Saturday, June 16, 2018

French Polynesia

Nancy and I are celebrating 10 years of being married this year. As such, we decided to take a special vacation. And I required that such vacation would be one where we were not riding bikes 50+ miles a day. You know, a vacation like normal people take. My goal was to go somewhere that we could get copious beach time, since we just have never done that. While out for dinner with friends we talked about the idea of going to Hawaii. Our waiter overheard and got into the conversation. His suggestion - Bora Bora. So, there it is, how we ended up on the islands down-under of French Polynesia. Note: French Polynesia is south of Hawaii and just about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand longitudinally.

Nancy did her usual, extensive research and came up with a plan to spend four nights on the island of Taha'a, three nights on Bora Bora and three nights on Tikehau. We also started and finished on Tahiti since that is where the only international airport is in FP.

In summary, this was the toughest vacation to come back from. FP is a pretty amazing place and we had lots of opportunities to explore and relax. It is VERY easy to slip into "island time" and a bit harder to get back into the rat race when you've been on the islands for a while.

I've distilled over 1100 pictures and videos down to a couple of hundred. I'll provide some text for context, but this will mostly be pictures.

Every trip seems to begin with air travel. Using frequent flyer miles meant we had about 9 hours to kill in the LAX international terminal.

At this time, Air Tahiti Nui is the only airline flying to FP. United has announced they are beginning service this fall and a discount French airline is also getting into the game.

After about an 8 hour flight we ended up in Tahiti around 10  pm. And had some welcome music/dancing on our way in.

Since we couldn't get a flight to the island of Raiatea (for our stay at Le Taha'a) until the next morning we spent our first night at Le Meridian on Tahiti. Got up the next morning to the sound of waves hitting the reef. As the sun came up (FP is three hours behind Phoenix), we wandered around the hotel grounds, got breakfast pastries from a local grocery store and bakery and ate along the shore.

They had a really cool pool with a sand bottom.

Mo'orea in the background.

Our original flight was not until 12:30 PM but we discovered that there was an earlier one. Excited to get to Taha'a, we headed to the airport to catch this.

On to Raiatea. Air Tahiti runs connecting flights between the islands of FP. They are all the smallish two engine prop planes you see here. The seating is unassigned - just board and pick your place. We purchased a multi-island pass that allowed us fly between eight islands. We decided that we didn't want every day to be a travel day so we only took took four flights.  

Mo'orea from above

The photo below is our first glimpse of where we would spend four nights. The part of the island (called motu in Polynesian) at the left is Le Taha'a Resort. Motus are essentially those mini islands of sand and coral that form along the reef of atolls.
If you look closely you can see the over water bungalows (OWB) where we stayed. Also, the bit of water between that motu and the next is where the coral garden is. This is reported to be one of the best snorkeling spots in FP. It certainly was our favorite place for fish spotting.

And yeah, the water is really that blue. The color of the water in different places was shades of blue I've never seen - outstanding!

Finally in Raiatea

We arrived earlier than expected (our choice) so there was no one to pick us up. We had a 25 minute boat ride from the airport to Le Taha'a. So, we called them to come pick us up. In the mean time we meandered over to the snack bar for a taste of the local brew. 

So, chickens. They are everywhere on the islands. Not sure what the deal is. However, you don't see much chicken on menus. I guess they just use them for eggs.

Finally, our water taxi picked us up. That is the airport AND the snack shack. And this isn't even the smallest airport we visited.

We were always greeted with flowers and often with coconut drinks.Check out Nancy's flower tiara.

Since we were early our room was not ready. I was seriously ready to get out of travel mode and get in the water. Had to settle for wading for now.

Views like this were everywhere. How can you not love that? The mountain in the distance is Mount Otemanu on Bora, Bora.

Finally in our room. This was the nicest place we stayed. It was pretty outstanding.

Great deck to hang out on, with stairs going down to the water.

The glass at the foot of the bed opens up and is open down to the water.


Checked in, luggage unpacked. So finally we can get down to it! The first order of business was snorkeling. The channel between our motu and the one next door had a nice corridor through it where there was a current of water running from the ocean into the atoll. So you'd walk to the top of the island and basically float down, through the coral gardens - rinse and repeat. Many fish pics below. Tried to get all the different types fish (and other critters) we saw.

Additionally, I did some videos - see the links below. 

The blue is from a blue lipped clam.

Don't touch! Sea Urchins. AKA: Uni. Also one of Nancy's sushi favorites.

The view from our deck the first evening.

Since we were on a motu near Taha'a, we had to take a 5 minute shuttle boat ride to get to the main island to get any supplies. There was a very small "grocery" store at the port. First morning we took a trip to get some basic supplies. 

Looking back at the motu on the way to Taha'a for groceries. It is 5:45 AM and the sun is just coming up. Why so crazy early? It is Sunday morning so the store is only open from 5:30 - 7:30 AM. 

