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Tonga Interlude

Fetoko from the airMonths and months ago, before we even left Olympia for New Zealand, our friends Ben and Lisa contacted us and asked if we were interested in watching over their island resort in Tonga for three months while they traveled over the austral summer.

Um, does the sun set in the west?

While we traveled aboard Wing’n it in New Zealand we communicated back and forth and eventually our plans coalesced: we would fly to Tonga in mid-November and stay through early February. In the meantime, our friends would brave the cold and take over Wing’n it down in N.Z. to do some land-traveling of their own.

We met Ben & Lisa on Waking Dream waaaay back in 2002, when Michael and I were working our way down the California coast aboard our Alberg 35 Pelican. (Yeah, those were different days.) Along with a handful of other boat crews also in their late 20s, we went on to have an epic season exploring Mexico together. While we returned to Seattle afterwards, they spent another season in Mexico, then continued on to the South Pacific. When they got to Vava’u, Tonga they fell in love with the place and stopped. They’ve been here ever since living the entrepreneurial dream: opening up a restaurant, adventure tourism company, and now their latest project, beautiful Mandala Resort on tiny Fetoko Island.

But everybody needs a break, even in paradise, so they’ve been having caretakers watch over the island the past few years while they do some overseas travel in the off-season. There’s a lot to do here, like feed their two adorable dogs Bosun & Higgs and cat Benzini, sweep the floor, make sure the hammocks and kayaks are in working order. I think we’re up to the job.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It's a little weird to not have her here with us.

Our first view of Fetoko in over three years. Wondertime anchored in front for weeks and weeks in 2012. It’s a little weird to not have her here with us.

There's even wifi.

There’s even wifi.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don't think she's ever going to leave.

Leah scored the treehouse fale. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get her to leave.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

Leah in her treehouse palace.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing'n it's in each one.

The girls are over the moon to have their own rooms, for the first time in seven years. I estimate we could fit 4 Wing’n it’s in each one.

Here's the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how blue the South Pacific ocean is.

Here’s the view from my bed. Pretty much the same view from every bed, since the island is barely 3 acres big. I truly forgot how gloriously blue the tropical South Pacific ocean is.

We can't keep Holly out of the water.

We can’t keep Holly out of the water.

One last dinner with Lisa before she's off to NZ.

One last dinner with Lisa before she’s off to NZ.

And I've saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn't seen it yet so that was great fun. It's also great fun to spend time with one of our favorite families, who we hadn't seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical, all four girls picked up right where they left off.

And I’ve saved the best photo for last: I delivered a copy of Voyaging With Kids to my coauthor, Michael Robertson. He and his family aboard Del Viento have been working their way across the South Pacific this year and he hadn’t seen the actual book yet so that was great fun. Of course, as our girls did, his grabbed the book from him and wouldn’t give it back for an hour. It’s also great fun to spend time with this awesome family, who we hadn’t seen since La Paz in 2012. As is typical in the cruising world, all four girls (and all four adults) picked up right where we left off. They’re here for the cyclone season so we have plenty of time to catch up.

Journey to the Far East

East Cape Lighthouse

“This is what they are talking about, when they talk about New Zealand roads,” Michael shouts back to me over the whine of the Canter’s diesel engine. He’s in the driver’s seat, hands clenched on the steering wheel.

I’m sitting behind him, right hand gripped onto the metal bar behind his seat that doubles as the ladder to the girls’ bunk above. My feet are wedged against the settee opposite, to keep myself from sliding off my own seat. I’m being bounced and jolted around violently with the motorhome’s rough motion. It kind of feels like sailing.

We aren’t going fast, maybe 30 km/hour. But to me it feels like we’re about to hurtle off the cliff below any second, especially when I lean over and look out the front window, to see what Michael’s talking about. We’re traveling down a one-lane gravel road. To the left of us is the southern ocean, a narrow band of beach and rocks, a cliff, and a good part of the road missing, gone to join the sea below. Someone has put some rickety wooden guardrails around these AWOL bits of road, which was thoughtful.

At the start of the East Cape road, 20 km of rough travel out to the most eastern lighthouse in the world (at 178 degrees east), there is a sign which reads: “Extreme Caution/Reduce Speed”. They were not kidding when they had that one made up.

When the road widens again a short time later to a full single lane, we can breathe evenly again. Eventually it turns inland a bit, winding through acre after acre of green pastures chock full of sheep and cows, eating and shitting all over 100% pure New Zealand. Finally we reach The End of the road and park next to an old outhouse. When we look up up up we see the lighthouse, nestled atop a hill of native bush.

There is another motorhome there, an older couple from England we’d spoken to the day before. They’ve just gotten back from their climb up and back. “It doesn’t take long, 20 minutes or so. Only 750 steps up. Have fun!” they say cheerily and jauntily hop in their sleek and modern rented motorhome and start back down the road.

