as it really packed a punch!  You definitely had to watch this beverage as it was smooth as silk and Charlie (being the ever-excellent host that he is) was quick to refill your glass whenever it was empty.  Turns out that not only is Charlie an excellent brew-master, he is also a great cook – serving us some of the best fish I have ever eaten.  I managed to pry the recipe out of him and look forward to giving it a try myself.

Brett putting together the projector for movie night
After a few new boats arrived we decided it was time for a movie night – complete with popcorn for everyone.  Charlie put up a white sheet for the “movie screen” and we all enjoyed watching George Clooney ham it up in the classic Coen brother flick – O’Brother, Where Art Thou – which was a big hit.  The coconut beer and popcorn had everyone in fine spirits by the end of the night and we felt great that we could provide some entertainment for everyone.  A request was made to Brett by Harry to show Pirates of the Caribbean the following night.  While Charlie gets most of the attention as he is the livelier of the two caretakers, Harry is one of those quiet, kind souls that you rarely meet and often remember for many years to come – so we were happy to oblige him.

Seattle Yacht Club burgee for the clubhouse
Sadly, all good things must come to an end as it was time to move on and make room for other visitors.  It was a very sad day when we checked out and gave big hugs to both Harry and Charlie – presenting them with an SYC burgee to remember us by and thanking them for making our stay in Suwarrow one of the best memories we have collected to date.  Before we left, Charlie came by with 7 coconuts perfectly cleaned and ready to enjoy as a parting gift – what a sweetheart!  As we exited the anchorage and rounded the island toward the pass, we saw Charlie waving a big flag to say goodbye one last time, followed by the much heard “I love you people” a little later on the VHF when we were out of site.  

Bella Vita anchored at Suwarrow
With tears in our eyes and wonder in our hearts, we gave thanks once again that we are on this amazing journey and able to share our lives with such incredible spirits along the way.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

“Stuck” in Bora Bora

Moon shot in Bora Bora

So after several stops in Huahine, Raitatea and Tahaa, including lots of white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters, we landed at our final stop in French Polynesia – Bora Bora – the place everyone dreams of.  I’m happy to report it’s every bit as beautiful as they say it is – so many great places to anchor we thought, how could we choose?  Little did we know, there was no need to choose – we would end up staying at all of them!

Bella Vita and Cherokee Rose anchored in 8 feet of water!
Originally we had planned to be in Bora Bora for about a week, but Mother Nature apparently had alternative plans for us.  She decided to bring down the hammer weather wise to the land of Bora Bora and make sure that the cruising fleet was going a whole lot of nowhere.  Because of weather delays, we ended up staying two weeks, a full week past our official check out date!

Cool mega yacht named "A" owned by a Russian
gazillionaire - can you say "Bond....James Bond"
Yes, I can hear you all now….”You poor, poor creatures – stuck in Bora Bora!”  I’m sure you are feeling immense sympathy for us right now, eh?  HA!  But alas, the winds were blowing about 20-30 knots for over a week and the seas outside the sweet shelter of the reef were forecast to be in the 15 foot range - so nobody was going anywhere.  With the high winds and grey skies, I can’t even imagine what the poor people who were paying over $800 per night to stay in the over-the-water-bungalows where thinking, but hopefully they were all honeymooners and so didn’t care!

Dinner out before Heiva with Mazu,
Bella Star, Bravo and Mystic Moon
So what’s a cruiser to do when the weather is bad and you can’t go anywhere?  Even though it was windy, it was fairly easy to move from spot to spot, so we spent the time checking out about 7 different anchorages around the island.  We stayed close to the “town”, we stayed across from the town, we stayed in front of expensive bungalows, we ran the gauntlet of some shallow navigation areas to enjoy the back side of the island and stopped at several beautiful spots in between.  We definitely EXPERIENCED Bora Bora and all it had to offer. 

Bathroom...um...décor at Bloody Mary's
Of course a great part of this involved socializing with other cruisers and meeting new folks along the way.  First off was a mandatory lunch at Bloody Mary’s – the famous restaurant in Bora where all the rich and famous stop to eat (their picture board proves it).  Bloody Mary’s is sort of legendary for their burgers and their bathroom décor (think large, male…..um replicas).  It’s here that I must digress a bit….about the burgers people!!!

