Yosemite National Park: Be Prepared To Be Humbled

Yosemite National Park is one of those places that you have to experience in person. Although there are many beautiful photographs, movies and documentaries about Yosemite, nothing can compare to actually standing at the base of Yosemite Falls, overlooking the view from on top of Half Dome or positioning yourself on the edge of Glacier Point.

half dome_cooks_111
Half Dome from Cooks Meadow after being flooded from snow melt

 

Located along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, the park covers 1,169 square miles of wilderness. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s signed the Yosemite Grant and in 1890 naturalist John Muir lobbied Congress into expanding the park, which eventually led to today’s U.S. National Park System.

Yosemite Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years by the Ahwahneechee Native Americans with the Paiute, Mono and Miwoks in close proximity.

During the gold rush period of California, competition for resources between the Native Americana and miners began to take its toll. In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion entered the west end of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Wars erupted. This event was seen as the introduction of the white man to Yosemite.

 

Over the years, several concessionaries have obtained permits to open stores, restaurants, camping sites and hotels in the park. The best known of these was in 1899 by the Curry Company, which founded Camp Curry at the base of Glacier Point. In 1925, Curry Company and the Yosemite National Park Company were forced to join together, forming the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, which lasted until the late 20th century. It too has been transformed as other companies have coupled with park service.

The formation of Yosemite is due to tectonic and volcanic activity spanning millions of years. Yosemite Valley is only 7 square miles and is a product of glaciers sculpting and carving granite as it moved.

When the ice receded, it left lakes, streams, rivers and sediment forming lush green meadows and forests. This small area of the park harbors some of Yosemite’s iconic landmarks. The Merced River courses through the valley surrounded by 3,000-foot granite walls and the iconic landmarks of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome and Glacier Point.

merced_north dome_064
The Merced River in Yosemite Valley with North Dome in the background

Driving the Valley Loop Road, you will skirt the river and pass through the forests and meadows. Near the west end, you come across Valley View, which offers and a pristine view of the valley with the Merced River at your feet. Here you will marvel at Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalvail Falls, all seemly a stone’s throw away.

valley view fall
First snow at Valley View…El Capitan with a sliver of Bridalveil Falls 

A short drive from the valley floor is Tunnel View, overlooking nearly the entire valley. Views of Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Spires, Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalvail Falls are all visible from this vantage point and nothing short of spectacular.

tunnel view fall
Early winter from Tunnel View…El Capitan with Bridalveil Falls 

Another drive well worth taking ends at Glacier Point. With an elevation of 7,000 and the valley floor at 4,000, you find yourself looking over the top of Yosemite Falls, North Dome and Nevada and Vernal Falls. Half Dome in directly in front of you with Tuolumne Meadows in the distance.

glacier point_001
Tenaya Canyon from Glacier Point… North Dome (left), Half Dome (right) and Tenaya Canyon leading to Tuolumne Meadows and the “High Country”

Glacier Point is the trailhead for the Four Mile Trail, actually 4.5 miles, and the 9-mile Panorama Trail, both leading to the valley. Both trails offer beautiful views and vantage points to the delight of many, especially photographers, but they are not to be taken lightly. I have started in the warmth of the sun under clear blue skies in the morning only to encounter snow in the afternoon on both spring and fall days.

DSC_1007 basil dioni hike
My grandkids Dioni and Basil on their first hike, the 4 Mile Trail with Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and El Captian in the background… Basil is in college now

Accommodations in the park range from campsites to canvas tents, complete with wood stoves and wooden floors, to lodges to the magnificent five-star Ahwahnee Hotel.

The Ahwahnee is located in Yosemite Valley at the foot of granite cliff and the forests and meadows of the valley floor. Constructed of steel, granite, wood and timbers, it is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. It opened its door to guests in 1927 and has welcomed moviestars, presidents and foreign royalty.

ahwahnee_002
The Ahwahnee Hotel with the Royal Arches in the background

The layout and décor are striking and is reminiscent of the hotel in the movie “The Shining.” The Ahwahnee lobby, elevators and Great Lounge were adapted into the set of the Overlook Hotel. So do not be surprised if you see two twin girls wondering the halls muttering “Redrum, Redrum.”

ahwahnee dining
The Ahwahnee Dining Room

The dining room is 130 feet long and 51 feet wide and is nothing short of magnificent. Rock columns and timber in the form of trees support the 34-foot ceiling. During the Christmas season, the Bracebridge Dinner transports you to the Renaissance. This seven-course dining experience is reminiscent of a feast complete with a lord and his court, with minstrels and a jester that will surely entertain.

