Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tahaa Ha-ha

After 12 days at Huahine, we have finally moved on to a new island. The skies were blue and the wind was fresh, after more than a week of intermittent rain and heavy overcast. As we left the harbor, there were about a dozen surfers on the left side of Avamoa Pass, and we sailed past as closely as we dared, so that we could snap some photos. We had been told that this is a dangerous break, with a very shallow reef ledge below. Oddly, the wind was out of the southwest, instead of the more typical east wind. We made for Toahotu Pass on the island of Tahaa, close-hauled on port tack. It was a perfect day at sea, and we made the 21 mile passage in about 4 hours, sailing conservatively with one reef in the main. The wind never strengthened to the point that we needed to be reefed, nor were the seas as rough as we had thought they might be.  We entered the pass, with a phalanx of surfers riding the right-hand break, and small sportfishers trolling for dinner. We anchored just inside a small palm-covered motu guarding the north side of the pass.  We found a nice sand shelf with 15 feet of water, just right by our standards. I like to be able to easily inspect the anchor, and re-position it by hand if necesary. After covering the sail, we donned snorkel gear, and were delighted to find that visibility was about 75 feet, which is about 3 times what we had at Huahine. The anchor was a bit too close to a coral head, so I laboriously dragged it about 25 feet south, which took 3 separate dives. There were garden eels sticking out of holes in the sand, and I was surrounded by a large shoal of tiny fish. In the distance I could see about a dozen titan triggerfish patrolling. I think we are going to like this new island. The next morning, we had the rare pleasure of a "green flash" sunrise and, for the second day in a row, a mostly blue sky. After breakfast, we dinghied over to explore Mahaea motu, which had been covered with day-trippers on Sunday, but was now utterly deserted. Ashore, we found buildings suitable for large beach parties, complete with huge barbeque pits and covered stages for dancers and/or musicians. There were also 3 lonely cats, who followed us around in hopes of either a handout or outright adoption. After circling the motu, we went snorkeling in the pass, drifting beside the dinghy in the outflowing current. Unfortunately, the visibility was not so good, maybe 30 feet or so, and there were few fish, other than a spotted eagle ray who fled upon sighting us. We motored  back into the lagoon, and tried snorkeling in a few spots between the motu and the barrier reef. The coral was mostly dead, but the intricate arrangement of the heads made for fun exploration. Back at the boat, we decided to move farther from the pass, in order to escape being turned sideways to the chop by the strong current. We spent the rest of the day and the that night at our new anchorage, still in about 18 feet of water. There was a steady ebb and flow of chartered catamarans, and one monohull marked "Ecole de Croiserie" (Cruising School) anchored near us for the night. Our second morning in Tahaa, the rainy, squally weather that we have seen for the better part of the past month returned. We decided to explore nearby Haamene Bay, where we tied up to a free mooring at the venerable Hibiscus Hotel. Ashore, we explored the rescued sea turtles in a pen, and the flag-draped, nautically-themed hotel bar, called Chez Leo. The flag collection included one of the largest Oregon state flags I've seen other than at a state institution. We met the grand old proprietor himself, ensconced in a small office space, screened off from the restaurant/bar by a mountain of old books and paperwork. He readily agreed to rent us his single rental car, and soon we were off on the "Tour de Tahaa" at speeds never to exceed 40kph (25 mph).  Tahaa, despite unremarkable topography, turned out to have the tidiest and most colorful homes of any of the islands we have toured thus far. The day of our tour seemed to be some sort of special holiday, with children in matching shirts, caps, and scarves waiting in groups along the road for the "Le Truck" (bus). When we got to the principal town of Patio, we found a huge group of students gathered inside an arena of some sort, but whatever the program of activities was had not yet commenced. We split a ham and cheese on a baguette for $2.50, and kept driving along the numerous bays and points. From most of the western side of the island, we could see the cloud-wreathed peaks of Bora Bora, only about 20 miles away. Including a leisurely lunch of poisson cru, burger, and frites, our island tour took about 6 hours. The highlights were a brief walk through the beautiful garden at Sophie's Boutique, a bamboo "lumber yard",  and a tour of La Maison de la Vanille (Vanilla House), where we learned why natural vanilla extract is so expensive, especially here in French Polynesia. For one thing, there are no natural pollinators for the vanilla flowers here, so each flower must be hand-pollinated. For another, there is a fermentation process triggered by sun-drying, and the beans must be moved inside each time it rains, which at least recently has been several times a day! The longest bean pods are shipped to Europe for use in restaurants, and the shortest ones are sent to the U.S. to be ground up and incorporated into cosmetics and other products.

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