Lunch at Bloody Mary's with Cherokee Rose
The word on multiple blogs and within the many cruising guides we read was that Bloody Mary’s was THE SPOT to have the best burger in all of French Polynesia.  We even heard this directly from cruisers who had visited in the past, so we were really looking forward to checking it out.  Upon entry we were delighted with the décor of the place – really cool looking – just the place to spend a few bucks on a good beer and burger.  And while I do agree that Bloody Mary’s makes a pretty good burger, I am here to tell you that the burgers at the Maikai Marina kick little Miss Mary’s butt! Yes – I’m throwing down the gauntlet and going against the crowd, but my highly trained taste buds just can’t be wrong.  Not only does Maikai make their own buns, but they cook the burger perfectly medium – it’s melt in your mouth goodness.  To top it off, they are served with skinny fries that are crisped to perfection – who could ask for more? 

The owner of Maikai hard at work mixing drinks
Maybe we hit Mary’s on a bad day, but I found their burger to be overcooked, on the dry side and come on – steak fries????  Really???  Does anyone really like steak fries or do you agree with me that the only reason anyone eats them is to remember why you prefer crisp, skinny fries?  Oh – and the straw that broke the camels back (although the decision was already quite clear), unlike all the other restaurants in town, Maikai offers their perfect burger on their dinner menu – not just for lunch.  Case closed as far as I was concerned.  In fact, that Maikai burger was so good that we budget conscious cruisers actually went back just two days later for another round as we just couldn’t stand missing a repeat performance on our last night in Bora Bora.  We wish them continued success in their bid to take over the world with that perfect burger.

On our anniversary
Okay – so back to what we did while we were “stuck” in Bora Bora.  While making our way around the island some highlights were:  several great dinghy trips with our buddies on Cherokee Rose, including some good snorkeling spots, lots of sting rays and a VERY aggressive huge eel that swam around outside the coral in a very non-eel-like fashion.  There was also a fantastic beach barbeque with about 10 other boats that Brett organized on our anniversary (yep – it’s official – 11 years married now), several excellent gatherings with friends at the Maikai happy hour (buy one, get one free pitchers of local beer – awesome!) and my personal favorite – watching the dancing during the annual Heiva festival. 

Giving it their all...right before the rain!
Heiva is a HUGE deal throughout these islands.  Countless hours of practice by thousands of dancers and drummers from the various islands culminate each year in a competition to be deemed the best – this is VERY serious business here with the awards “bling” to prove it.  While there are many different activities and competitions during Heiva, the dance competitions were the best.  While we all know (or have at least heard rumors) that those Polynesian women can move their hips in some pretty magical ways, the men had some pretty incredible moves of their own.  Each “team” tells a story through chanting, song and movement that relates to the history of the islands, and a big part of what they are judged on is how well they tell that story.  Each group represents a specific town and is comprised of approximately 100 dancers – split equally between men and women, along with a choir of about 10 singers and a band of drummers about 20 strong.  At times the drumming almost reaches down to the most primitive part of you and you’d swear you once knew how to move like that yourself – if only you could just remember.

Heiva dancers in action
Each group performs for about 40 minutes – and I’m talking all-out dancing and music that is carefully crafted, choreographed, practiced and presented to the audience and judges.   It was fantastic to watch and I can’t tell you how hard these folks worked out there – performing their hearts out.  They would be covered with sweat and at times some of them looked like they might pass out.  Most impressive though was that they didn’t let the weather get to them.  Even when it started pouring down rain and the audience members were diving for cover – these dancers still gave it their all.  What an absolute gift to get to witness a real dance competition here in the islands – fantastic!

Say goodbye to baguettes.  :(
So after all the burgers, beers, dancing, exploring and talking about wind and wave heights, there was finally an opening in the weather window and off we went – our 90 days in French Polynesia officially at an end.  All in all our stay in the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Society Islands was everything we hoped it would be.  If you ever get a chance to come this way and visit these amazing islands, I suggest you grab it with both hands and hold on for dear life!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Swimming in Tourist Infested Waters – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly about Moorea

The Mountains of Moorea

After watching many a beautiful sunset over the island of Moorea from our anchorage in Tahiti, it was time to find out if it could actually live up to the hype.  This would be the most popular tourist destination we had gone to yet and we were curious how the hotels, cruise ships and tourists would affect the natural surroundings and our interactions with them. 

Spinner dolphins like to leap and spin - hence the name.
First off, let me say that Moorea is an amazingly beautiful place – completely living up to the hype in that area.  There were picture perfect white sand beaches, crystal clear aqua blue water, spinner dolphins, sting rays, and sharks galore and unbelievable sunsets from our lovely spot, anchored in Opunohu Bay.  The brochures don’t lie – it really is everything they promise.