A visit to Yosemite will leave you both relaxed and exhilarated. Regardless of whether you are warming yourself by a campfire or the fireplace in the Ahwahnee, there will be a calm that overcomes you. Whether you drive or hike the valley floor, you will be humbled by Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan. And if you are lucky enough to witness the wildlife of Yosemite and catch a glimpse of a bear, bobcat or one of the many deer that make the valley their home, one thing is guaranteed: You will never forget your visit to Yosemite.

yosemite falls
Yosemite Falls 2,425 feet located in Yosemite Valley

If you are there in the spring of a year with a heavy snowfall during the full moon you just might be lucky enough to see a Moonbow. It is formed by mist of the falls and the bright light of the full moon.

DSC 1303 Moonbow
Yosemite Falls Moonbow

 

My first trip was in 1965 with my grandparents and a few years later I would camp there as a Boy Scout. A few more years found me camping there as a hippie and in 1972 I spent my honeymoon at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

In 1982 I moved to Yosemite for a couple years and in 2012 I moved there for yet one more year. So you can see Yosemite has a very special place in my heart and has been and will always be in my life.

Halong Bay: Land of the Dragons

The Enchantment of Halong Bay…

The 15th century Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Trãi once described Ha Long Bay as “a rock wonder in the sky.” Anyone who has ever seen the place can easily understand why.

086 halong bay house 2_
Many of the local people live on houseboats next to the towering islands

A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994 and the most-visited tourist destination in the Southeast Asian nation, Ha Long Bay is a spectacular cluster of more than 1,600 limestone islands and islets jutting out of a sea of rippled emerald green waters that evoke a sense of eternal ataraxia.

The peaceful serenity of Ha Long Bay — situated in Vietnam’s northern Quang Ninh Province, just 165 kilometers northeast of Hanoi — is echoed in the tranquil lifestyle of those who live and work here, creating a hauntingly beautiful otherworldliness that mesmerizes all that witness the place.

D85_1819 halong houseboat
Simple and tranquil living in Halong Bay

The islands, called karsts, are perforated with hundreds of winding caves and grottoes — the result of millions of years of weathering and natural erosion — that can be explored on junks and kayaks.

If you have the time and budget for it, you can also book a helicopter tour to be able to appreciate the grandeur of the towering verdant jade-green limestone islands from above, or you can opt for an overnight cruise to watch the shimmering waters of the bay as they change colors with the sunset and sunrise.

To the Vietnamese people, Ha Long has great historic and mythical significance. According to an ancient legend, it was here that the Jade Emperor — the ruler of all people — sent down the Mother Dragon and her children to help the Vietnamese ward off foreign invaders from the north. Not only did the dragons spit fire upon the aggressors, but also filled the bay’s waters with giant emeralds that acted as a barrier against enemy ships.

In the end, the Vietnamese people were victorious, and the emeralds were transformed into the lush, verde islands we see today. So great was the love of the Mother Dragon for the Vietnamese, she allowed her offspring to stay on Earth and to live and intermarry with the local people, thus helping them to gain celestial knowledge of agriculture and warfare.

115 halong bay kids 1
The name Ha Long means “Descending Dragon,” and even today, the Vietnamese people consider themselves to be descendants of the dragon

The name Ha Long means “Descending Dragon,” and even today, the Vietnamese people consider themselves to be descendants of the dragon.

Ha Long Bay was also the home of several of Vietnam’s earliest cultures, including the Soi Nhu (18000 to 7000 B.C.), the Cai Beo (7000 to 5000 B.C.) and the Ha Long (5000 to 3500 B.C.).

Over the centuries, the bay was a pivotal point in Vietnam’s wars and power struggles, and as late as the 19th century, Ha Long was still being used as a hub by Chinese and Vietnamese pirates.

But today, Ha Long is a peaceful fishing and farming region, disturbed only by the influx of tourists.

049 halong bay 2
The serenity of calm waters will overtake your senses

To get to Ha Long Bay, you can either take a four-hour bus ride (which may be overcrowded and include a barrage of local scents, often not very desirable), or hire a car and arrive in about three hours.

