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

Air Tahiti, Trip Reports

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, Pearl Resorts) 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 Waiting at Tahiti Early Morningpeople 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
PPT: Runway 4, Dept a Little Late
HUH: 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 Mooreaus 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
HUH: Runway 7, Dept a Little Early
RFP: 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. (Click if you can’t see the video)

Raiatea is just across a shallow lagoon from Taha’a, and we were staying at the Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa 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 Le Taha'a Bedeven 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 View of Bora Boraa 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.) Hoarding RollsAppetizers 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 Poisson Cruand pick up some snacks and drinks for relatively cheap.

After our drive, we went over to the famous Chez Louise 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
RFP: Runway 7, Dept A Little Early
BOB: 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. (Click if you can’t see the video)

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 Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort and Spa is also on a Bora Bora Pearl Bungalowsmotu 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 Bora Bora Pearl Roomgrounds. 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 Villa Mahana. Dinner at Villa MahanaThis 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.

[See more of our pictures on Flickr]
[See more of our videos on YouTube]

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28 comments on “French Polynesia From the Air and On the Ground (Trip Report Part 1)

  1. I don’t comment around these parts very much, but I just had to say that first picture of you sitting at the airport snack shop is awesome. Made me laugh out loud.

  2. The thing that threw me the most off balance when I traveled to Tahiti was that my bungalow featured a shower and toilet outside behind a bamboo weaved privacy wall.

    The toilet was fully enclosed, thankfully but it was me and the lizards enjoying the shower. Soap or not they must have really needed the drink.

  3. Andrew – Yeah, I laughed after my wife took that picture and she showed it to me. I was so tired, I could barely speak at that point. Thanks for commenting – feel free to jump in the fray more often.

    Optimist – I believe the garden bungalows (though I could be wrong) on Bora Bora had outdoor showers. I like the idea, actually, but we never had that. They do, unfortunately, all use those handheld shower heads that don’t give as much water pressure as you’d like. That’s definitely a European thing.

    Brian – Hmm, Krakatoa would be pretty cool I think. Believe it or not, I’ve never been to Asia so that’s at the top of the list, right up there with Australia and New Zealand. Mrs. Cranky probably likes to travel even more than I do, but she’s more hamstrung by the number of vacation days she has available.

  4. CRANKY –

    All those glorious stories about 4am flights on US between PHX and LAS and not one toe-hold in Asia?? Dude!

    Phuket is a bargain.
    Penang a quieter version of Phuket.
    Hong Kong? Not enough time or space to say. Just go!
    Beijing = fascinating.
    Shanghai = Overwhelming.
    Tokyo = Stimulating.
    Israel = Compelling
    Auckland = You’ll want to stay forever.
    India = Astonishing

    You remember how to non-rev, surely? A 3-day weekend was time enough to hop the water, right? Add a personal day to give you enough time to get out of the airport!

  5. Optimist – Yeah, yeah, I know. But remember, I was at America West long after the ill-fated Nagoya flight went away. So it wasn’t as easy as just hopping on one of our planes. Now I should have gone while I was at United, but I only went over the other ocean.

    I’ve been to South America twice, Africa once, and Europe probably around a dozen times, but somehow I never made it the other way. It’s on the list.

  6. CF, Great pictures.

    I doubt there are places more spectacularly scenic than French Polynesia. Places to just sit there and marvel.

    Add in tranquil Queenstown, New Zealand; the sight of the distant, lightning-filled skies at Broome, Western Australia; and the grandeur of the Alps and mountain lakes of Switzerland…oh my!

    Then, to glance up and see that long white contrail of some beautiful “bird” beckoning you to get on board and fly off to another gorgeous place!

  7. Ah yes, high food prices in Tahiti. What does one expect from a place with literally no arable land and very little fresh water? It’s rather like Bush Alaska, but I rather imagine Bora Bora makes for a more exciting honeymoon than Manokotak.

  8. The only cheap thing I found in French Polynesia was baguettes, sixty cents for a two foot loaf. What I didn’t eat, I could toss over the side of my overwater bungalow for the fish to enjoy. The Traveling Optimist is more knowledgable than a Fodor’s guide when it comes to picking places out, he knows every little festival or historical event when it comes to almost anywhere, except maybe Manokotak.

    And since this just popped into my head for fun trivia, what is the only airport code that is the same as the name of the city/town that the airport is located in? Optimist?

  9. Randy is it Ely Nevada? Promise I didn’t Google it. Just started thinking of three letter names around the west. Is there another you had in mind?

    CF kudos on the trip. I’ve always preferred traveling to big cities but I certainly wouldn’t turn down island hopping in a small plane!

  10. Great travelogue. One of the typical joys of travelling in less-develoiped places is that while the getting there may be pricier, the cost of food/lodging is much less –but obviously the South Seas are an exception.

    It’s interesting that Asia has been “untouched” by you, Cranky. As it is for me, Australia/Oceania is the last major geo-political realm I have yet to see (well, I am not including Central America/Caribbean). I am just leaving Asia now (I have seen Bali and Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Thailand) and it has been fun –but hot. I recommend both –you can get a decent AC room in Thailand for less than $15 US, and in both areas the “real” hinterland is not far away.

  11. Nice trip report. I’m jealous. Always wanted to head to Thaiti but $$ has been holding me back.

    The wife and I have been looking at Phuket recently.

    Optimist, is it really the bargian you say it is. Korean Air can take me there from ORD for a bargian in airfare, but once on the ground?

  12. Thanks for the great report. It really brings back memories. We also stayed at the Bora Bora Pearl Beach Resort on our Honeymoon about 5 1/2 years ago, after a few days at the Pearl Moorea. (I wonder how much the coral gardens have grown since then.) I really enjoyed our stay on Bora Bora. And Randy nailed it on the cheap food. When we tired of paying $30 for something like a hamburger and fries, we went for the 60 cent baguettes and $10 chicken/rice they sell out of those trucks. Did you happen to go to the touristy but still fun Bloody Mary’s?

