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Monday, 18 May 2015

Five go mad in French Polynesia!

French Polynesia - a tropical paradise of close encounters with rays and sharks. Saw where Cook landed and understood why the men of the ship the Bounty mutineered in the hope of staying here forever.

We had three weeks in French Polynesia in our journey across the Pacific from New Zealand. Tahiti and her islands is the other name for French Polynesia and as a description it makes more sense as there are in fact 183 islands in Polynesia, we discovered. We landed in Tahiti, as all international airlines do, but I had chosen that we would stay on her islands, specifically on the island of Moorea, and what a great choice we made. Moorea is a jewel of a tropical island - a lush fertile interior with great mountains from which pour vast waterfalls which feed the life which explodes everywhere in great palm trees, avocado trees, oranges, pineapples, lemons and papayas which grow everywhere in huge abundance. Moorea reaches into the sea with perfect white sand beaches giving onto an ever-calm lagoon at the edge of which is a great surf break which in some places produces perfect barrel waves almost every day of the year. There is one road on the island - the road which rings its 40 mile circumference, much of which has cycle lanes in each direction. There is no traffic to speak of, no traffic lights at all, and no high rise buildings. It almost defines tropical paradise.

The view from the lookout from Moorea over the lagoon back towards Tahiti.



Moorea is the nearest island to Tahiti and is easily accessible by a short ferry ride on a big channel-crossing type of ferry across the blue sea and under the blue sky.  It would have been lovely to have explored some of the other island of Polynesia, but they are all much much further away from Tahiti, and hence much much more expensive to get to - you need to fly to them, there are no ferry boats to any island other than Moorea. Because that is the big obstacle with visiting, and then travelling around, French Polynesia - the cost! If I thought New Zealand was expensive to get to, French Polynesia is even more so, and then the cost of accommodation is higher, and the choice less, while food is more expensive, so much of it being imported from France, and the wine is much more expensive, all of it being imported from France. But Moorea was borderline affordable for us to get to, given our RTW tickets, and was almost affordable to stay in.

We discovered that Moorea has two public beaches. Only two partly because a lot of the island gives directly onto coral rather than beach, and also because a lot of the prime beach area that does exist is owned by the few big hotel chains which are here - there is a big development of overwater bungalows from the Hilton chain, another from Sofitel, and a third from Intercontinental. This is one of the main features of the island - that most of the tourists come to these few big hotel chains, and so all their activities are organised by the hotel, often within the hotel complex. Fortunately the hotels are very sensitive developments - small low-rise bungalows. But because the tourists are mostly within these complexes there is very little information about the resources outside the hotels because it is expected that as a tourist you will be guided to the activities by the hotels. As independent travellers therefore it took us a little longer to work out where the best things of the island are and how to make the most of them. But certainly the first step to doing this was to discover the public beaches.

The two public beaches of the island are beautiful stretches of white sand, dotted with palm trees, scattered with picnic tables, and are usually home to a food van (often a really good wood-fired pizza van) on them, and the great thing about the public beaches, rather than the hotel beaches, is that this is where the locals go. And they really go there. Unlike in Bali where very very few of the local population can swim, and where it is a very rare sight to see a local enjoying the beaches for any purpose other than for children to play, or for fishing. You are very aware that in Moorea the locals have a deep bond with the sea - like the Maoris these locals came originally from Asia and crossed the Pacific in canoes, in many voyages, over many centuries, and their connection with the sea is deep and close. As in New Zealand where we found that wherever you found a Kiwi, Maori or not, it was not long before you found them jumping off a wharf and surfing in the sea. So in Moorea every chance they had the locals would be on the beaches enjoying themselves - big family groupings would come with beers, and picnics and boom boxes, and they would settle down for a long afternoon of playing in the water, swimming, snorkelling, canoeing, playing music, drinking beers in the water, and really enjoying life.



And so we too went to the public beaches and had a wonderful time. The kids' favourite beach, by far, was a beach with a rope swing swung over a tree - I can't count the hours they spent queuing with local kids to each take turns and do dramatic twists, and plummets into the warm tropical sea.



One time we went to the beach and it suddenly rained when we were in the water. The effect was amazing. The sea was an incredible turquoise blue, and so so warm, and the rain was bouncing off the utterly calm lagoon while the mountains on the land had disappeared into cloud and all you could see all around you was the utter calm blue turquoise of the lagoon framed at seemingly the world's end by the white splashes of the surf break. Just incredible.