126 halong bay woman boat
Today, Ha Long is a peaceful fishing and farming region, disturbed only by the influx of tourists

Once in Ha Long Bay, take a two-hour ferry ride to Cat Ba Island and use it as your home base. Cat Ba City is a small waterfront community with many hotels, ranging from very basic hostels averaging $9 per night to the four-star Cat Ba Island Resort and Spa for a mere $85 per night. Another high end option the Van Boi Ecolux Island Resort on a private beach and cove at $107 per night. Remember, you are in Vietnam and the dollar goes a very long way.

PANA_1203 cat ba city
Waterfront Hotels in Cat Ba City, Cat Ba Island

Yet another option is to spend the night or several on a junk or a luxury boat that cruises the bay. Spending a night or two at sea away from the sights, sounds and light pollution of shore is relaxing. Now, combine that with the calm waters of the bay and the surrounding karsts with a bright full moon or with a dark sky under the stars, and you have a near-magical experience.

090 halong bay junk 1
Day or overnight cruising is one of your many options in Halong Bay

If you are an adventurous soul, you could take the path that I chose. I spent the first night in Cat Ba City, relaxing, enjoying a great meal and making arrangements for the next days transportation.

039 halong bay man boat
The two-hour journey from Cat Ba City took me through a maze of limestones islands and several communities of houseboats scattered through the bay like hidden gems

I hired a small boat that was no more than four feet wide and 20 feet long to take me to Cat Hai Island in the the Haiphong Province. The two-hour journey from Cat Ba City took me through a maze of limestones islands and several communities of houseboats scattered through the bay like hidden gems. I witnessed those living in the floating villages doing daily chores, fishing or just relaxing after a hard day’s work.

029 halong bay 1
My “water taxi” from Cat Ba City to Viet Hai

I had reserved a bungalow at the Whisper of Nature Resort, located in the small village of Viet Hai. Once my boat arrived, I could either walk about an hour to the village or take an official taxi, a scooter. I opted for the later. I joined my driver with my backpack strapped on and off we went for the one-mile drive.

DSC_1203 viet hai road
The road to Viet Hai

The small farming village is located in the heart of Cat Ba National Park in a wide valley surrounded by mountains. The village is very safe and virtually crime-free, a fact that the villagers take great pride in. Known as a “eco” village, the people of Viet Hai are very friendly and willing to share their lives with anyone they meet. It was easy to make friends.

P1020805_ viet hai bungalow
I had reserved a bungalow at the Whisper of Nature Resort located in the small village of Viet Hai

At the end of the concrete road, I arrived at my destination, the Whisper of Nature. There were a handful of small cinder block bungalows, all adorned inside with beautiful wood paneling, a bath, a comfortable bed a small patio.

There was a central kitchen, serving wonderful food in a large comfortable dining room. To my surprise, there was the best Wifi I had experienced since I had left the United States. Remember, I was three hours offshore in the middle of the mountains and jungle.

The manager also told me of a remote abandoned village down a dirt trail about 45 minutes away. The entire scene was surreal, with the abandoned structures, the mist hovering over the jungle and the sight of a lone villager walking through the fields, dressed in military fatigues and leading a solitary horse.

1564_ viet hai man 1
Away from the cities and all their trappings, the serene village of Viet Hai left me feeling calm and relaxed.

I spent four days in Viet Hai, walking through the village, the surrounding fields, visiting with locals and observing a day in the life of a “real” Vietnamese village.

Away from the cities and all their trappings, the serene village of Viet Hai left me feeling calm, relaxed and with a new outlook and sense of purpose in life.

There are many ways to explore Halong Bay. Viet Hai is just one of them. ´But whether you follow my path or find your own, you will never forget your visit to this magical place, Vietnam’s mystical Land of the Dragons.

North To Alaska

Summer 2019… My Seventh Summer In Alaska

As I have written and photographed Alaska many times over the last 7 years, I want to focus on maybe some images of Alaska that you have not seen before. Many of these images were taken this past summer 2019.

The summer cruise season is upon us, and there is no place better to cruise at this time than Alaska. I firmly believe that everyone should cruise to Alaska at least once in their lifetime. It is nothing short of magnificent.

LAP_9293_haines sunset
Haines, Alaska sunset

There are many ways to reach Alaska, including driving or flying, but nothing offers the spectacular views, convenience or entertainment of a modern luxury cruise ship. There are no luxury hotels at the ports, but the accommodations on passenger ships range from modest, budget-priced cabins to luxurious staterooms.

