Project Description


by Nicholas Shakespeare

I know, now, what I’m going to do when I become so wealthy that I don’t know what to do. I’m going to charter the Ti’a Moana for a week’s “yachting” in Tahiti and invite along my family and friends.

It is difficult in measured terms to convey the perfection of the Ti’a Moana. The boat at first glance – shark’s tooth white, across a bay of impossible blue – evokes one of those Bond-movie vessels you imagine being owned by a maniacal cat-lover intent on global domination. Twelve feet shorter (at 226 feet) and one year older (she was built in Fremantle in 2003), she recalls the now-infamous yacht of Oleg Deripaska. And yet it would not surprise if the luxury fleetingly enjoyed by Messrs Mandelson and Osborne on the Queen K is of inferior stripe. The Russian oligarch fields a crew of 21 for 16 guests, according to Our group of 15 are set to be pampered by a staff of 25, including a French chef, Laurent Luttringer, whose “godfather” in his final exam was none other than Paul Bocuse.

Nonetheless, we step on board apprehensive. Who will be the other guests? How will we fill the days? And this being the week of October 11th – what shall we find upon our return? The lifejacket drill prompts our photographer suddenly to remember that her great-uncle went down with the Titanic. A century on, the chief difference is this: the world is sinking around us. The backdrop to our cruise around Bora Bora and the four islands of the Leeward Group is what the Wall Street Journal bills “the Dow’s worst week in its 112-year history”. You need go back to the South Sea Bubble of 1720 for a comparable crash. A fitting place to be afloat, then, the South Pacific – out of internet range while stocks plunge like flying fish into 14,000 miles of largely empty ocean.

The art of perfection is also the art of being out of touch.  Not even the Emir of Qatar, when he chartered the Ti’a Moana recently for $3 million dollars was able to watch his own channel, Al Jazeera: he had to pay an extra $250,000 for a satellite feed to his cabin (as well as have two bathrooms specially widened to accommodate his corpulent entourage). In our cabins, we make do with a single TV channel on which is played endlessly the tape of a grainy French documentary featuring girls in grass skirts gyrating the hula-hula, and plunging into waterfalls (“unlike the Europeans, the Tahitians take pleasure in washing”). I recall my brother-in-law’s summary of his honeymoon, on terra firma, in Bora Bora: “Boring boring.” But any worries swiftly dissipate that we are doomed to the same repetition. I do my hardest to avoid exaggeration when I say that after a day and a half on the Ti’a Moana you are content to forget that the rest of the world exists.

Such perfection is not cheap (“You give me forty million Euros, I will give you the key,” French captain Boris Piel smiles of his ship). And it’s best not enjoyed on your own or if you’re in a rocky relationship. As Lin, our Tai-Chi instructress, says on the beach one morning: “Wherever you go, if you harbour bad energy inside you, you won’t see the good in things.” You come aboard the Ti’a Moana to celebrate a relationship, not to fix it. Tahiti is a révélateur,” warns Patrick Picard-Robson, in charge of the boat’s publicity. “You come here – and suddenly you are in front of yourself. For couples it can be very destroying. You come all this way {a 24-hour flight from London} and you discover you like it or you don’t.” The actor Eddie Murphy was married on Bora Bora on New Year’s Day 2008, but his marriage did not endure his honeymoon. Hence the local saying: Honeymoon in Bora Bora – divorce senorita. The Ti’a Maona would appear to exert an opposite effect: “People are crying when they leave. You say, ‘Oh no, you exaggerate.’ But it’s true.” The one-week “Nomade Yachting” experience, as Picard-Robson promotes it, is dedicated to reflecting back your most flattering self-image; and giving to each “guest”, as you are called, the illusion that this is your personal yacht, with enough spaces to be by yourself and a staff whose service is never less than seamless. “We are not cruising, we are yachting as nomads from one to another place. A cruise boat is 300 people with loudspeakers giving the programme, with a queue to several restaurants. Here, you are like at home. You do what you want when you want. That’s our big motto. If you sleep all day, you sleep all day.” It offers, in other words, a shimmeringly unreal and ever-shifting respite from what Martha Gellhorn dubbed “the kitchen of life”.

Our group comprises eight honeymooners and two couples marking wedding anniversaries. Ziggy from Cologne was impelled to the South Pacific with her Australian geologist husband of 25 years by a popular German song – and she starts moving her hips:

Hey Bora Bora, Bora Bora in Tahiti hey

my paradise in the summer wind,

where all people are happy…

Two of the honeymoon couples are Italian. They include Claudio and Irene from Milan, who saw the Ti’a Maona advertised on the American Express website. Claudio, a construction millionaire, has that certain cast to the eye which comes when a man has had to sell his own 26-metre yacht, because his new wife is prone to sea-sickness; and to remove from the wall of his country retreat the stuffed heads he has proudly shot, because she is anti-blood sport.

“I’m a sheep hunter,” he explains

“Is that dangerous?”

“No, no,” and puts a hand on my arm. “They see you from 600 metres away and they run off.”