“I don’t WANT to go up there!” Upon hearing that our plans are the same, Leah stands with her feet apart, hands on her hips.

“We’re doing it,” I say. “We came all this way and we’re going up.” Not in the mood to negotiate, I hand the pack to Michael that’s got our passports, laptop, water, and snacks in it and sling the camera around my own neck and start walking.

“Come on Leah, let’s gooooooo!” Holly calls out, running up ahead.

Leah sighs and starts stomping. We find the trail head and begin making our way up the hill. It’s not long before the girls, followed by Michael, are out of sight up ahead of me.

Step after wooden step winds up through the nikau palms and silver tree ferns. “150” is carved into one; here I start to wonder if this was such a good idea myself. By “450” I’m cursing whoever had the stupid idea we should climb up to this lighthouse in the middle of nowhere. My feet and legs feel like they are plodding along in concrete. My thighs are starting to quiver. I can’t hear the birds anymore due to the blood pounding in my ears. It starts to rain. The damp, spicy smell of the earth is almost overpowering. Up and up and up. I slow down but I don’t stop. I realize how much I am enjoying this.

Step. Step. Step. The rough wooden treads twist and turn up the steep hillside. Suddenly a thought occurs to me: how much this is like life, plodding along even when you don’t want to. When stopping sounds like such a good idea. I think about all the steps I have taken, all the turns and decisions that have led me to this very day, right to this very staircase. A great many of them unpleasant, some exhilarating, a few regretful, but each vital to the path that has led me here.

Finally, I round one last bend in the staircase and the bright green hilltop opens up before me. The tidy white lighthouse towers in the middle of it. My girls come running towards me, smiles and eyes wide, eager to show me around.

I walk over to Michael and take his proffered hand. Together we turn and look around at the sapphire-blue sea below, tossing itself against towering cliffs and beyond, rolling green fields. Our little motorhome is down there, a tiny white dot at the end of the winding road. The girls run around us, around the lighthouse, in circles, in joy. It’s perfect moment, a miracle in fact.

East Cape Lighthouse, NZ

Going down (East Cape Lighthouse, NZ)

East Cape road, NZ

Living in the slow lane

Somewhere over the rainbow

Motorhomes and caravans all have names here, just like boats do (perhaps this is true everywhere though?). Ours is called “Wing’n It” which we at first thought was kind of silly and planned to change it as soon as we could. Until we realized it pretty much fits our situation perfectly as we’ve been taking each day as it comes. Wing’n it. We know we’ll settle into a little corner of New Zealand sooner rather than later, but for now we’re letting our path come into focus as it will.

But I woke up the other morning and had no idea where I was. My arm was freezing, having escaped the warmth of Michael’s and my zipped-together mummy bags sometime in the early morning. I tucked it back inside to warm it up again. Then I heard the Tui bird in a tree outside. The Tui’s call is the most fantastic bird call I’ve ever heard: a chorus of high and low, short and long notes, chattering and chuckling. A hundred birds all in one. Then I remembered exactly where I was and curled up to sleep a few minutes more before the girls woke up.

Michael was up a short while later to make coffee. It’s not a fast process: he grinds the beans by hand (unless, by chance, we’ve remembered to do that the night before). The kettle is put on the gas hob to boil and he measures the grounds into the Aeropress. Once the water is near boiling, he pours it in and presses the steaming espresso into a mug. He divides it between our two mugs, then pours hot water into both for perfect Americanos. We lay in bed for at least another half-hour, sipping our rapidly cooling coffees. The rest of each day is much the same: slow, measured, and just enough to make it a full one.

One of the wonderful things about NZ is that you never know just who will stop by for Tea. Here, my publisher, Lin Pardey stopped by when we were camped in Auckland. I'm sure she's used to small spaces.

One of the wonderful things about NZ is that you never know just who will stop by for tea. Here, my publisher and mentor Lin Pardey stopped by while we were camped in downtown Auckland. I’m sure glad she’s used to small spaces.

My friend and coauthor Michael Robertson asked me a few weeks ago if it is taking time to acclimate to our new life or have we just fallen into it? It’s taken this long, but I think I finally have the answer: it’s both. This experience is both familiar and completely new at the same time.

What I’ve found most interesting is how moving back to a foreign country can be so familiar. I know which brands of cheap Pinot Noir are the best (admittedly that’s an easy one as I haven’t really found a bad one yet). We’ve got our Sistema box full of Whittaker’s chocolate bars stashed in the cupboard again. The girls feel right at home swimming at the Tepid Baths and remember all of their favorite parks and playgrounds. After a day or two we recalled our way around the roads and are even remembering not to switch on the turn signal when it starts to rain. Everyone’s Kiwi accent is like a familiar singsong, joyous to our ears. The best part is we’ve been meeting up with friends all over; even Gloria who works at the Freeman’s Bay laundry was happy to see us, lugging our bulging Ikea bag of laundry in (“The girls are so big now!”). We’ve had dinner nearly every night with old or new friends…something that just doesn’t seem to happen often enough when we’re not traveling. But it should.

