Adventure is a funny thing. Everyone wants one, until they’re smack dab in the middle of one.
It was like that on Day 6 of my South Pacific trip aboard Lindblad Expeditions’ 337-foot National Geographic Orion.
As it bashed through 20-foot seas, 40-knot winds and driving rain, I stood on the bridge and watched as waves exploded over the ship’s bow, engulfing the foredeck and peppering the bridge windows with spray. It was a truly awesome display of nature. And I really, really wished it would stop.
“Don’t worry,” the captain had told us earlier in his straight-to-the-point Nordic accent. “Orion can take it. She is basically a tank.”
But right now, the tank was taking some heavy fire.
This was adventure on the high seas, but not exactly the kind that I and my fellow 74 well-heeled passengers had signed on for. Well, then again, maybe we had. Lindblad Expeditions, in partnership with National Geographic, has a fleet of high-end liners exploring the world in five-star luxury. From Arctic ice to tropical islands, Lindblad delivers first-class expeditions – don’t call them cruises – to some of the world’s most remote, culturally and naturally significant destinations, places that cumbersome 3,000-passenger cruise ships have no hope of reaching.
Hence, people who choose Lindblad are decidedly not in it for troughs of food, shuffleboard and bingo on Deck 5. They are a diverse crowd, from very wealthy retirees to successful professionals, from very fit to not-so-much but with a nothing-will-stop-me-from-living-life attitude. They do have one thing in common: a love for leaving the familiar to explore different, often hard-to-reach cultures, and, OK, also enjoying really fine dining and stellar personal service while doing it.
Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first non-scientist trip to Antarctica in 1966, followed a year later to the Galapagos Islands. His desire was to bring travelers to places off the beaten track, giving them a new appreciation for the wonders of the world led to the company, which has 13 ships, partnering with National Geographic.
Lindblad’s ships are more intimate than a typical bazillion-deck cruise ship, with a fraction of the passengers, expert naturalists, dive masters, National Geographic photographers, writers and scientists – all of whom you get to know during the voyage – and a five-star crew.
A few days out of Tahiti on our slow fall south to Easter Island 2,700 nautical miles away, Nature, that beautiful, fragile thing we had all come aboard to learn about, embrace and help protect, had turned against us like a wet, angry honey badger. Our majestic ship dutifully punched through the foaming seas while we passengers remained awed, strangely upbeat and pampered in fine food, wine and entertainment. Still, Nature’s onslaught could not be ignored. Walking the hallways was like channeling a pinball, bouncing from one bulkhead to the other. The outside decks were off limits and drinking a beer required above average hand-to-mouth coordination. I was running out of clean shirts fast.
We were heading toward our third stop, Mangareva, the largest of the very remote Gambier Islands, and frankly, we were all a bit tired of this delicate thing called Nature. It was kicking our butts.
• • •
The trip had started out promising enough. I boarded the Orion on a picture-perfect tropical afternoon in Tahiti and found my cabin was nicer than most hotel rooms, featuring an upscale nautical theme, with a large bed and porthole window and well-appointed bathroom (or head, as sailors say). The itinerary for the 20-day voyage was to spend a few days exploring pristine atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago, sail to the Gambier Islands, the Pitcairn islands – made famous by the mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty – and finally explore Easter Island, home of those majestic and mystifying moai.
I brought this itinerary to our first briefing just after we cast off and motored through Papeete’s narrow pass, the sun setting over nearby Moorea in postcard fashion. In Orion’s comfortable lounge, as I sipped a delicate pinot noir, Adam Cropp, our witty and sandy-haired Australian expedition leader, stood, microphone in hand, and asked if we all had our itineraries. I nodded proudly.
“Good,” he said, “now please tear it up.”
No one tore it up.
“I’m serious,” he said, tearing his in half. “Because we are not on a cruise. We are on an expedition.”
He explained that ours was to be a voyage of discovery, that instead of an itinerary, our natural curiosity and desires would guide us.
And the weather. Especially that.
Orion’s 19-foot Zodiacs give guests access to uninhabited beaches, dock-challenged villages and everything from up-close whale encounters to pristine reef snorkeling and diving. (Photography by Mike Greenflede)
To that end, he explained that because of out-of-season foul weather, we would forgo the first stop on our itinerary, Fakarava, and instead sail all night and the next day to outrun the weather and make Tahanea, another Tuamotuan atoll farther south.
