Before I go further, I should be a little clearer about the ship. First, while it is definitely no Kon-Tiki, nor is it one of those floating cities with casinos, piano bars and twenty-four-hour restaurants. Banish all thoughts of shuffleboard. The Ti‘a Moana has only thirty cabins and carries a maximum of sixty passengers. Size on a boat is directly correlated to intimacy, and the Ti‘a Moana is lodged at just the right spot on the graph between the claustrophobia of a small yacht and the anonymity of a large liner. It is also, thanks to the fact that Tahiti has been touted around the world as the planet’s ultimate paradise, a sort of floating paean to globalism. Though there were only forty of us the week I was onboard, we represented France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Australia, the United States and Canada.
The most interesting thing about the ship, though, is who’s behind it. Development, design, ownership, operations—it’s all been handled by one person: Mehiti Degage, a young French-Tahitian woman, scion of a shipping magnate. Mehiti started out running ferries between Tahiti and Moorea and dreaming of creating something, as she puts it, "completely new and different, intimate, nomadic." She wanted to fashion an experience that would offer an authentic immersion in Polynesian landscapes and culture; given her country’s history and her family’s background, she was also more than a little aware that something singular happens when you combine Tahiti and ships (these islands gave birth, remember, to many of the Pacific’s great voyaging canoes).
Flush with ideas, Mehiti collaborated on the design of two sister vessels: the Ti‘a Moana and the Tu Moana. She filled both with Tahitian and Marquesan art and artifacts. Then she designed their voyages, crafting an excursion that passes through a quartet of islands: Raiatea, Taha‘a, Huahine and Bora Bora, each a world unique unto itself. Raiatea is French Polynesia’s most sacred island, the spot where many of the trans-Pacific voyaging canoes set sail. Taha‘a is a fertile land of plenty, the main source of the country’s vanilla crop. Huahine is famed for its archaeological sites and Eden-like vistas. And Bora Bora—well, it is the supermodel of the world’s islands, a place where the intensity of the beauty makes reality feel completely unreal. And it is here—fantasy island ground zero—that my journey on the ship begins.