Other days we drove our teeny little car (there are no other types of cars on the island) across to Cook's Bay - a great inlet of sea where Captain Cook allegedly first landed - and across to Oponohu Bay where Captain Cook actually first landed. This is another great inlet of sea and, as they both are, fringed with the countless bounty of the tropics - huge palm trees, pineapples, lemons, avocados and so on, as well as of course the huge bread fruit which the ship the Bounty had come here to find. One can only imagine what those sailors thought and felt when they first saw these sights so foreign to English eyes. No wonder when the sailors on the Bounty were faced with the brutality of ship life under Captain Bligh or the life of plenty in Polynesia they chose the latter, even though they knew if they were captured the result would be almost certain death.



Above the two inlets of the island, Cook's Bay and Oponohu Bay is the mountain that the film Bali Hai is named after, and the one drive not to a beach we made on the island was to the inland viewspot called The Belvedere which looks down on all these beautiful sights.



One week we stayed at "Mark's Place" and decided to do without a rental car while there to save money, as Mark's Place had bikes they let us use for free. Now we felt even more like locals - we couldn't make it halfway around the island to the one big supermarket, so instead we had to use the local shops. Most especially I would take advantage of this being French Polynesia and cycle the few minutes before breakfast to the local patisserie van to buy us fresh baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolats each day. The other advantage of not having a car was that we were dependent on far transport on the very friendly staff at Mark's Place, and they gave us a lift to several places. The first was the dolphin show at the Intercontinental - a terrific show because you don't pay and there are no other spectators. What you are watching is three or four hotel guests who are paying, silly money as it happens, to be in the water with the dolphin stroking it and having photos taken cradling it, and then the fun bit is you get to watch the dolphins do their amazing jumps and spins. Mark's Place also gave us a lift, and showed us where to go, which we would almost certainly never have found for ourselves, to do the most amazing thing there is to do on Moorea, which we went back to time and time again, swimming with the sharks and the rays.



This happens at a beach next to a hotel and restaurant called Les Tippaniers, and at the beach you can choose to either rent kayaks or little motor boats which fit five people. On our first visit we chose double and triple kayaks, and it was lovely to be cruising through the water on a kayak again, in the turquoise lagoon, and soon we were across the channel and heading towards where a boat was stationed and the kayak lady had said that was where the rays were. So we drew up alongside, dropped anchor, sorted out snorkels etc, and then were in the water, and suddenly OH MY GOD!!!!! Loads of incredibly huge and beautiful rays floating all around, and LOADS of incredibly scary looking sharks zipping around in the water too! OMG it was AMAZING! The guides who fed them had rays all over them and were stroking and touching them, so me and Poppy got up close to some of them and had a stroke or two - wow, incredibly soft. Amazing. And the sharks were so streamlined and so freaky sliding gracefully through the water, back and forth, back and forth. While the rays and their big eyes floated along and around and about. Wow!!!! We all loved it! When my mum arrived on Mooorea we went back twice more to the sharks and rays, this time in one of the little motor boats, which I let Joe and Poppy each have a turn driving, which delighted them.






Twice after seeing the sharks and rays we had lunch in the beachside restaurant there, Restaurant Les Tippaniers and had a delicious lunch with an amazing view - right over the lagoon with its incredible turquoise colours, framed by palm trees, and holding the secret of rays and sharks within its waters. Wow. Pretty special.

Another morning we set out from Mark's Place in kayaks to hope to see dolphins in the lagoon. We paddled out onto the water. It was cloudy and overcast - the most it has ever been here- but this was fortunate as it was past dawn (about 8.30am), and on any normal day it would be getting pretty intolerably hot by now. It was beautiful though. Smooth blue and silver water stretching out in front of us until it was entirely disrupted by the great surf break. And looking back into land, the dark green velvet mountains of Moorea rose from the middle of the island, leaving just the edge for the people and the small houses, and pristine churches.

We paddled straight out and found a buoy that Mark had told me about and tied up to it. We were very near the huge waves of the surfbreak now, but in an entirely safe spot and in the absence of dolphins we watched a bunch of amazing human surfers doing sensational tricks on the incredible barrel waves. Then suddenly I spotted two dolphin fins rising and falling. Wow! A surfer who just arrived to tie up suggested we paddle over to them and so we did. We then spent quite a while paddling around and getting very near to two dolphins, then three, then four. The last sighting of four dolphins that we had was the most amazing - they all rose and fell into the water, and we could hear them exhale through their blowhole, inhale, and then dive back into the water. They were completely beautiful, and we were there just us watching them. No one else, and no motors, nothing but the gentle sound of our paddles, and the roaring crash of the nearby waves. Wow. Just wow.

It would be wonderful to come back to French Polynesia and explore more of these incredible islands. But I think we would have to win the lottery to be able to afford it, and as we don't even do the lottery, I guess that's fairly unlikely. Shame, but at least we made it there once. Everyone should get there once.





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