Follow this link to hear my very excited and hopeful (and in retrospect, sad) RNZ interview with First Up host Lydia Batham, recorded at sea on the M/S Paul Gauguin after leaving Pitcairn Island.
The entire South Pacific Cruise to Totality was bookended by several days in Tahiti. The Easter Island add-on to the eclipse cruise required a couple of back-and-forth stays at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort, and one long day at the Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort while waiting for my red eye flight back to Los Angeles.
I used my free days before and after life on the Paul Gauguin to sketch by the pools, shop at the market, and research and purchase a pearl necklace and a Tahitian ukulele.
I twice attempted to buy stamps and first day covers at the OPT (Office des Postes et Télécommunication) but, like Pitcairn and totality, it was another busted goal. (The philatelic window was closed during my first attempt, and soon after all OPT doors were locked due to a worker strike throughout the entire island chain. “The French are always on strike,” said a guide.)
Goodbye Polynesia and the M/S Paul Gauguin—I might be back. Maybe roll the dice again in December, 2020?
A footnote about cruising with the Paul Gauguin: Experienced travelers know that the worst part of the cruise experience is, by far, disembarkation. When that cruise is over, it is OVER. Guests are usually herded into hallways or into holding areas with hard plastic chairs and bare lightbulbs. The staff actively ignores them—a hurtful experience when just the day before everyone called you by name. Gone is the food, and the bar is closed, never to reopen. The deprivation and despair is rivaled only by the feeling of coming down from cocaine.
NOT SO on the M/S Paul Gauguin—or at least on this eclipse-at-sea charter. After checking out of our rooms and stashing our luggage by our stateroom doors, passengers came and went from shopping ashore like we owned the ship, or just lounged wherever we liked as the busy, cheery crew vacuumed the carpets and transitioned jobs. The Gauguines were still hanging around in their revealing island attire. Smiling bartenders were still available, making drinks. I joined some of my favorite people from Easter Island in the La Palette bar on deck 8 to drink mai tais and work crossword puzzles. The lunch buffet—served just before it was time to transfer to our luxurious day hotels and uncomfortable flights home—was as sumptuous as ever.
Arrival in Tahiti
Tahiti Pearl Beach Resort
Heiva is both a celebration of Polynesian culture and a competitive festival during which thousands of performers and athletes from each inhabited island of the French Territory vie for “best of” status in dancing, singing, drumming, and traditional sports (like rowing).
It was a delight to be cruising with the M/S Paul Gauguin in July during the annual Heiva festival, and each island showcased their best and brightest adults and children. While anchored near Papetoai Pier on Moorea—just a thirty minute sail from our final destination, Papeete, Tahiti—the “Moorea Mamas” boarded the Paul Gauguin with armloads of flowers and island greenery to make flower crowns and leis for a mini-Heiva on the ship.
Later that night, the Paul Gauguin made the short trip to the quai d’honneur at Papeete, and Captain Toni and staff bid the eclipse chasers a formal farewell at the final cocktail party. Later, the outstanding performance by O Tahiti E—Polynesia’s premier folkloric dance troupe—might have been the cultural highlight of the trip.
Controversy: which one is Bali Hai: Bora Bora or Moorea? Both claim to be Michener’s special island, floatin’ in the sunshine, her head stickin’ out from a low-flying cloud. I believe Bora Bora is the island Michener had in mind when he wrote Tales of the South Pacific, but the hokey backdrop used in the movie South Pacific definitely looks like Moorea.
The cruise has picked up: the sun was out, the pool bar was busy, and only a few diehards were still complaining about the clouded-out eclipse four days before. (I overheard one old fella actually telling a virgin about the life-changing totality experience she missed, and describing the glorious phenomenon in detail. “Hush!” cried those around him, but the damage was done. How can people be so thoughtless?)
Bora Bora was a travel destination that has been in the back of my mind since I heard the name as a child, on a list of impossible-sounding places. I wondered if they were real—Bora Bora, Timbuktu, Transylvania, Cucamonga, Titicaca—or just cartoon place names.
