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French Poly Dancer

Heritage Festival in the Gambiers

Yeah, we made it over 3500nm from Chile to the South Eastern side of French Polynesia.  It certainly wasn’t an easy passage, but it was much better experience than what we later hear from other cruisers. Many crossed from Panama, Mexico, and Ecuador.  Some of them took up to 42 days to cross, but most took around 25 days.  And nobody arrived to the Gambiers Heritage Festival.  If I might be so bold to say…we chose a better route.

We first saw land in the wee hours of the morning.  There are 14 small islands that make up the Gambier archipelago, but there are only 5 that are visited by outsiders.  It was a beautiful site to see this lush hill side.

Arriving Gambiers

Arriving Gambiers

It was smooth sailing until we turned to enter the channel.  The wind was howling at over 30 kts, we were burying the bow of our boat 2-3′ of water and it was a skinny pass between coral reefs.  Thank goodness we have good charts.

Rikitea is the main town of the Gambiers Islands and it is located on Mangareva.  This anchorage was better than the channel, but it was still rolly and we were seeing white caps all around. 90 meters of chain was dropped in 18 meters of water.  We were immediately greeted by fellow cruisers that we had met in Bonaire and Panama.  There were also several boats that we recognized as are part of the Panama Posse, a group we joined to get to know other cruisers heading to French Poly.

Heritage Festival

It was fortuitous that we arrived just in time to participate in the Gambiers Heritage Festival.  We of course did not know what the Heritage Festival entailed, but we did know it was a party or sorts!

The festival actually started the day before we arrived and would last for 4 days.  The entire island is on holiday even the festivities are only in the evenings.  Dancers and musicians from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Hao, Makemo, and Mangareva were competing for prizes.

Regardless, it appears they have learned how to shake their hips in a way that fascinated me.  I too will learn how to do a French Polynesian dance, some day soon!

French Polynesian dancers at Heritage Festival

French Polynesian dancers at Heritage Festival


A theme is designed first, then each dancer creates their own costume. The outfits are made from local plants and flowers and accented with feathers.    So, even though they look similar from afar, up close they are an individual display of beauty. Solo dancers, who were highlighted throughout the night, had their own unique costume that accentuated their beauty.

The women had a variety of costumes as well.  There were at least two women who were singled out in a few dances.


The musicians from each island mostly played a variety of drums.  Or at least what we westerners would call drums, I am sure they had Polynesian names for each instrument.  Each island group had a very different beat and sound making their performances enchanting.

Beautiful dancers at the Heritage Festival

In addition to the variety of dances each night, they had vendors selling their local wares including pearl jewelry, hand carved oyster shells, and Polynesian scarves, hats, and wraps.  What was more surprising was that the majority of the local women all wore pearls.  Either earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hair clips, but something had a pearl in it.  Their every day jewelry.  Surprising when I am used to only seeing pearls at formal events.

At the end of the last day, they had spiritual leaders (standing on rock) ask the dancers to go into the crowd, gather a partner and bring them out to the center area for a dance party.

Group dance at the Heritage Festival

Group dance at the Heritage Festival

Festival Bonus:

In addition to the performances at the Heritage Festival, they also had several booths selling Polynesian items including pearls, clothing, and sundries.

After everyone was done dancing, they fed everyone!  And I mean everyone, all the dancers, performers, locals, cruisers, and tourists.  I completely failed to get a photo of the food, but I promise you, it was unique!

This was a magnificent way to start off our time in French Polynesia.  As if they were welcoming us to their country, their islands, and their homes.  The Heritage Festival will always remind me of the Gambiers.

Mangareva, Gambiers

The Gambier Islands are comprised of 14 islands, but only 5 of which are inhabited.  Mangareva is the largest island comprising 56% of the total land mass in the archipelago and yet it is small.  The total population is around 1,300 and the island is only 6 square miles.  Rikitea is its main town and is where the majority of the population live.  This set of islands lay well over 1,000nm southeast from Tahiti.

Polynesian mythology tells of Mangareva being lifted from the ocean floor by the demi-god Maui. The mountains of Mangareva rise over the surrounding islands and the luminous lagoon like a great cathedral. Although once the center for Catholicism in Polynesia, the people of Mangareva have returned to a more traditional Polynesian lifestyle.

Gambiers Archipelago

Gambiers Archipelago


Many ruins can be found in the main village of Rikitea.  Among these archaeological relics are a convent, a triumphal arch, several watchtowers, a prison, and a court that have survived from the 1800’s.Most of these abandoned remains are dark and eerie feeling.