DSC 7887 ships and trailer
Cruising Alaska for any budget…

 

Depending on your itinerary, there are several ports of call where you can embark, including Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver and Victoria, in British Columbia. Typically, Alaska cruises last seven days, but there is a 10-day cruise leaving from San Francisco. Another port where you can embark or disembark is Whitter, Alaska, for those wanting to visit Denali National Park.

Travelling the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Alaska allows you to appreciate the stunning landscapes and fresh air while relaxing on your private balcony as the ship glides through the calm waters. You may also see an array of wildlife, including orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, as well as bears, mountain goats and bald eagles.

DSC 1505 insdie passage north.jpg
The Inside Passage north of Skagway

On most cruises, you will visit three ports of calls Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, each of which have their own charm and distinct personalities. Each town has numerous restaurants, places to shop and what seems like an endless amount of tours and shore excursions. Tours are offered both from the ships and from private companies.

I have spent seven summers traveling to Alaska and the Inside Passage as an acupuncture physician on various cruise lines which has given me an insider’s view and perspective. Here are some of my favorite tours:

Two of my favorites are located in Ketchikan, a town of approximately 14,000 residents and Alaska’s first city. It is also the second-rainiest city in the United States, averaging 13 feet a year. Be prepared for downpours, but the majority of the summer season, the weather can be very nice.

Aurora Birds and Bears encompasses all of Ketchikan’s sights and sounds and specializes in custom tours. The owner/operator Rich Lee is a Native American of the Tlingit tribe. He was born and raised in Ketchikan, giving him a distinct advantage over many of the tour operators that are summer transplants.

D85_0430 black bears
Black Bears during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

 

During a three-hour tour, you will be offered a history lesson on Ketchikan, enjoy the rainforest and a waterfall and visit “real” totem poles, not replicas. Lee’s biggest expertise, however, is locating wildlife. Many times on the tour, we encountered black bear, deer, bald eagles and, at times, even orca and whales have been spotted from the shore.

DSC_7667 sitka deer
Baby Sitka Deer during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

My other favorite is the Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour. If you are a fan of the television show, you might be interested to know that the Aleutian Ballad of season two is now homeported in Ketchikan. Captain/owner David Lethine and his crew of merry misfits are all seasoned crab fisherman of the Bering Sea and share their vast knowledge during the three-hour tour. This hands-on experience enables you to hold live crab, spotted prawns and other creatures of the sea.

DSC_9567 kida and crab
Something he will never forget… holding his first snow crab

The highlight for many is a side trip to Annette Island, where dozens of bald eagles await your arrival. As the boat nears the island, 30 to 40 eagles leave their perches like a swarm of mosquitos as the crew toss herring into the water. It is literally like ringing the dinner bell as the eagles fly within feet of the boat, attacking the water in their quest for a free meal. It is truly incredible to behold and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

DSC_8079 double eagle
Bald Eagles near Annette Island photo taken from the deck of the Aleutian Ballad

In Skagway, I highly recommend taking a flight over Glacier Bay National Park with Paul Swanstrom, the owner/pilot of the Mountain Flying Service at the Skagway Airport. This seasoned Alaskan aviator provides an unforgettable experience with each seat having a window allowing you to witness the grandeur of mountain peaks crowned with white virgin snow. Fly over multiple glaciers as they wind their way through the valleys of the countryside on the way to the sea. Flights range from one to two hours, with the option to land on a glacier or a remote beach.

DSC 1505 marjorie flight
Flight over the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you want to see whales, the capital city of Juneau is the port to book your whales excursion. There are numerous tours with a wide variety of options, including everything from private yachts to limited load tours to those offering a salmon bake and wildlife quests.

whales bubblenet 3
Humpback whale bubble net feeding of Juneau

My personal favorite is the Discover Alaska Whale Tour. This limited load and small boat tour has a naturalist on board who will share scientific knowledge and research on whales and other sea life that you may encounter. The windows open in, so even in poor weather you are warm and dry and have ample opportunities to take photographs.

Yet another place to see and photograph whales is in the port of Icy Strait. This is not a common port of call but by looking closely at the different itineraries of the different cruise lines and ship you will find a number that do go there.