His speciality is big-horned sheep. “I have shot everything in Africa, Mexico, Iran. All 26 species.”

Their heads are mounted in a separate hunting room where Irene, an abdominal surgeon, does not go.

“What’s the most important head in your collection?”

“The Marco Polo. Its horns are 2.5 metres if they could be uncurled. I shot it in Kajikistan.”

“What’s Kajikistan like?”

“I don’t know. I go in by helicopter, I shoot the sheep and I come home.”

“You must have led a spectacular single life,” I reflect.

He looks me dead in the eye. “It was spectacular.”

As well, there’s a young English couple in conscious emulation of Paul Gauguin when he fled “civilised” Europe. James and Zoe work for respective banks in Singapore and wanted to come for their honeymoon to a place as far from England as they could find. To judge from their joint expressions following their “Jacuzzi Extravaganza” – 90 minutes on the private forward deck immersed in a foaming hot-tub with frangipani petals, chocolate truffles and a chilled bottle of Moet – they have found what they were seeking. James sits facing the wake with his new bride, gaping speechlessly at the lagoon scrolling by. The sunlight falls on passing coconut palms and intense green hills, purging them of shadow; and along the line of reef, a long slow furl of surf, white and rough, is like the fresh cut page of a book. “When you look at a magazine, you think how much is real, how much artistic license, but this – it’s completely wonderful. Hertfordshire’s nice, but it’s not here.”

Tahiti. That place on the fringe of the map – “not larger than the dung of a fly” in a chieftain’s phrase – of which we murmur to ourselves: “One day…” But accepting in all likelihood that we will reach there only in our dreams.

It was in dream-like terms that the painter Henri Matisse viewed one such lagoon when, ordered to take a complete rest, he arrived in 1930 on the battered English mailboat, Tahiti, with a sullen captain, abysmal food and a bunch of Australian sheep farmers. “It is as if the light were immobilised forever,” he revelled. “It is as if life were frozen in a magnificent stance.” He used the words pulpy, pithy and caressing to evoke the sunlight – and reckoned that it felt like plunging your eye into a goblet.

But it’s the colour of the water that stays in the mind. To Matisse, the sea was a talismanic blue – “a blue like the blue of the morpho butterfly”. The Tahitians call it ninamu. It’s a colour virtually impossible to describe: a kingfisher blue, at the same time not unreminiscent of the azure left behind in toilet bowls by Sani-flush.

To penetrate this blue, Matisse swam underwater with locally made wooden goggles. James and I seize the opportunity instead to go scuba-diving. We are both neophytes, but with the assistance of our guide Morgan (who previously serviced oil pipes in Namibia to a depth of 130 metres), we spend a matchless half-hour gliding down through “that undersea light which is like a second sky,” as Matisse put it; over brain-shapes of coral; over a black sea slug, inert and dark like one of Alistair Darling’s eyebrows; over shoals of strange tapering fish that scissor apart in a thousand flashing shreds, a wedding-dress cut up; and then come together, as though after an argument, in harmony again.

I never thought I would know what it is to fly as one does in the drunken world of dreams, sometimes backward, sometimes forward, sometimes with difficulty and sometimes with no difficulty at all. But in those 26 minutes, I forgot everything. I felt part of something supernaturally larger. I became a fish.

We surface at the same time. James removes his goggles, shakes his head. “I’ve run out of superlatives.”

Why are Tahiti and her 117 islands not better known to us? Of 218, 024 visitors in 2007, only 6,233 were from the UK, of whom 1,715 took a cruise. And yet I can’t think of a place as remote that is redolent of so many familiar British characters. Captain Cook visited twice; as did Captain Bligh and Christian Fletcher, whose fellow Bounty mutineers took off with twelve Tahitian women (much like the actor who played him, Marlon Brando, who not only married a Tahitian, but bought himself a Tahitian island, Tetiaroa). Charles Darwin was here – “Tahiti is an island which must forever remain classical to the voyager in the South Seas” – as were Rupert Brooke, who wove scarlet flowers in his hair and got sunburnt, and Somerset Maugham, who in a dilapidated bungalow discovered three glass panels painted by Gauguin, and bought them for song. In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson arrived on the Casco, a 94-foot luxury yacht, costing $500 per month. “I did not dream that there were such places or such races.” He counted the two months he spent in Tahiti as among the happiest of his short life:

I threw one look to either hand,

And knew I was in Fairyland.

If Gauguin and Jacques Brel (who arrived in 1974 on his 60-foot yacht Askoy) popularised to the francophone world what in 1880 became French Polynesia – painter and singer lie buried in the same cemetery – it is the English who take credit for discovering Tahiti, and for sowing the legend of a sub-tropical Island of Venus.

Until it was published in 1948, George Robertson’s journal had lain unopened in the PRO for 180 years. I read in my cabin the account by the master of the 130-foot Dolphin, who was deceived into thinking he had sighted the shores of the fabled “Southern Continent” and ordered to keep mum about its position, when all he had done was to discover Tahiti.

