Jane Archer takes the plunge with a riveting French Polynesia cruise.
We've stopped in a clearing in the rainforest, by what looks to me like a pile of rocks but to our guide, social archaeologist Mark Eddowes, is the starting point of a fascinating story about the lives, loves and promiscuous sexual habits of the ancient Polynesian civilisation that once lived on the island of Moorea in the South Pacific.
Since we set off on this Trail of the Ancients tour, Eddowes - a New Zealander and walking encyclopaedia on French Polynesia - has been enthralling us with tales of the local history and culture of Tahiti and the Society Islands, weaving the past into insights to life today and making the walk the highlight of a cruise packed with them.
In just a week, my daughter Ilana and I have been drift snorkelling through an underwater forest of corals; lazed in the sun drinking cocktails from coconuts on the sandy Motu Mohana (moto is the local name for the small islands on the reefs that surround each of the Society Islands); and downed a beer or two at the famed Bloody Marys bar on Bora Bora.
We've hiked up Mount Tapioi on Raiatea; learnt how coral islands are formed in a lecture by one of two naturalists running an educational program for youngsters aged nine to 17 under the auspices of Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society; and heard the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty in a talk by Eddowes.
His tale of hardship and horror on the Bounty is all a far cry from our cruise ship, the Paul Gauguin, a 332-passenger luxury vessel built in 1998 on which we are being looked after hand and foot by a terrific crew.
I was attracted to the cruise - a seven-night voyage from Papeete in Tahiti that visits Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora and Moorea - by the sun, sand and swaying palm trees of the South Pacific; Ilana, 18 years old and newly qualified with a PADI scuba diving certificate, was persuaded to join me (OK it didn't take much arm-twisting) to road-test the diving for me.
The ship uniquely has a five-strong dive team, including three qualified PADI instructors who operate a program of dives for beginners and experts from the rear of the ship and can even coach you through your PADI qualification on board, although Laurent, a Frenchman who lives in the islands and heads the team, told me it's rare anyone takes advantage of that.
The dive team is not the only thing that makes this cruise unique. It's also that by the end of seven days we had sailed just 340 nautical miles, which would not even have got us from Sydney to Melbourne.
Ilana would have dived every day if my budget had allowed but with prices from $US95 ($90) for two hours, it's not cheap. On the plus side, though, the cruise fare includes soft and alcoholic drinks, plus crew gratuities and all meals, even the speciality dining in La Veranda and Le Grill.
We managed to eat in both (you need to reserve a table and they book up fast), but mostly you dine in L'Etoile, where they operate an open seating system allowing you to eat when and with whom you wish.
Ilana and I dined alone a couple of nights, but at other times joined a sharing table as it's a nice way to meet other people. Most passengers were from the US, but there were 10 couples from Australia and a similar number from New Zealand plus a handful of Brits who, like us, had braved the long journey from London.
Back in the rainforest on the Trail of the Ancients, Eddowes is telling us about the giant African snails imported into Moorea in the 1930s as food (the islands were colonised by the French and are still designated a pays d'outre-mer), but which then devoured the local vegetation.
"So each time I see this, I celebrate," he tells us as he picks up a giant empty shell. After eating that, I reckon the bird was pretty happy, too!
You can forget songs from musicals, flashy costumes and bendy acrobats. On Paul Gauguin, instead of the usual cruise ship fare, you have Les Gauguines — seven talented young women from the Society Islands with unbelievably bendy hips who dress in local gear and host everything from keep-fit and dance classes to crab-racing games. They bring a real taste of the South Pacific to the cruise.
Cruising there Seven-night voyage from Papeete to Raiatea, Taha'a, Bora Bora (overnight) and Moorea (overnight). A seven-night cruise on the Paul Gauguin is priced from $US3995 ($3885) a person.
Getting there Air Tahiti Nui flies direct from Auckland to Papeete. Flight time is four hours, 55 minutes. Qantas Airways offers connecting flights from Australia to Auckland.
Air Tahiti Nui (TN) has a fare to Papeete for about $1396 low-season return, from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Auckland (about 4hr with Qantas) and then to Papeete (5hr); see airtahitinui.com. This fare allows you to fly with other airlines to Auckland. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for an accumulative stay of up to 90 days within a period of six months.
More information See wiltrans.com.au.