One of our purchases. I don't even know what these bacon and cheese "Rashuns" were, but they were delicious. And who doesn't love a penguin in sunglasses?

BTW, 380 is roughly equivalent to $3.80. Prices here are pretty nuts - the small jar of Skippy we bought was $7, but a bargain compared to $5 for a 20 oz. Coke. Not sure how the locals can afford stuff.  

This being a French country, we had to have our daily baguette.

Of course there were more snorkel runs and laying on the beach and the like. But one day we did a bike ride (of course) around Taha'a. It was only about 40km and mostly flat. But the "bikes" were big old heavy cruisers with coaster brakes. 

This ride afforded us an opportunity to see how the people really live - outside of the resorts. We also had an opportunity to do some touristy stuff. First stop, a pearl farm.

They open up the oysters a little to place a seed in them. That is the basis for the pearls. 

Doing this without killing the oyster is rather delicate work.

They bring the oysters up out of the beds occasionally to clean the shells.

This is a shot of the entire pearl farm from the road.

While the actual residences and other buildings were not too impressive (although neat with well kept grounds), the churches were always nice.

Saw a bunch of these structures. Assumed they were some sort of drying thing.

And it looks like we were right. They are drying coconut on this one. I would guess they slide the roof over when it rains.

Bananas growing wild on the side of the road. One of the things we miss now are "real" bananas. They are smaller and just taste better there.

Next stop on the tourist route was a vanilla farm. Taha'a is famous for its vanilla.Vanilla grows on vines. They use any tree that is available to grow the vines on.

Once the beans are picked they just pile them inside and wait for them to turn brown.

Once the beans turn brown they put them in the sun to dry.

Nancy conquers one of the two hills on the bike ride. These bikes were heavy and over geared - so not as easy as she makes it look. 

Interesting place to live. Quite the opposite of Arizona. 

Heavy bike with only rear coaster brakes on a wet downhill road. What could go wrong?

Another nice church.

Near the end of the ride we stopped at a little store and got some refreshments. Found a scenic spot to enjoy them. It turns out you can use the rack on a bike as a bottle opener. 

On the way back we managed to catch a bit of a rainbow over our motu.

Late lunch at the poolside restaurant of fresh grilled tuna. It was quite good. Even better (not pictured) were the breadfruit fries with truffle oil and grated Parmesan cheese. Amazing. Note: Breadfruit was the impetus behind the Mutiny on the Bounty (which is a true story and one that took place in French Polynesia).

Some interesting flora on the motu.

Happy hour!

Early morning snorkeling off our back porch. Not much to see except for a sting ray emerging from the sand.

Oh, you want more fish pics? Well here they are. 

These things that I called "sea slugs" were everywhere. But they were mostly just black. This one was colored more interestingly.

One morning we saw two octopii. One turned white then red then covered over a big rock. It was pretty dramatic. I got some pictures, but accidentally deleted them. So we went out looking for another. And we did find one, but didn't get great pictures. Here it is swimming away from us.

And there it is (right of center) covering over a rock. They are well disguised. 

Nancy insisted on trying out the paddle board. I really don't see why anyone would do this. Kayak is so much more fun. 

This is the top of the snorkel channel run. You can see Bora Bora in the distance. 

After a couple of snorkel runs you need to rest a bit. 

When we left we had to go back to Raiatea to the airport. Nancy timed it so there would be time to do a hike on that island to visit three waterfalls. So we got to experience the forest a bit. A guide picked us up at the airport and drove us to the trail.

First waterfall

Second waterfall

The trail was very rocky and the forest was VERY green. The hike involved a couple of rope sections - which was fun. 

Third, and largest, waterfall.

Nancy didn't realize it when she was swimming around in that pool, but it is home to a couple of fresh water eels. You can see one in the bottom right of this picture. 

...and an underwater close up. 

Coconut orchid.

Our guide had all kinds of interesting tidbits. For instance, this flower...

...loses all of the yellow and turns into this when it falls

After the hike it was back to the airport and a short flight to Bora Bora.

There are two small motus on the upper left of this picture. The one to the right is where we spent our three nights on Bora Bora at the Sofitel Private Beach Resort.

Of course that meant another 25 minute boat ride from the airport. And, of course, we were met with flowers and coconuts

View of Bora Bora from the hill on our little motu.

Lots of places up on the hill to see the sunrise or sunset.

We did not do the over water bungalows here. We were actually up the hill a bit on the motu. A short video of the view from our bungalow here:

These flowers are the ones you typically see people wearing behind their ears - like in the picture above.

We had breakfast served at all the places we stayed. Breakfast at Le Taha'a was truly amazing - but I managed to lose the pictures we had of that. It was still good here. And of course you have the views...

This place had a "coral garden" that was a little way's off our motu. We had to kayak about a quarter mile from the dock and attach to a buoy since the water was deeper here. This was the best place in Bora Bora for snorkeling so lots of boats would arrive during the day and anchor. It was nice to be able to go whenever we felt like it, but early morning was best - before all the boats arrived.