Bora Bora is real, and real, real beautiful. The colorful “Le Truck” tour bus circles the main road around the island, stopping at all the sights to see: a pareo dyeing operation, the overwater bungalows once owned by Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, a lovely overlook, the fancy hotels, WW2 relics, personal family shrines in residential neighborhoods, and a pristine beach with that surreal blue, Pantone 14-5711 water. We stopped for a quick drink at Bloody Marys, and fed the red hibiscus blooms that decorated the truck to land crabs who came rushing in and out of their holes to grab the flowers.
After Le Truck, I joined a lagoon excursion. A powered outrigger canoe carried a handful of people to three snorkeling stops at coral gardens and areas to swim with reef sharks and tame stingrays with names like Diane and Beyonce.
With no time to return to the ship before dinner and the island Heiva performance, I just wrapped a pareo around my bathing suit and topped it with the wet white button-down shirt I snorkeled in. I looked a mess, but didn’t care. “You look very tropical,” said someone, kindly.
Huahine is known as the “garden island” of the Society chain. “Wah-heena” says the ship’s Dutch travel concierge manager, but the natives pronounce it “Hoo-ah-heenie”—and that literally means vagina. Like most of the islands around Tahiti, Huahine culture celebrates sexuality and the male and female organs that are the source of all human, animal and plant life.
On the “Huahine Nui Safari Expedition” tourists walked the Maeva archeological site, viewed the ingenious ancient fish traps, and learned about pearl impregnation and gestation. We viewed lovely Maroe Bay from the Belvedere lookout. Our guide tried to catch a sacred blue eyed eel for a photo opp, and encouraged us to take a big whiff of harvested vanilla, drying in the sun. I purchased a few ceramic items; Huahine is the only Society Island that makes pottery, using mud scooped from the bottom of their lagoon.
Back on board
The M/S Paul Gauguin returned to French Polynesia, and all passengers proceeded through passport control before arriving on Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago. Surprise! The weather was bad and only got worse. All shore excursions were cancelled, and it wasn’t possible to snorkel “Gods Aquarium” (the lagoon). We combed the grey beaches for awhile and watched the waves until the drizzle drove us back to the ship. Rangiroa was eerie—no traditional island greeting by the locals, no popup shops on the dock. Rusted cars, ragged palms, hungry-looking stray dogs, unlike the well-fed pets that ruled the streets of Hanga Roa.
Back on board Feinberg hosted an “eclipse day in pictures” slideshow lecture comprised of shots submitted by passengers. Some were surprisingly exciting and technical taken during the partial phase between first and second contact. Not everyone saw nothing.
Onward to Taha’a. It was very windy and drizzly and flat-out miserable when the early tender boat dropped the first guests off on Motu Mahana, PG Cruises’ private islet of Taha’a. To compensate I began drinking early—something rummy in a real coconut shell—and tried to make some drawings from the bar on the beach as the wind whipped spray onto my sketchbook.
A couple of hours (and another coconut drink) later, the sun came out and revealed Motu Mahana to be what it is: paradise. Picture a breathtaking tropical island. You got it. “Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines”—the ship’s Tahitian hosts and entertainers, adorable young men and women clad in scanty pareos and maros—played ukuleles and sang while a barbecue lunch was served. There was a floating bar, the making of pandanas headbands, kayaking and jet skiing and paddling around in that bewitching blue water.
Gloomy day on Rangiroa
Waiting for the tender
NOW we’re talking: Motu Mahana, Taha’a
Wednesday, July 3, 2019. The pall aboard the PG created by the totality shutout exacerbated the already low spirits from the ongoing bad weather at sea and the Pitcairn fail. Disgruntlement circulated among actual professional astronomers and hardcore umbraphiles on the guest list, and they fomented unrest to whomever would listen around the pool and in the buffet lines. (These are the same individuals that found fault with niggling details in the science lectures and had actual conflicting opinions that they loudly voiced about Fillipenko’s dark matter statistics.) There was a way, they claim, to have seen totality, but I think their Monday morning quarterback plans would have compromised the itinerary and put the remaining island destinations at risk.
