Delightful Moorea and Bora Bora
THE nicest moment on our stopovers in French Polynesia came while we were sitting eating pastries outside a little patisserie in Vaitape.
A French child of about six came up and silently watched us for a minute or two.
"Bonjour," he eventually ventured and stayed a little longer before wandering off with a polite, "Bon appetit".
That and the rest of the flow of French conversation around us was a refreshing reminder of that difference in culture which is so difficult for New Zealanders to find relatively close to home.
In Papeete, it had been the sight of galettes, the Breton speciality of buckwheat savoury pancakes served from a roulotte stall which, after days of being on a ship surrounded by Antipodeans, provided the welcome taste of actually being somewhere foreign.
Apart from the French language, Papeete had mostly reminded us that we, too, live on a Pacific Island. There was a familiar feel to the black sand beaches of the East Coast, with surfers bobbing about waiting for the next break, and the sight of the water venting from the Arahoho blowhole brought thoughts of our own coast.
Our brief excursion inland too was, despite some different vegetation, reminiscent of a bush walk in Northland cluttered with wild ginger. Even the heavy rain squalls which lashed the town had echoes of an Auckland spring day. Apart from the heat and that tropical aroma with its hint of rotting vegetables and spices.
The obvious escape from the rain was into the lively market which was a bustling mixture of souvenirs and fruit and fish stalls.
The next calls of Moorea and Bora Bora provided the classic blue lagoon image. The blue sky was mirrored in the unbelievable shades of the water with the white sand perfecting the picture of the island paradise. The warm lagoon was irresistible and we quickly hopped on a boat excursion which ticked every delightful cliche in the book.
At the first stop, it was everybody into the water where we were immediately surrounded by an armada of rays drawn by the guide's handful of fish. Having spent years keeping a watchful eye for rays and aware of their possible risks it was a curious experience having these extraordinary creatures colliding into you and permitting a hand to be run along their backs.
Swimming a little further out were scores of black-tipped reef sharks, harmless but with their menacing shapes arousing a frisson of alarm in the more nervous.
Back on to the boat for a trip to the barbecue site on a tiny island which provided more of the dream lagoon setting and an opportunity to snorkel away from the crowd. While the ray encounter was memorable the collisions were just as likely to be with another tourist as with a fish. But on the island you could slip away to less crowded coral teeming with life.
In more than 40 years of snorkelling, I've always found something new to see and here the fish were more brazen in swimming up to the diver than anywhere I've been and there was the sight of dense balls of fish hanging motionless in the current.
We enjoyed our day in Moorea so much that when we moved on to Bora Bora we ignored the inland tours and hunted out a similar trip on an island even more picture perfect, if that can be imagined.
In addition to the rays and sharks, this outing stopped at a small but delightful coral garden studded with giant clams of the most brilliant blues and purples.
There was just enough time left after the trip for our brief patisserie stop before heading back to the Radiance of the Seas.
Our glimpses of the tropical paradise had been magical and tantalising. The trouble with cruising is that it's like a wine tasting: the little mouthful that whets the appetite for a full bottle.