Heading to the coral garden.Notice how clear the water is.

Mostly we saw the same types of fish here, but they were more spread out and the experience was different with deeper water.

Saw a sting ray here.

Starting to get crowded.

We decided to do a jet ski tour one day. It went all the way around the atoll and stopped at a beach to chill and eat. This was super fun. We traded turns driving. 

Here is where we took our break. I take relaxing seriously. 

the water is very shallow far out from the beach. 

Our guide took a palm from the beach and made this little basket and prepared a feast of bananas, coconut, grapefruit and pineapple. Unfortunately we did not think to get a picture until it had been mostly devoured. 

Our guides. 

So much fun.

Our final morning on Bora, Bora. Getting ready to snorkel.

And more fish.

More relaxing before catching our next flight in a couple of hours.

A final view of our motu on the way back to the airport. Next stop Tikehau.

Tikehau is a big atoll with very little land. The center is the crater of a long extinct volcano. The water inside is deep and pristine blue.

The airport here was truly small. Just that building. Open air - no walls.

The place we stayed, Ninamu (which means blue water in Polynesian), is on a small motu about five minutes from the "main" island. The motu is not more than a few acres total. One morning before breakfast Nancy walked around the entire island in around 10 minutes. The Australian owner, Chris, designed and built the eight bungalows and is building one more. While we were there there were only two other couples staying at Ninamu. Perfect.

And here it is.

The bungalows were more rustic here. No A/C, but really creatively built. It has a very cool vibe.

The bungalows generally have an open air sitting room on the ground floor, then bedroom/bathroom on the second floor.

View from our room.


The stairs.

See, Nancy can relax. At least for the 10 seconds it took to take this photo.

These wooden walkways connect the bungalows to the main building.

Mini bungalows on the beach. Good for sunset watching.

The fish tank in the wall circulates water from the atoll. They embedded sea shells and coral n many of the walls.

Main courtyard

First dinner's appetizer. Since there was nowhere to go for food here, 3 meals a day were included. The chef had previously worked at the Intercontinental on Bora Bora - so he wasn't slinging hash. I found the food to be quite good at every meal.

There wasn't much snorkeling off the motu and no shuttle to the main island (nothing to do there anyhow) so our host had expeditions each day. We started off with a trip out to see manta rays - but they were not home. Then we headed over to an area that had a bunch of "table top" coral. This is the delicate coral that you usually think about. Didn't see a lot of this in the other places we stayed. But there was plenty here. 

Then we went out in the channel that leads into the atoll (there is only one here). Snorkeled a bit in really deep water - we were outside the atoll and in the Pacific Ocean proper for the first time.

Sea turtle!

From there we rode the current into the atoll. That was fun.Then we headed back to the island. Our host dropped us off on a really small motu about a mile from ours so that we could look for shells and the like. There were a series of mini motus, separated by mostly shallow water, between these two. So we mostly walked, had to swim a couple of times, back. That was actually a lot of fun.

Almost back.

Since our motu was fairly close to the reef that went around the atoll, we decided to kayak out and scope out the reef.

The waves crashing on the reef were a constant sound track.

Water constantly flowed over the reef from the ocean to the atoll, bringing shells and bits of coral. 

Our motu in the distance.

The next day we went out on expedition with a Spanish newlywed couple that had arrived the previous day. They turned out to be very cool and spoke good English. This day we headed out the to "blue lagoon". 

Crabs were EVERYWHERE, but rarely stood still long enough for a picture. This one did. 

The lagoon was pretty blue - but not much to see here underwater. 

Then we went across the sand to another, shallow area. Apparently this is a popular place for he black tipped reef sharks to hang out. 

And we swam with them.

These little guys were there too.

Some shark videos here:

Our boat driver brought some refreshments, so we relaxed on the sand for a bit.

We then went back to the channel to do some snorkeling.

And fishing.

Nancy and I both caught a fish.

And wakeboarding. The seas were really rough so only Nancy and Oscar took a turn at this. My camera battery ran out, so I only got one shot of Nancy wakeboarding as she first started out of the water.

Living the life.

Our last morning in Tikehau, and last of the vacation we expected to chill, then catch our mid-day flight. At this point we were actually kind of snorkeled out. However, our host suggested we go try to see the manta ray one more time. Our previous two attempts were unsuccessful. 

So, we headed out and luck was with us. The ray was home. Here is a video:

And some pics of the big critter. 

From there it was back to Tahiti to wait for our 10:30pm flight back home. 

One of the specialties of French Polynesia is "poisson cru" (French for raw fish). It is essentially raw fish (usually warm water tuna) with vegetables, coconut milk and lime. Similar to ceviche, but better. They had it as part of the breakfast buffet at Le Taha'a - we had it every morning. Below is the version from the Intercontinental on Tahiti, which was quite good. Poisson cru is easily my favorite food discovery from the trip.

And there is our transportation back to the US.