D85_0160 icy strait whale
Icy Strait humpback whale at sunset

One of the many reasons people cruise to Alaska during the summer is to experience its glaciers, many of which can only be reached by cruise ship. Words are hard to come by when trying to explain the sights and sounds of these glorious towers laced with blue ice. You will witness history as these living structures march only to terminate at the water’s edge and calving into the sea.

DSC_7942 hubbard_190
The Hubbard Glacier calving in Glacier Bay National Park

For more information on cruising to Alaska and its ports, my book “Alaska and the Inside Passage – A Guide to the Ports, Tours and Shore Excursions,” covers this in greater detail, including my favorite restaurants and more excursions to explore.

What I think sets my book apart from most tour guides on Alaska (outside of my wonderful writing and insightful knowledge of the area, of course) is that I have included plenty of my own photographs (not stock photos). Consequently, my book is designed not only a travel guide, but also as a coffee table book. It is visually rich, but is small enough to travel with so that you can always have the information at your fingertips.

Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 11.45.16 AM

I would like to close this entry with a few more shots taken this year… the summer of 2019.

A bucket list item for me… It took seven summers but I finally was able to photograph the Northern Lights. What sets this image apart for me is if you look close from mid upper to the upper left in the photo is the Big Dipper… just being at the right place at the right time.

D85_9832 northern lights_big dipper1
The Northern Lights near Juneau, Alaska

Near Juneau a large meadow in full bloom with the Mendenhall Glacier in the background.

D85_8518 mendenhall meadow
Mendenhall Meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier
D85_8219 houseboat
Living large near Ketchikan, Alaska
D85_0792 kodiak bear
Kodiak Brown Bear near Sitka, Alaska
D85_0733 kodiak bears
Two year old Kodiak Brown Bear cubs fishing for dinner – Sitka, Alaska
D85_9089 mtn goats
Mountain Goats in the Tracy Fjord
D85_9290 baby seal
Spotted Seals in the Tracy Fjord

Maui Wowie…

I recently found myself once again island-hopping the Hawaii isles. My favorite island, Maui, is the second-largest of the chain, and its wonders are well worth taking several days to explore since you will never be at a loss for somewhere new to discover.

2_maui coast
The rugged coast of Maui

The airport in Maui is located in largest city of the island, Kahului, located on the northern coast. Here you will find most of the big car rental agencies, as well as some locally owned rental companies. Being the Maui is a major tourist destination for both U.S. travelers and foreign tourists, and the added population of cruise ship passengers, if you are planning to rent a car, it is a good idea to book your reservation well in advance.

Kahului is the perfect base from which to explore the island. Less than 30 minutes away is the town of Lahaina, a small coastal village is filled with oceanfront restaurants and quaint shops. One of its best known features is the large banyan tree, with its limbs gracefully stretched out, providing amble shade from the tropical sun.

DSC 6319 iao valley
The thick, lush rainforest at the Iao Valley National Park is crowned by rugged mountaintops.

If you want a close encounter with a rainforest and the chance to see beautiful mountains, the Iao Valley National Park is just a 30-minute ride away from Kahului. It has several short trails to hike. But be warned, whether you opt for make the short ascent to the lookout or the descent to the river, you will be climbing a lot of stairs. If mobility is an issue, there are wonderful views you can enjoy without having to take any trails. Iao is not a large area, so spending 30 minutes to an hour will allow you to cover all there is to see.

Another adventure and one of the best known treks is the Road to Hana. Beginning in Kahului, the road winds its way along the coast and through the dense rainforest, navigating its 52 miles, 59 bridges the 620 curves that have made it famous. There are shirts and bumper stickers available at roadside stands bragging “I Survived the Road to Hana,” as well as drinks and plenty of places to get a bite to eat.

DSC 015 waterfall
One of the many waterfalls on the Road to Hana waiting to be discovered

The rugged coast and white sand beaches, are breathtaking, as are the dense green rainforests and scenic mountains. Scattered along the road are numerous waterfalls and cascades, many with banks to stop and to take photographs as the water surges over the edge of a cliff and tumbles down a mountainside.

The other famous landmark in Maui is the Haleakala Volcano National Park. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Kahului, depending on your experience driving steep mountain roads. Along the way, you will pass through the small village of Kula. Make a point of having a meal at the Kula Bistro, where the food is farm-fresh and very reasonably priced (but be prepared for a short wait, depending on the time of day).

