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Afloat on Society's fringe

October 19, 2003|Amanda Jones | Special to The Times

Raiatea, French Polynesia — Having children changes everything. Take, for example, the notion of the vacation. When my husband, Greg, and I added progeny to the mix, not only were we forced to seek child-friendly destinations but we also were faced with zealous grandparents.

My parents live in New Zealand and feel cheated out of time with our two daughters, who live with us in California. They have resolved this by inviting themselves along on our vacations. My American in-laws happen to be chummy with my parents and don't like to miss out either. Hence, once a year we gather somewhere overseas.

Despite parental protestations of "Oh, any old place will do, darling, it will be lovely just to be together," requirements for these multi-clan holidays are stringent. Destinations must be exotic yet not squalid, free of pestilence and poisonous organisms and sparsely populated by people. There must be swimmable water, balmy weather, identifiable cuisine. The culture should not venerate weaponry. In today's world that's a tall order.

The planning of these vacations always falls to me. Last year I needed a location suitable for our daughters, Sofia, then 2, and 4-year-old Indigo; my surfer husband; my parents, Margaret and Peter Crotty; and my mother-in-law, Ellen Gibson. The last three fall between the ages of 68 and 78. My father-in-law chose to stay home in the U.S., so we numbered seven.

Someone suggested Tahiti, and I cringed. On our last visit, Greg and I had been surrounded by honeymooners -- hordes of clasping, thong-wearing couples careening about on Jet Skis.

But research showed me there's more to French Polynesia than Tahiti. There were other, less spoiled islands, and they weren't as geared toward lovebirds.

Although many people refer to the 130 islands of French Polynesia as Tahiti, the French territory is made up of five island chains: the Society, Marquesas, Gambier and Austral islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago. Tahiti is in the Society Islands, as is Bora-Bora, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and a few others.

Because our group spanned three generations and we didn't want to travel more than we had to, we decided to stick to the closely clustered Society Islands of Huahine, Raiatea and Tahaa.

Cramped quarters

Last November we took a nine-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia. We met my parents there, then connected to a 45-minute flight to Raiatea.

The 18-seat plane flew over coral atolls, which looked like petri dish amoebas from above. The blues of the sea -- ranging from turquoise to cerulean -- were transparent and intense, and the islands were thickly topped with palms and ringed with bands of glowing white sand.

Our plan was to rent a yacht and spend the first week of our two-week trip sailing in and around Raiatea and Tahaa. It was cheaper than paying for several rooms at resorts and interisland flights. Plus, by boat we could reach places where there were no roads and small, white sand, palm tree-fringed motu, atolls that typically lie off the larger islands. Motu are the most seductive part of the South Pacific.

Greg and my father are experienced sailors, so we rented a bareboat mono-hull yacht from Sunsail on Raiatea. Because we booked only two months before our trip, no large boats were available. We seven shared a 41-foot, three-cabin Beneteau, and it was far too small.

It had a fiberglass hull with fully equipped galley, dining table-cum-spare bed and two bathrooms. Next time, I would add 10 feet for privacy and probably step up to a catamaran.

After the Sunsail staff briefed us on the operation of the boat, anchorages and navigation, we set out late in the day, sailing for an hour and stopping behind Tipaemau, a motu off northeastern Raiatea. We arrived at sunset, dropping anchor in gin-clear waters, alone under a falling orange sun.

That night we mixed a batch of daiquiris and cooked steaks on the barbecue at the back of the boat.

My mother, a gourmet cook, had arrived with bags heaving with foodstuffs and alcoholic beverages. She had brought coolers of vacuum-packed lamb and beef because she had heard that meat costs its weight in gold in Tahiti.

I ridiculed her, embarrassed by her overpreparation. But my mother had the last laugh when I saw the price of food in a Raiatea supermarket. Think $10 for a jar of olives.

The Society Islands import many products from France. Wine was plentiful and affordable. Hard liquor, though, costs twice as much as in American stores.

We woke the next morning to a mirror-flat sea and a cobalt sky. Tahiti has mild weather year-round, meaning that temperatures vary from 72 degrees in July to 88 degrees in January. We were there in November, the tail end of the dry season, when rain is expected, although only in bursts.

The forecast was for fine weather, and I prayed to the god of family ties that this would continue.

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