The time had finally come for us to arrive in one of the destinations we’d been most looking forward to for our entire trip: French Polynesia.
We left New Zealand on the morning of Ian’s 30th birthday, March 22nd, and as the product of yet another crossing of the date line, we arrived in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, on March 21st. A convenient excuse to celebrate Ian’s 30th a second time, a day later, which is something we suppose most people don’t get the chance to do.
As soon as we arrived, we knew we were going to enjoy our time here. We cruised through the city, described variously as “not nice” or “the worst part of French Polynesia”, but we found it quite charming, with quite a few colonial style buildings, and evidence of people simply enjoying life. We spent one night at a guest house we found on Airbnb with preparations for leaving to an island group the following day.
French Polynesia, to the uninitiated, can be overwhelming. The options are practically limitless, with countless archipelagos stretching over 2000km in the South Pacific. We didn’t really know where we wanted to go, but had identified at least a few archipelagos that we would like to visit. Unfortunately, Air Tahiti holds a monopoly on quick transport in the islands, so you end up paying a premium for the service.
After poring over a map of the islands, and consulting the Internet for accommodation on such places, we settled on the atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago, an hour or so’s flight from Papeete. We found a lovely little pension, Pension Bounty, and the owner, Alain was responsive to our emails and said he would pick us up from the airport the following day. Rangiroa, and the Tuamotus in general, are known for some of the best diving spots in the entire world, so many of the visitors to these parts come for the diving.
We descended to the idyllic lagoon below, and touched down in an all but gentle fashion on the short tarmac at the Rangiroa airport, which is actually little more than a fenced off stretch of concrete and an open air building serving as the terminal. Alain showed up several minutes later, and whisked us off down the one road, straddling the narrow swath of land between the ocean and the lagoon. He stopped by Six Passengers, an excellent local dive shop, operated by a handful of relocated French (there are lots of French people here, as the island group technically belongs to France). We organized dives for the following day. Oona is a certified rescue diver, but Ian had never even donned a wetsuit before, so the experience levels between us differed wildly.
Oona went straight to the ocean side with an experienced group of divers, while Ian stuck to the lagoon where the currents are minimal and the depths are palatable. Oona came along for Ian’s first dive, which was relatively uneventful. Ian found diving quite to his liking though, and apparently didn’t suck at it, so several more dives were booked for the following day.
After two more dives in the lagoon the following day, Ian was ready to venture to the ocean as well, but not before Oona had the dive of her life. It was their first dive of the day on the ocean side again when a pod of dolphins approached them. One particularly bold dolphin swam right up to play with the divers, turning on its back, inviting belly scratches and pets from all angles. It closed its eyes and was clearly enjoying its time in a shockingly human-like fashion. The dolphin swam with the divers for a bit longer before finally bidding farewell, but its presence was replaced by an adorable adolescent sea turtle, frolicking this way and that with its newfound human companions. To top it off, the divers even saw a manta ray and a handful of sharks. An experience not easily forgotten, to be sure. A fellow diver on this dive, and many of the others, was a professional submarine photographer by the name of Bernard Beaussier, who was kind enough to share his stunning photos with us.
For the last dive of the day, we all set out to the ocean side, but the two groups were dropped off at different areas. Oona’s group, comprised of the experienced bunch, did a particularly deep dive of more than 40m down to a submarine plateau where sharks are known to hang out. Many were seen in the depths indeed, including a particularly large hammerhead, which was probably the highlight of the dive.
Ian’s group was dropped off a bit closer to land, but they descended to a surprising depth of 27m and skirted the passage back towards the lagoon. Ian’s ears had trouble coping with the pressure, and some minor damage was evident as they resurfaced. Unfortunately this stopped him from diving for a few days, and it sounds like the feet-first technique practiced by divers with sensitive ears is the best way forward for him.
Oona, unhindered by such issues, continued to dive for the days that Ian rested. No dive equaled swimming with the dolphins, but pretty much every one in this area is sure to reward the senses, and these were no exceptions.
Other than diving, we spent our days wandering along the several hundred meters of coral and palm trees between the ocean and the lagoon, relaxing, and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters. We rode bikes up and down the main road, from time to time, reveling in the island lifestyle that defines the place.