This may be familiar to us, but, as always, the girls always notice something new.

This scene may be familiar to us but the girls always notice something new. (Opua to Paihia trail in Bay of Islands)

What is different is living life in a tiny motorhome, but even that feels oddly familiar. Land cruising is a whole lot like water cruising, right down to spending a good majority of our time filling and dumping tanks and looking for free internet and showers. We look for places we can “freedom camp” rather than spend big $$ at holiday parks (just like we tried to avoid marinas). I make simple meals with fresh food purchased from farmer’s markets. My galley is the simplest yet, with a few pots and pans, a handful of utensils, and a bowl and plate for everyone. The girls occupy themselves with Legos, or a notepad and a pencil. Or better yet, I can toss them out the door and they can go and run play…without a dinghy ride or a swim.

What also is decidedly different is that we took off five days after buying the motorhome, which we’ve certainly never done in a boat. That, and we sleep soundly each and every night. Space is tight (have you seen that Portlandia sketch about life in a tiny home? That’s pretty much what it’s like for us right now. You’ll have to google it to find it. My internet is dog-slow too.) This entire experience has made me give daily thanks to my years of living aboard small boats; mere mortals may have been driven mad by now. But I know we’ll move on eventually to a bigger space and will miss all this closeness and the freedom of the open road. A flat? A boat? Who knows? We’re just wing’n it.

P.S. Just for fun, follow our NZ wanderings via our friend Tucker’s amazing new website, Farkwar. It’s designed for boats…but why not land yachts? http://farkwar.com/boats/wing-n-it

We've help our friends aboard Nyon with their mast a number of times over the years (the last being after their mast breakage in Mexico in 2011). This time the stick was out for a touch of varnish and Michael was glad to lend a hand again.

We’ve helped our friends aboard Nyon with their mast a few times over the years (the last being after their mast breakage in Mexico in 2011). This time the stick was out for a touch of varnish and Michael was glad to lend a hand getting her aloft again. (Opua, Bay of Islands)

See? Can't seem to get away from boats.

Still can’t seem to get away from boats. (Paihia, Bay of Islands)

Out and about in the Hauraki Gulf

Rangitoto summit boardwalk, Auckland, New Zealand

After three months of being tied to our Auckland dock, we found ourselves staring at the long Easter weekend on our calendar and knew it was time to head out. While the temperature has cooled a bit here, the days continue to be long and sunny with the occasional rain squall thrown in just to remind us we are still in the South Pacific ocean. It took me a week to stow away all the land-life things that littered the boat: library books, school bags, art projects, shoes. Good Friday arrived and we munched on hot cross buns for breakfast (racks and racks of them were on sale at the grocery store and I guessed — accurately — that they were somewhat of a tradition here). We took off the sail covers, heaved off the docklines and returned to our sea-life.

Holly's lost her sea legs

Holly’s lost her sea legs

The wind was light and blowing directly into Waitemata Harbour so we worked our way out by (sigh) tacking. Going upwind displeases Wondertime so but she sailed on anyway. There was a little chop due to the opposing current, both of which slowed us down even more. But as there was only 8 nautical miles or so to go to our planned anchorage we didn’t mind.

After a dozen tacks we were finally free of Auckland’s inner harbour and officially in the gulf. Now, a little background might be in order here: it was morning when we arrived in Auckland last December after our overnight sail down from the Bay of Islands. I was still asleep after my dark early-morning watch and Michael didn’t call me up on deck until we were right off the city’s downtown. Michael himself had only been concentrating on our route through the channel and avoiding shipping traffic and hadn’t fully appreciated the view. This was the first time we’d really seen the Hauraki.

Our first thought was, now we could see why all our marina neighbors went out sailing every weekend! We were in a totally protected inland waterway, chock-full of sailboats but with plenty of room for us all to glide around. We were surrounded by islands indented on all sides with cozy anchorages; clearly the most difficult part of sailing around here was choosing one. It reminded us very much of the San Francisco Bay area but with volcanoes.

Islington Bay, Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand

Which is where we pointed our bow to drop our hook, in Islington Bay off Rangitoto Island, home of Mount Rangitoto which last erupted only 700ish years ago. The girls joined us in the cockpit for our final tacks toting a packet of crackers with them, both of them looking a little green after watching a movie in our bunk during the sail.

We still had an hour or two to go until sunset when we dropped the anchor in the crowded, but thankfully roomy bay. Michael and I cracked a couple of cold beers and relaxed in the cockpit, taking in the fresh and lovely view around us. Suddenly we were giddy like we hadn’t felt in months, like anything was possible. Here was our family right in our ever so familiar home but surrounded by a completely new world. I don’t think we’ll ever get tired of that paradox.

