Ten Days in Paradise

The white sand tickles my toes as the sun’s rays gently warm my skin.  The quiet is only broken by the shriek of snorkeling tourists coming across a foreign underwater creature or the crashing of some unbalanced paddle boarder going overboard in the lagoon surrounding the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort.  It’s absolutely beautiful here, and to call this my office for the day is a blessing.

We’re now ten days into what will quickly add up into months around the world.  We arrived in Papeete, Tahiti just as the sun began to peek over the hillside surrounding the airport.  Groggy travelers disembarked the plane and seemingly transformed into wide-eyed, excited tourists embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime trip in French Polynesia.  Seeing as how it was still only 5:30am and I had turned restlessly through the night on the redeye from LAX to PPT, I was not as giddy as I had imaged I would be upon arriving in paradise.  That promptly changed as I passed through customs and walked through the airport doors into the already oppressive humidity and heat.  I was thrilled!

Since we’re trying to keep costs down – we skipped the cab line and walked to the bus stop without a clue as to where we were headed.  Dan was pretty sure the hotel was about ten minutes “that way”.  Great, “that way” was what we were working off of.  No one on the bus spoke more than a couple words of English, but we were encouraged by a man who nodded at us when we grabbed our seats.  After what seemed like an eternity of scanning the side of the road for landmarks and trying to compare it to our out-dated Lonely Planet guide, the bus stopped again.  This time, the man who first nodded at us, got off and turned to motion to us.  We grabbed our bags, which are admittedly more than any self-respecting backpacker should have, and clamored off the bus.  After dragging those not-so-travel-friendly bags up the winding walkway, we climbed the steps of the Le Meridien into a beautiful open-air lobby overlooking a large coy pond, a beautiful pool and eventually out over the blue waters of the South Pacific.  The man who motioned to us to get off the bus turned out to be a bellman at the hotel.  He grabbed our bags and led us to check-in.  Seeing as it was nearly 7:30am, our room wasn’t ready, which isn’t an issue when you’re in paradise.  We wandered to the breakfast buffet to eat before jumping in our swimsuits to spend the day lounging around the pool.

When in French Polynesia, most discerning travelers turn up their nose at Tahiti refusing to even see what the island has to offer.  I’ll admit, it’s much more ‘commercial’ and lacks the raw beauty of other nearby islands, but we loved every minute of it.  We relaxed by the pool, wandered the beaches to a local surf spot, caught a traditional Polynesian dance show and rented a car to drive the entire island.  We hiked to beautiful waterfalls, watched water spew up from a natural blowhole, marveled at the bravery of children tackling waves in some of the roughest waters all in an effort to learn to surf and paused to reflect upon several archaeological sites as well as spending time in downtown Papeete.

I resent Lonely Planet writers calling the capital city of Papeete grimy, underwhelming and not what you would expect from a tropical paradise.  I have news for them – it’s a CITY.  Cities are dirty, crowded and bustling with people, and yes, Papeete is no different.  However, I found it fascinating.  A beautiful market graces the center of town where locals sell fresh fish, meat, veggies and pastries along with sarongs and black pearls.  There are several great parks as well as shops and juice stands lining each street.  You won’t find beautiful architecture or high-end restaurants, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Yes, in my opinion, Tahiti has A LOT to do, and it’s easier to keep costs down than it is on other islands.  However, I must say trying to manipulate a french espresso maker to boil hot water for Ramen noodles was much harder than anticipated.  After we darn near broke the thing and coated the hotel desk with hot steam, we finally dished out our cheap American delicacy brought all the way from the good ol’ USA.  (Yes, we’re eating some Raman instead of opting for those $100.00 resort dinners every night!)

After a couple of days, we repacked our bags, which I can tell you is going to get old, and headed for Moorea.  Coming into it all, I found myself most excited to see Moorea.  I had heard rave reviews from almost anyone who has had the chance to grace it’s shoreline.  While the island itself lived up to the hype, the overall experience we had there didn’t.  We opted to stay at one of the cheaper, local hotels instead of a big resort – nothing wrong with that.  The problem was Club Bali Hai hadn’t been updated since it was built most likely in the late 50s, early 60s..just my guess.  Our room was littered with termite wings and frass with ants crawling over the kitchenette and walls.  The cockroach that crawled down my leg in the shower only added to the experience.  We spent most of our time near the lobby where there was free wifi and lounging near the outdated pool – if you watched your step, you could easily avoid all the broken tiles!  The accommodations were less than comfortable, but the same could not be said about the company.  The people at Club Bali Hai are wonderful.  The original over-the-water bungalows were sold years and years ago as timeshares, and the same owners return each year to bask the beauty of the island.  One timeshare owner in particular had been there yearly for 27 years.  I told Dan, we were truly hanging out with members of the Buena Vista Social Club.  We were easily the youngest people there.  In fact, I would venture to say we were some of the few under 60 aside from the group of 40 something, loud mouths from Jersey.  Day and night we sat out and chatted with our new friend Len, who by the way was more than willing to make recommendations on things to do around the globe.  In his lifetime, he has traveled to more than 120 countries!