The island observed by Robertson in 1767 had “the most beautiful appearance it’s possible to imagine”; but of greater allure were the young women. Their openness in sleeping with Europeans, whom they believed to be superhuman, was characterised by one peculiarity. “All of them seemed most fond of nails.”

What Robertson called “the price of the old trade” was fixed at ”a thirty-penny nail each time”. But within two weeks, calamity. The girls had raised their price to a “nine-inch spike”. The carpenter informed Robertson that “every cleat in the ship was drawn, and all the nails carried off” – the Dolphin was in danger of disintegrating.

Next to arrive were the French, who called it New Cythera, after the island where Aphrodite rose from the sea – and consolidated the tradition of unabashed fornication that is reflected in the book titles: Isles of Eden, Terre de Plaisir, Island Girls I have Loved; Les Illes ou l’on meurt d’Amour; and the most influential, The Marriage of Loti, a romance about an English sailor on the Reindeer and his lavender-eyed Tahitian sweetheart. Gauguin read it and in 1893 caught a boat out.

Gauguin would today consider it a breath-robbing irony that his Tahitian images are used to decorate the cabins of the national airline and that the region’s largest cruise ship is named after him. When he died of syphilis in 1901, mad, poor and reviled – his last painting held upside down and sold as the Niagara Falls for seven francs – the local bishop branded him “an enemy of God and everything that is decent in this world.”

At breakfast on the rear deck, the temptation is resisted to ask the honeymooners if they slept well.

I turn to the only other person sitting on their own. “Was the cabin OK?”

Robert Shepherd has taken one of the yacht’s two suites. Over breakfast – Laurent’s unimprovable Eggs Benedict, watermelon juice and yunnan tea from Mariage Frères – I learn that Shepherd was himself once the chef on a Mexican yacht, before it was sold, crew and all, to the co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, who promptly elevated Shepherd to serve as his right-hand man. Today, Shepherd works for Edmiston, a company selling and chartering yachts. In his current “Winter Escapes” brochure, I read that I might buy the Russian yacht Red Square for E63.5m – or this winter charter the Ti’a Moana for E240,000 per week.

“This is an exceptional yacht,” affirms the quiet-spoken Shepherd, who used to play Scrabble with Bill Gates (who would wipe him out with 7-letter words). “If you look at this room, it would have been so easy to have done it without the mother-of-pearl inlay or the eighteen different types of wood. The deck furniture is Dedon – the best, most expensive. Then there’s the art work throughout the boat. This is driven by quality. And it’s strongest in the suites. Mine has ostrich skin and suede, and the finish on the closets is the same on the inside as out.” He repeats: “This is a unique boat,” and his eyes go on another tour of the room. “I don’t think there’s a commercially-run vessel that operates with such an interior like this or beautiful feeling in the detail.”

The Dolphin’s interior was painted scarlet, so any blood spilled during action might not contrast too vividly with surrounding paintwork. R.L. Stevenson’s yacht, the Casco, belonged to a Californian physician, and was so luxurious – gold panels, crimson carpets, velvet seats – that Tahitians called her Pahi Muni: silver ship. By contrast, the colours change every night on the Ti’a Moana: Tuesdays are black, Saturdays blue, Thursdays red. The themed evenings, like practically everything else on board, are the vision of the yacht’s Tahitian’s owner, 43-year old Mehiti Degage.

If there is one person responsible for the most remarkable cruise you are likely to go on, it is her. I don’t know what madness or childhood obsession has possessed Madame Degage to sink her wealth and energies into the Ti’a Maona.( “To share is a Polynesian attitude,” her captain explains loyally. “She wants you to have a unique experience in Polynesia.”). Nor am I certain how the math works out – “She’s not a good mathematician,” quips one of her assistants; but then, as the daughter of French Polynesia’s leading shipping magnate, she doesn’t need to be.

Ti’a Maona means “to stand on the sea,” but the yacht in fairness should be called Mehiti. The concept and design are hers; the interior decoration (in co-coordination with Swedish-based Tilberg Design); the Polynesian sculptures and photographs, the blue wine glasses from Los Angeles; the fresh flowers and Tahitian soaps in the bathroom (“Nature’s Best, for the Beauty of Your Body”); even that grainy documentary, eternally playing (“Tahiti is unlike anywhere else, where time goes by without life’s many punishments”). Everywhere your eye settles, you sense Mehiti’s fingerprints. “She is very hands on,” acknowledges Captain Boris, rubbing his chin. “She rings all the time, three times a day, to three different people. ‘How is everything? The people are happy? Is it clean?’ I’m surprised she hasn’t rung by now.”

One of my regrets is that I never get to meet the elusive and obsessive Madame Degage, but I salute her for the mood she has created among her passengers.

And so we sail on, in our Bond-like unreality. We snorkel; we kayak; we visit a vanilla farm, and a temple where human victims – known as Long Legged Fish – were strung up through their heads with sinnet and suspended alternately with large real fish upon the boughs of trees; we graze like big-horned sheep on Laurent’s peerless sushi.

“This is close to perfection,” exhales Ziggy. “That feeling of going to bed and waking up somewhere else, like a dream. We’re spoiled for life.”