Tahiti: Christmas all at seaSave
Elisabeth Easther and her son enjoy the festive cheer on board a freighter ship in the Pacific.
By Elisabeth Easther
Last year my son and I decided to challenge Santa's ability to find all the good children of the world, no matter where they were, by hanging our stockings somewhere really obscure. So up they went - in a cabin aboard the Aranui, a freighter ship that serves Tahiti's remote Marquesas Islands. And, while we missed being with our nearest and dearest on the 25th we found a pretty nifty alternative to the regular traditions of Christmas Day.
From the moment we boarded the ship in Papeete in mid-December, there was no mistaking it was the season to be jolly; the spirit of Christmas was everywhere. Santa was climbing every pillar and post, the halls were decked with boughs of tinsel and the fairy lights could surely be seen from space - the crew had truly pushed the boat out with regards to decorations.
Fast forward 12 days: we'd loved and left the Marquesas Islands and were three sleeps from disembarking. Suddenly Christmas Eve was upon us and, following a full day at sea, on the morning of the 24th we entered the impressive pass of Tiputa, a strait at the northwest tip of Rangiroa Island. This well-loved scuba diving destination was a sight for sore eyes, land ahoy. To celebrate what was Christmas Day in New Zealand, we spent the bulk of our day snorkelling, pointing at every blue clam and anemone, every school of exotic fish and, to top it off, we bought his-and-hers stingray pendants made from mother of pearl. I'm wearing mine now.
As usual, in our absence, the crew had been anything but idle and back on board, preparations for Christmas dinner had been under way all day. Cleaned of salt and sand, Theo and I dressed for dinner and headed for the dining room where festivities were in full swing. A glass of Moet for the adults, fizzy for the kids and a delicious feast of turkey, stuffing, gravy and all the trimmings, made all the more delightful because I didn't have to do the dishes.
Squeals heralded the arrival of Santa (top marks for finding us) who dished out presents to all the children. I was tickled pink to receive my first present from Theo that I'd not bought myself - a bracelet made of shells with love.
But it was Christmas Day that took the cake. Arriving at Bora Bora in the morning, it's even prettier than the postcards make out and, because my and Theo's tastes run in parallel, we selected a tour called Shark Boy.
Eschewing a motorised canoe trip, a black pearl tour, a helicopter flight and a land tour by truck we opted for an outing that promised sharks, tropical fish and stingrays.
Hopping into a longboat that drew up alongside the ship, Skipper Will motored us around the jewel that is Bora Bora, and we delighted in the little houses on stilts over water of the most ridiculous shade of blue.
We swam with brown-tipped reef sharks, their shovel-shaped grins striking up the chords of Jaws in my mind. Warily watching them circle us, we were astonished by the little fish, resplendent in their livery of yellow and black, darting in front of the sharks, taking their lives in their fins, nipping at the morsels that spilled from the predators' jaws as they gobbled the food we fed them.
Returning to Will's boat, we chugged to our second destination where billowing clouds of vibrant tropical fish were lined up for lunch. Offering them pilchards, we were inundated with diners, the noise of them snapping away sounded like someone tapping away on an underwater typewriter. My favourite fish was a deep chocolate brown, the little fins near their faces resembling enormous false eyelashes, coquettishly batting in gratitude.
Completely surrounded, we saw goatfish, catfish, fish with swords and fish with trumpets, all stripping the proffered pilchards to the bone until nothing but soft fibres remained. We could've stayed underwater here forever but the lure of stingrays made us move on. And what a piece de resistance - the embrace of these majestic creatures as they beat their muscular wings around us was like nothing on earth - utterly exhilarating.
But all good things must come to an end and Will returned us to land, to Motu Tapu, a little treasure of an island ringed by coral reefs. There we feasted some more, climbed trees and found some of the most spectacular shells we'd ever seen ever - all in all a cracker of a Christmas.
If you're looking for a novel way to spend Christmas, or Joyeux Noel as we now refer to it, go to Tahiti aboard the Aranui 3. Next year the ship will be replaced with the Aranui 5. aranui.com.au.