Exploring the Rangitoto lava caves

Exploring the Rangitoto lava caves

The original plan was to explore several anchorages in the gulf, maybe to sail over to Waiheke and see if it was really true that you could take your dinghy to a wine tasting. We’ll have to find out next time though as we spent all three of our nights at Rangitoto. The entire island is a nature reserve and is covered with tracks; we did our best to explore just a tiny portion of them. We were successful at reaching the summit with amazing views all around, including our new home-for-now city of Auckland. One of the things that has blown us away time and again in New Zealand is the quality of the public parks, tracks (hiking trails) and facilities and Rangitoto’s summit paths, lookouts, boardwalk and information signs were no exception. We peered into the volcano’s crater, currently covered with vegetation and wondered when it would erupt again. We crept through the dark lava caves formed from the last eruption– like something out of Indiana Jones, or well, Lord of the Rings I should say!

Mostly though we just enjoyed the peace and fulfillment of sitting at anchor in a place we had sailed ourselves to. Why do we seem to forget how much we enjoy this? But isn’t it wonderful that sailing only a handful of miles in a couple hours away from what is becoming familiar can seem so exotic and exciting. Maybe it’s the remembering why we like this so much again and again that keeps us exploring. And the feeling that all is right in our little world.

 Video: Sailing in the Hauraki Gulf

Rangitoto hike, Auckland, New Zealand

Leah sketches the Rangitoto summit marker

Leah sketches the Rangitoto summit marker

Wondertime family at Mount Rangitoto summit, Auckland, New Zealand

I think we’ve summited our first mountain!

Familiar But Foreign

Our first days in New Zealand were not very glamorous, or should I say glamourous, but it has been thrilling to be here even though our first orders of business were to get started on our long list of chores that have piled up during our time lazing around in tropical paradise. We’re in rural country up here in Opua with miles kilometers kilometres of roads winding crazily through rolling green hills dotted with sheep exactly like we’d pictured it here. You can’t really do much without a car so that’s the first thing we bought (after plunking our $2 coins in the shower meters, our first hot showers since Niue in August). We picked up a sweet late 90s Subaru (this may be something like our 10th Subaru) and immediately drove to the grocery store where we gleefully filled our cart with fresh NZ strawberries, blueberries, apples, avocados, zucchini, and bottles and bottles of cheap delicious wine. Which I thoroughly enjoyed after the 10 loads of laundry finished this week….

Meet “Kiwisube”…she blends in.

Beautiful spring produce, all NZ grown

While walking around dainty little Kerikeri we felt a little scruffy, even for laid-back Kiwi standards, and made the hair salon our next stop where all four of us got a little snip snip. Here’s Holly getting her first haircut ever:

Holly’s curls get an adjustment

Our cruising kitty is not really set up for 1st world living so we pretty much had to get on the job-search program right off the bat. Thanks to old cruising friends who lived in Auckland for several years after sailing here, Michael had appointments set up with several IT recruiters practically moments after we tied off our docklines. As you may have guessed, one of the tricks of this lifestyle is to combine the many chores that seem to pile up with pleasure, so we took a field trip down to the metropolis of Auckland last week.

“Look! It’s a school of sheep!” -Holly

It was a grey, drizzly three-hour drive to the city from Opua and as we crossed over the bridge into downtown Auckland we had complete deja-vu: with the weather, the sailboats scattered across the waterways of the city we could have sworn we were driving into our hometown of Seattle. But not the Seattle of today, more like the Seattle of my childhood: New Zealand’s largest city has half of Seattle’s population and although we were warned about all the terrible traffic, we found ourselves cruising easily through the downtown in the middle of the workday. The city was incredibly clean and largely populated with small, local businesses. We grabbed coffees and warm milks at a hip cafe in Ponsonby and then toured the nearby Westhaven marina which we hope will be home soon.

Wondertime family in Auckland

While Michael was at his meetings the girls and I window-shopped and lunched at a tiny sushi restaurant together. We gleefully visited every bookstore in a 5-block radius.

Sushi lunch in Auckland with my girls

Holly happily buried in books

This week we are still in Opua, waiting for the arrival of our new damper plate which is being shipped in from the U.K. We hope to get the boat down to Auckland by Christmas, but in the meantime are enjoying kicking around in Northland. We drove to Whangarei for the day and explored the local parks which included the beautiful Whangarei falls and a lovely Kauri forest. On the way we also toured an ancient cave which is populated by glowworms – one of the many life forms unique to New Zealand. Leah is fascinated with caves and hopes to do more challenging spelunking in the future.

About to enter the amazing Kawiti glowworm caves

Wondertime girls at Whangarei Falls

It’s been wonderful to be back in the land of forests again. At first, it felt like we were back home in the Pacific Northwest. But then the details begin to come into focus. Instead of giant Douglas Firs there are ancient Kauri trees. The song of Tui birds ring out through the treetops, marvelous tree ferns tower over our heads. The greens everywhere are more vivid shades than we’ve seen before. It smells like the forests we remember, damp and mossy, but there are scents in there of spices and flowers that are all new to us.