During our last few days on the island, we sought to figure out our next destination, and in typical fashion, we found ourselves in a bit of a bind. It was just coming around to Easter, and apparently such holidays are taken quite seriously around here, so flights and accommodation were startlingly booked up. With our other preferences totally unviable, we booked our last resort, which was tickets to Bora Bora. Bora Bora, as we’d heard, was the epicenter of all things resorty in French Polynesia, and so we somewhat wanted to avoid it, aside from perhaps a night or two just to check it off. With that set in stone, we at least had rough plans, and the first step was to head back to Moorea via Tahiti to spend a few days before our trip to the leeward Society Islands.
We had an overnight stop in Tahiti before taking the Aremiti ferry out to Moorea. We sat at a streetside bar with some draught beers in the center of Papeete before we headed to the vacant lot by the harbor where the food trucks congregate at night. The beers were perfect for the time, but absurdly expensive, however they gave us two of them since we arrived at happy hour (unbeknownst to us). We settled on a nice looking food truck and got some local eats before calling it a night.
We headed down to the ferry terminal the following morning and hopped aboard one of the many daily crossings for the ~45 minute trip. On Moorea, we caught a bus over to Haapiti on the small island’s west coast and made our way to our accommodation. It rained on and off for most of our stay on Moorea, but it cleared up enough to check out the island a bit.
It was dark by the time we were all settled in, but we were hungry. We borrowed some bikes and rode some 10km to a restaurant down the road. The bike ride in the dark with our headlamps was memorable, if not a bit harrowing. The restaurant was lovely, and little more than a small roadside shack serving up some fresh seafood and cold beers.
We rented a scooter the following day and explored the north side of the island. Overall, Moorea is the quintessential Polynesian island, with a wide strip of shallow, turquoise water abruptly fading to a deep blue beyond the reef. A confining swath of white sand separates much of the island and the water, with jagged, jungle-covered peaks rising steeply skyward on the interior. Unfortunately the weather was not so quintessentially Polynesian during our stay, so the colors were quite muted. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable and relaxing time on the island.
On our last day, we hitched a ride with the hotel owner back to the ferry terminal on the opposite side of the island. Our crossing back to Papeete was uneventful, and we made it to the airport in time to catch our flight to Bora Bora.
If anything conjures up images of pacific paradise, it’s Bora Bora. The island is comprised of a central, jungle-enshrouded pillar leaping majestically out of the turquoise waters of the surrounding lagoon. Along the outskirts of the lagoon lies a necklace of motus —the remnants of the volcanic crater’s rim– cresting above the water’s surface. Most of the resorts are on these motus, as they offer the best views across the lagoon towards the main island of Bora Bora. The central island itself is where most of the locals live and go about their daily business, with relative disinterest to the decadence that surrounds them.
The short flight from Papeete to Bora Bora was mostly occupied by American holiday-makers (Bora Bora seems to be the only place in French Polynesia with an overwhelmingly American clientele), with a week or two in paradise. The crowds separated at the Bora Bora airport, with the few locals and us taking the free Air Tahiti shuttle ferry to Vaitape on the central island while all the other travelers boarded their resort-specific catamarans to be whisked away to their hotels. It’s true, Bora Bora is not backpacker friendly. In fact, the absolute cheapest accommodation comes in at about $120 per night, and rises steeply from there.
The tourism burnout here is palpable. Where the locals on Rangiroa and Moorea would smile and wave, the ones here, understandably sick of the constant stream of wealth just skirting by them, would gaze with indifference upon the travelers. Some of the locals here have managed to cash in somewhat on the island’s tourism boom though, working for resorts as boat drivers or tour guides.