  13. Eek, Alaska is EEK. Bora Bora had some of the clearest waters I have ever been seen. The outer reef keeps the sand from being churned up, and the island is mostly volcanic rock so you have no soil runoff to muddy the waters. I stayed at the Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa. I decided to head over to French Polynesia when it was only 20,000 more miles on Lan Chile from Easter Island. Taxis on Tahiti are super expensive. I did laugh that the resort was structured for couples. I showed up wandering around by myself which they weren’t expecting. Everything was set up for two so I had to avail myself to both welcome glasses of champaign. $30 burgers were annoying, but after having been to 90 countries, I finally had an answer to friend’s question of where my favorite place is, hands down, Bora Bora. I plan on heading back when I find a Mrs. Randy.

  14. A –

    I went to Phuket in 2006 and got a Best Western 1/2 block from the beach for $37/night in July, the alleged “low” and very rainy season. It was blistering hot and clear skies the entire time except for the last day in town which was my travel day anyway.

    I booked via Travelocity where pics of the property matched what was actually there. No surprise “construction” or down-trodden facilities at this one. In fact, the pics to me barely did the place justice.

    No hotels are right on the water. Like Hawaii the beach is public access so they’re all back off the main road. What made it better was I had the place almosst entirely to myself. It was not too long after the tsunami had gone thru as well as the SARS scare. That plus it being too hot and possibly rainy for most gave me an expanse of beach nearly uninhabited.

    Food prices very reasonble. Unless you insist on Zagat or Michelin meals every day, two can eat for under $30 per day.

    My hotel was at Karon Beach, 5 miles south of the main Patong strip. Patong is like Waikiki on steroids. Crowded and bustling. Karon much better for relaxing with the missus. And taxis run you up to the clubs when you need to get your groove on.

    China Air has been offering Hong Kong and Thailand for $600 recently, so check and see if that deal is still out there. Unless either can take you directly to Phuket, check AirAsia, the LCC out of Bangkok for cheap domestic fares.

    Once there, the Phuket Airport is an hour’s drive to either Patong or Karon so plan accordingly when it’s time to leave.

    For the James Bond fans, the nearby bay offers the location where Man With the Golden Gun was filmed. Cruise tours offer trips to Scaramanga’s Island as well as some of the other bits of sand and surf. Sunsets on Phuket Island are the stuff of legend.

    Have fun!

  15. I love Air Asia. I took 13 flights around Southeast Asia last year for average of $33 each including tax. I tacked on two weeks to my Tibet and Bhutan trip to take advantage of that. I hope to do the same type of trip on Ryanair at some point to visit the Baltics, Malta, and Morocco.

  16. Matthew –

    I first traveled to New Zealand in 1994 and have been going back once every 2-3 years ever since. I chose New Zealand first out of fear that if I went to Australia first I would consider New Zealand simply to be more of the same.

    To this day, having been to both, I prefer New Zealand by a factor of 10. In my personal experience I have found
    a) The people are friendlier and more laid back
    b) The scenery is spectacular at every turn
    c) A country of 4 million matches greater Sydney in population, meaning far less crowds in even the largest cities.
    d) Food is Commonwealth standard, fish & chips, lamb and seafood, all extremely reasonable in price
    e) The US dollar goes a bit farther.

    Think Napa Valley planted right next to the open sea. And at 12 hours it’s a shorter flight even if your backside is numb after the first nine!

    Go to New Zealand first. Sydney is fine and will still be there as a draw.

  17. I can’t be quite as quick to say New Zealand over Australia. In my own blog, I did a 10-point comparison between the two. It was five-five in regular time, and NZ won with a penalty kick, pretty much – it’s a slightly shorter trip for me.

    I like Australia’s food, wildlife and wild people better. But NZ has scenery and hiking to absolutely short-circuit the brain.

    Either way, you can’t lose.

  18. Thanks, Justin and Optimist. In terms of practicalities (things that make the trip smoother and easier on the nerves), it seems as if NZ wins out, while for me Australia wins on intangibles (that would be my childhood obsession with Aussie fauna).

    In any case, marriage will soon force me to economize and I may have to see both on a trip or end up missing one of them alogether. From the posts I have seen here it does look like NZ wins in the long-haul carrier department handily!

  19. Matthew –

    I mentioned in a different post that curiosity keeps me checking the fares to Oz and NZ. As of today’s special, May 6th, Qantas is $310 o/w to Sydney where I paid the $299 rate back in March.

    For some reason, though, Auckland is $380 o/w where it used to be $299 along with Sydney.

    For my trip I booked an “Open-Jaw” through the QF website using the “multi-trip” option. It was a bit cumbersome to use but it worked out so I could visit both countries on the same trip.

    For the leg between Auckland and Sydney check with Orbitz or Travelocity. Lan(Chile) was offering only $72 per person. Trouble is the flight is at 5:30AM out of New Zealand!

    I booked on the Emirates A380 instead, leaving at 6:15PM from Auckland to Sydney for only $88, still a hefty savings over Qantas or Air New Zealand for a LOT more airplane!!

    The short story – Check with Qantas for an “open-jaw” that will include both countries, then book an “off-brand” airline between the two for the best possible fare. Then all you have to do is decide how much time to spend in both!


  20. Optimist–

    Thanks for the pointers. It does seem as if open jaw is the way to go –filling the gap with your suggestions. I would love to arrive via NZ biz class, although I have hearfd that those seats disappear almost instantaneously (whether reward or upgrade).

    Of course, the tough part will be convincing the wife in the next year or two!

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