We visit the fantastic giant Kauri trees of the Puketi forest

A tree fern

We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of all the beautiful new things this lovely country has to offer.

Lost in the Islands of Tomorrow

Why hello there.

I’ve stepped out from underneath the palm trees we’ve been lounging under here in the Vava’u Group of the Kingdom of Tonga for a few minutes as it’s rather time to send you an update.

First off, the most exciting thing to happen on our sail here was that we got to skip Thursday and sailed straight into Friday which the girls where thrilled about (being Friday movie night after all). Somewhere along the way here we crossed the International Dateline moving us a day ahead of all of you back in the U.S. While you’ll be waking up to Friday morning it will already be Saturday here and well into the weekend.

Which means nothing here to us, of course, excepting that I have to remember to get to the amazingly fresh and gorgeous (and we’re talking California-gorgeous) produce market before it closes by noon as it does on Saturdays. Other than that, we’re living the old cruiser’s life of “every night’s a Friday night, every day’s a Saturday.”

This amazing scattered group of islands – there are 60 of them – are nestled together like puzzle pieces in an area only 16 x 18 nautical miles. You weave through them, around them, through channels and there’s a spot to anchor about every few miles. The whole group is surrounded by reefs that keep out any annoying ocean swell and it’s like sailing and anchoring in the Gulf Islands again. Only with palm trees and turquoise water and the soft warm breezes I think I’ve written about before. You can reach just about every anchorage in two hours or so. In the past two weeks, we’ve been to three of them.

This place doesn’t affect everyone the same way, but to us, it’s called us to slow down, stop for a while and just experience the life and place around us without the sense of movement we’ve become so accustomed to. Our first few days in Neiafu, the main town here, were spent catching up with boatloads of friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen for months. Just about everyone heading west passes through Tonga sooner or later and there have been grand kid-boat reunions here.

With Wondertime loaded down with delightful fresh produce from the local market, the likes we haven’t seen since La Cruz, we headed out to the islands. Or, one island in particular, that of our amazing longtime friends Ben and Lisa who we met in California while we were all on our way to Mexico in 2002 and sailed all over with that winter. They continued on to Tonga in their boat Waking Dream in 2004 and have stayed here ever since, opening up a number of businesses over the years and becoming a true part of the community. They currently have a lease on an adorable 2.5 acre island where they are busy living and building a small restaurant and eco-lodging amongst the palm trees. In their spare time they run the non-profit Regatta Vava’u coming up here in a few weeks.

We’ve been anchored off their island for the past week and have had a blast watching them get to know our new crew members as well as hearing their stories of life on a Tongan island. The girls, of course, adore Ben and Lisa as well as their island home. Countless hours have been spent just talking and pontificating and reminiscing and watching the palm trees sway. We’ve shared many meals together with Ben and Lisa, their local friends, and our cruising friends that have stopped by as well. We’ve danced under the clear light of the full moon while Ben – still the party king — spun tunes on his DJ gear. Michael has helped out with several of the countless projects underway on the island. The girls and I have napped in a hammock. We’ve read, daydreamed, had scavenger hunts. The beach has been combed for shells, many times. The girls have swung on the “hip ball.” We’ve messed around in boats. One clear night, we sat on a roof watching enormous flying foxes swoop overhead in the dark and listened to the crickets sing.

You never know what will pass by when you stop and watch and listen for a while.

The Wondertime Girls in Neiafu, Vava’u

17 Reasons Why We Think Niue is Brilliant

After nine days at sea, we found the tiny island of Niue, the only bit of land for hundreds of miles around. It was 2 am when we arrived off the main town of Alofi and picked up one of the moorings maintained by the Niue Yacht Club. Our night approach was easy: Niue no longer has a fringing reef and there’s no danger of running into anything other than the island itself. Niue is a former atoll that’s had it’s entire coral center pushed 150 feet or so straight up into the sky. The island’s edges are now littered with caves, chasms, and crystal clear pools before what remains of the surrounding coral reefs drops steeply into the ocean for thousands of feet. We were excited to see this petite island nation for ourselves, and beginning when we woke up in the morning a few hours after our arrival we found many reasons to love this island.

1. Niue’s Clear Blue Sea

Niue is affectionately known as “The Rock” as the whole island is basically a huge chunk of coral limestone. It has no rivers or streams and very little soil resulting in little to no runoff. What this means is that the waters surrounding Niue are absolutely crystal clear. When we looked around on our first morning on Niue we were awestruck by the clarity of the water around us. We could see the bottom 120 feet below our keel! The strikingly pure shades of blue of the seas around Niue are the most beautiful and otherworldly we’ve ever seen.