Nevertheless, Bora Bora wasn’t really our style, so we were happy to be only spending a bit of time here; just enough to see it and experience it. We verified from some locals that the Maupiti Express does still exist (at the time of this writing) and run on a schedule at least somewhat similar to that posted on their website, despite the company’s silence in response to email queries (not surprising for French Polynesia), and the fact that their website domain had gone up for sale at some point in the last decade. The boat no longer serves Maupiti, as the name would suggest, but instead plies the waters between Bora Bora, Tahaa, and Raiatea. We arrived on Saturday night, and confirmed the boat’s outbound trip from Bora Bora for the following day (Sunday) at 2pm. However, contrary to the website, there’s no Wednesday trip anymore, with the boat operating on Sundays, Mondays, and Fridays, and apparently it alternates between serving Tahaa and Raiatea as the first stop after Bora Bora. At any rate, the whole thing seems very ad hoc, and we suppose it’s best to confirm with the locals before making any plans, just don’t count on responses to your emails around here.
Ticket purchasing for the boat was easy, we just showed up at the dock an hour or so before departure and made it aboard with no problems.
We got off in the very insubstantial town of Poutoru on Tahaa with the intent of somehow finding a way to our guest house, Perle de Tahaa, near Tapuamu, some 20km from where we were. We wandered around for some time, asking around for a scooter rental place or something similar to the flabbergasted look of many a local. Eventually we got a ride from two shirtless guys and a toddler in a busted up pickup truck for 3000CPF (around $27), which was 2000CPF cheaper than what was quoted by our hotel proprietor, and a very fair price (!) for this area of the world.
We wound our way across the island, through dense jungle and sparse village. Occasionally we’d pass another pickup truck, packed to the gunwales with children or boxes or what have you. Shakas were thrown to just about everybody we saw. The island was very sleepy, somewhat reminiscent of Savaii, in Samoa, mostly consisting of people hanging out by the roadside, casually fishing, or making their way –slowly– to some unknown destination.
We finally made it to our accommodation, which is owned and operated by a perpetually laughing and joking Italian transplant, who seems to have been here for a long time. We biked down the highway in the dark, armed with headlamps, and got some surprisingly delicious pizza (unaffiliated with the Italian guest house owner, it seems) from Ma’a Viti, a few kilometers down the road, and were silently content with our decision to come to Tahaa.
We still hadn’t figured out how we were going to get back to Bora Bora in time for our flight out on Thursday morning, considering the newfound workweek-long gap in the Maupiti Express’s schedule. Nonetheless, some people had mentioned that the cargo ship Hawaiki Nui would be passing through on Tuesday night, so we had tentative plans of hopping on that for the passage. However, after our hotel proprietor phoned the “port” (little more than an emptied out shipping container with a phone and a notepad in it) numerous times only to reach the answering machine, we figured we should find another way.
One night, while admiring one of the most fantastic sunsets humanity has ever laid eyes upon, we saw a local fisherman approaching in his boat. As he was unloading his catch, we thought to ourselves “that is surely a boat that could take us to Bora Bora…”, and with that, the seed had been planted. As the sun radiated brilliant colors across the sky, Bora Bora itself was a magnificent silhouette on the horizon; so close, yet so far. The fisherman walked up the beach towards his house, Oona called out to him. After a short discussion in French, the deal was made. They would deliver us to Bora Bora on Wednesday morning, we were to meet at the dock at 6am. It was to cost 15000CPF (about $130), which is no paltry sum, but the status quo for transport in French Polynesia, and about the same that we paid for the whole trip in the other direction but with far more convenience.
The rest of our time was spent doing what we’ve been doing basically every day; leisurely biking up and down the dusty coastal roads of some unknown paradise island in the Pacific, dodging a crab here and there, eating things like seared tuna and french fries from a local food truck, and drinking beers on the beach. Eventually it did come time to say goodbye to Tahaa though, so we packed up our things and met the fisherman and his partners at his boat for our transfer back to Bora Bora. We set off just before sunrise, and it was smooth sailing over the glassy waters all the way back. About an hour later, after an impromptu switching of gas tanks in the middle, we were dropped off on the dock in Vaitape, where our journey began a few days prior.
We spent our final day in Bora Bora, and indeed French Polynesia, with a rented scooter exploring Bora Bora a bit. We rode around the fairly limited stretch of highway a few times, stopped at Matira Beach for a quick swim at sunset, then headed back to get some sleep after our very long day.
The following morning we awoke at a similarly unreasonable hour for our outbound flight to the Cook Islands.