Country number: 2 (France)
Territory number: 128
When? August 2013. The BIG Trip. Coming from The Cook Islands. Next stop – Samoa (via Auckland).
How? Boats, bike
‘The land is a chief, and a person is its lowly servant.’
Flying here is as laid back as everything else. From Aitutaki returning to Rarotonga there are no safety announcements. We have to wait for the stewardess to finish the chapter in the novel she is reading before we get any drinks. I’m going on to Papeete, French Polynesia and I’m early for check in, so I hang around thinking that at least I’ll get a good seat. Mais non. It’s free seating. So, some lunch, I’ve got well over two hours. I wander across the road to a cafe on the beach. All departure lounges should be like this.
The second stage -big island plane- 48 seats, but less than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.) And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight.
My hotel for the night has given me a ‘lagoon view’ room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.
Another island – Bora Bora. Another contender for most beautiful lagoon in the world. It’s a very close call. The views from the air are sublime. This is a volcanic peak surrounded by a fabulous deep blue lagoon and scattered motu, with the turquoise shallows on the edge of the lagoon. The airport is on one of the motu, rather like the one in Gizo in The Solomons. But here the motu is part of the outer reef and the boats meeting us are all tricked out speedboats. I have joined the jet set and I have an overwater bungalow. How can you not? OMG possibly the best room I have haver slept in. The peak is framed in the window. I can sit in bed and look at it. Or I can sit in the bathroom and look at it. I have my own private jetty and sun deck, so I can snorkel or swim to the perfect beach. There is coral beneath and I have a glass coffee table that I can slide back to feed the fish below. The same fish keep loitering there, luminous jade edged trumpet fish and angel fish. I can also watch them through the bedside table or the ledges round the bath; there is even a spotlight to illuminate my coffee table reef at night. The room is all Polynesian wood, art and weaving. And it has a TV. There are even ice machines in little thatched huts along the decking.
I sit on the restaurant terrace and watch all the guests parade into dinner. It’s like Paris Fashion Week as they saunter along the catwalks in all their designer gear. There are no overweight female tourists here- though quite a lot of evidence of surgical intervention. Interestingly, quite a few of the men, even the young ones, are sporting little pot bellies. I suppose that’s the affluent lifestyle. And, as usual, many of the locals are amply proportioned. The staff are all togged out in their floral dresses. Even the men have flowers in their hair. I’m not entirely sure how gender is interpreted here. Several of the men have long hair wound into a bun, like the women. Possibly local culture, but the guys with the buns also seem to have husky Julian Clary voices.
The flip side to this paradise? OMG (again) is it expensive. My buffet meal last night (with Polynesian dancing) cost £70 flat rate. Time to start that diet I think. There are plagues of flies that descend instantly if you attempt to eat outside. Water bungalows are pretty noisy at night, with the wind and the sea, not to mention the clattering of suitcases being rolled across the wooden walkways. The only English TV Channel is CNN and I can only stand five minutes depression. I also have another dodgy stomach. Nevertheless, another Tour beckons. The road round the main island is exactly 20 miles long, just like Rarotonga. And this is France (I walked straight through immigration without even a stamp in my passport).
I am well prepared this time. Sunscreen, water, map, shorts. I even work out which way the wind is blowing and head off into it so that I shall have the easiest leg to finish. Except that it doesn’t work out like that. The wind is over 30kph and coming from the west. (It’s been buffeting my bungalow all night). The island is long and thin and north orientated. The upshot is that the wind seems to be against me for most of the journey. The road is mostly flat, but there a couple of hills. So I push up them and resume my journey at the top, reaching for the brakes as I career down. Except that there aren’t any. Not supplied on this bike. Terrifying. I discover that the only way to stop is to leap off the saddle, trying to avoid getting my calves bashed by the pedals in the process. I nearly end up in the drink a few times. The car drivers come pretty close and almost force me into the deep drainage ditch the other side too. It takes a huge effort of will to finish this one. So I award myself the King of the Mountains green jersey. This is especially appropriate, as it turns out that there are two peaks and I spend most of the journey trying to cycle past one or the other.
The scenery is lush and dramatic. Some gorgeous white beaches. Out in the lagoon I can see the bungalow dots of the various motu resorts.
Inland, the locals live a less luxurious lifestyle. Most dwellings have corrugated tin roofs and the people surround their houses with colourful pot plants. And, deja vu, the odd cockerel running around. Washing lines are laden with bright tie dye and floral patterned clothes. There are quite a few old cars around, some piled up alongside the houses. There are also family graves with headstones in front of some of the dwellings. There are only primary schools. The secondary school is on another island and the state pays for the students to board. They get to come home every five weeks or so. Some of the men are bringing in today’s catch, gutting the fish on the edge of the lagoon. They use small boats that are usually hoist up on double wheeled winches, keeping them out of the water unless they are needed.