The rest of us got over it quickly; as we have learned from Jimmy Buffet, there’s nothing like booze in the blender to help you forget. (As one practical individual observed, pina colada in hand: “The casino on these eclipse cruises is usually poorly attended. Because this whole thing is gamble enough.”) In retrospect, of course I would have liked to witness my eighth total solar eclipse, but the experience was priceless. The emotional highs and lows ranged from elation (“we’re heading to clear skies, it’s a sure thing!”) to the sickening realization that the eclipse we paid thousands of dollars to see would not be seen. It wasn’t for the lack of trying, though—see the photo below of the Paul Gauguin’s Spirograph-like path in search of clear skies.
We returned to life at sea as we sailed back to the Society Islands—touring the galley and bridge, playing trivia in the piano bar, solving the jigsaw puzzle. I spent time in my stateroom, drawing—the shelf below my porthole windows became a mini studio. Independence Day came and went without undue observation, partly because the planned ice cream social was cancelled due to rain, but mostly because the staff dropped the ice cream on the deck because the ship was pitching in the rough sea. This was not a trip for those prone to motion sickness.
I shifted my expectations to the sun and sand and snorkeling that would hopefully come soon.
The morning dawned beautifully over the Paul Gauguin, with a blue sky and a bright yellow sun burning through the large holes in non-threatening puffy clouds.
By 7am most had staked out their viewing site, and were excited and optimistic. Nearly three minutes of totality were in store. I chose to view from the bar, La Pallette on deck 8, where mimosas were being served and there were tables outside where I could make my astronomical drawings after first contact.
Others, wrapped in blankets, settled in chairs on both sides of deck 8. Deck 9 and the foredeck of 8 were roped off for users of sensitive cameras and telescopes. It was windy and the sea pitched the ship a bit, creating a real rodeo for the ‘scope folks on the upper decks.
First Contact was at 9am. (Isn’t it a relief to see that tiny bite, precisely on schedule? “We’ve got the right day!” says someone, always, every single time.)
But quickly, within the hour, passengers and organizers were in despair. More clouds formed, and they grew thicker by the minute. They seemed to converge upon the ship from every direction, as if by evil design.
Feinberg continued his dignified phenomenon announcements (“this is when you should be able to see shadowbands”, etc.) from his position on the bridge with the captain. Both furiously calculated possibilities, and the Paul Gauguin was turned and turned and repositioned again and again and again to try to find a hole in the dark grey clouds, to no avail. We were skunked.
“Second contact,” Feinberg announced solemnly at 10:10am, to 300 shocked and silent eclipse chasers.
I scratched a couple of “totality” sketches, gathered my colored pencils, and trudged back to my stateroom. I snapped a couple of pictures of people on the way who were laughing at the fail—what else could you do? I didn’t wait around for third contact, or fourth, and avoided the group photo and eye contact with the trip organizers for awhile. I felt sad for them, but worse for the virgins.
Later, the “how was it for you?” debriefing presentation, which is traditionally a celebration, was like a wake. It felt good to just to be together. Captain Toni, who seemed shook up, was brought to the front to receive a standing ovation. It was a buoyant, healing moment for all.
It was time to look ahead to the rest of the cruise, and there was one consolation: the South Pacific singalong took place that afternoon, and I sat next to a musical theater guy who could sing the low note of “Nothing Like a Dame”.
Eclipse day morning—looking promising
First contact—spirits are high
We love you Captain Toni—thanks for playing our game
Sunday, June 30. At last, Pitcairn Island—but crashing breakers prevented the Paul Gauguin from reaching shore and, for some reason, pickup by Pitcairner longboats wasn’t an option either. All were disappointed, and the younger, able-bodied cruise guests (who could have managed the descent into the longboats via treacherous rope ladder), were especially frustrated.
The Pitcairners (if you’re not sure what this means, read this) boarded the Paul Gauguin with their wares for sale, and I was delighted to purchase some unique gifts for friends back home, a pretty wood dish made by Randy Christian (Fletcher Christian’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson), and several first day covers. Commemorative Pitcairn stamps were what I was anxious to find onshore anyway. Pitcairn Island was slated for an 80% partial eclipse, so while they were aboard I gifted a few dozen leftover Blackout Rally shades to the islanders and their children.