2. The Wharf Crane

Before we arrived here, we’d heard horror stories about Niue’s wharf. We’d heard it was pummeled by swell, you had to climb a slippery, rickety ladder 50 feet up and then you had to use a cranky old crane to actually hoist your dinghy up after you. I have no idea how these rumors get started. Niue’s wharf is the best we’ve encountered in the Pacific: all four of us can easily step right off the dinghy onto a sturdy concrete staircase and climb the five stairs with good handholds all the way up. The crane is a blast to use: you simply hook it onto your dinghy’s lifting bridle, use the controls to hoist the dinghy up into the air and swing it over onto a wheeled trolley, then park the dinghy amongst the others lined up on the wharf nearby. Truly the most fun dinghy-parking experience so far.

2. The Check-In Process

Right after we hoisted our dinghy onto the wharf for the first time, we were met right next to the crane by two customs agents, each of which had us fill out a short form. 10 minutes later we were driven by Keith, the super friendly and helpful local SSCA representative, up the road to the police station (with a quick tour of the town of Alofi on the way). Here we filled out another short form and we each got our passports stamped. Check-in done, literally minutes after we’d begun the process.

3. The Niue Yacht Club

We left the police station after completing our check-in and wandered a few hundred meters down the road to the Niue Yacht Club. This place deserves a list of it’s own but I’ll just have to start by saying how impressed we are with the 14 heavy-duty moorings the club maintains (it is nearly impossible to anchor here due to the depths and coral-choked sea floor). The mooring balls are even covered with reflective tape to make them easy to find for boats coming in at night like we did. The club itself in town is a wonderful, comfortable place to hang out with very friendly owners, a huge book exchange, free internet, a fridge stocked with cold beers and sodas, and potluck events.

4. Fish & Chips

Niue is a “self-governing nation with free association with New Zealand.” What we hoped this meant was excellent fish and chips and we are happy to report that indeed we enjoyed amazing fried wahoo and chips washed down with New Zealand beer on our very first day here. Yum.

5. A Little Piece of New Zealand

Besides the fish & chips, it has been a thrill to experience a little preview of what New Zealand holds for us here in Niue. Everyone on the island speaks English (with a Kiwi accent to boot!), which is thrilling after our Spanish didn’t help us much in French Polynesia in terms of getting to know local people. Most of the food products in the grocery stores are from NZ and you have to be careful when crossing the street as it’s left-side driving here!

6. The Playground

During our sail from Maupiti to Niue we read through the Niue chapter in our Lonely Planet South Pacific several times (it is short). I noted that there was reportedly a playground in Alofi and informed Holly of such. Each day after, several times each day she asked me to confirm that we were indeed going to an island with a playground. Happily we found the reported playground just south of the main town and although simple and sun-worn both girls were thrilled to climb and swing and just play here. Holly gives Niue a thumbs-up.

7. History

Once you walk up the hill from the wharf and set off down the main road you can’t help but notice the graves. They are scattered all along the road, all the way around the island. They are varied: there are old, broken unidentified stone ones, there are new ones with fancy headstones with pictures and stories of the occupant. Many have silk flowers draped across them. Some have whole structures built on top to protect the graves. There are a great many more graves than people on this island that struggles to maintain it’s population: the elderly lost to the graves, the youth lost to New Zealand where everyone here has citizenship. The graves are not creepy at all though, even though they are everywhere. Rather it adds to the air of ancient history that is evident everywhere on Niue, both of the island’s geology and also the stories of the families that have lived here for a thousand years. Powerful reminders of time passing.

8. The Friendliest Island in the World

With a fledgling tourist industry, visitors are still novel in Niue. Each time we walk through town we are stopped by local residents who ask where we are from and how we got here and they are truly interested. Everyone waves as they drive by, whether you pass by on foot or car. Last Sunday we wanted to get down to Avatele Beach on the southwest corner of the island so had the girls stick their thumbs out. Within minutes we had a ride from a local fellow. It turned out he wasn’t really heading that way though and was planning on turning right around and driving back to town after dropping us off 15 minutes down the road.

9. Washaway Cafe

What’s not to love about a bar where you help yourself to ice-cold New Zealand beer from a fridge and write down what you took on a piece of paper? And has burgers topped with beets and fried eggs? And has a snorkeling beach right in front? And is the only place on the island open on Sunday? And has a steady stream of fellow sailors also stopping in?

10. A Birthday For Our Captain

Michael celebrated his 38th birthday here on Niue. It was a marvelous day with Dutch babies with French strawberry jam for breakfast, a bit of snorkeling off a tiny sandy pocket beach, dinner at Gill’s Indian Restaurant (the best Indian food we’ve ever had!), chocolate-chip cookie “cake” and two giddy girls who absolutely love celebrating anyone’s birthday, anywhere. But here in Niue, more special for sure.

11. Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

If you need to practice driving on the left-hand side of the road, Niue’s the place to do it as I don’t think the island has ever had a traffic jam. Although most of the island’s main road is only a single lane, it’s good practice to pull to the left to let another car pass by.

