Anyone who’s experienced an overnight layover in Papeete, before making their way to various points across the remoter reaches of French Polynesia, should be forgiven for the flicker of doubt they might experience as their taxi winds through clogged traffic, past shabby supermarkets, fast-food chains and car dealerships. Where, they might wonder, is the tropical utopia that entranced Paul Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson and untold others?
But that pristine world of deserted, palm-lined beaches scented by tiare flowers, and huge, empty, electric-blue lagoons does, in fact, still exist here. It’s just that you need to travel a bit further to get there. It comes to particularly vivid life in the Tuamotu Archipelago, 77 atolls stretching across 1,500km, two hours northeast of Papeete, reached either by an Air Tahiti turboprop connection or, if you choose, private jet or seaplane.
The appeal of the Tuamotus has always been their remoteness, emptiness and surplus of natural beauty; the diving here is world-class, bucketlist material, both for scuba aces and anyone even casually interested in marine life. But the region’s allure for the sophisticated traveller has heretofore been tempered by relatively simple, bare‑bones pension-level accommodation catering mostly to those hardcore divers. What has shifted the paradigm, as the search for ever more isolated, far‑flung hideouts continues, is an increasing – though thankfully still far from teeming – number of private yacht charters coming to the Tuamotus.
Established luxury charter companies such as Camper & Nicholsons are seeing an uptick in interest and are starting to send their Tahiti-based yachts here, as adventurers and families alike look beyond the traditional French Polynesia tourist spots and honeymoon capitals of Bora Bora and Mo’orea. Camper & Nicholsons’ 41m Destination (from $96,000 per week) currently hits Fakarava, Apataki and the largest atoll in the region, Rangiroa (known for its huge populations of hammerhead sharks) on its summer 2016 course. Robert Shepherd of Edmiston has extensive experience in the area and the 50m Silencio (from €148,000 per week), packed with water toys, will be available for charter here later this year. Burgess is another in the game, this year launching itineraries with Sarissa (from €105,000 per week), a sleek 43m vessel that will spend four months in the South Pacific, including several weeks in the Tuamotus. And charter managers IYC had La Dea II based in the Tuamotus for five weeks this year – from €175,000 per week.
But arguably the most compelling among those making up this wave is Senses, a 59m motor yacht built by German company Freres Schweers in 1999 and comprehensively upgraded between 2011 and 2015. Thus far used only privately by the family who own it, Senses is now offered for charter by Monaco-based Y.CO. She is dramatically striking at first glance – particularly if you arrive via helicopter from the tiny airport on Fakarava, the second-largest atoll in the Tuamotus (population just over 800). Fakarava is known primarily for two things – the cultivation of exquisite black pearls and a virtually untouched marine landscape with arguably the best diving in the South Pacific – and it’s in this part of French Polynesia that Senses is based until mid-July.
It’s a nice fillip for guests that Senses boasts, among a slew of other amenities, its own helipad, since the approach by air allows for the full impact of the surroundings: the narrow ribbon of land cutting through the sea, dotted at first by the occasional pearl farm and thatched house, but eventually giving way to dense clusters of coconut palms and the atoll’s gigantic expanse of interior lagoon (a massive 1,100sq km), its surface as still as glass, the water varying in colour from deep cobalt to virtually translucent opal. And finally, the yacht itself: a curious sight, being the only sign of human life for miles and miles in any direction.
Once on board, that contrast – the inviolate remoteness of the location and the dazzlingly slick environs of the boat – is far more pronounced. Its interiors are the work of Philippe Starck, with updates by Therese Baron Gurney – all immaculate shades of creamy white with light wood accents and occasional pops of blue, and an overall effect that winks and nods to nautical without ever crossing over into cliché. The master suite rivals that of any luxury hotel, not only in terms of space but also in some of the eyebrow-raising details. The stabilised bed, for example, designed by Norwegian company Stable Stabilized Platforms – there are, apparently, only four in the world – is so unshakeable it’s meant to eradicate seasickness the moment you lie down on it. Not that you’re likely to need it, since the yacht itself is outfitted with its own Quantum-designed stabilisers.
There are some notable environmental concessions too: Senses has its own desalinating system (no plastic water bottles are used) and a specialised blackwater sewage treatment plant that discharges clean water; even plastic drinks straws are banned in favour of reusable glass ones. The yacht’s crew is equally impressive. I was met at Fakarava Airport by a strapping young South African named Andrew Bance, a former professional surfer and all‑around water-adventure expert who is Senses’ relief second officer. Bance led the way in most of the watersports and activities and, like the rest of his generally youthful colleagues, had a friendly demeanour balanced by a brisk professionalism.