OMG, lagoon cruises here are amazing too. The coral is mainly soft pinks and purples, very Rennie Macintosh. There don’t seem to be huge numbers of small fish. But I have been snorkelling with rays and sharks this morning. The sharks are reef sharks and lemon sharks; the reef sharks are quite dinky with dark pointy fins, while the lemon sharks are bigger and keep their distance. There are small sting rays named Julie and Samantha (for some reason) who come to be fed; they are all soft and velvety. However, the truly incredible experience is swimming with the manta rays. They are huge and so graceful.
And I’ve discovered that putting a taire (the national flower of Tahiti) behind your ear is used as a symbol of your relationship status; if it’s behind your left ear you’re taken, behind your right and you’re single!
Some joker has set the alarm in my room to go off at 6 a.m. every day. And all my efforts to turn it off, including disconnecting the power, have failed. But at least I’m up to see the sunrise over the mountains and have a last sun bathe on my deck. It’s breaking my heart to leave my beautiful room on the water. All in all a great deal to see and much character in evidence, but I can’t declare Bora Bora the winner; it really is ridiculously expensive. As I said, this is France, but it’s not in the EEC, so the currency is the pacific franc. They’ll accept euros as well then? No, but they’ll take American dollars. For twenty dollars, in the supermarche, I purchase three cans of coke, a small tin of cashews and two bottles of local mineral water. The roughly 70 pence change is just enough to buy me a plastic carrier bag to put it all in.
On the plane trip nearly all the passengers sit on the right hand side of the plane to get their last glimpses of Bora Bora. I am so concerned that the plane will flip over I almost say something to the stewardess. And I sit on the left, resolutely denying myself the view. But there was no accident, obviously.
I’m exactly halfway through my trip and definitely not ready to come home yet. So time for some summing up:
There are items to be bought when I get somewhere cheaper, that actually has shops. I shall have to be more cautious about my purchases though. The cowboy boots are a bit of a liability. I have to wear them on flights, as they are rather too large to fit easily in my bag and anyway they increase the weight too much. Which is fine, till I try and get them back on again after a long flight. Also, they’re not great for walking on beaches!
Nothing was going to live up to the last three days. I would have deemed this hotel very pleasant if I had visited here first. There are water bungalows, though not nearly as nice, there’s just a view over the lagoon to the reef beyond and a teeny beach. No flower or shell garlands on arrival either. My room is tucked at the back, categorised as garden view, which works if you have a good imagination. Being positive, there is a great infinity pool that really does look as if it dissolves into the sea. And there is a lovely view of the mountains looking back behind the hotel.
Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. Moorea is billed as having the most beautiful scenery in The Society Islands (the Tahitian group). I can see why; it has glassy peaks that soar up, in jagged ridges, from the ocean. This must be why this island is also another contender for the original Bali Hai (the last one was in Vanuatu). It transpires that one of the peaks is actually the one used in the film South Pacific. (I shouldn’t have used up all my superlatives in the USA).
Whales today. Three big ones and a calf all jumping in unison. More stingrays (literally more than before, though no names this time), more reef sharks. Unfortunately, more tourists pursuing them too. Most of the visitors in Polynesia are American and Italian (cheap promotional flights from Rome I’m told). There are far fewer conversations to be shared than in The Cook Islands, though I can hear the conversations of both nationalities quite clearly. Unfortunately, also a lot more hanging around on a motu while the captain does his act. I have seen coconut husking demonstrated three times now. It looks much too strenuous to attempt to me. Good job I have my book. Good job it’s still sunny. There have only been small amounts of rain at night this last week. Very clever.
Very little done today. I saunter along the reed edge and watch an octopus desultorily dragging his girlfriend along on the end of one long tentacle. I suppose that’s marine romance in action. I sunbathe, read and do a few laps of the pool, avoiding the French aqua exercise class. Un, deux, trois. I also eat Polynesian buffet. Raw tuna, tuna salad, tuna steaks.
I’m leaving later today and feel guilty about yesterday’s sloth so at the last minute I (literally) jump on a 4WD that is leaving early for a tour of the interior. Good decision. Amazing views down to the reef and across the mountains, and bays, including Bali Hai and the bay where Cook might or might not have first landed. The drive up to one viewpoint, is possibly the hairiest ever, with part of the uphill track running along a barrow ridge that falls away steeply on both sides. Pineapple plantations and neat little fruit farms tucked under the hills. Breadfruit, soursop, citrus, pawpaw (papaya), mango, barbadine, coconut and bananas. A few temples known as marae, that date back 500 hundred years or so, complete with altars for the sacrifice of animals and the odd human.
I’m late for the bus to the airport as I have been give the wrong time. I’m faced with a sea of glowering faces when I finally manage to pay my bill and clamber aboard. So it’s not great news that I almost miss the flight itself as well. This too has been called before the stated time and I am sitting outside reading. I am waved onto the plane by an angry little man and it takes off early. Also possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on, Moorea back to Papeete. As soon as we are up in the air the tannoy announces that we are landing. It must have taken all of six minutes and we land one minute before we were due to take off.