12. Sea Tracks

13. Chasms

14. Caves

15. Snorkeling

16. The Mischievous Whales

Humpback whales are known to frolic amongst the boats moored here in Alofi although the local residents say there haven’t been many sightings so far this season. We haven’t seen them either, but we have heard blows and tail/fluke slapping during the late evenings so we know they are here. Yesterday, our friends on Knotty Lady awoke to find a whale had visited their boat while they’d been out in town the evening before. What they found was essentially all their bow hardware torn off their boat and dangling underwater: their anchor roller, anchor chain, cleats, mooring lines, furled Code 0 sail, bow pulpit and anchor locker door torn clear off. The best anyone can guess is a whale got caught up in their mooring and had to struggle dearly to get free. The damage is breathtaking: whales are strong, much stronger than most boats. Thankfully, the whale clearly got free and Knotty Lady will be repaired and will sail on.

17. Community

By noon of the day after the whale damaged Knotty Lady, the entire island had heard of the incident. Their sail was drying ashore in the afternoon. By evening, bent stainless steel parts were already ashore at local Niuean shops who’d volunteered to rebend and repair the pieces. A meeting was set up this morning for sailors to gather and discuss what supplies we each had that could help repair the extensive damage to Knotty Lady’s bow fiberglass and by this afternoon epoxy was curing. Niueans and cruising sailors pitching in without hesitation to help a fellow friend in need. That’s the beauty of life hundreds of miles from anywhere but here with each other.

Passage to Paradise

The entrance to Maupiti, even less than a mile away, appears to be awash in white water. We’ve just sailed from Bora Bora, 25 fast downwind miles in 20 knots of wind. Each mile closer brought our nerves up another hitch and by the time we were peering into the skinny pass with our binoculars our hearts were pounding and palms damp. “Let’s go.” Michael says and we furl in the genoa and power forward towards the entrance to Maupiti’s calm turquoise lagoon. With the thought that this is a no-fail situation – either we make it though or we’re dashed to bits upon the reef – we are suddenly calm. We’ll make it. We have to.

Most boats skip right by little Maupiti on their way to Suwarrow or Rarotonga or Palmerston having had their fill of French Polynesia by the time they clear out at Bora Bora. But our Lonely Planet South Pacific has this to say about this piece of paradise: Bora Bora’s discreet little sister, Maupiti, is one of the most ravishing islands in French Polynesia and is already being talked of as a rising star of the region. Yet it still remains a hideaway where insiders come to revel in an unblemished tropical playground and to drop out of sight…. Maupiti offers complete relaxation – there’s only one road, and virtually no cars, just bicycles…Nirvana found? You be the judge.

We just had to see this place for ourselves.

Looking back, it never seems as bad.

However, our favorite travel guide also features a warning about the only entry into Maupiti’s lagoon: “Yachties, beware, as this pass is exposed to big swells and strong currents.”

When your Lonely Planet give you warnings on navigational hazards, it’s best to take heed.

Our Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia concurred, with Charlie’s typical warnings of the number of boats that have come to grief here in the last 50 years. It’s true, Maupiti’s pass is tricky: it’s winding and narrow (less than 100 feet wide in some spots) with swift outgoing current, and standing whitewater, given certain conditions.

Thankfully, the day we arrived at Maupiti’s pass we had nearly ideal conditions: very low swell from the south, moderate wind from the NE and it was midday so we could see underwater obstructions more clearly. As Michael steered toward the pass he kept his eyes on the water in front of us, which was calm, and the range markers ahead. Keeping them perfectly aligned we entered the deep dead center of the pass through the shallow reefs on either side of us which were covered in whitewater from the breaking swell. I was below with my eyes on our nav computer, yelling up encouraging words to him (“We’re right on track! Excellent!”). The kids were in the forecabin keeping quiet as they know by now to stay out of our way when there is sweat beading on our brows. Even below, I could hear the huge breakers on the reef to either side of us but was too nervous to look out the porthole above the computer. I asked Michael later how big the white water was and he said he had no idea, he was only looking straight ahead, eyes on the guiding markers only.

There is a dogleg turn in the pass and you line up another set of range markers, then continue on down the channel keeping red markers to port, green to starboard (as the rest of the world does it apparently). Before we knew it, the lagoon opened up and we were in brilliant calm aqua water with the island-mountain of Maupiti towering to the sky in the middle. We motored for another mile, keeping in the deep turquoise channel, then dropped our hook in the sand under 15’ of water amongst a handful of other sailboats. A light breeze ruffled the water and we just stood gazing around at one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. We were floating between the small village tucked up against the side of the green mountain and the brilliant white sands of Motu Tuanai, striking hues of turquoise varying with the water depths around us. Nirvana. Found.

Our favorite anchorage in the Society Islands. Wondertime is the third boat in from the left.