DSC 6374 volcano
From the top of the volcano, you can get a spectacular view of the island amid a moonlike landscape of multi-hued rocks

The O’o Coffee Farm is about a 10-minute drive from Kula and definitely worth a visit. After short walk up a gentle slope, follow a dirt road which leads to a rustic farm building and the gardens.

Here you will be met by one of the farm’s very knowledgeable workers, who will describe the different types of award-winning coffee grown at O’o while you enjoy a complimentary sample. (You can also buy a bag or two of the farm’s brew to take home with you.)

Continuing toward the volcano, the road beings its long ascent to the summit. You will travel through lush green valleys and rainforests and a layer of clouds as you make your way to the 10,000-foot crest. The terrain at the peak resembles a moonscape of various colored volcanic rocks that are millions of years old, having been expelled during the mountain’s fiery rein.

DSC 6337 volcano
The island seems to be eternal swathed in a blanket of white clouds

Slightly lower in elevation is an additional parking lot and visitor center. Here you can take a steep hike to the top of hill with wonderful views of the crater on one side and the valley on the other.

Most of the time, the valley will be obscured by an ocean of white clouds as far as you can see. This view is particularly beautiful at sunset, as the sky changes color from blue to yellow to deep orange when the sun dips below the false horizon of the clouds.

Here’s a tip: On your way to the summit, take note of the several lookouts. To avoid traffic and a slow descent down the mountain, leave 20 minutes early and then stop at a lookout to marvel at the sunset.

DSC 6543 volcano sunset
Nothing is more spectacular than the setting of the sun over the false horizon of clouds viewed from the volcanic summit.

Also bear in mind that if you decide to come for the sunrise. you must leave very early and also make a reservation well ahead of time. Those without a reservation will be turned away.

Whatever itinerary you choose to follow in Maui, you are sure to find some unrivaled natural beauty that will leave you saying “mahalo.”

Tahiti… Paradise Found

I found paradise in Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora…

When you close your eyes and imagine white sand beaches, warm crystal blue water, rugged mountain tops and lush green valleys, what specific place comes to mind? For me, it is the Society Islands of French Polynesia.

DSC 014 tahiti canoes
For many, life in Tahiti has changed little since Captain James Cook landed in 1769

The Society Islands consist of the nine islands and five atolls, and contained within the archipelago are Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora. They were named in honor of the Royal Society by Captain James Cook, the English explorer, after his visit to the islands in 1769, and this overseas territory of France received partial sovereignty in 1977.

Today, it is an overseas collectivity of France.

The largest of the islands is Tahiti, which hosts Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, with a population of 184,000 inhabitants.

Tahiti is the buzzling economic, political and cultural hub of French Polynesia, and is usually the first port of call for foreign tourists since it has the only international airport in the collectivity.

DSC 6000 tahiti from moorea
The island of Tahiti taken from Moorea

If you are planning on purchasing black pearls during your visit, Papeete has the largest selection and some of the most reputable dealers (although prices are usually somewhat lower in Moorea).

French Polynesia is world renowned for its black pearls, known for their dark, iridescent shades of black and silver, capturing the entire spectrum of colors of the rainbow.

DSC 015 tahiti huts
Once you get away from the hustle and bustle of Papeete, you will find that most of Tahiti is calm and relaxing.

Tahitian pearls are not actually black, as they are often referred to. Instead, the majority of Tahitian pearls are gray, silver, charcoal or shades of shimmering green, blue and gold.

And although it is true that they take their name from Polynesia’s most well-known island, Tahitian pearls are, in fact, not cultivated in Tahiti, but rather elsewhere throughout the waters of French Polynesia.

DSC 5783 tahiti sunset
Sunset at the Tahiti InterContinental Resort

Black pearls, which are named for the lip of the oyster (pinctada margaritifera-cumingi) that produces them and not for their own hue, can come in almost any shade, including peacock green, metallic gray, cobalt, cherry red and bright aubergine.

Although some colors tend to be more popular than others, the value of a Tahitian black pearl is determined by its luster, size and shape, rather than its hue. Unlike Asian or freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls are rarely round and can come in very unusual forms, including elongated drops and asymmetrical pear shapes.

Because the black-lipped oyster is very large, Tahitian pearls tend to be quite large, In fact, they are usually between 8 to 16 millimeters long, although they can be as large as 20 millimeters long.

Personally, I would not recommend staying in Papeete since it is rather rundown. I have also had more than one taxi driver tell me there are a fair amount of unsafe areas in the city.

