French Polynesia cruise: An island holiday where lagoons are an absurd 'blue'

Who hasn't dreamed the dream? You imagine waking every day to the sound of surf on a blue lagoon, in a place where tropical fruit falls from the trees and locals wear flowers in their hair. Let me escape to an island, you think, and I'll still be happy when I'm old, slurping mangoes, lizard-wrinkled, letting Pacific waves lap my ankles.

Few of us give into the ultimate lifelong getaway, but on an Oceania cruise in French Polynesia I can indulge the fantasy for a week or two. I'm scarcely out of Papeete airport when my city clothes come off in the humid embrace of the tropics, and I stick a flower behind my ear.

Over the next 10 days on Marina's "Sparkling South Pacific" cruise, I'm absorbed into the languid pace of Polynesian islands, where life revolves around farming and fishing and village markets are the centre of social life. Dogs snooze under coconut trees and fish glitter in the water. Beyond the big-name islands, tourists seem a passing entertainment. Kids loiter by roadsides to wave and giggle. On Sundays, they head to church in crisp white shirts and smoothed-down hair.

Lagoons are an absurd colour, the sand fine as talcum powder. We take tours on small boats, and stingrays rise to the surface as if coming up to see what our exclamations are about. This is a cruise in slow time. There's no pressure to inspect cathedrals or ancient ruins, no pavements to pound, no cities with their traffic and touts and surging tour groups. The only crowd consists of tropical fish across a seabed of purple coral: rush hour in French Polynesia.

I snorkel, I swim, I shuffle past vanilla plantations, I drink beer at beach bars as the sun sets. As the light fades I'm back on Marina for dinner: zucchini-wrapped chicken breast and sour cherry crumble. Meals are invariably excellent on this cruise line known for its upmarket cuisine and inclusive specialty restaurants. No need to wash up: whose dream is that? Waiters vanish with my dirty dishes, and all I have to do is stroll Marina's pool deck and be dazzled by mid-Pacific stars.

Our first port call is at Fakarava. We sail through a gap in the atoll's reef, around a spit of blinding white sand and neon-blue water that dissolves into navy-blue ocean, and anchor off Rotoava. On the quay, islanders sell handmade souvenirs, shell necklaces, black pearls and island clothing. A band strums on ukuleles.

Rotoava has a population of 850. It's just a straggle of houses, a post office, a small school, a whitewashed Catholic church with a red roof. The road is lined by hibiscus and frangipani. Some passengers rent bicycles to pedal the 15-kilometre cycle path. I slump on a coral beach and wallow in warm water like a castaway.

A day at sea takes us to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. Jagged mountains suck up dollops of cloud. Wave-pounded cliffs are banded with coloured rock. This island looks – and is – wild and remote, as far away as you can get from a major city. A bay formed by a collapsed volcanic crater begrudgingly opens, its yachts and scattered houses improbable against a rugged backdrop. Marina floats at anchor, a suave outpost of fine meals and Egyptian cottons and unexpectedly great coffee, coaxed from a proper espresso machine by an Italian barista.

After breakfast, I tender into Taiohae, a clutter of rustic houses, a bank, colonial-style administrative buildings. I find two black-sand beaches and an almost-pink beach under flame trees. There are old tiki sculptures and a tiny museum with artefacts of Marquesan culture. Ruined stone walls of the 19th-century Notre Dame Cathedral form a medieval-looking gateway. Wood and stone carvings inside a 1970s replacement church depict Bible stories influenced by island culture, with spears substituted for swords.

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It's a myth that small ports are swamped by cruise crowds. When I go ashore again after lunch (Maine lobster on saffron rice, citrus tartlet with pistachio ice-cream), hardly anyone is about. Stall owners have wrapped up their wood carvings and are sitting in a cafe singing to a ukulele. I walk to the other end of the pink-sand beach and find a graveyard of whitewashed crosses, surrounded by flowers and shaded by frangipani trees. It's a fine spot to wait for the End of Days, with only the sound of waves, palm-tree breezes and screeching roosters. A mountain at your back, a bay in front, and only the slow flutter of frangipani petals.

I can see how colonial types once ended up in places like this, turning into lonely drunks but unable to resist the fantasy of island life, utterly spellbound. Maybe if Oceania's Marina had come by they would have been tempted back on board by the fillet steaks and lobster soufflés and the passionfruit martinis at the bar, laced with peach schnapps. I'm never reluctant to return on board. Marina is elegant and spacious, not brash and loud, just quiet and attractive. It's a ship with confidence that doesn't need to boast.

None of these islands is entirely the same. Our next stop Rangiroa is as flat as Nuku Hiva is uplifted. I walk around the shoreline 100 metres from Ohutu tender pier and plunge into a vivid lagoon. Later, an Oceania tour boat takes me to a huge cluster of coral heads just 10 minutes away, home to parrotfish and butterfly fish. Other fish sail past, comfortably upholstered in patterns like a Versace sofa. Some are elongated and silver, others fat and round and orange. Underwater amazement is never far off on this cruise. Some passengers scuba-dive nearby Tiputa Pass between ocean and lagoon, one of the world's top sites for drift diving, and notable for the abundance of its sharks.

I'm in the water a lot on this journey, and excursions are never less than sensational. In Moorea, we stand waist-deep in the lagoon amid shoals of black-tipped reef sharks and flocks of manta rays that swim up on with rubbery, slimy wings to be petted like dogs. In Huahine, we picnic on a sand island lapped by almost purple water where fish sulk through pouted blue lips. Others wave yellow fins like cancan dancers shaking feathers.

Bora Bora seems Photo-shopped to improbability, with too much emphasis on startling blue. The massive lagoon is one of the great landscapes of the world, encircling a rugged island dominated by old volcanic peaks and ringed with smaller outlying islands and reefs. The water is full of stingrays and sharks and coral, prancing parrotfish, yellow Moorish idols, colour-banded fish that look as if they've been designed by Picasso.

Our excursion boat anchors off Matira Beach, its sand white as washing powder, warm water blue as a Hollywood swimming pool. We're served hunks of fresh coconut and rum mixed with pineapple juice. I float on my back and squint at mountains tumbling with orchid-studded jungle and waterfalls. OK, I probably won't stay forever, but I'm not just dreaming the dream. For an interlude at least, I'm living it.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/cruises

traveller.com.au/pacific

tahititourisme.com

CRUISE

Oceania Cruises' has numerous itineraries through French Polynesia, such as Los Angeles to Papeete departing on  November 11 2018 and Papeete to Sydney on  November 27, both aboard Regatta. Marina sails from Santiago to Papeete on  January 3 2019 and follows with several Polynesia-only cruises.

The writer sailed a 10-day "Sparkling South Pacific" itinerary roundtrip from Papeete. The itinerary usually sails to Moorea, Fakarava, Rangiroa, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine, rearranged as described here due to weather. From $3450pp.

Phone 1300 355 200. See oceaniacruises.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Oceania Cruises.

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