In the travel world, there are organized Journeys known as a FAM, a familiarization trip to introduce you to hotels or countries. Days packed with movement, multiple site inspections interspersed with elaborate dining. Numerous whirlwind days when I often can’t remember what town we were in or which hotel. I prefer to create my own fam trips! Some Journeys are imprinted by the people you meet along the way, a simple act of kindness or generosity that make a site memorable. My Lindblad National Geographic Orion sailing adventure from Papeete to the Marquesas was extraordinary but memorizing the harbors and multi-syllabic atolls and islands was challenging! The charming people of each village fashioned my memories, especially the women wearing traditional flower headdresses. An enchanting recollection enhanced by their unpretentious beauty and ever so casual descriptions on making these, by my standard, elaborate floral hats. Beautiful, welcoming and humble women, a true joy to meet them.
Passengers arriving in Tahiti are gifted with handmade floral leis when you arrive at the airport. Usually one spends a night in Papeete before embarking on an island adventure. The air at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are intricately woven into the fabric of everyday life. The beautiful women wear extravagant handmade floral headdresses. Often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Wouldn’t you agree they are charming?
You might also see a range of native flowers woven into the Tahitian headpiece, including hibiscus, frangipani or plumeria, and of course, the greatest symbol of the islands of Tahiti, the tiare flower. Everyone wears the fragrant white tiare flower behind an ear. If you wear the flower behind your left ear, the heart side, it means you’re married or taken or not interested in a relationship. Behind your right ear, it means you’re searching for love. And if woven in the hair and placed behind the head? That means “follow me”. The French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, inspired by the beauty of the Marquesas Islands and their inhabitants, did not fail to capture these flower-related practices in his paintings.
Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. On the atoll of Fakarava, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and second-largest atoll in French Polynesia, we motored in to shore and rode bikes around the small atoll. Fakarava has 837 inhabitants; the main village is Rotoava. An outdoor Catholic Mass yielded a small parish of radiant bedecked women. Mass was a combination of French and local language, in a garden grotto due to construction on their church. Village women in brightly colored floral muumuu’s and straw hats festooned with brilliantly hued flowers quieted young children, fanned themselves and sang hymns. Some adornment made of dried leaves were just as attractive. It was Mother’s Day and the ladies would celebrate with a craft fair presenting their shell and bead jewelry. Photos and shopping, I was thrilled to spend more time with these artistic ladies.
On the island of Fatu Hiva, our welcoming singers and dancers were also bedecked in splendid floral headdresses. A village woman described the simple process: she picks a few garden flowers and assembles an elaborate wreath in a matter of minutes, it’s very easy! Obviously, a clever islander with years of experience. One of my favorite decorated women played a guitar in the welcoming band, a massive green leaf headdress drew all eyes to her.
Hiva-Oa, the second largest island in the Marquesas and where Gauguin is buried, presented a small museum shop where I discovered my woven headdress, the picture-perfect adornment for evening cocktails!
Tahitian headpieces, or Tahitian flower crowns, are common throughout the islands of Tahiti. Worn by locals in order to celebrate a special occasion or simply, celebrate the beauty of everyday life. While some Tahitian headpieces can be very elaborate, it is not uncommon to see a simple crown made only from woven ti leaves.
There are many types of Tahitian headpieces beyond the simple flower crown. Typically, you will see the more elaborate forms only in Tahitian dance numbers. The headbands are sometimes woven with palm fronds or tapa cloth which gives the headpiece structure. Intricate designs and embellishments such as flowing raffia, feathers, mother-of-pearl, or black pearl, are often added as well.
In May, I was invited for an adventurous sail on the Lindblad National Geographic Orion in the South Pacific for 10 days from Papeete to the Marquesas. In preparation, I reread Typee, Melville’s first novel, if you don’t remember his tale, he jumped ship in the Marquesas and lived among cannibal tribes for a few months. Melville and his shipmate Toby were tempted by an abundance of breadfruit trees, beautiful Polynesian women and he was dreadfully weary from months aboard a whaling ship with a tough captain. On arrival to the Marquesas, I felt as if I had been there, completely captivated by the towering green mountains, perilously steep with very few natural harbors. I’m a fan of Gauguin who painted here, how could I decline an adventure at sea on the Lindblad Orion?