DSC 0007 moorea palm
You can find lots of hidden coves and beaches across the island.

That is not to say that the rest of the island follows suit. Within its 1,042 square kilometers, Tahiti has plenty of beautiful beaches, lagoons and a lush interior with numerous hiking trails to explore, as well as Mount Orohena, towering 2,241 meters above the sea.

One of the top must-sees in Tahiti is Fautaua Waterfall, a natural sparkling water cascade that towers 985 feet into a large pool. But be warned, it is a long and ambitious trek through steep slopes and tropical jungle to get to, so if you decide to go, bring comfortable hiking shoes and plenty of mosquito repellent. (Also, the falls are sometimes closed to tourists due to heavy rains and other climatic concerns, so check if they are open before you go.)

DSC 5783 tahiti waterfall
Even if you don’t make it to Fautaua, there are plenty of little waterfalls tucked into the Tahitian landscape that you can explore.

If you are a surfer, Tahiti’s Teahupao is known as one of the best surfing beaches in the world. The island is also ringed with small villages and a range of lodging from budget hotels and guest houses to private home rentals and exquisite luxury resorts, my favorite being the Tahiti InterContinental Resort and Spa.

Moorea is the second largest island and only a 30-minute ferry ride or a 10-minute flight from Tahiti. There is no city on the island, but you will find a number of small villages and hamlets. There are many tour guides on the island that can show you the sights at a very reasonable rate. The advantage of a guide is you will not miss any of the highlights and you will learn of the rich island culture.

DSC 6072 moorea village church
A village church in Moorea.

Another option is to rent a car and explore on your own. The advantage here is that you are on your own schedule and are able to stop and swim, have a picnic, dine at a café on the beach and take as much time as you like at any one location.

DSC 6011 moorea huts
The beautiful coastline and the blue waters of Moorea.

Moorea is the favorite of many visitors to the Society Islands. The only drawback is there are not many sand beaches to spread out a blanket on and enjoy the warm tropical sun. Instead, you will find a vast variety of lagoons to enjoy a swim along its coast. If you are an avid diver, you will certainly appreciate the multiple reefs surrounding Moorea that are inhabited by an array colorful tropical fish.

DSC 5961 moorea black sand
Moorea is known for its breathtaking black-sand beaches.

Those with an adventurous spirit might want to try diving with sharks and stingrays, one of the highlight tours of the island.

You may also decide to drive inland up a steep, well-marked road to the Belvedere Lookout. From this exceptional vantage point, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the island’s lush green Opunohu Valley 790 feet below and the surrounding mountain top of Mount Rotui towering above. The overlook also affords a wonderful view of Cook’s Bay, where Captain Cook first set foot on the island’s twin bays.

DSC 5968 moorea cooks bay
Belvedere Lookout in Moorea overlooking Cook’s Bay

Smaller still than Moorea is the island of Bora Bora, which for many is considered the Pearl of the South Pacific. Each time I have been here, I have chosen to rent a car and take a leisurely drive the 22 miles of road that wind gracefully around the Bora Bora coastline.

DSC 6081_bora bora
Palm lined coast and crystal clear waters of Bora Bora

There are two Avis car rentals on the island and the prices start at $100 for a small car. If you decide to rent a car, I’d advise making the reservation online well ahead of time since this is a port of call for many cruise ships and availability is often limited.

Each of the islands has its own unique personality, and unlike Moorea, Bora Bora has many white sand beaches to lay on and soak up the sun. Here too are large crystal clear lagoons to snorkel and wonderful reefs just offshore to dive and explore.

DSC 6133_bora bora
One of the many resorts lining the shoreline of Bora Bora

The Lagoonarium, a massive outdoor aquarium specializing in lagoon fish and marine life, offers close encounters with sharks and stingrays in a controlled environment for those who didn’t want to risk an open-sea meeting in Moorea.

DSC 6169_bora bora
Bora Bora is the smallest of the three islands, but its beauty and grace are seemingly endless.

The beauty of French Polynesia is eternal and has forever been captured in the post-impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin. But just between you and me, there are still so many unexplored nooks and crannies on the islands to dive the reefs, surf the waves, climb the mountain peaks and just lay on the beach and soak up the rays of the warm tropical sun that Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora can become secret personal Edens for every person who visits them.

And that’s what makes for a true paradise found.