As refined and comfortable as the ship is, there is scant time on board to revel in it – beyond sleeping (very soundly), feasting on the delicious, sleekly presented meals (prepared almost entirely with local fruits and fresh-caught seafood) and enjoying a few early morning yoga sessions. Because Senses boasts the equipment and trained staff to indulge just about every imaginable water-related activity: she has six tenders of various sizes, allowing access to even the shallowest and hardest-to-get-to coral gardens and beaches, and a plethora of water toys. The Quadskis, which morph seamlessly from water-based jet ski to dune buggy at the touch of a button, are a particular thrill; emerging from the water to explore a series of pink-sand beaches occupied one particularly exhilarating half-day adventure.
Within 30 minutes of boarding Senses, I was in the water with Bance, who took me on a stand-up paddleboarding excursion to explore a tiny, empty motu about 800m from the ship. Wary at first of the band of metre-long blacktip reef sharks that permanently hung out around the yacht, after three days I was so accustomed to seeing them that I didn’t give a second thought to jumping in the water. As well as the tenders, there’s the 13m Catalyst, a high-tech speedboat that attracted spinner dolphins like a magnet on our open-water voyages; as we sped along at almost 40 knots, they raced and wove around the bow.
Bance occasionally disappeared in the helicopter to scout surf conditions; if they were favourable, guests – expert and amateur alike – were encouraged to jump in with him and a wide selection of boards, and head to whatever optimal break he had found. Early one evening we flew the 20 minutes back to Fakarava Airport, where an SUV was waiting to drive us several kilometres down a bumpy, unpaved road – not passing a single car on the way, just the occasional row of neatly planted coconut palms – to yet another empty, postcard-perfect setting, with metre-high waves curling towards the shore. The shallow, solid-coral bottom might have proved too daunting under less reassuring instruction, but Bance skilfully talked me through how to avoid impact in the event of a wipeout. The indignity of a few ungainly falls was a small price to pay for the privilege of riding set after set of waves onto what was for all practical purposes our own private beach.
The benchmark for truly extraordinary experiences, however – aquatic or otherwise, and not just aboard Senses – is a drift dive along the Fakarava South Pass, a Unesco biosphere reserve, which we saved for our penultimate day. It’s here that divers come from around the world to see the so-called “wall of sharks” – a gathering of hundreds of blacktip and grey reef sharks swimming in eerie formation at the edge of the atoll, where the ocean flows into the lagoon. I was a neophyte diver, but several among the crew were masters, including AJ Sutherland, an Englishman of saintlike patience who previously spent 10 years as a diving instructor in Australia, and Julien Buzzi, a Frenchman and longtime Tuamotus resident, who was also an expert on the region’s sharks and marine life and worked as an independent consultant on private charters around the South Pacific. Between the two of them, I had felt at ease on a pair of discovery dives in the shallow coral reefs of lagoons we had explored earlier in the week; an initial buzz of nerves before the South Pass dive gave way in the face of their barely contained, almost envious enthusiasm about my seeing it for the first time.
We descended to about 20m; the current moved us through the crystalline, bath-warm water as if on a gentle escalator, while an astonishing array of ocean life, large and small, passed by. Aside from the sharks – majestic, otherworldly and seemingly completely oblivious to our presence – there were enormous humphead Napoleon wrasse; populous schools of yellowtail and red snapper; neon-hued parrotfish floating close, curious; and scores of damselfish, pipefish and butterflyfish in electric shades of purple, yellow, orange and blue, darting in and out of the reef. The 45-minute dive seemed to pass in 10. The overwhelming abundance of life forms – a spectacle of amazing things to admire – nearly boggled the imagination. I had to continually remind myself that this wasn’t a manmade phenomenon, that this incredible density and diversity of life exists together in one place (perhaps only this one) in the wild. When we were back aboard the tender, Sutherland seemed equally blown away. “I’ve done over 2,000 dives in my life, and that was easily in the top 10,” he said, the adrenaline in his voice leading me to believe he meant it. We discussed how, during all three dives over the course of the week, we hadn’t even glimpsed another dive boat.
Later that evening, the crew sped me to a deserted motu off Tetamanu, an island village of around 30 people that’s home to the Tuamotus’ first Catholic church, built from coral in 1874. I feasted on barbecued fish while a team of local youths showed off their Polynesian dance skills under a canopy of stars, and adolescent blacktip reef sharks splashed in the shallows just offshore, looking for their own dinner. Back on the tender, hours later, the only light came from the fast-fading bonfire on the beach and the frothing wake water, lit up with bioluminescence created by the glow of surface organisms. I thought about the sheer amount of life on offer, the distances covered, the emptiness of nature to be discovered on a boat in one of the most isolated corners of the world. Exhausted, exhilarated and relaxed all at once, I doubted that a trip like this could ever be repeated anywhere else – and thought, as the extraordinary beauty of the Tuamotus showed faint in the starlight, that perhaps that was exactly as it should be.