Before our clients depart on a Journey, we send a gift bag of books, a reading list and a note: Nothing will make your trip more satisfying than to know something about the places you’re visiting; whether it’s the wildlife, people, history, geography or plant life.
We disembarked the Papeete harbor on a sultry Friday afternoon and set to sea. Sunset cocktail briefing with charts and graphs indicating our morning destination would be under a foot of rain and a 40-foot swell, now that would make for an exciting but very wet sail. The brilliant expedition leader, Dr. Jimmy White, revealed a fresh sailing strategy. I loved the flexibility of the Orion team – this isn’t your typical cruise, where you may sit out a bad weather day in a port. Lindblad National Geographic Expedition teams studied tides, the wind and the sky and plotted a new course as a seasoned navigator might have years ago when canoes were the only form of transportation. This revised plan would come with an added bonus – an extra day in the Marquesas!
An over-night sail from Pappetee to the Fakarava atoll. Text-book lullaby: fresh sea breezes and the gentle rocking motion of the ship, my spacious stateroom with a sliding glass door remained open for the duration of the Expedition. Waking at 5:30 am, before sunrise each morning, eyes barely open, I padded upstairs to the library for coffee; each morning, I passed a sleepy disheveled gentleman in a white bathrobe balancing a cup and saucer of tea. Neither of us were dressed for public view or interested in conversation – quiet private moments to ease into a new day.
The overnight sail delivered us north from Tahiti and the Society Islands into the great archipelago of atolls known as the Tuamotus. At dawn, we stopped briefly and peered at the dark forbidding clouds surrounding Makatea, a rare uplifted coral island, a large swell was crashing on the walls of the vertical coast and a wicked squall blackening the horizon encouraged Captain Heidi Norling to continue on our way north to the atoll of Rangiroa. My first glimpse of the sheer elevations of Makatea conveyed Melville’s descriptions, beautiful yet forbidding unyielding mountains rising out of the blue sea.
Every morning I perched on the bow of Orion to welcome a new day of adventure. This morning didn’t disappoint, a pod of bottle nose dolphins greeted us and surfed the powerful currents alongside the bow of the ship – an exhilarating welcome. Across the swells, red-footed boobies, black & brown noddies flitted above the swells in pursuit of breakfast. We were ready for our first foray into the cobalt seas in the site known as The Aquarium. Oh, what a thrill to view a sunny beach, calm seas and a view of swaying palm trees on Rangiroa atoll; from the open Pacific into the sheltered lagoon, led by nimble dolphins. An extraordinary start to a day at sea.
Continuing onward north we found shelter the next morning in the peaceful waters of Fakarava, a coral atoll. The ship zodiacs head out early to sea surveying diving locations, here the sharks prefer to lounge in the shallow bay. We departed at 9 am for a morning of self-guiding to the small village of Fakarava atoll, Tuamoto archipelago. The protected islets form a ring around the lagoon of Fakarava, the second largest atoll in French Polynesia. French painter Henri Matisse would claim that colors were for setting oneself free, he spent three months in Tahiti in 1930 exploring as far as Fakarava, where he was enthralled by the endless variety and shades of blue of the lagoons. This discovery prompted a new creative artistic effort for Matisse. Many art critics believe his Remembering Oceania cutouts represent his visit to Fakarava. Think of Fakarava as visual therapy for the soul. Fakarava, which means “beautiful”, is as stunning above water as it is underwater. The atoll has delightfully warm seas and the fluorescent corals are mesmerizing, it is also known for a protected shark population. Simple snorkeling gear is all that one needs to explore and be entranced by the wonders of these indigo seas. Schools of fish by the thousands, massive coral heads line the sandy bottom, there is so much to experience.
