Sailing the South Pacific… with my folks

Bora Bora. Tahiti. Raiatea. Taha’a.

These exotic island names conjure up crystal turquoise waters, endless French Polynesian sunshine and romance under the stars.

Well, two out of three were true for our storybook sailing vacation to the South Pacific back in 2000.

Twenty years ago this summer, my first marriage was on its last legs and everyone knew it but me.

My parents generously invited me to join them on a South Pacific sailing vacation, and I jumped at the chance to escape for a while.

Not only were the Tahitian “Society Islands” some of the most exquisite places I’ve ever seen in my life, but that trip also provided a great opportunity for me to get some distance – literally and figuratively – and clear my head.

I’m forever grateful to my folks for allowing their 30 year old daughter to tag along to such an unbelievably gorgeous and remote location with them – and at a time when I needed it most.

I had a solo flight from Ohio to New York, where I met up with my parents for the 12-hour flight from JFK to Tahiti.

Need I mention that they flew first class for that long-haul flight and left poor little me back in coach? No hard feelings, as it was incredibly generous of them to invite me along at all, but I still think it’s funny that they left me to go it alone in coach on that l-o-n-g flight. Love ya, Mommers and Dad! [Edited to add: my father vehemently denies that they flew first class, and says they were in coach, too. That’s not how I remember it – but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt here!]

We had one night in a Tahitian hotel to acclimatize to the time zone and tropical vibe, and then it was time to board the sailboat that would be our island-hopping home for the next ten days. I wish I had a photo of the boat itself, but it was very much like the sailboat we owned throughout my childhood, so I’m sure it didn’t seem like an important detail to capture at the time.

Ours was truly an “unplugged” vacation. It’s worth noting that back in 2000, cell phones weren’t as ever-present and I didn’t own a digital camera yet. I took photos on the trip with my film camera, but back then we took far fewer shots because the pictures were expensive to develop. Looking back, I wish I had more photos of Tahiti – but I sure do love the ones I have!

Yacht-based vacations like this one sound glamorous and luxurious – and the locale was literally perfection – but trust me when I say we roughed it. Sailing trips are basically like camping, but you’re cooped up on a boat instead of on land where there’s the freedom to roam. Showers are few and far between – you rinse off in the ocean daily, but salt is a constant on your skin and in your hair.

Typically on sailing trips, there’s not much to do or see in the evenings so we’d go to bed soon after sunset – and the beds aren’t very comfortable, so you rise with the sun as well.

We island-hopped over the course of our week, but we didn’t go ashore often – maybe once each day at most. We really didn’t see much of the towns or land except on our first and last days.

The sailing was easy and the waters exquisite and calm. We saw abundant sea life every day and night. We swam daily and snorkeled in several locations.

The water was crystal clear and turquoise blue – rainbow-hued fish were plentiful and curious. We saw few other snorkelers on our visits to the reef, but once we did see a lovely Tahitian native who swam topless, as is the custom; I’m still convinced she must have been a mermaid.

We had memorable meals at restaurants ashore on a couple of the islands. I was a vegetarian at the time and they eat mostly fish and seafood on those islands, so I subsisted on mainly rice and fresh fruit. The restaurants were super cool, though – one had a sea turtle refuge on site and we got to see the baby sea turtles up close. Another had a tame, pet pig wandering through the outdoor patio as we dined!

One evening on Bora Bora, we were walking back to our boat at the dock and we saw a giant manta, at least six feet in length, gracefully circling in the water to scoop up plankton that were attracted to the underwater lights along the dock. I lay down at the edge of the dock so we could compare his length to mine as he swam by me. I nicknamed him Manta Steve – why should all mantas be called “Ray”?

As always on sailing vacations with my parents, at times I wished I could be there with friends my own age instead. I also envied the luxurious resorts we sailed past, each with gorgeous over-water bungalows that looked down over the crystal sea. I longed to take a nice warm shower instead of hosing off at the back of the boat or bathing in the ocean!

But lest I sound ungrateful, those were only fleeting thoughts. For the most part, I knew how truly lucky I was to be in such a magical place. I soaked up every moment I had with the tropical sun, idyllic lagoons and those pristine paradise views – not to mention my thoughtful and generous parents.

I remember impossibly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that rival any I’ve seen before or since. I remember lying face-down at the front of our sailboat as we skimmed along crystal-clear waves. I’d gaze down into the water and marvel at the reef bottom and colorful sea creatures below us as we flew by.

I remember getting more tan than I’d ever been in my life since we basically lived in swimsuits and rarely needed to wear real clothes. I remember going ashore and seeing celebrity signatures on a wall at one of the restaurants we visited – Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and many other familiar names.

I remember shopping for souvenirs on our final day ashore. I purchased a beautiful pareo, the brightly colored Tahitian fabric that is tied into dresses or skirts and worn by everyone on the islands. It’s still my favorite swim cover-up to this day, 20 years later.

I’m not sure that I came to any specific realizations about my life or next steps while on while on that trip, but it wasn’t too many months later that I initiated a separation from my ex and started down a very different life path – and I am so very glad that I did.

If you’re ever at a crossroads in life and need some rest and relaxation to help get your head on straight, I highly recommend a tech-free sailing vacation in the South Pacific.

If that’s not possible – and I realize it’s not for most of us mere mortals and non-celebrity types – then you can at least enjoy a Google image search of the islands I named in the first paragraph above. They still look just as gorgeous as I remember them being 20 years ago!

What’s the most unforgettable and amazing vacation you’ve ever been on – or the most remote and hard to get to place – and did your adventures happen to be with your parents, too? I’d love to hear your travel stories in the comments below or over on Facebook.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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