We didn't know what to expect before arriving in French Polynesia. Of course we had images of vahine girls dancing with their bra made out of coconut shells, beautiful beaches and pristine clear water, but it could all be tourist propaganda. We thought of it as a place where there isn't much to be done except laze on the beach and bake in the sun... We were wrong.
French Polynesia is more than a couple of islands and a few beautiful beaches! It is a set of archipelagos (adding up to 168 islands) with names you have likely heard of before: "Iles Marquises", "les Tuamutus" or "les Iles de la Societe" with its main island, Tahiti. Once there, quickly you long to visit all of them, sample the cultural variations from archipelago to archipelago and anyway, don't get tired that easily from seeing and swimming in magnificent lagoons. The under water world is a bit of a paradise too. Visibility is amazing and reef fauna is not the only thing to see: it's a place where you can get close to the big stuff too! Stingrays, dolphins, sharks and whales.
As you can already tell, we liked it a lot... Papeete
We landed at 9.00pm in a hot and humid climate, beautiful! After cold and rain in New Zealand we were delighted to be back in "summer". Cherry on the cake: Tahitians speak French with a beautiful Polynesian accent, rolling their « r » in a distinctive way and using the familiar « tu » even with strangers. A « truck » ride later (the name they give to their local buses) we were at « Chez Mirna », a family owned pension and one of the cheapest options in Papeete, Tahiti's capital city. It turned out that « Chez Mirna »
already hosted 5 French people from the « Metropole » (mainland France) who were sleeping in dorms until they could find a place to live. It was nice to find some company... The next day we spent a merry evening with our comrades: the bottle of rum bought at Auckland airport made us instantly popular! We fell short of rum quickly, and the stash of Hinano beer, the local brew, didn't quite last long enough either. Franck, one of the French guys who had been living there for more than 2 years (accompanied by Patrick) went to get more "munitions" at the black market in the not so nice areas of Papeete, so the boozed-fuelled singing could go on until nobody could discern between our cover of "Wonderwall" (Franck-vocals, Patrick-guitar) and an Oasis record being played... At least that's what Patrick likes to think ;-)!
It felt good to be in Papeete even though it is far from beautiful or atmospheric. It's a city by the water with potential but it's plagued by traffic. It was nice though to find typical French shops like the « bureau de tabac », « maison de la presse », « supermarché Champion » etc.
Being a "territoire d'outre mer", French Polynesia is autonomous
(they have their assembly, currency, etc.) and we could feel the strong Polynesian culture in the city. It was even more so as the Heiva festival was going on (as every year in July). This festival is all about celebrating and keeping alive Polynesian culture. Singing and dancing contests (we went to see one, and it was really good!), traditional craft markets, sea canoe competitions etc. It's a good thing, and French people living there, seem to enjoy it as much as the locals.
French Polynesia is also famous for its black pearls; Papeete is doted with boutiques selling those, indeed beautiful, but extremely expensive pieces of jewellery... God knows how, but Saoyuth resisted the appeal of buying some - as a souvenir of course!! ;-) Attempt to swim with whales
When we realised that Tahiti was a mating place for whales and that they come en masse in July, we were pleased to have the chance to watch them. When welearnt that one could snorkel / free-dive with them, Patrick was positively excited about it! Yeehaa! Free diving besides those sea giants, doesn't it sound coooooooool???? What a disappointment when we phoned the few companies offering that kind of outing:
-"Yes that's right, whale season starts in July...But mid-July." - "Damned!" We're leaving on the 12th!!! - "There are just a few around now, not enough to guarantee you'll see one, so we won't start before 10 days from today." - "Arrrrrrghhh!"
So we went for dolphins instead. Wild dolphins, very shy, but they enjoyed playing with the boat. We went for a dip to see if they would be curious enough to come around us. Apparently they were not so curious, so we ended up dragged by the boat, with dolphins swimming around us. Not bad either. Camping in Moorea
A 30 minutes ferry ride from Tahiti lays the island of Moorea, which is said to be wilder and more peaceful than Tahiti. We had a tent lent to us by Nicolas from the "Chez Mirna" pension (thanks mate!) and knew about a good campsite on the other side of the island from the harbour.
At the Heiva dance festival we happened to be seated near Patrick (the first other Patrick we ever met on this trip), a retired police officer who had settled in Moorea a few month ago. He was taking the same ferry as us and offered to drop us at our campsite, which was lucky! He showed us around and gave us some interesting insight into the Polynesian culture and mentality. As soon as we finished pitting our tent, rain started to pour down, making our first day miserable. What else can you do on an island where the only enjoyment is the beach, when it's raining? Luckily we met at the campsite Guillemette and
Olivier, two other French who were starting their second year around the world! They had initially planned to spend only one year touring South America and Asia. After spending more time than planned in South America (months of cycling in Patagonia didn't help), they decided they should still complete their trip and peddle their way from Singapore to China. This gave us endless sources of entertaining conversation in the common kitchen.
Apart from that first day, it was hot and sunny in Moorea, exactly as it should be. We spent our days riding a scooter, snorkelling and sun tanning on the beach, something we rarely do but at this stage of our trip, it felt like a holiday from our travel.
Corals in the lagoons didn't look very healthy, however the marine life was still interesting. We found a spot where one could see stingrays and sharks up-close, especially the stingrays! In fact some people feed the stingrays to attract them so some of them crawl onto people's back to try to reach their food: surprising and creepy! Saoyuth was lucky enough to be around the feeders at the time so had one of those animals onto her back! Actually you don't need to feed them to see them, they are always at the same spot, along with the black tip sharks.
The sharks always stayed at a safe distance from us (4-5m at the closest), I mean for them to flee away, as they were the scared ones! They were rather small, about 2 metres long, and only feed on small fish, as far as we know, so it seemed quite safe. We did our best to get a picture of us with the sharks in the background (we had just bought a disposable waterproof camera for the occasion) but didn't get very successful. Anyway, it was great fun! Ticket drama
It had been a resting and delightful three days in Moorea and we would definitely return for another holiday in the future. It felt definitely too short a stay when we headed to the airport. Obviously, people at the Faaa airport did very much agree with us, to the point they declared that our tickets were not valid anymore and that we had to stay, or pay again for our Papeete-New York leg! Gloups! They got confused between the issue date and the start of validity date... but got confirmation from their hierarchy that our tickets were no longer valid! We had already been through the check in and security checks and were waiting to embark when they cancelled our seats and launched a baggage search... half an hour before the departure!
It took us stamina to convince them they were wrong, and that they needed to check with the airline that issued the tickets. The plane was preparing for take-off, but they were still looking for our bags! It gave us the extra 5 minutes necessary to talk to someone sensible enough who did a quick check before allowing us back in...Oufff! It was the first time we had such a problem. We thought of Guillemette and Olivier who had booked their round the world tickets via internet. For some unknown reason, they disappeared from the system, and nobody believed they had tickets! They even lost one of their flights before they could prove they had bought those tickets. Well, if you make a round the world trip, we advise you go through a travel agent and keep hold of paper tickets. It's the same price as the internet and you can prove you bought the tickets!