Sailing school made this a busy bay!
Better yet, sailing is alive and well in Moorea.  Right next to where we were anchored, a large sailing camp was operating with scores of kids from 7 to 16 sailing around the large bay every day.  At times as many as 100 sailing skiffs would be in the water, all being managed by about 5 instructors.  It was such a pleasure to watch these kids having fun doing something we love.  Even with the wind blowing 20-25 knots those kids would be out sailing around – sometimes “turtling” the boat – but always managing to get them back upright on their own.  I totally respect that the instructors had a “you turtle, you correct it” policy, but they were always standing by carefully watching to make sure no one got into serious trouble.  The older kids were impressive sailors and could easily compete with the best and brightest we have back home.  We greatly admired what was clearly a very well-run program, spreading the love of sailing to a whole new generation – very cool to see.  Even better when we found out that many of the kids are from poor families and are taken into the program for free – fantastic!

Heavy winds made for lots of fun sailing!
So what’s up with the title you may ask?  Stay with me a little longer…

One of the coolest parts of taking a trip like this is you get to see places that very few people get to travel to.  While there are many other boats doing what we are doing, if you add us all up we’re likely less than a 1000 people traveling to some incredibly remote areas.  So when you arrive in a known tourist mecca, it stands in stark contrast to the places we’ve seen and it makes you a little sad to see how the people that live there have compromised their lives and their surroundings in the quest for the almighty dollar.

Now before people think I’m some sort of tourism Nazi, let me try to explain.  I have absolutely NO issue with vacationing tourists and have been one myself MANY a time!  In fact – I am still a tourist everywhere I go – doing it by boat certainly doesn’t change that.  I firmly believe that everyone has the right to visit amazing places like this and to stay at fabulous beach front hotels if they can afford it.  In fact – I would HIGHLY recommend a visit to any one of the Society Islands as they are incredibly beautiful and definitely would make a “dream vacation” for anyone willing to take the long flights involved to get here. 

What bothers me however is seeing the nature of the area changed to create a “tourist attraction” when it’s completely unnecessary.    Let me give you an example that has made a strong impression on me….

Lots of turtle sightings in from our boat.
One of our favorite activities when it’s time to play is to go snorkeling.  Getting out there in the water and swimming among the sea life is a very special thing.  Observing sea life in its natural habitat, undisturbed by humanity is one of the biggest gifts we’ve had on this trip.  We have spent a lot of time in the water and you definitely develop a huge appreciation for the ocean and its creatures after observing them for hours on end. 

But when you have 1000’s of tourists in one small area, it can’t help but change the ecosystem to some extent.  For the hotels around Opunohu Bay, one of the big attractions is swimming with the sting rays.  Sounds really cool right?  And let me be the first to tell you – IT IS COOL!  It’s amazing in fact!  You stand in this shallow sandy area and you are literally swarmed by sting rays.  They swim around you and even shimmy right up the side of your body, back or even your chest, rubbing against you almost like a cat!

Feeding the sting rays...
But why are they swarming you?  Because they are used to be fed several times a day by the big tour groups brought out by the hotels – as many as 100 “guests” will be in the water at one time – feeding the sting rays.  And it happens twice a day, every day but Sunday. 

This is a perfect example of how the local ecosystem has been completely changed by the tourist industry.  It is not normal for sting rays to come up and rub themselves against you.  Normally they have a very healthy natural fear of human beings!  But here in Moorea they are so used to being fed that they actually recognize the tour guides, putting on a show worthy of Sea World – even taking food right from the tour guides mouths.

"Swimming" with the sting rays...see how it's rubbing me?
Now – as I said, I enjoyed “petting” the sting rays as much as the next tourist – because we are ALL tourists in this sort of situation.  It was incredible feeling their skin and having them practically climb up the front of me.  But later on, when I started to really think about it, it left me feeling sad that we humans have created this environment for the profit of the hotel industry.  I am not so naive to think that this is not happening all over the world, nor am I some crazed tree hugger.  But having been out here for almost a year, I have had the privilege of seeing some amazingly untouched areas and it has changed the way I think about this sort of thing. 

Several days later Brett and I were snorkeling in Huahine and came across four beautiful sting rays buried in the sand.  As we swam a little closer, they unearthed themselves and silently glided away in front of us – absolute poetry in motion.  Watching them as they are MEANT to act was so much better than our previous interaction that I just had to write about it.  It makes me want to convey (my personal opinion) that it’s not natural (or good) for us to modify nature in this way or to support tourism that creates this sort of environment.  Trust me that swimming with sting rays FOR REAL – is so much better than a manufactured experience!  Why must humans always try to “improve” on something that is already perfect?

Okay – I’m putting away the soap box, but just a little food for thought.

Yet another amazing sunset from Opunohu Bay