Thursday, March 17, 2022 – Happy St. Patrick’s Day
There was no Dance Band again tonight. Some slot play and viewing the sunset from the Sea View deck were our pre-dinner activities.
Dinner was a table for two. Can’t believe we are in another new section with new waiters. Dining room is very large and there are two of them. The one on the 3rd deck is for 5:30 (most popular) and 8:30 diners – same table, same waiters, and same dinner companions (or table for two) every night. The one on deck two (our dining room) is for open seating. You can make a reservation for the time you want or walk in and take the luck of the draw whether you have to wait or not.
Or you can eat at the Lido, make a Pinnacle Grill reservation (extra $$) or a Canaletto reservation (extra $$). Deck 2 dining is also the room that is open for breakfast and lunch if you want to eat there. I like the freedom of choice so we always choose open dining.
We both had the shrimp, crab, mango aioli appetizer. I had the mixed green salad while Chuck had the chicken-ham croquette. He ordered English beef roast. However, he and I both discovered it is not the beef roast we are used to. This roast was sliced very thin and it was medium rare. He couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t decide between the Mahi Mahi or the lamb shank. The waiter suggested the lamb – great choice. It was excellent.
We each had the Bossche bol for dessert. It is a Dutch dessert – a round puff pastry filled with cream and covered with chocolate – just melts in your mouth.
BB King was to start at 8:30 and the classical guitarist was on the main stage at 9:30. However, I decided I wanted to get our masks defogged and make sure we have all our gear ready. Chuck went to play some 3-card poker. Once I finished up, I did some star gazing from the veranda until I kept dozing off. Finally dragged myself off the lounger and came to bed. Hard to believe this night marks the halfway point in the adventure.
Alarm went off at 6:15. Breakfast was delivered by 6:45. Threw open the curtains and we were sailing into Raiatea. Just a gorgeous day. The waters are so calm and clear. Listened to the sail-in commentary from Ian and Kainoa live on TV.
We walked off the ship at 8:05 with our snorkeling gear. Followed the map given to us by the tour company to the pick-up point. Not a far walk but the sidewalk is made of lumpy stones so not an easy walk.
This was an independent tour suggested on the Cruise Critic Message Board. The company name is L’Excursion Bleue. The website is in French but can be translated to English. For this tour they offered 3 snorkeling spots and a visit to a vanilla plantation, a rum distillery, and a pearl farm. They also indicated that we would have lunch on a beach.
We were in Boat #3 with 14 other passengers from the ship. The Captain of our boat spoke pretty good English with a heavy French accent. The speed boat was comfortable with padded seats. So glad it had a sun shade on it.
Our first snorkel stop was swimming with the blacktip sharks – medium size shark with black markings on their fins. As soon as the boats stopped and tied together, here they came in a huge pack. I did not tell Chuck about this particular stop because I knew he would object. All the reviews said it would be fine, jump in and enjoy swimming with them. So I did. I had my gear on and was first off our boat. Chuck was not too far behind me.
They were magnificent. Swimming under and beside you. They were quick so I was not fast enough with my underwater camera to really capture how close they came. They’d come up and then quickly swim away. We got to stay 30 minutes with them. The water was crystal clear.
Even a stingray showed up at the very end. The boat operators called her “Sofie.”
After everyone was back in the boats, the reason the sharks appear when the boats arrive became apparent. They started circling all around the tied-together boats. The captain cautioned us all to keep our hands inside the boat. They threw out buckets and buckets of fish, squid, etc. If you needed a visual of “frenzy” this sight would be it. Even Sofie got in the fray and managed to get some tasty morsels. The sharks avoid that long tail just like humans do.
Next stop was the vanilla plantation and our host was Jovani. The plantation was hundreds of acres and it has been in his family four generations. He showed us the vanilla bean vines. They stake the vines like we stake green beans. But they use small trees and also get the fruit from those trees.
The most fascinating piece of information to me was that they have to hand pollinate each vanilla flower because there are no bees on the island. They are not allowed to import bees because you never know what repercussions there may be when you introduce a new species, even helpful ones like bees.
We got to watch one of the pollinators demonstrate the process. He can process over 300 flowers an hour.
Then we saw the beans drying on the table. They have to dry at least two weeks.
People got to shop for vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and vanilla lotions. There were also lotions made out of the flowers off the small trees. We got to taste rum infused with the vanilla beans.
It was a very interesting stop. Jovani said Chuck and I were the very first visitors from the state of Georgia that he has ever had.
