The writer (left) up close with stingrays // © 2016 Cameron Longshaw
Feature image (above): Wind Spirit sails to several islands in French Polynesia, such as Bora Bora. // © 2016 Windstar Cruises
I stood waist-deep in the ocean while several stingrays silently glided by; one even brushed my leg. I wasn’t afraid, though — I was captivated.
I was in Bora Bora, participating in one of Windstar Cruises’ special shore excursions during the seven-day “Dreams of Tahiti” itinerary onboard the Wind Spirit sailing yacht. Our guide, Roberto, informed us that stingrays don’t sting unless they are provoked. As he assuaged our fears and encouraged me to pat one, Roberto slowly broke off pieces of tuna and suet to give to the rays, who were behaving like puppies looking for a snack.
I reached out to touch a passing stingray and felt its sleek, wet skin.
“You see?” Roberto said. “They are very friendly.”
So is the entire crew of Wind Spirit, a 440-foot-long, four-masted ship that doubled as my home for the week.
Wind Spirit is sailing in the wake of its sister ship, Wind Song, which sailed Tahiti itineraries in the 1990s until it was destroyed in a fire in 2002.
The recent acquisition of three motor yachts from Seabourn allowed the company to dedicate a year-round ship in Tahiti again in 2014, when Wind Spirit began operating seven-, 10- and 11-day cruises, all roundtrip Papeete.
Life onboard the 148-guest Wind Spirit is luxurious, but in a quiet, understated way. The ship features a pool, a hot tub, a small library and even a casino. The boat’s four decks are made of teak, which is unusual on a vessel of its size. Each cabin has an ocean view, a queen bed, a flat-screen television with a DVD player and Bose SoundDock speakers. There are two dining venues: Amphora, which offers gourmet, course-by-course cuisine in the evenings, and Veranda, which features a casual buffet and full-service dining for breakfast and lunch.
The stingray encounter I chose is just one of many Polynesian experiences available on the trip, which visits islands including Moorea, Tahaa, Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora. Other shore excursions and activities range from kayaking and Jet-Ski rides to drift snorkeling, island tours and a laid-back glass-bottom boat ride. All are carefully graded as easy, moderate or strenuous for passenger comfort and safety.
During another excursion, I went snorkeling at a pearl farm just off the coast of Raiatea. We took a skiff out to an overwater reef house, donned snorkeling gear and, with the help of a guide, dove for oysters that were strategically placed for easy picking. Back in the reef house, we watched the pearl “surgeon” open and extract a black pearl.
During the cruise, the ship’s executive chef took a small group of us on a tour of a local market to show us how he buys local produce. Later that day, he went out with some local fishermen who caught that night’s dinner the old-fashioned way: with a spear.
Every Windstar cruise features a private event; ours was an evening cookout on one of the smaller islands of Bora Bora. After dinner, we were treated to traditional fire dancing before returning to the ship.
Back to the stingrays: No one believes I actually swam with them without getting stung. My friends think it’s a tall tale fueled by too many tropical drinks. But I know better. I even have photos to prove it, including one of a stingray up close to my face as Roberto lures it toward me with a treat.