This was music to my ears. I sailed a small boat to the South Pacific with my wife 18 years ago and uninhabited, pristine Tahanea remains my favorite place on Earth. It’s the sort of place that can show you just how utterly ugly and destructive man can be. Here’s how: First, go someplace really man-made, like, say, L.A. Find a street that has a billboard advertising the law firm of Slimeball, Crook and Hughes above an “All Nude Girls” club next to a parking lot. It shouldn’t be hard. Then, go to Tahanea, a place that nature has protected from man by way of ship-destroying currents and low-lying reefs. You’ll immediately become a raving misanthrope. (Warning: you will also forevermore cry when you go to L.A.)
We arrived in Tahanea after nearly 38 hours at sea, greeted by a double rainbow as we entered its narrow pass. En route, Cropp explained that atolls are former islands with fringing coral reefs. As Charles Darwin had first worked out, over time, the island sinks, but the reef keeps growing until all that’s left is a ring of reef forming a large, landless lagoon. Some are small, some are quite large: Tahanea is 30 miles long and 9 miles wide. All are one of Nature’s most beautiful displays of crystal clear water, swaying palms and white sand beaches.
Sure, walk the windward edge of the reef and you’ll find a miles-long rim of man-made trash that gets blown onto the reef. It’s sort of a threat in plastic: “We’re coming for you, Tahanea …” But for now, Tahanea is absolutely pristine.
While most passengers explored a nearby motu for a walk with a naturalist, I and three other divers joined dive master Maya Santangelo for an underwater exploration of Tahanea’s outer reef. We piled into one of Orion’s 19-foot, outboard-powered Zodiacs, the same type Jacques Cousteau used and another sign this ain’t no Disney cruise. I sat on the pontoon as we bounced out to our dive spot. The sky was gray, and white caps riddled the sea outside the pass. In other words, as I slung on my scuba tank and backflipped over the Zodiac’s side, my expectations were low.
A Lindblad voyage to the South Pacific turns into an unforgettable adventure.(Photography courtesy of Lindblad)
What greeted me was nothing short of spectacular. The pristine reef was a painter’s pallet of colors both in coral and fish as we kicked down to 65 feet and approached the reef wall – the point at which the reef drops off vertically hundreds of feet. This is where large predators roam, and in this wild west of the ocean, life was abundant. Big life, with teeth. Schools of 100-plus-pound dogtooth tunas, curious snapper, sea turtles and rays swam mere yards away while large sharks patrolled with a dominant air.
After lunch, we went for a second dive. That night was a bittersweet moment when we left Tahanea to point Orion’s bow south. I have been scuba diving regularly for more than a decade and I can honestly say that those two dives were the best of my career.
Later, I would learn just how lucky we were to experience that day. As we were diving with sharks and fine dining in one of the most remote and beautiful spots on the planet, the large cruise ships we had left behind in Tahiti were stuck in port. While the average cruise ship ran for cover because of a little nasty weather, Orion blazed past it to give us an experience of a lifetime.
The clear waters create a kaleidoscope of oceanic wonders. (Photography by iStock)
Day 4 of our journey found us holding position off the triangle-shaped Marokau Atoll, not on our planned itinerary. Marokau has a population of 91 and plans were to go ashore, but since history suggested an unannounced visit from a boatload of Westerners, each with an average annual income higher than the entire population, was, at best, rude, we figured we should call first.
Alas, Cropp said, “We’ve been calling the village but no one is answering.”
So, Cropp went ashore to find the village leader and ask if we could double the population for a few hours. He returned with the news: We would be the first “tourists” to visit the atoll in more than two decades, and very welcome.
“Normally, you have to search for the head of the village,” Cropp said. “But the entire village was waiting for us on the dock.”
French Polynesia means French baguettes. (Photography by David Vargas)
Ashore, they greeted us with signature warm Polynesian smiles and fresh coconut drinks. Cropp offered money as a thank you, but it was refused until it took the form of a donation to the church. We walked the village in about seven minutes, visited its small school, then stood on the dock speaking to locals for an hour. It was a special day in a special place.
It was also the last land we would touch for three days because, as we learned in our daily briefing, not one, but two additional storms had formed to the south and combined to create a South Pacific ocean in stark defiance of its namesake: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had named the Pacific after its calm waters in 1520. In addition to fainting at the sight of a 60-inch flat screen TV, Magellan would have wondered at the weather map it showed: The entire South Pacific was a red and purple blob, notating high seas and wind pointed dead on our nose.
“I’ve actually never seen anything like this,” Cropp said.