The numbers: 806 population, 6/15 square miles of semi-paved roads. Although you can’t see the other side of the atoll, one could walk across in a matter of minutes through the swaying palm trees. Sunday morning Mass at the tiny Catholic church began at 9. We pedaled toward the Church, drawn by a harmonious chorus of Alleluia. The small church was under renovation and parishioners lined the lawn facing a charming garden grotto. We lucked out, it was Mother’s Day, the women were festooned in floral crowns and hand-made sunhats of local materials, their finest millinery.
We peeked in at the Church interior, only to be reprimanded by a woman in a lovely hat who asked us to leave, as it was a construction zone – she told me the ladies would be selling beads and crafts after Mass. She certainly had me pegged, bead collector on a bike! The island people utilize much of nature’s bounty; a curved church wall was enhanced with inlaid polished oyster shells. Vaulted ceilings were painted robin egg blue and a small rose window at the nave threw shadows on the floorboards.
The quiet village, with the exception of the church goers, must have slept in. A few stray dogs napping on the wide paved road, the obligatory free-range roosters but not much else happening. Going off road onto a sandy path, we discovered a small beachfront inn, it appeared to be owned by an artist or talented craftsman. Driftwood accessories, planters decorated with shells, and rows of potted flowering plants were a reminder of using found objects for décor, lacking shopping centers, nothing goes to waste. A little beach cafe offered chocolate ice cream and cold Tahitian beer – well deserved after biking in the humidity and heat. We passed a Sunday barbeque, the main course was fish, probably caught that morning – a carefree life on the village atoll. A local fisherman wading into the sea was practicing the old procedure of primitive fishing – toss in the line and pull in a fish no pole required. He was successful, I tried this in the Maldives, without success! It was a delightful interlude before moseying back to ship, imagine the expansive horizon with the lovely Orion bobbing atop the sapphire sea.
Back on deck for terrace lunch, photography talks in the afternoon and we continued toward the Marquesas, – a 44-hour sail. Onboard, there were so many activity options. Additional staff included multiple researchers, authors, published naturalists and dive masters, truly experts in their fields. All friendly, fun and not at all condescending if one wasn’t an ‘expert’ in birding, fauna, or photography. David Cothran, Naturalist/Photo Instructor, has worked for Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic since 1993 on six continents and in over 65 countries. He too was very patient and enthusiastic in helping us develop additional insight and skills necessary to better understand our cameras and the basics of composition — to better capture the moments at the heart of your expedition. Plus, the ship has loaner lenses, cameras, binoculars so you can experiment with new gear. Our Expedition team included Randy Olson, a National Geographic documentary photographer, whose work has taken him to 50 countries over the past 20 years. Concentrating on population and resource issues, as well as disappearing cultures, Randy has shot over 30 stories for National Geographic magazine covering diverse subjects. NG has published his books of photography and he has won numerous photography awards. He was laid back and very approachable, even for an amateur photographer like myself. Each evening included a summary of the day – his multiple shots laid out, his path to achieve his best photo. – I learned much from understanding his photographic style and goals and his visuals of how he achieved what he described as his best photo of the day.
An overnight and all-day Monday Journey to the Marquesas. The Orion is a small but luxurious ship, holding 102 passengers in 52 staterooms. I was wildly impressed by how frequently the guests had sailed on Lindblad National Geographic Journeys – a minimum of three and many had taken more than 10 trips and many more than 20 trips – seriously, an endorsement of a remarkable product.
Each evening began with a cocktail gathering – a briefing on our daily progress, a promise of adventure ahead – a video chronicle of moments caught by the photographers – the generous sharing was enthusiastic and enjoyed by everyone. Dinner with guests and off to bed to awake to our next adventure. The gentle rocking and the fresh sea breeze was the perfect combination for dreamy sleep.
Next week a continuation of my Journey on The Lindblad National Geographic Orion.
This firm offers small group adventures on small boats all over the world.