MARY CROWLEY, THE FOUNDER of Sausalito, California-based Ocean Voyages, a specialty charter yacht company that offers custom itineraries on more than 350 boats worldwide, started sailing the Great Lakes with her grandfather when she was four years old. At 18, she set out for the big blue, captaining boats worldwide, and in 1979 started Ocean Voyages. At age 52, Crowley has logged more than 70,000 miles at seaa majority of them sailing the Pacific. To give your own wanderlust a nudge, we enlisted Crowley to provide us with her six favorite South Seas sailing destinations.
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This is bliss: paradise a la Bora-Bora
Mangareva, Gambier Islands
Crowley's draw to the Gambier chain is basic: Almost no one else travels to the "Forgotten Islands" 1,100 miles southeast of Tahiti. With its volcanic peaks, white-sand beaches, black-pearl farms, and a lagoon with ten uninhabited cays enclosed on three sides by a barrier reef, the principal island of Mangareva, says Crowley, is the ideal place to access virgin territory from a boat. Step off the one weekly flight from Papeete, Tahiti, and Mark Mensing will be docked nearby with his 48-foot trimaran Bold Spirit, which has a platform for launching kayaks, scuba dives, and snorkeling forays.
Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora-Bora
"These islands are everybody's prototypical image of the South Pacific," says Crowley. The best way to soak in the emerald peaks and azure lagoons of the "Islands Under the Wind" is to take a 14-day voyage from Huahine to Raiatea to Tahaa to Bora-Bora. Start in the tiny village of Fare, its quay lined with a little row of shops, then sail three to five hours, 20 miles west, to Raiatea. Anchor in the island's protected lagoon and snorkel in technicolor madness. Then sail four miles north to visit the famed vanilla plantations of Tahaa. From there it's a four- to six-hour sail 25 miles northwest to Bora-Bora, with its still-ample secluded anchorages. To sail in luxurious decadence, try the Symphonia, a 112-foot yacht that sleeps ten. The 50-foot catamaran Fai Manu is run by a French-Italian captain who's been living in the islands for 20 years.
Tonga is the Cuba of the South Pacific. "I have memories of rowing ashore and following the music to a group of villagers who were rehearsing for a dance performance," says Crowley. Ruled by the oldest and last remaining of the Polynesian monarchies, and comprising 150 islands, Tonga also has some of the most consistent winds in the South Pacific, especially between the Vava'u and Ha'apai island groups. Spend six days exploring the 30 islets and isolated anchorages of Vava'u, making sure to include the jaw-dropping sail up the seven-mile Ava Pulepulekai Channel into the Port of Refuge on Vava'u island. Its tiny town, Neiafu, is surrounded by brilliant-green crenelated peaks. From Neiafu, it's a one-day sail southwest to the Ha'apai group, which is composed of 50 low-lying islands. Beware: Sailing here is for experienced seafarers only. The 51-foot Impetuous has an expert crew from New Zealand.
Espíritu Santo, Vanuatu
At 1,420 square miles, Espíritu Santo is Vanuatu's largest island. This Melanesian nub offers serious scuba diving and snorkeling centered around two sites: the SS President Coolidge, the largest diveable wreck in the world, and Million Dollar Point, where U.S. forces dumped their entire stock of war matériel. From Espíritu Santo, experienced sailors can set out on a one- to two-day, 90-mile voyage north to the Banks and Torres Islands. Virtually untouched by the outside world, these islands have only a handful of residents. Having sailed these waters for years, the 145-foot classic square-rigger Soren Larsen has built a trusting relationship with the islanders, and often provides them with gifts and supplies.
The world's smallest self-governing state, set between the Cook Islands and Tonga, 100-square-mile Niue is one paradise not to pass up. In addition to wild orchids at every turn, the island has some of the largest coastal limestone caverns in the South Pacific, with stalactites and stalagmites forming monster jaws you can walk between. The six-day, 680-mile, open-ocean sail from Rarotonga isn't for the faint of heart, but once you arrive, Niueans will invite you into their homes and show you how to pick the best coconuts. Three vessels make this voyage: Mensing's Bold Spirit; the 56-foot Emotional Rescue, a custom, high-performance racing cutter; and the 56-foot New Zealand-built Gallivant.
The cosmopolitan French cultural center of Nouméa, on the southwest coast, is an ideal jumping-off spot for two prime sailing destinations: the Isle of Pines and the Loyalty Islands. Some 62 miles southeast of New Caledonia, the 11-mile-long Isle of Pines has stunning white-sand beaches, especially at Kuto Bay and the Kanumera Coves. The four Loyalty Islands, Uvéa, Lifou, Tiga, and Maré, spaced within 30 miles of one another, provide a perfect island-hopping itinerary. The Soren Larsen, 90-foot R. Tucker Thompson, and 84-foot Firebird all sail here.