It’s been many years since we visited this tropical paradise but this is where we truly caught the travel bug and learned a few valuable lessons. It really was a comedy of errors and a trip of many firsts for us. I remember distinctly stepping off the 747 in Papeete and being overwhelmed with the scent of flowers and vanilla in the air. I thought to myself, now this is what a tropical island should look and smell like. Lush green mountains covered with palm trees and clear turquoise water.
We make our way inside the airport, collect our luggage and head for the ATM. I had done all the research I could from books because the internet was just barely getting started. All the books said that we could use our debit cards in the ATM machines in French Polynesia but this was not the case. So there we were, in a tropical paradise with no money. Good thing Gordon, being the way he is, had a $100 bill hidden in his wallet for emergency. I felt panicked at this point but what could you do? We just didn’t have money with us. We exchanged our $100 and it didn’t give us a lot of francs but it was enough to get going.
Departing from the airport, since we were low on funds, we decided to take public transport. Slight problem, well a big problem actually, we had far too much luggage and it was unmanageable. Gordon had a huge hockey gear sized duffle (that they would never accept on airlines these days) and I had a regular sized suitcase and a carry on. Another slight issue was that I was incredibly shy back then to use my French. I really needed to speak French to get us on the public transport and due to the reluctance of using my linguistic skills, we had to walk much farther than necessary with our copious amount of luggage to catch Le Truck (the bus). We did make it to our hotel with a sigh of relief.
The next day, we head straight for the bank and we are able to get some money for the duration of our trip. Good thing because we needed to catch the ferry over to the island of Moorea and there were no banks over there.
Moorea is a gorgeous heart shaped island northwest of Tahiti. It’s only a short ferry ride over, but again with the amount of luggage we had it was a production. We were right next to the ocean in Cooks Bay, you could just hop in and snorkel along the reef that ran beside the hotel. I spent a lot of time doing this activity. We also took a boat ride out to one of the many motu’s (small island) and snorkeled with the sharks, another first for us and I was terrified and hurled myself back into the boat, but Gordon loved it. Then we snorkeled with Manta Rays and they came so close to us that you could touch them, they felt like velvet.
One evening our hotel put on a genuine traditional Polynesian feast called Ahima’a. They cooked pork and all the vegetables in an underground oven. It’s preheated with a wood fire and then volcanic rocks are put over the wood. When the fire goes out, the food is put on top and wrapped in coconut leaves. Then they laid banana leaves over the top, plus many layers of leaves from the purao tree to cover the underground oven. After that they shoveled sand over the top so no heat could escape and the food was cooked for several hours. When the food was ready, they spread it out on a table cloth of palm and banana leaves. We ate it with our fingers from traditional plates, dipping pieces of roast pork, vegetables, breadfruit, and taro in coconut cream sauce. Then we had traditional Polynesian music and dancing. A fantastic traditional evening in French Polynesia!
Other evenings we wined and dined at different restaurants near our hotel but there were hardly any street lights and we were often chased by large crabs. It surprised us that the crabs were not scared and they were so territorial, one took after Gordon with pinchers straight out and ready to grab his feet! On one evening, I’m sad to say that I ate a fish and later found out it was a beautiful parrot fish, although it was tasty at the time, I felt awful about it and it still bothers me every time I see one snorkeling.
Aside from snorkeling and sunbathing we did do some exploring around Moorea. We rode bikes through pineapple plantations all the way to the top of Belvedere Lookout, the panoramic views of Opunohu and Cooks Bay were gorgeous and well worth the tough ride. It was a steep hill to climb so we mostly pushed our bikes up to the lookout. We enjoyed a Croque Monsieur at the top before we headed down the hill on our bikes. It became a rather dangerous ride down when we both burnt out our brakes!
We then spent our last four days in Papeete, Tahiti. We decided to do some exploring around the island. We rented a little 4 wheel drive to explore the interior of the island on our own time. Purely by accident we ended up following a tour guide and his group for part of our day, it sure helped us not to miss some of the important sights like hidden waterfall pools. The interior of Tahiti is very beautiful, it has deep valleys, numerous waterfalls, and many Marae scattered all over. Marae are sacred places that hosted religious and social gatherings for the Polynesians.
We had our first street food experience in Papeete called Les Roulottes. In the evening there were several vendors with little stalls offering all kinds of tasty bites, from crepes, to croque monsieurs, to poison cru. It was fun to try some of these little eateries. Papeete was also known for its nightlife and discos but nothing really started until after 11pm and after a rather long day of touring we just didn’t feel like going back out to dance the night away.
We hopped on Le Truck and spent the better part of a day at Point Venus, a beautiful expanse of black fine sand. Again another first for us and without realizing how incredibly hot black sand can get, we set our towels quite a ways back from the water, big mistake if you’re going in without beach shoes!
Then the time came for us to leave paradise. All was going well until we had to drop off the rental vehicle. When we had picked it up 4 days prior they told us it would be no problem at all to drop it off at the airport and someone would be there early in the morning, no problem, no problem. It was a big problem, no one was around, no signs on where to leave the car, no information at all. There I was in line ready to check in and I could see Gordon driving around and around trying to find out where to leave the car. It was a panic situation because it was getting very close to our flight departure time and there was Gordon going by the window again in the rental car. Finally, someone showed up and he could leave the car but it was a really close call.
We were such naive travelers during this time and we sure learned some valuable lessons:
- Pack light – do we really need battery powered speakers that plug into our Walkman? No.
- Have cash – carry the currency you need and make sure you can use the ATM system.
- Don’t be afraid to speak – no matter how funny we sound, we should never be afraid to speak either in our native English language or a foreign language that is new to us.
- Check in for your flight early – you never know what can happen and it’s better to have the extra time.
- Make sure you can drop off the car- make sure again and then make double sure again.