French Polynesia From the Air and On the Ground (Trip Report Part 1)

Ok, I’ve finally been able to get the trip report together and it’s a long one so I broke it up. I have Taha’a and Bora Bora in part 1 today and Tikehau and Tahiti in part 2 tomorrow. I apologize to those who aren’t trip report fans. I’ll be back to more normal posting next week.

Flying on Air Tahiti was fantastic, and the places we stayed (thanks for the media rates, ) were unreal. Let’s pick up after we landed in Papeete at 345a.

After more than half an hour of sitting in the Papeete airport snack shop in the hot, humid night, we saw people lining up at the Air Tahiti ticket counter for check in. It was 430a, and getting in line was the best thing we could do to stay awake, so we did. One agent came out and started checking people in. Then another one. And they all trickled out slowly until 5a when they were all staffed up. Right at 5a, we reached an agent (it was slow going), and we were checked in for the first of our six interisland flights in no time.

We bought a Bora Tuamotu pass for this trip which cost 56,200 French Pacific Francs per person ($640.49 on my credit card). That seemed like a lot of money at the time for a few flights on puddlejumpers, but now after seeing prices in Tahiti, that seems like a bargain.

After we checked in, we walked through the last security screening we would face until our return flight to the US and passed in and out of consciousness in the dark waiting room for half an hour until our flight boarded.

April 11, 2009
Air Tahiti #311 Lv Papeete (PPT) 6a Arr Huahine (HUH) 640a
: Runway 4, Dept a Little Late
: Runway 7, Arr On Time
Aircraft: F-OIQB, ATR 42-500, Named Hiriata, Half Full
Seat: On the left next to the prop
Flight Time: ~30m

I was half asleep as I boarded the airplane and the sun started to rise. I asked the agent which side gave us the best view and she said the left, so we parked ourselves right next to the prop and awaited departure. Soon we were airborne for the 30 minute hop to Huahine.

This was my first time on an ATR and I was impressed. It was very quiet and a heck of a lot more comfortable inside than a regional jet. The flight attendant passed through with some pineapple juice and then sat back down for the short duration of the flight. We had a great view of Moorea and then descended into Huahine for a short stop.

April 11, 2009
Air Tahiti #311 Lv Huahine (HUH) 655a Arr Raiatea (RFP) 715a
: Runway 7, Dept a Little Early
: Runway 7, Arr a Little Early
Aircraft: F-OIQB, ATR 42-500, Named Hiriata, Half Full
Seat: On the left next to the prop
Flight Time: ~15m

Some people got off and others got on, but we didn’t go anywhere. Fifteen minutes after we arrived, we were airborne again for the 15 minute (or less) jump to Raiatea, our destination that day. We didn’t even get above the cloud bottoms before we were descending into the airport. We landed, taxied back on the runway (no taxiways around these parts), and walked into the open-air terminal where a tractor brought our bags up on to a shelf for pick up. The whole trip was like this. Here’s a video of Raiatea as we came in to land. ()

Raiatea is just across a shallow lagoon from Taha’a, and we were staying at the which is situated on a motu (small islet) at the edge of the lagoon off the coast of Taha’a. A boat took us directly there in 30 minutes. It wasn’t even 8a when we arrived, but we felt like it was bedtime.

Le Taha’a claims to be on a private island, but it’s not actually the case anymore. A few locals have moved in to other parts of the motu but except for an occasional dog running through, you don’t see them. This was the most expensive of all the hotels we stayed at on this trip by far. The rack rate on the overwater bungalows can easily top $1,000 a night but we were offered a media rate that averaged out to be around a third of that price.

This was the perfect place to start our trip, because we just wanted to relax and do nothing. It’s easy to do that here. They put us in an overwater bungalow with a premium view. From our (really comfortable) bed we looked out on a small palm tree-filled sandbar with Bora Bora beyond. We had a private patio area and we spent a great deal of time out there just reading and watching the fish in the shallow water.

Sounds like paradise, right? It was, but was there anything not to love about this place? The one thing that plagued us throughout the trip was the high cost of food. We had heard stories, but we didn’t realize truly how expensive it was. At any given time, Le Taha’a had one restaurant serving meals. (There’s a fancy restaurant that was being renovated, but our meals alternated between the tree-top restaurant and the poolside one.) Appetizers of $25 and main courses of $40 or more were pretty standard. And breakfast was a $40 buffet – that was it. I’m fairly sure I forced myself to eat more than $40 worth of food on the days we had breakfast, and I became an expert at hoarding delicious rolls to sustain me through the day.

