January, 2018. Sometimes I think that I am the luckiest guy in the world. I love to swim and I love to travel. I indulge both of those passions while cruising the open seas. This year it is in the South Pacific, on board the mv Amsterdam, with stops in some wonderful places.
After eight days at sea headed southwest from Panama, our first stop after crossing the Equator was Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, one of the northernmost islands of French Polynesia. Palm trees. Sandy beaches. Warm, tropical water. Not many ships call at Nuku Hiva, so they were happy to welcome our ship. On the pier, lovely gyrating hula dancers accompanied the pulsating rhythms of drums and ukuleles. After eight days swimming in the ship’s tiny swimming pool, I was ready for my baptism in healing salt water. It was warm. It was calm. It was delightful. I luxuriated in the sea for 45 minutes, swimming but not pushing hard. Then I sat and let the sun dry me.
Next stop, Avatoru, Rangiroa, another remote island. More gyrating hula dancers, more drums and palm trees and sandy beaches. This atoll is a circular chain of reef islands, open to the ocean on one side and a quiet lagoon on the inside, with openings allowing the flow of water from one side to the other. I didn’t really understand what happened at those openings, so I was in for a big surprise. I was swimming parallel to the beach when suddenly there was no more beach, and I was being swept by a fast current from the ocean side into the lagoon. It was so fast that I couldn’t make headway going back, so I swam cross-current to the nearest point on the lagoon side. I made it out of the water with a few minor coral scrapes, but that was the easy part. I then had to hike barefoot a quarter mile back across the coral island to the other side. Ouch, 1,000 times. Lesson learned.
Papeete, Tahiti. Think of Mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Cook and Captain Bligh, Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando. This is the only real city in French Polynesia, and it is not to my taste. There are no good swimming places in the city, but there are hundreds around this magnificent island. Not far to the east of Papeete is Venus Point, where Captain Cook went to observe the transit of the planet Venus. He sailed thousands of miles only to find cloud cover on the appointed day. My fortune was much better. There is a delightful black sand beach at Point Venus, protected by a reef, where I swam to my heart’s content. Outside the reef, a dozen surfers livened up the scene.
Moorea and Bora Bora, our next stops, bring to mind the best of the tropics. I will not wax eloquent, but will just say that both of these islands exceeded my expectations, despite their being heavy tourist destinations. My approach was to ignore the French tourists (even the topless ones, some with major gravitational problems) and to concentrate on the wonders of the embracing sea, which I did most joyously in both places.
Rarotonga, Cook Islands. We sailed further west, leaving French Polynesia for the Cook Islands, a group of fifteen islands spread over millions of square miles of the South Pacific. New Zealand has a ‘free association’ with the independent Cooks. The people are Maoris, with a culture and language different from French Polynesia. I have nothing against speaking French (I don’t), but I feel much more at home here. Sure, the shops are pushing most of the same stuff all over Polynesia: pareaus, shell necklaces, grass skirts, fake pearls and diving tours, but there is a more comfortable feel in Rarotonga. Maybe because they speak English.
Rarotonga is a hilly island, with several mini-mountains in the interior. Few roads penetrate the interior, but there are two trails crossing its 15-mile width. Those are for nanny goats: I prefer to swim. An inexpensive public bus will take you completely around the island in 50 minutes. You have a choice of two routes: the clockwise route or the counterclockwise one, each with lots of beach stops. Caveat: There are several beaches that are marked “HAZARDOUS” because of very heavy surf crashing onto rocks that are much harder than human flesh. Choose your beach carefully. My choice was at a no-name beach that suited me just fine.
Alofi, Niue. This tiny island nation is our last stop in Polynesia, another island with ‘free association’ with New Zealand. The width is about six miles, a bit longer north to south, and quite mountainous. It is a very religious nation, and it seems that everyone belongs to one denomination or another, and there are several. Unfortunately, we arrived on a Sunday, so everything was closed: not even a souvenir shop to be found. All around the island are outcroppings of sharp coral, coming right up to the shore. What they call a beach is a bit of sand right up against the coral boulders, which extend out about a hundred yards. Getting past the coral makes entry into water deep enough to swim very difficult. I found an open area 30 yards long in four feet of water. I swam laps back and forth, carefully skirting the coral on both sides. If it were not for the company of hundreds of colorful fish, it would have been a less-than-pleasant swim. When I left the water I was told that there were lots of poisonous coral snakes in that area. I did not see them and I’m glad they didn’t see me.
Bottom line: After so many interesting and beautiful swims in Polynesia, my cup runneth over. Now I am ready for Auckland, New Zealand, where I have an appointment with an ophthalmologist who will stick a needle in my right eye. But that is another tale. I would rather be swimming.