Fair weather or foul, the Lindblad crew is nothingif not transparent, honest and very informative.
Neither had the guests aboard Orion. About 80 percent were return customers. I met more than a few whose Lindblad voyages numbered in the double digits, with one man on his 21st. Six passengers, affectionately called the Gang of Six, had gone on the Tahiti to Marquesas Islands voyage immediately preceding this one and loved it so much they had stayed on the boat for this one.
One of them told me they “had absolutely perfect weather for the entire 17-day trip.” So I stopped talking to her.
Life over the next few days became a comfortable and pleasant routine of fine dining, watching waves bashing the bow from the bridge, naturalist presentations in the lounge, working out in the ship gym (no balance ball needed!), and tea or cocktails with crew and other passengers. The dives at Tahanea notwithstanding, these days at sea were my favorite of the trip. There is nothing like being on a ship at sea in the remote South Pacific, foul weather or not. It represents everything we sign on to these trips for: Adventure, raw nature and getting as far from smog-filled, status-crazed civilization as possible.
During those days I was reminded of my days of sailing the South Pacific in a small boat. Sure, this was a lot more luxurious than a 32-foot leaky sailboat – like, a lot more – but the voyagers I met then and now shared the same spirit of adventure, optimism and egalitarianism.
Conversations were not built on what we did for a living or home sizes, or even politics. Instead, they focused on past travels, favorite cultures, future plans. Because of this, conversations at meals, during which open seating resulted in tables of varying groups daily, flowed naturally and comfortably, with hardly any dull moments.
• • •
Our “c’est la vie” attitude would be put to the test over the next week as we finally made Mangareva. During an evening briefing, Cropp broke the news that the storm was so severe that landing at Pitcairn and Easter Island was impossible because of large surf. This was a tough blow, to be sure; many saw the mysterious moai statues of Easter Island a highlight of the trip. But with no other option, Lindblad owner Sven-Olof Lindblad had decided to abort the trip. He had chartered a private plane that would land on Mangareva’s tiny landing strip to take us back to Tahiti where we would catch flights home.
True to his company’s sterling reputation, Sven offered everyone aboard a full credit of their expedition cost toward any future expedition, plus reimbursement of any and all flight changes, plus hotel, transportation and dining costs until they got home. That took the sting out of the disappointment, but it also revealed the true nature of my fellow explorers. Over the next few days, most of the passengers I spoke to were eagerly planning their next Lindblad voyage. Many immediately signed on for this same trip in 2019 – the allure of those enigmatic Easter Island moai proving too strong.
But our current adventure wasn’t over yet. The day we arrived in Mangareva, half of the passengers caught the chartered plane to Tahiti. A second plane would fly the remaining 35 of us out the next day. That morning, we had breakfast, packed, and prepared for disembarkation.
Then came the news: The pilot had seen major squalls on the forecast for our area and refused to leave the ground in Tahiti for fear of not being able to land.
Lindblad ordered a larger plane, which could handle stronger winds, for the next day, and we went through the routine again – I was now on my third day of justifying “one more day of bacon” – and again, in the wee hours the pilot refused to take off.
Cropp delivered the news in the ship’s lounge, which he now called “The Bad News Room.” He said that after much discussion, and, I assume, much hair-pulling and cursing, it was decided that instead of relying on aircraft and pilots to get us back to Tahiti, we should rely on a boat – the Orion – and the captain who got us here in the first place. Yes, we were going to sail the 1,000 miles back to Tahiti. It would mean three more days at sea.
Some laughed. Others sighed. I silently cheered.
Within the day, the weather cleared, making the trip back ideal. Light trades pushed us home with blue skies and gentle seas. We had meals outside on the aft deck. We relaxed on the sundeck and in the whirlpool spa. We learned chartwork on the bridge. We gathered on the foredeck to stargaze. We did not watch waves crash over the bow. We did not roll ourselves to sleep. We did not impersonate pinballs.
On the morning of our 12th day we disembarked and were given complimentary rooms at the oceanfront InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa. The weather was perfect. I lounged by the pool in front of the lagoon and sipped a tropical drink as I took in the view of neighboring Moorea. I was in heaven. I was in a Tahiti tourism ad.
And I was really, really bored.
Because here’s the other funny thing about adventure: Once you’ve had one, even if it came with a little rain or wind or angry honey badger seas, all you really crave is another one. Just ask the passengers of the Orion, if you can find them. They won’t be by the pool. ■