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
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.
Prepping again for the next TSE! The welders glasses I’ve used for the partial phases since The Big One (Baja, 1991) are scratched, worn, and a little broken, but they’ll block blinding Sol’s rays one more time with a little duct tape patch on the seam. I hope.
I’m currently overpacking (example: three bathing suits) for the South Pacific “Cruise to Totality”, a TravelQuest tour aboard the MS Paul Gauguin that will sail from Tahiti on June 27. Her passengers will witness 3 minutes and 16 seconds of totality at sea on July 2, 2019, somewhere between Pitcairn Island and Rangiroa. Clear skies are expected, and I’ll have my eighth total solar eclipse in the can.
I’m almost more excited about the add-on excursion to Easter Island (Rapa Nui), a destination I’ve always wanted to see for myself. Something about those massive Moai heads are calling—so much so that I made an effort during a road trip to the Midwest this month to find and take a selfie with the “Moai Dude” sculpture. He stands in a suburban playground in Altoona, Iowa. Can’t wait to meet a real one…next week!