Since the onshore Pitcairn experience failed, the captain announced that we would pull up the anchor and make for the eclipse site early. New coordinates just beyond the edge of a thick cloud band were charted by Feinberg and Jay Andersen, the popular eclipse meteorologist who was stationed safely on land somewhere sunny in Chile.
A last minute weather update the day before the eclipse was delivered to the anxious chasers packed into the Grand Salon. Details about viewing were announced (the pool will be drained, the bar will be open, etc.) and questions were answered. It’s looking good for eclipse day, and spirits were high. I overheard more than one passenger proclaim, “seeing the eclipse will make up for not getting to Pitcairn.”
(Captain Toni made daily shipwide intercom announcements that rattled everyone’s nerves as we got closer to eclipse day. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he would begin, slowly and formally, in his Croation accent. “I have some information. Some information that will be of very much interest to you.” Long pause. “As you know, we are doing our best to find the best possible eclipse viewing position for you.” Oh no, what the fuck NOW we think collectively, and all souls aboard freeze, hanging on his every word. “We are cruising at eighteen knots away from our position,” he continues. “At twenty seven degrees south latitude to longitude one hundred thirty degrees to arrive five hundred seventy nautical miles from latitude minus fifteen…” and so forth. After two minutes of this level of out-of-context technical information, he concludes. “And so we are hoping for good outcome. And good day.”)
I made my eclipse phenomena “shot list”—see photo—including an essential tip from Filippenko: “make sure you go to the bathroom.” Others ready their custom solar viewers.
Somehow I was contacted via Twitter by a producer for New Zealand Public Radio; asking if I would submit to an interview for their First Up morning show about our ship and the nutty eclipse chasing passengers, all steaming for somewhere in the middle of the sea to witness three minutes of totality. How hopeful and confident I sound in this interview. I was still convinced that my eighth TSE would be a slam dunk.
Approaching Pitcairn Island
Pitcairners come aboard
Eclipse update: New coordinates, a hopeful weather map
Fashioning custom solar filters
A smashing sunset after navigating around the backside of Pitcairn, and sailing onward to the eclipse
The Paul Gauguin is no stranger to eclipse chasing; she has been guided successfully into the umbra in the South Pacific four times before. Captain Toni Mirkovic from Croatia and the trip organizers were cautiously optimistic about our chances of seeing the corona, though we will be cruising straight into some dodgy weather. We’re facing several days at sea before our first destination, Pitcairn Island.
The ship is small—300 passengers—but there are nooks and crannies to discover, and the swell of the daily routine to settle into. La Pallette and Le Grill and the pool bar are on deck 8; L’etoile (the buffet) on 5 is on the way down the carpeted hall from nightly cocktails at the casino and piano bar. Pass the reception and guest desk to push open a heavy door and descend a tight stairwell to the dive marina on aft deck 4. La Veranda, a fancier restaurant, is near the spa and boutique on 6.
People LOVE the Paul Gauguin. My first impression was, “this tub is fusty.” The ship is now twenty, and she looks it. The brown and gold upholstery and draperies are unfrayed but dated. The staterooms are stately but feel well used by others who’ve slept there before. In contrast, the sparkling expedition ship Orion makes the Paul Gauguin look like my parents’ basement.
I met another traveler who was cruising on the Paul Gauguin for the 15th time—not a typo. I thought, What the hell? By the end of the journey I understood completely and had fallen in love with the PG, too. The ship has a coziness and a congenial personality, and she’s just the right size—big enough to offer variety yet each space feels intimate. It quickly turned into home.