We rented a scooter one day to circumnavigate the island – Danny referred to it only as “his hog”.  Unfortunately, he didn’t look as cool as he imagined.  I put my life in his hands as we wobbled back and forth, lurched forward and eventually jetted off.  The places to stop and things to see on Moorea are limited in comparison to Tahiti, but nothing rivals the raw beauty of the island.  Jagged peaks covered in green, lush vegetation shoot toward the sky from every angle.  The water isn’t as crystal and blue as say on Bora Bora, but the island itself is much, much more impressive.  We hiked a bit around Belvedere point – one of the islands most beautiful overlooks where you can view both Cooks bay and Robinsons cove at once.  We then risked our lives attempting to take a road generally reserved for 4x4s on our scooter, but were rewarded with breathtaking views of a small village tucked back in the hillside.

We bought some mangos, shrimp and french bread for tropical po-boys each night for dinner.. can you tell we’re already missing New Orleans? The goal was to devour our food before the ants covering the kitchen were able to the same.  Four days in Moorea was definitely enough for me – more thanks to the accommodations than the place.  I would love to go back one day with more money to spend.

Speaking of money – the next stop, as assumed, is the true money pit: Bora Bora.  Bora Bora itself is beautiful, but the island doesn’t hold a candle to Moorea.  Bora Bora’s beauty lies within in royal blue, crystal clear and turquoise waters.  From any point on the island itself or on the water you can pick up a handful of color variations in any direction.  Bora Bora (or boring, boring as members of the Buena Vista Social club on Moorea call it) is the place for big resorts and big money.  The island, which was the first to develop in French Polynesia, has done a much, much better job of promoting itself to tourists and more specifically tourists with money.  An over-water bungalow can run you upwards of $2,000.000 a night, and in case that’s not enough to pay, the hotels lay on fees and high-priced meals.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining.. it’s a dream vacation, but you must know what you’re in for.

Dan and I were blessed to stay at the Hilton Bora Bora Nui on a motu (surrounding island) in front of Bora Bora.  Those who paid for our hotel paid an average of $800.00 to $1,000 dollars a night – we, however, stayed free using our Hilton hotel points.  It costs about 250 dollars for the hotel to pick you up and take you to the airport and they charge you to take the water-shuttle into town and even up the price to go in around dinner – just to encourage you to stay and eat at one of three restaurants on the property. Dan and I were actually able to spend $4.00 one day here! He’s so impressed – he’ll be writing a blog post on it soon!

Since we’re getting by so cheap we decided Bora Bora was the place to spend our money on excursions.  We spent a day with Reef Adventures exploring the waters around the entire island – it was magnificent!  While in Hawaii for my Dad’s 60th birthday – he sprung for us all to attempt a night-dive with the giant manta rays.  It was supposed to be the highlight of our trip, but after clinging to a buoy for seemed like hours but was most likely thirty minutes in chilly waters – we saw nothing.  I set out to make it right, and it worked!  Dan and I were the only two on a boat of six to get to follow a giant manta ray through a deep channel off the coast of Bora Bora.  It’s such an amazing creature!  I felt so small hovering at the surface watching it gracefully glide beneath me toward the blue abyss.  We also floated along above a pack of 25-30 Eagle Rays, watched clown fish dart in and out of anemones, and spent time exploring the most beautiful reef that was overflowing with life.  With each stop to snorkel, I became more and more brave venturing out farther and diving deeper below the surface.  In fact, by the last stop I must have felt invincible.  Grab some fish food and jump into the deep blue  – why not?  As I took the food from Dan’s hand – he said, “Don’t freak out!”  Moments later, I was surrounded by fish feverishly biting at my arms and hands.  I promptly let out an awkward sounding squeal through and dropped the food. Anyone surprised? Dan sure wasn’t.  The problem was that didn’t stop the fish that still thought I had something offer.

All in all, it’s been quite an adventure already, and one I’m so thankful to have.  As I sit and reflect on the past ten days, I can’t help but worry a bit still about what will happen when this is all over.  How will we make it when we get back?  While those thoughts are still lingering in my head, they only seem to stay a short while before being pushed aside by thoughts that lead me to wonder why in the world we didn’t do this sooner.