Exploring French Polynesia Aboard A 164-Foot Luxury Sailing Yacht

Take in the South Pacific archipelago’s aquatic wildlife, ancient volcanic rock temples, and idyllic sunsets during an unforgettable voyage.

(Tom Fowlks)

It is during the deep night of the South Pacific when you’re most overwhelmed by potential. You’d think the daytime—with the sun shining bright in the cerulean sky above, sparking the unspeakably blue water below like voltage—would be the apex of your daily routine. But there are moments in the small hours of the evening sailing the waters of French Polynesia that nearly burst your heart with promise, where the wild curiosity of adventure and exploration peak.

Here in the darkness the white canvas sails of the “Panorama II” snap overhead, pulling the twin-mast luxury yacht ever north to our next island in the Society Islands archipelago. The sky inky black, its mantle sprayed painted with an impossible collection of glittering stars; the wolf moon high overhead paints the frothy wave tips in purple light.

“We drank barrels of rum punch while gorging ourselves on the ceviche of Polynesian kings.”

(Costas Spathis)

Gently the boat lolls over each swell as the heavy, warm air—paradoxically both salty and sweet like ripe mangos—fills your happy lungs. We lay on the lounge chairs of the upper deck, quietly sipping our Campari and sodas, listening to the water splash against the hull of the boat, the groan of the sails, and the occasional creaking of a stretched winch.

Far across the deck Constantine Venetopoulos, the third-generation scion of the family-run Variety Cruises, summons another ripple of laughter from a group of guests. But my trusted photographer Tom and I sit in silence. We’ve traveled the globe together on several literal adventures over the decades; we don’t need to say a word. We close our eyes and take in the silence of the night. The breeze flutters the Greek flag overhead, the humid equatorial air a warm blanket on our skin.

(Costas Spathis)

This is the seventh night of our excursion across the Society Islands of French Polynesia aboard the “Panorama II”—a 164-foot sailing yacht operated by Variety Cruises, a proudly Greek endeavor celebrating its 75th year guiding guests ever deeper into far-flung destinations across the globe.

Nearing the end of our ten-day voyage across this remote archipelago, the mood is that familiar traveler’s contradiction of pleasured reminiscence of the beauty you’ve witnessed over the past week, blended seamlessly with the inevitable melancholia from realizing this wondrous adventure will soon end.

(Tom Fowlks)

You think about how it all began: weathering a torrent as we lifted anchor from Papeete, wondering if we’d even be able to set sail. Then that inaugural morning waking up in Mo’orea and walking to the sundeck for the first time. Volcanic mountains spike from the water, the tallest crowned in rings of cotton mist. They’re almost threatening, like the jagged teeth of a predator’s maw. From these dramatic apexes a thick carpet of tropical forest spills down to the sea; houses dot the shore and crawl up into the verdant hills. Everything is sapphire, emerald and white.

Or taking a dingy to a deserted beach on Huahine, where a fisherman emerged from the mangrove on a rowboat with his wife and nursing baby. A freshwater stream trickled from the dark jungle to the waiting ocean, the land fertile and raw. Later we’d take a tour boat through the channel that divides Huahine into two islands, seeing for the first time slices of that electric blue water that defines this archipelago.

(Tom Fowlks)

At a distant motu, or islet, a man so giant he blocked out the sun squeezed hand-shredded coconut through tree bark that looked like cheesecloth, dripping his homemade coconut milk into a carved wooden bowl filled with raw tuna, cabbage, carrots and lime. We drank barrels of rum punch while gorging ourselves on the ceviche of Polynesian kings.

Variety is not a cruise in the traditional Royal Caribbean sense: some floating city with water parks, a dozen pools, Olympian amphitheaters and 35 restaurants. The “Panorama II” is more like a floating five-star hotel suite, a secure teleportation chamber where you fall asleep in Faie Bay and awake in Vaitape. And this is how Variety wants it.

(Costas Spathis)

Headline destinations like Bora Bora, Tahiti and Mo’orea might be the stars, but there’s a lot to be said about the smaller unknown islands you drop anchor by along the way. Unpolished gems like Raiatea, Taha’a and Huahine—an island so unpopulated it doesn’t contain a hospital, post office or supermarket. While it is home to sacred blue-eyed freshwater eels, it doesn’t even claim a high school.