Our next stop was snorkeling in a spot they called “The Coral Gardens.” The operators didn’t want us to wear our fins because the water was very shallow and we could damage the coral if we kicked it. I really hate snorkeling without the fins because I have a hard time with the currents without them.
However, at this spot, it was so shallow, most people walked instead of swimming. Once we got to a spot with some nice coral, you could just float around it. Chuck had a very difficult time at this spot – not because of the swimming. The sun was so bright against the white sand bottom that the glare was blinding him. We need to get him some polarized goggles. He does best if the day is partly cloudy. Today was not one of those days.
There were many fish that I had never seen before. I had a very nice time just floating around. I am glad I did not see the eel that some people saw come out from under a rock.
Unfortunately, one woman brushed up against some of the coral and scratched her leg. The scratches didn’t look deep but I’m sure it stung.
Our next stop was the Rum Distillery. It was a very small operation. We have been to a number of distilleries over the years on different islands. The part I found most interesting at this one was the guy feeding the sugar cane into the shredder and the guy at the end raking the remains into big baskets. I would think it would take much more processing to get it to the consistency before adding it to the vats. At least I hope so. We each got a taste of their rum. Not bad. Too hard to pack home on the airplane so we did not purchase.
The next stop was the pearl farm. I have never been to a pearl farm. It is a very complicated process to make pearls. The guide explained the process of having to find two oysters – one that the inside was beautiful, the other that the inside was very healthy. A grafter has to take an artificial round stone-like piece and put it in the healthy oyster. He/she has to make sure that it is the perfect fit, or the resulting pearl will come out malformed. Then the grafter has to take part of the beautiful oyster and attach it to the stone piece. All without killing the healthy oyster.
Once twenty of those processed oysters are finished, the workers put them in a steel mesh bag so the turtles can’t eat them and place them back in the water.
They must wait 18 months to see if they have a wonderful pearl. They grade the pearls like in school – A the best; D – the worst (only good for crafts).
However, if the oyster produces a malformed pearl, they might keep it if it is an interesting color or shape. The guide was wearing a very pretty bracelet made of malformed pearls.
The grafting was a very delicate process. This operation only has one grafter. He is the owner of the farm. He learned the craft from his father who learned it from his father, etc. He said the best grafters are the Japanese. I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to the farm if something happens to him. He was a man probably in his 30’s. Maybe he has a child he can pass the art of grafting too.
I looked long and hard in the pearl boutique but I didn’t buy any. I just don’t wear much jewelry any more. If there had been a ring, I might have succumbed to the temptation but it was mostly ear rings, necklaces, and bracelets. The least expensive item I saw was $250.
Our next stop was a private island (motu) for a very late lunch. They had a buffet set up plus water to drink. A beer was $5. We tried everything on the buffet except the raw fish salad – we ate roasted chicken, roasted fish, rice, taro, plantain, coconut bread, breadfruit, and grapefruit. Chuck did not have the grapefruit since some of his meds advise against eating or drinking grapefruit. I enjoyed the meal – especially the coconut bread. To me, it tasted like a very thick cookie. It had been cooked in a coconut leaf.
Talking about coconuts, our sitting area on the beach was covered with fishing net. I thought it was to discourage the birds. I saw a sign later on that said watch for falling coconuts. The net was to catch the coconuts so they didn’t land on our heads while eating. Appreciated them thinking about that possibility.
After relaxing, I went into the water from the beach and again basically walked to the available coral. I would find a nice big area and just drift around it looking for fish. Saw some very pretty coral and fish. It was still very sunny, so Chuck decided not to go into the water because of the glare.
At 4:30, it was time to head back to the ship. As we were walking back to our boat, a big palm limb fell and hit the sand hard. There was no net in this area. Glad nobody was in the falling path.
I really enjoyed this tour and would recommend the tour company. They took very good care of us. The only thing you need to be aware is that the ladder to get back into the boat from snorkeling was very small so you had to be able to pull yourself up. They could assist you once you were up far enough up the ladder to step into the boat.
Got back to the ship about 5:00. There was a ceremony at the dock. The ship’s Captain was presenting the mayor of the town with a plaque commemorating this visit as the first time the Zuiderdam has ever visited Raiatea. He and the other officers were presented with leis.
Then the Captain and his officers were invited to dance with the native children who were all dressed up. The officers were awkward but they gave it a good try. One little girl, about 5 or 6 years old, just kept shaking her head like she felt sorry for the big men who couldn’t dance. The littlest dancer, about two years old, just hopped to the music and then clapped when the audience clapped. She was adorable.