Those who’ve been on a cruise know that there are too many scheduled activities and it’s impossible to attend them all: movies, lectures, games, crafts, lessons, and live music. Snacks and drinks and singalongs and partying by the pool. Something for everyone. I spent the first day or so regrouping after the week on Rapa Nui; plus, it was raining (and continued to rain off and on until we reached Bora Bora). <FORESHADOWING>
The cruise astronomy program was led by Rick Feinberg, Editor (and new owner) of Sky and Telescope magazine; and Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at Cal Berkeley and well known for his appearances in the documentary series The Universe. Throughout the week science lectures included “Highlights of the Southern Sky”; “How and Why Eclipses Happen” (for the virgins); “What Happened to Pluto?” and “Flying Through Pluto’s Shadow on Sofia”; “Dark Energy and the Runaway Universe”; and “Big Bang and Cosmic Inflation”, among others. The content seemed to get more and more dense the longer we were at sea. Though Filippenko and Feinberg are delightful lecturers, the subject matter quickly went over my head. The other passengers, a disproportionate number of science nerds, paid rapt attention to the presentations and packed the Grand Salon auditorium.
Rainy day activities at sea included eating and drinking. Making pandanas bracelets and eclipse-themed souvenirs with the Polynesian staff. More eating, and more drinking. I made some drawings of ship life, and a solemn sketch of cloud-shrouded Gambier Island as we passed.
When the ship neared Pitcairn Island there were tender tickets to procure and a preparation lecture to attend. Captain Toni was unsure we’d be able to set foot on land as stormy weather could prevent an approach to the dock. It’s possible that the Pitcairners could employ their longboats to shuttle us to shore, but that would require descending from the ship via a sketchy 18-foot rope ladder. We’ll know more tomorrow. The 1984 film “The Bounty” was screened as a pop refresher of the details of Christian Fletcher’s famous mutiny on the HMS Bounty. We’ll meet his direct descendants and the families of some of the other mutineers when we reach Pitcairn.
Summer, 2019. I attempted my eighth total solar eclipse—my third one at sea. (November 2012 I watched from the deck of the expedition ship Orion in the Great Barrier Reef. The February ’98 totality was actually viewed from the beach on Aruba; about half the eclipse group aboard the Carnival Fascination opted for luck on land, while the others sailed away in search of clear skies somewhere in the Southern Caribbean Sea.)
I was excited to see my eighth TSE, but more excited to finally travel to Easter Island, which hosted her own eclipse in 2010. (All venues were sold out when I tried, very late in the game, to make travel arrangements that year.)
Happy again to be chasing the shadow with TravelQuest International; Aram Kaprielian and his expedition teams are brand consistent in that they always offer the best available accommodations, science experts, local guides, and overall travel experience to bookend the corona, the jewel of the journey. (Hopefully. More on that later.)
Easter Island—Rapa Nui—was nothing like I imagined, and exactly as I imagined. It’s more populated, with a busy “city” center, Hanga Roa. The hotel chosen for the TravelQuest guests, the Hangaroa Eco Village, was far more upscale and comfortable than I could have dreamed. I expected heat and mosquitos—none. But the Moai, those famous Easter Island heads, dotted the deforested landscape in the way they are always pictured. Ancient. Eerie. Confusing. Tikigod-like, without the party vibe. One thousand or so of these statues, heads and squat bodies representing humanoid beings, range between six and 30 feet tall. Their weight is unimaginable; several tons. How on earth were they made? How were they transported? Who are they? WHY are they?
There’s only one flight to and from Tahiti each week, so if you approach Rapa Nui from Faa’a on LATAM (formerly LAN Airlines, based in Santiago, Chile), you’ll have to kill time until you’re returned to Tahiti. There’s plenty to keep a visitor busy on Easter Island without feeling rushed, and in a week you can comfortably see it all.
We saw the sacred site of Tahai: three ceremonial ahus (platforms) with restored Moai, including the only one with his coral eyes reinserted. (On our last evening we watched the sun set behind the Moai of Tahai—where we started on day one—from the hill above. A Polynesian “buried” feast was served, cooked in an earthen (umu) oven, followed by a folkloric performance.
