Journey With Lindblad to Some of the Pacific’s Most Remote Isles

BY ADAM H. GRAHAM — Winter 2019

’m alone, walking, along a shaded coastal path on Alofi island, population 1. The sand beneath me is packed tight and speckled like vanilla sugar cookie dough. I’m wearing a sun visor, flip-flops, and a floral Hawaiian shirt, with a pair of binoculars hanging from my sunburned neck. I look like a tourist.

I’m here searching for wattled honeyeaters, endemic songbirds to the Central Pacific whose penetrating liquid calls I had heard emanating from the thick, palm-pierced forest while snorkeling in the lagoon moments ago. I don’t notice the mocha-skinned man wearing one shoe and walking toward me. When I pull my binos away, I see him in my peripheral vision, carrying a long stick across the back of his neck, one side tied with bundles of coconuts and the other with plastic trash he has collected. As he approaches, I freeze. Did I stumble onto private property? But as he nears, I see him smiling, like many Pacific Islanders do in their natural state. When he’s close, I release my chirpiest “Bonjour!” and ask him in French if I can take his photo. He nods, pauses, and poses in contrapposto like a celebrity used to being asked. Then, without a word, he continues humbly along his way. I later discover the mystery man’s identity: Hermit of Alofi, which I find understandable.

Hermit of Alofi. PHOTO BY ADAM GRAHAM.

So how did I get to this tiny unheard-of island that’s part of the French protectorate of Wallis and Futuna, that has no airport, and that requires 10 zoom outs on Google Maps before you can see another continent? I came by ship, aboard the Lindblad National Geographic Orion, on one of the five new cruises that Lindblad launched in 2018 to some of the most remote islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, its first foray to many of these breathtakingly beautiful isles. I’m aboard the 102-passenger vessel for a 17-day, five-micronation, 13-island, 2,848-milevoyage from Fiji to Tahiti titled “Epic Polynesia,” with stops along the way in Fiji, Wallis and Futuna, Samoa, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia’s Society Islands.

Getting here was epic, too. I took an 11-hour flight from Hong Kong on Fiji Airways to Nadi, Fiji, then boarded the ship about 20 miles north in Lautoka along with mostly retired Americans, plus a few Swiss, Canadians, Aussies, and Israelis.

MAKING MEMORIES IN UNKNOWN SEAS

Shortly after embarking, we all assembled for the first daily briefing in a spacious lounge hung with TV screens and portraits of whales. Expedition leader Jimmy White, a 30-something Aussie who had just completed the reverse itinerary from Tahiti to Fiji, primed us on the cultural, natural, and logistical in frank terms, warning us we’d tire of kava ceremonies and probably not see whales, and preparing us for Samoa’s tedious customs clearing. “This journey is about what you bring to it,” he explained. His words remind all to manage expectations.

Unless you’re Moana herself or sailing your own yacht, however, there’s probably no better way to get across the Pacific and see as many micronations, Pacific cultures, endemic birds, colorful flowers, coral, and fish as I did during my journey. One of the most exhilarating parts of a trip like this is visiting small, lesser-known islands in seas you’ve never heard of — and Lindblad delivers on this score. Locals welcomed our group to the coastal village of Waitabu, a sprawl of humble thatched bungalows shaded by breadfruit trees on the emerald, mountainous Fijian island of Taveuni that floats in the placid Koro Sea. Here, younger villagers performed ceremonial dances for us while women in bright floral dresses and men with red hibiscus blooms behind their ears laid out a banquet of papaya, pineapple, and coconut so fresh the machete blades were still wet. After, we hiked to the Bouma Waterfalls, which tumbled off a mossy cliff in ribbons of white before collecting into a pool of cool green water, a perfect antidote to the tropical heat.

On flat, sandy Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, a chieftain wearing an elaborate feather headdress escorted us to bronze-sanded Ootu Beach, where we snorkeled in water teeming with delicate seahorses, giant purple-lipped clams, and hungry meter-long trevally fish. On the verdant Tahitian island of Ra’iātea, which rises dramatically from the lagoon, we explored the millennia-old Taputapuātea marae complex, a sacred open-air temple added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2017.

An Aitutaki chieftain. PHOTO BY ADAM GRAHAM.

Sometimes, I explored on my own. On Fiji’s 200-acre Dravuni island, on the rim of the Great Astrolabe Reef, I eschewed the group hike to wander the village. A friendly dog led me past beachfront massage shacks and smiling locals hanging laundry down to a scrubby trail where I encountered tiny, sapphire butterflies and hidden beaches strewn with coconuts and lonely lagoons bobbing with turtles. On Samoa’s remote island of Savai’i, I broke away from the group excursion to the Falealupo Canopy Walk and opted instead for a solitary walk along a coral and basalt trail. It crunched and clinked underneath me while I snaked under banyan trees looking for signs of fruit bats, endangered flying foxes, and indigenous bird species such as the yellow Samoan flycatcher, whose fluty call beckoned me deeper into the rain forest. After a successful bird-watching excursion to the Samoa Hideaway Hotel on Upolu, I hopped off the bus halfway back to the ship to visit the bustling capital of Apia. There, I pillaged the local grocery store for edible souvenirs, including a coconut-milk chocolate bar and breadfruit jam, and savored a plate of locally caught tuna sashimi with taro fries washed down with a cold Taula beer at the Edge restaurant on the city’s wharf.

LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Much as I loved my solitary shore leaves, Lindblad’s lecturers are experts across multiple fields and hands down the company’s best asset. Orion’s incredible team includes cultural anthropologists, dive masters, ethnomusicologists, marine biologists, National Geographic photographers, naturalists, ornithologists, and shark experts, and each enhanced the journey in ways I couldn’t have predicted. I knew the onboard lectures and excursions would be excellent, but was surprised by the sharpness and contrarian nuances that you not only won’t find on other ships, but that you won’t find at many colleges and universities. This spirit of learning explains Lindblad’s high percentage of repeat guests.

“This is not an epic Polynesian journey,” said Michael Nolan, certified naturalist and photo instructor, as our ship glided across placid water with a copper and pink sunset melting into the wake behind us. “It’s an epic Melanesia to Polynesia journey, traveling east to west across the Pacific, re-tracing the last great human migration on Earth.”

During another lecture, the mystical, unfathomably green island of Bora Bora poked over the calm morning sea’s horizon just as cultural expert Isa Weber said, “The word moana means ‘ocean’ in all Polynesian languages. We may see the Pacific as a separator of humans on these islands, but Polynesians see it as a highway connecting them.”

In another lecture, German-born Weber — who has lived in Polynesia for decades and knows these islands intimately — discussed how missionaries destroyed much of Polynesian culture by defacing sacred tiki statues and marginalizing Polynesian language and oral traditions. Jacob Edgar, an ethnomusicologist and world music scout, reminded us in a subsequent lecture that missionaries also helped popularize the hauntingly beautiful Polynesian gospel, which proliferates on many islands today. “Love ’em or hate ’em, missionaries ended cannibalism — and that’s something to sing about!” he said before introducing one of the live-music acts he’d curated from the Cook Islands to perform on the ship.

There were no easy answers on the Orion, and there was nothing sanitized about the information that came from the staff. These were discussions scholars and anthropologists were having. Even the cruise industry itself came under fire, as some grappled with problems that cruise tourism brings to fragile islands. The guides told it like it was every single time, and we passengers were smarter for it.

A parrotfinch. PHOTO BY ADAM GRAHAM.

Group excursions offered an equal amount of learning, and naturalists were quick to share their knowledge, pointing out rare feather coral, nudibranchs, and sea worms. A personal highlight for me: bird-watching with naturalists Jamie Coleman and Mike Greenfelder, who helped me see a whopping 39 new bird species, including rarely seen endemics and pelagic species. National Geographic fellow and “Godfather of Biodiversity” Thomas Lovejoy once said, “If you take care of the birds, you take care of most of the big environmental problems in the world,” and these lessons proved true during our sightings of colorful Fiji parrotfinches, breathtakingly exotic blue lorikeets, elusive azure kingfishers, and red cardinal myzomela. Every minute spent with the naturalists was an opportunity to learn something new, and most passengers, regardless of age or agility, didn’t miss the chance to broaden their knowledge.

CHANGING COURSE

Another plus about Lindblad’s small ships: the crew’s ability to make snap decisions and modify the itinerary as the journey unfolds. When Capt. Oliver Kruess saw rain stalling over western Fiji, he changed course to Fiji’s flat Vanua Balavu island in the pristine Northern Lau Group instead, where we put kayaks, SUPs, and the glass-bottom zodiac to use in the lagoon’s sea caves and snorkeled the gin-clear waters. Unlike the fixed big-ship itineraries, Orion’s crew could delay or extend port times, change course due to bad weather, and modify excursions and onboard events based on passenger demand.

Eventually everyone finds his or her own clique on a ship, and I found mine, a motley crew of divorcés, Vietnam vets, boozy bachelors, widows, and widowers. Connections varied person to person, but their individual stories always humbled me. The 50-something widow lost her husband months before the cruise, but maintained an upbeat attitude. Ditto for the widower with an infectious boyish curiosity. Seeing sites through the eyes of the young, enthusiastic Rolex Scholar on her first cruise increased my fun. One night, while anchored under an amber moon lurking in purple clouds and with waves lapping gently against the ship, we all gathered on the aft deck, where the captain cut the ship’s lights to see the Southern Cross. For a moment, it felt like I was traveling with friends.

Details: Lindblad Expeditions now offers 10- to 20-day cruises in the South Pacific from March through May. 800-397-3348; expeditions.com

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