The island has become an important supply source for the Tahitian cultured pearl industry. With its cool waters and protected reefs, it supplies the majority of the pearls to Tahiti in a magnificent range of colors.

The largest and oldest monument of French Polynesia is the Cathedral Saint Michael of Rikitea.  It was originally built in 1848 and renovated in 2012.

St. Michael Church in Mangareva

This neo-gothic Catholic church was church was constructed of fired limestone and the alter is inlaid with iridescent mother-of-pearl shell.

St. Michael Church Alter

As the cradle of Catholicism in Polynesia, Gambier features hundreds of religious buildings built by missionaries and islanders alike between 1840-70. These include churches, presbyteries, convents, schools and observation towers.

St. Michael’s Church Rectory

Across the path from St. Michael of Rikitea Church is a well-maintained 140-year old rectory, occupied by the parish priest.

St. Michael’s Rectory

Relics in Rikitea

Several archaeological relics can be found by wandering around Rikitea including several watchtowers and some beautiful arches.  Most of these abandoned remains are dark and foreboding.

Rikitea Ruins

St Joseph

St. Joseph was built before 1866.  It might have been a church at one point, but now it is unfortunately rundown relic.  The columns were made of shells and the walls were made of concrete.  To the left of the church are a pair of beautifully carved statues.  Below is a photo Matt and I with a few of our friends from Agape (Josh), and Haylcon (Becca, John, Andrew).

St Joseph Monument

There is one main road around the entire island.  It is shared by pedestrians, trucks, motor bikes, dogs and hogs.

Rikitiea Main Road

Fueling in Rikitea

The island of Rikitea receives a supply ship every 2-3 weeks.  The ship brings in fresh fruits, veggies, fuel, supplies, furniture, boats, and just about anything the island needs.  It also loads up with packages and containers to take back to Tahiti.

After our 3500nm passage from Chile, we desperately needed diesel.  There are three ways you can get fuel.  You can bring your boat up next to the supply ship and a cement dock (not appealing), you can fill jerry cans (we needed 600 liters which would take us days to fill), or you can put a 200-liter barrel into your dinghy and back to your boat.  We opted for the last option.

We ended up buying fuel for 4 boats.  Sugar Shack took 600 liters and Argo, Agape and Halcyon each took 200 liters.  Argo used the jerry can method, but Agape and Halcyon followed in our footsteps by loading the barrel into their dinghies and siphoning into their tanks.  We luckily used our pump and filter, but still the process took over 6 hours (2.5 hours to order 3.5 hours to fill).

Fueling up at Mangareva

There is very little access to wifi on the island.  In fact, there is really only one place where you can find a trace of internet and that is JoJo’s.  Usually, you can sit at the restaurant side of JoJo’s when they are open, but more often than not, they are closed.  When that happens, or when cruisers just can’t afford to eat out, they congregate on the driveway in search of the wee bit of access they can find.

Cruisers internetting

Despite the many days of howling 25kt winds, white caps in the anchorage and rain, we did have some lovely sunsets.

Mother Nature Surprises Us

When you live on a boat, you have to have a high level of respect for Mother Nature.  She can deliver some of the most breathtaking and inspiring views while at the same time sending dangerous and frightening weather.  The anchorage presented us with many gorgeous sunsets

Sunsets at Easter Island

Sunsets at Easter Island

After the 2nd night, we woke up to really rolly and uncomfortable conditions.  We were still at anchor, but it was awful.  The supply ship had already left, but the National Geographic ship was loading passengers (or at least trying).  The port captain hailed each of the 10 sailboats on the VHF.  They told us that the port would be closed for several days and that we should evacuate the anchorage.  What?  Crap!

Changing Anchorages to VinaPu

We all slowly made our way around the island to a more protected anchorage.  The only problem with the new anchorage is that there is no easy way to get to shore.  Shoot, there goes our island tour.

Not a particularly pretty anchorage either.  This is where the fuel container ship comes to provide fuel to the island.  So, we looked at huge fuel tanks on shore.  We stayed here overnight and decided we needed to go ashore the next day.  Lots to do: provision, get gasoline, and clear out of the country as our visas were expiring.  We found a semi protected area near a platform with a ladder.  We tossed out a stern anchor and crawled our way to shore.  Managing to stay mostly dry.

Luckily, we were able to get everything done that we needed.  But, because the port was closed and access to shore was challenging, we decided to leave a day early.  Much to my disappointment.  We did not get to see the largest MOAI or the largest grouping of MOAI (15).  But what we did see, we loved.  This is a spectacular island!