Unlike planes or ferries, sailing on a luxury yacht like the “Panorama II” injects your blood with a unique discovery narcotic the instant you awake and run out your cabin door, eager to see the new landscape that will define your day. While there are some constants among the Society Islands, each piece of land and its waters are singular: the height of the mountains, the level of vegetation, the shape of the bay and particular hue of its electromagnetic waters.

“When my father was on his death bed, in Greek he told us he wanted us to go deeper into the destination,” Constantine shares one morning when asked what he learned most from his dad, Lakis. We’re walking the shores of Teti’aroa, a paradisiac atoll best known for being the erstwhile home of Marlon Brando. With the exception of the legendary The Brando resort located on a motu all the way across the crystalline lagoon, no human lives here for another 20 miles.

“So I think it’s not about just touching the surface of a destination,” he continues, our footprints on the sugar sand beach the only sign of human existence. “If you manage to really know where to take your guests and how to show them the history of a place, then you’ve accomplished your goal.”

(Tom Fowlks)

The story of Variety Cruises itself is a gilded one, a tale that begins just after WWII with Constantine’s grandfather—a self-taught linguist, poet and artist. Obsessed with mastering ancient Greek, Diogenis Venetopoulos leveraged his academic knowledge to earn a job as a guide in Athens.

Unsatisfied with simply showing tourists major sites like the Acropolis, in 1949 Diogenis started organizing his own trips on rented fishing boats to expose intrepid travelers to more remote destinations like Delos. Slowly but steadily building his following, in 1968 Diogenis finally squirreled away enough money to build his own boat: The “Eleftherios.” On this humble wooden caique he was finally able to execute trips exactly the way he could only dream about for two decades.

In 1978 Diogenis passed the reins of the business to his son Lakis, who quickly magnified his father’s dreams by building “Zeus,” Variety’s first steel-hulled boat. Soon others followed, these SOLAS certified craft allowing Variety to double its season; in 1996 “Galileo” was the first to sail the Aegean in the summer and the Seychelles during the winter.

Over the ensuing decades Lakis’ ambitious vision conquered ever more territory, building additional steel boats—including the opulent 223-foot “Voyager” superyacht flagship—and expanding to such destinations as West Africa, Iceland, Panama, Jordan and Egypt. Last winter Variety began touring French Polynesia; this was its inaugural voyage.

(Costas Spathis)

Naturally there are sacrifices made when plumbing the edges of civilization. For instance spotty WiFi only at major islands makes work challenging. At first this data void aggravates, frustrating your modern impulses. But after a day or two you welcome the divorce. Disconnecting fully may be the best secondary effect of these open-water cruises.

Pulling the plug from your laptop and phone, lulling your Operating System into returning to its organic state. You begin noticing the Tropic of Cancer triggering its own daily alarms and calendar notifications. Up on the sundeck, for instance, every evening at 6:30 pm sharp the trusty picture show starts. As Jack London refers to it in his book “South Sea Tales,” “The crashing sunrises of raw colors spread with lawless cunning.” This you now understand.

There are moments where the wild curiosity of adventure and exploration reach their peak.

(Costas Spathis)

Here is when you take stock of the day, of the ancient black volcanic rock temples, or sacred “maraes,” you explored. Of the happy dance of ukuleles that rang through the air at any random moment, plucked by the fingers of some stout tattooed warrior. You recollect the sting rays, black-tip reef sharks and eels you swam alongside. Breathing deep the scent of the trade winds, your eyes open wide in a hopeless attempt to absorb and process the entire kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and even purples that blaze across the horizon.

As we’re only some 1,100 miles from the equator, in 90-minutes or so both the northern and southern constellations will join the Milky Way for the late-night show. But plenty of time for that later, you think, there are cold Hinanos to drink. A snow-white tropicbird pierces the viewpoint, and settles on the Greek flag nearby. You wonder what tomorrow morning’s going to look like.

(Tom Fowlks)

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Maxim magazine.

Follow Deputy Editor Nicolas Stecher on Instagram at @nickstecher and @boozeoftheday.