This place is amazing. We’re going to stay for a while.

 

Mara’amu Days in Raiatea

The wind wasn’t blowing when we arrived at Raiatea last Sunday. Just the opposite: the air was still, thick and greasy and oven hot. We motored most of the way from Huahine, 25 miles across a glassy but rolling sea. Our stomachs rolled too; suddenly we’ve lost our sea legs now that we’ve anchored behind coral reefs for the past month or so. Just like on our overnight trip to Huahine from Moorea, the girls slept while Michael and I put our faces out in the fresh air and snacked on Mexican saltines.

Baguettes with Nutella. Delicious. Though probably not a breakfast for a champion.

We figured we’d head to Uturoa, the main town on Raiatea first to get our bearings. Our guidebooks and the SV Soggy Paws Compendium warned that anchoring was difficult since it was very deep right near the town but we thought we’d check it out anyway. We were surprised to see a long, nearly-empty quay right in front of the town with two other boat friends already tied up. Our fenders and mildewy lines were on our starboard side lickity split and we tied Wondertime up alongside too.

It’s always interesting to arrive at a new area with no expectations whatsoever and watch the place unfold. We hadn’t intended on stopping at Raiatea at all since our French Polynesia time is running short but thought it would be a nice stopover on our way to Bora Bora. It turns out that it’s free to stay on the quay here, and with strong SE winds in the 25-35 knot range predicted in the coming days we figured it was an excellent place to let the wind mellow a bit before we move on.

Uturoa is a sleepy town. We could tell that it wasn’t always so: there is a grand pier for cruise ships to tie to, covered in acres of hand-laid stones. There is also a lovely tropical park with a Polynesian stage for passengers to view a welcome dance, a large outdoor mall with restaurants and pearl shops. Only it’s clear that there hasn’t been a ship here in a long, long time: most of the shops are empty, the paint is peeling from the building sides, the lights taken down from the lampposts. Even the restaurants my 3-year-old Lonely Planet recommends as “must-eats” have newspapers pasted inside the windows and sit abandoned. We did see a cruise ship stop here a few days ago actually, but it only pulled in for the few moments it took to let off a passenger met by an ambulance who whisked the person off to the local hospital. Then the ship pulled away from the quay and chugged towards the pass in the reef, onward to more lively spots.

We don’t mind. Although the town doesn’t have a lot to offer the tourist we are kind of tired of being tourists this week anyway. After busy days in Moorea and watching Heiva dancing at Huahine we just feel like being at home. We were delighted to find an outdoor shower a 10-minute walk from the boat, nestled in some Australian pines between the beach and the road. We hauled ourselves down there, shower puffs and body wash in hand and took a good long washing. I barely noticed the cars slowing down to stare at what must be quite a sight, an American family of four soaping up at the beach showers normally used by the local rowing crews and surfers.

Athough Uturoa is largely devoid of tourists, it’s chock-full of local residents. The town hums with people running errands at one of the good hardware and grocery stores that are minutes away from the boat and they tote around their fresh baguettes each morning just like we do. The harbor is busy with small panga-like boats full of families and groceries, commuting by sea to remote homes. Every night this week at 1900 the drumming would start up in the town square, about a block away from Wondertime and we’d wander over to peek at the practice for the upcoming Heiva dancing. The men beat a fervent rhythm while women’s hips danced, bare feet following along on the concrete, and all around the town watched holding babies. Holly and the other town children watched intently at the edges and tried to duplicate the instinctive movements of the grown dancers.

Two days ago, just as our weather reports predicted, the Mara’amu arrived: freshening SE tradewinds brought wind and rainshowers and cool air. The wind buffeted Wondertime and we secured her mooring lines with shackles to avoid the rusty rings on the pier from chewing into our tired docklines. We visited with new boat friends from Australia, Belgium, Norway, Hungary also hunkering down here. Rain squalls came one after the next yesterday afternoon and we made hot chocolate and dipped Arnott’s cookies from Australia in it.

Today the wind was still whipping over our temporary island home but the skies were clearer and I took the opportunity to grab a cartful of groceries from the store across the street. Michael and the girls flew a kite on the empty expanse of quay that only time will tell when it will hold another ship full of tourists.

It’s windy and we’re docked on a nearly-abandoned cruise-ship quay…get the kite out!

A windy day is a playground inside the lagoon. Our friends on Obelisk set sail for Tahaa.

Experiencing Moorea

Leah and her new friend Natalie snorkel with stingrays at Moorea

One of our main life philosophies is to spend our money and time on experiences, not just on acquiring Stuff. When we are (hopefully) old and looking back on how we spent our lives, these are the memories we will treasure. I think our five days in lovely Moorea will be one of the highlights.

Wondertime and Convivia kids building fairy homes in the mountains of Moorea

Petting stingrays

Chilling at the cruiser-friendly Bali Hai hotel

Riding horses through the pineapple plantations