Tahiti or Hawaii - which would you say is the more exotic destination? Given that Hawaii resembles California in many ways, the answer (unless 'California' sounds exotic to you) must be TAHITI. Tahiti and the hundreds of other islands that make up French Polynesia have seen very little tourist development (until recently?) despite the fact that there is scenery in French Polynesia that is far more impressive than anything in Hawaii. Our one piece of strong advice regarding French Polynesia: spend a minimal amount of time on the island of Tahiti and head instead for islands such as Moorea, Huahini, and Bora Bora. There are probably many others that deserve a visit but these are the only ones we saw during an eight week stay in 1991, with the exception of Bora Bora. All the islands just mentioned are part of the Society Islands group, so named by Captain Cook because they are relatively close to one another.
Why avoid the island of Tahiti? Because it lacks much of the relaxed charm of the other islands, its roads are sometimes busy and dangerous, packs of wild dogs are a threat, there's not that much to do except enjoy the lagoon and, worst of all, the local people resent the presence of westerners. This last observation is to be expected, given that the French presence in Polynesia has been largely inspired by the need to to test their nuclear weapons far away from the bistros and Cartier outlets of the Champs Elysées. I don't know how many bombs have been exploded under Mururoa atoll, 2000 km southeast of Tahiti, and I think the testing program ended around 1994, but during the many years that the program ran France poured money into Polynesia, perhaps partially with the intent of quelling dissent among the locals. The population has thus become dependent on the French subsidies and, although they strongly desire more independence from France, they must be aware that they cannot maintain their present standard of living without French subsidies. The only hope for financial independence lies in tourism and I believe that tourist infrastructure such as ferry services between the society islands has been improved since our visit. Resentment of westerners is strong enough that sometimes 'le truck', the local minibus service, would not stop for us, which was quite annoying as that is the ONLY public transport on Tahiti. Another reason for resentment of westerners is that the French civil servants working in Tahiti have purchased most of the waterfront along the Punaauia lagoon, Tahiti's finest lagoon which runs along the west side of the island. Local people are not welcome here, and it's rumoured that some French people have trained their dogs to attack local (coloured) people.
So, during our eight week stay in French Polynesia, we made the mistake of spending about six weeks in Tahiti, leaving only one week for Tahiti's little neighbour, Moorea, and one week for Huahini. It wasn't our intention to stay so long on Tahiti but my passport got lost after it was sent to Fiji to have my American visa renewed - we had to delay our departure until it was found in the Papeete post office - they couldn't find it under the surname 'Ward' because it had been filed under the name 'Nigel'...
We spent most of our Tahiti time in a little house 50 meters away from the Punaauia lagoon - it has an idyllic beach, a turquoise lagoon with plenty of exotic fish, and a coral reef a few hundred meters from the beach, accessible by outrigger canoe. It was hard to find the house, as there is no house numbering in Tahiti - the best directions are something like this: "small house with green metal gate, 3km south of post office". We spent many hours lazing on the beach, reading and snorkelling. We were disappointed not to have had much contact with people there, though a couple of French teachers were very hospitable to us. Our most difficult time was a week of non-stop rain - we were trapped inside our little house and Catherine was going mad trying to light cigarettes with matches that were so damp that they would not light...
- a tour of the island in a rented car (the little wreck cost a fortune but prices may have fallen recently)
- the markets of Papeete, the capital
- a nice walk up the 'valley of a thousand springs'. Unfortunately there are very few walks to do in Tahiti since paths become overgrown so quickly.
- a trip to see the Tahitian dancing at a local hotel. This is very sensuous and exciting dancing, very different from the soporific hula dancing of Hawaii.
One day while we were there a small aircraft flew over our house and crashed into the lagoon a few meters from the beach. No one was hurt and the local children enjoyed this new plaything for a few days until the French air force arrived with a large helicopter to lift the plane away.
A few days later this expensive yacht was blown onto the reef near our house - the guy on the boat had set the autopilot before taking a nap but there wasn't enough wind for the autopilot to work so he awoke to find he had been washed up onto the reef, with big waves making it very difficult for the yacht to be pulled back off the coral.
Catherine catches the last golden rays of the setting sun.
On Tahiti island is a museum dedicated to Gauguin, who lived in French Polynesia for many years in his "Maison du Jouir". The Gauguin Museum is the biggest rip-off I've ever seen - there's not a single Gauguin painting in it! At least they have a few Galapagos turtles - any resemblance to your grandmother is entirely coincidental!
Catherine made friends with this cat...
Moorea, sister island to the island of Tahiti, is quite small compared to Tahiti, but very unspoiled and quite spectacular, especially Cook's Bay in the south. we had a good time touring this island, canoeing, swimming... you know the drill. Here's Moorea in the foreground with Tahiti behind it.
We were able, by showing up without a reservation, to get good room rates here at the Bali Hai on beautiful Cook's Bay.
Me again, out for a spin on Cook's Bay.
Huahine means 'woman' and when you see the island from a distance it's not hard to guess how it got this name. This island is a few hours from Tahiti by ferry and it really feels very far from anywhere. It's really two islands linked by a little bridge. There's hardly any traffic except for bicycles along the dirt roads and the local people were very friendly, with all the kids greeting us with waving arms as we sailed by on our bicycles.
Here's a quiet lagoon on Huahine. How do you like my painting?
Catherine crosses the narrow bridge linking the two sides of the island.
We didn't go here but it looks stunning in the photos we've seen - it'll be our number one priority if we ever go back to French Polynesia.
All the islands mentioned above are mountainous but there are hundreds of other islands and many of them are atolls. An atoll is just a little sand and a few palm trees sitting on a coral reef - the original island inside the reef has sunk or been eroded but the coral reef lives on.