We did go on to Taha’a itself one day – they had frequent boat shuttles on the 5 minute trip – but there wasn’t much to do there. We rented a buggy and drove around the island to pearl farms and vanilla plantations, but after four hours, we had seen most of what we wanted to see. The scenery was fantastic, and I would highly recommend doing this if you go. You can also stop at the general store and pick up some snacks and drinks for relatively cheap.

After our drive, we went over to the famous for beer and some poisson cru (I’d describe it as Tahitian ceviche). This place is an excellent dive sitting on the water on Taha’a. The poisson cru was fantastic, and the local Hinano brew washed it down quite well.

Other than that, we just relaxed. We walked out to the coral garden one day and Kirsten went to the spa another day, which was in a very relaxing setting on a private lagoon. By the end of our five nights there, we were definitely ready to keep moving on to find a little more action. Bora Bora was next.

April 16, 2009
Air Tahiti #262 Lv Raiatea (RFP) 930a Arr Bora Bora (BOB) 950a
: Runway 7, Dept A Little Early
: Runway 11, Arr A Little Early
Aircraft: F-OIQU, ATR 72-212A, Named Tiairani, Two Thirds Full
Seat: On the left near the back
Flight Time: 12m22s

The boat from Le Taha’a got us to the airport about an hour before the flight, and that was way too early. Check in took 10 seconds and without any security screening to worry about, we had plenty of time to wait. When the plane pulled up, some people jumped off and then we hopped on. This ATR 72 felt a lot like the 42 but longer. It was even quieter since you could get further away from the engines.

This was the shortest flight of the trip, and the shortest I’ve ever been on. We took off, turned past a cloud towering over Taha’a, saw Le Taha’a down below, and then began our descent. As you can imagine, there was no service on this flight. We landed 12 minutes and 22 seconds after we departed. Here’s some video of Bora Bora as we passed to the north. ()

The Bora Bora airport looked like a palace compared to Raiatea. It even had separate corridors for people arriving and departing – probably just to be able to handle the desks for all the different resorts on the island. We found the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort’s desk and we were whisked away on to a boat for the 15 minute ride to our hotel.

The is also on a motu on the northwest side of its island, but the vibe is completely different here. There were more people, and there was a lot more action at the resort itself. That’s not better or worse than Le Taha’a, but it was a nice change of pace.

Overwater bungalows here run more than $700 a night, but we paid far less than that. We spent three nights here, and we really enjoyed the place.

The restaurants here had slightly more to offer, and there was a bar with a pool table and a nightly happy hour. The spa here is large and impressive, and Kirsten again decided to pay it a visit. One thing we really liked was that they had a DVD library in the boutique from which you could borrow to watch movies in your room. It was a nice change from our daily check of CNN (the only channel in English we had) to make sure the world hadn’t melted down (any further, I mean).

One thing that really surprised me here is that they have a large number of “garden” cottages around the grounds. I loved the overwater bungalows, but the garden setting was truly beautiful and it could save you some money. Still, nothing can beat the bungalows for uniqueness. Ours was near the coral nursery they had planted to start attracting more fish to the area. It was just fantastic.

What else did we do? Well we took a waverunner tour of the island. That was a lot of fun, and we even got close to some dolphins in the lagoon. We went by the now-closed Hotel Bora Bora (the first overwater bungalows on the island) and the Club Med that’s also closed. On the northeast side, we went by some of the newer hotels, including the absurdly luxurious St Regis and Four Seasons. Those bungalows look like houses (with pools) over the water. Incredible.

We also went on to Bora Bora on one of the frequent shuttles in order to have dinner at the incredibly tasty . This place is very tiny with only six tables inside, and the French chef personally cooks every meal. I had some of the best foie gras I’ve ever had there, and the fish was exquisite.

Any complaints (besides the food prices)? I do have to say that the bed was very uncomfortable. It must have been an old mattress and it sagged in the middle making for a rough night’s sleep. The bungalows were also not completely sealed from the outside so that left them open to noise. And each night, the wind carried techno beats from the main island right into our room. That’s certainly not the hotel’s fault, but it made for some long nights.

But those were relatively minor issues. We had a great time with the faster pace at this hotel. It appears that others like this place as well because there were a good number of people milling around. That’s more than I can say about some of the other hotels.

Next, we were off to Tikehau, the atoll up in the Tuamotu chain and easily our favorite spot on the whole trip by far. But you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that one.


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