We explored Ahu Tongariki, the largest ahu on Easter Island with 15 Moai, backs to the sea. The second one from the right wears a cylindrical red “pukao” on his head. Is it a hat, or does it represent a faddish hairstyle once worn by influential Rapa Nui males? Just one of the many Moai mysteries. (The red scoria stone used to carve the topknots was quarried at Puna Pau, 12 miles from the site where the heads and bodies were made.) Ahu Tongariki is the place to be at sunrise.
We crawled through lava tubes and caves. We admired the vistas at Rano Kau, an extinct volcano and crater lake. We posed for goofy pictures at Ahu Akivi, where the seven Moai stand who represent the seven original Polynesian explorers to Rapa Nui, led by Hotu Matua. (So they say.) We paid a visit to the Ahu Nau Nau Moai at Anakena, Rapa Nui’s only sandy, white coral beach.
We learned about the intense Birdman contest (follow the link to read about this, and join me in wondering why this is not a reality competition show RIGHT NOW). We wandered around Orongo Village, a network of clever semiunderground homes, where the competitors prepared for the race past Motu Iti to Motu Nui where they would grab sooty tern eggs and swim back through the waves with the prized eggs protected in little headband baskets.
We visited the strange and striking Iglesia Hanga Roa—Holy Cross Church—where carvings that decorate the sanctuary inside and out combine Rapa Nui and Christian symbols. At the church I remained on a bench in the garden to sketch the exterior while the rest of the group attended a short lecture inside. I got lost in the complicated drawing; when I finally looked up, to my horror, our tour bus was gone. The saints were with me though; I caught up with it down the street at the Artisan Market where later I’d buy a Moai souvenir carved from makoi wood.
The money shot of Easter Island is Rano Raraku, the quarry that supplied the stone for almost all of the Moai. Nearly 900 Moai are scattered about the site—many of the recognizable ones featured on postcards and seen on Instagram—including the 170 ton “El Gigante” who lies flat on his back, possibly abandoned during construction or intended to remain in eternal peace that way.
“Isla de Pascua”—Easter Island’s Spanish name—is part of Region de Valparaiso in Chile, and it was hard to keep up with the languages spoken there. One simple interaction could contain ia orana or maeva (hello and welcome in Tahitian), mesa para dos? (table for two in Spanish), ko ai to’u ‘injoa? (what is your name in Rapa Nui), and thank you, come again!
Even more confusing are the conflicting “facts” presented about the historical events of the island and the origin of the Rapa Nui people. Oral history and DNA and architectural and artifact clues all point in different directions, and the various theorists are generally adamant that their own interpretation is gospel. The official museum above Ahu Tahai houses interesting tools and artifacts as well as a video that discounted much of what our guide just told us in front of the Moai below, a half an hour earlier.
“The island was deforested to make log conveyances for the Moai, a cultural obsession, made worse by competitive clan wars.” Wrong: “the demise of the once-lush vegetation on Rapa Nui wasn’t ecocide, it was genocide, perpetrated by Europeans.” “The Moai weren’t rolled, they were ‘walked’ into various resting places on the island.” Or they were moved some other way; there are three top theories. “The Tongariki 15 were toppled during the island’s civil wars” versus “No, they weren’t, they were gently ‘put to sleep’, carefully lowered with ropes, face down.” Do not get anyone started on what the red pukao on the Moai heads represent, or incite the neverending debate about where the Rapa Nui people originated. Ahu Vinapu reflects Incan architecture; Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki expedition concurs: they came from South America. Or did they sail Northwest from Polynesian islands? Modern anthropologists are sure they are Marquesan—until someone else digs up a different story. Rapa Nui is the most most isolated inhabited nation in the world, and it’s bizarre there were—are—people there at all.
After a farewell dinner at the Eco Lodge, we transferred back to the airport for a midnight flight back to the InterContinental Tahiti Resort to await the Cruise to Totality.
Arrival on Rapa Nui; passport stamp
Hotel Hanga Roa Eco Village
Ahu Tongariki; Puna Pau topknot
Ahu Nau-Nau Moai and Anakena Beach
The Birdman; Orongo Village; Birdman motus
Iglesia Hanga Roa; Artisan market
Cliff by cave; wild guava; post office; local beer; boats at the marina