I'm visiting the Windward Islands, part of the Society Islands, starting in Papeete (and going on to Bora Bora and Moorea. The 'big island plane' from Rarotonga has 48 seats, but fewer than half of them are occupied. Presumably no-one can afford Tahiti. (I’ve been warned that my credit card is going to take a battering.)
Papeete (Water Basket) is the capital of French Polynesia, on Tahiti, the most populous island (69% of the people live here). Tahiti is known for its black volcanic sand beaches. The city developed, primarily, because the French moved their French nuclear weapon test range from Algeria, (which had won independence), to the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa, some 930 miles to the east of Tahiti. The two detonations were both followed by rioting, on Tahiti.
And it is like arriving on a different planet. It is all built up, proper airport, huge swanky resorts. Even a small traffic jam. Everyone is wearing hats, the men have little moustaches and they are all chattering away in French. Not a rooster in sight. And I walked straight through immigration, without even a stamp in my passport.
My hotel, for the one night, has given me a 'lagoon view' room. All I can see from the window is trees. On the upside, the porters are all wearing sarongs and nothing else.
French food and sophistication and stunning tropical scenery. Sublime. Though there are local twists, of course, Poisson cru, for example, is fish marinated in coconut milk.
And today I’m off to Yap, the last of the states of Micronesia. There must be potential for really bad puns there too. From Chuuk I have to go back via Guam, so I leave Micronesia and come back again. It’s a long day, with a six hour wait at Guam Airport before I board exactly the same plane and sit in exactly the same seat.
A bare breasted grass skirted lady, slips a flower garland round my neck to cheer me up after enduring yet another queue for immigration. There are three Russians standing just behind me. The male is typically tall, well turned out with dirty blond hair. His wife/girl friend is like a delicate china doll with dark hair in bunches. She seems to be having a good sulk. Their little boy is hovering between the two of them and deciding that his father is the better bet for entertainment at the moment. Finally, bed at 2 a.m.
Things are looking up all round. I slept well, if not for long enough and even though, I discovered to my surprise that I have a waterbed. It’s a little lively, but it seems quite comfortable. My room is lovely and everything works. It’s yet another lagoon view. The hotel is called Manta Ray Bay Resort and it’s definitely a place with a theme (or two). There are photographs of the (many) mantas of Yap, all named; I like Newbie for a juvenile best. The rooms are all called after fish (I’m barracuda - read into that what you will). There’s a hand-painted manta sea scene on the bed throws. Manta shortbread biscuits are supplied and even the towels on the bed have been artfully crafted into a manta shape. The restaurant and bar is atmospherically housed on a hundred year old schooner moored by the dive shop.
And I’m engaged in a tour of the island with my guide Theo. He carries a small holdall with him everywhere. It transpires that this is crammed with betel nuts. The chewing isn’t as prevalent in Micronesia as it used to be. It causes the teeth (except the gold ones which are still seen as a sign of wealth here) to become red and stained, and making it looks as if the gums are bleeding. Theo says his mother gave betel to him while he was a child, to keep him warm while she worked in the fields. so he became addicted.
And he’s disgruntled because his wife wants to grow flowers in the garden, rather than more betel nut palms. I can see why he would want to grow more, as the nuts in the bag are diminishing at a rate of knots, but at least he waits till I’m looking the other way to spit. And he’s a relaxed and attentive guide, if not fully appraised of all the historical facts.
There are, of course, Japanese bunkers, planes and guns from World War II to be seen, but I’m more interested in the Yap culture, which is uniquely fascinating. This is Indonesia meets Samoa. In complete contrast to Chuuk the main island is almost (not quite) litter free. The roads thread through nipa and mangrove swamp, like Kosrae, but here they well maintained and are neatly lined with crotons, hibiscus and other tropical delights. The villagers stay quietly out of sight.
The roads skirt the villages and they are entered via a network of stone paths which criss-cross the island. There are traditional, very tidy, woven long houses, with their pointy roofs, meeting houses for the men (with the best breezy views out to sea) and community halls. Slabs of stone protrude from the ground around all of these. They look like gravestones, but they are back rests for the men while they sit and rest or talk.
Theo tells me that the villages here are still very traditional. Most Men wear the th’us”, a type of loin cloth and women, urohs, the traditional brightly coloured dresses or grass skirts (bare- breasted) for festivals and ceremonies, though there are a few villages where this is still everyday wear. All the land in Yap is privately owned and we have had to acquire permission in advance to visit everything on our itinerary.
Theo has also carried a small branch with him throughout. In Yap, you should never enter a village without anything in your hands. If you have nothing, then it is understood that you have nothing to do there and have ill intentions. The world wide web tells me that carrying one green leaf will suffice, but apparently the internet is wrong and one leaf alone is viewed as insubstantial and the bearer therefore someone asking for trouble. So maybe there are observers, even though I can’t see anyone.
I’ve read about the Stone Money Banks located throughout the island. Massive pieces of Stone Money (roughly circular with a hole in the middle) line stone pathways in the villages, so displaying their wealth. Here, size does matter as each piece has a value based on where it came from and how it was made. Many of them were quarried in Palau. (The hotel soap is Yap money shaped, with a hole in the centre, and so are their pizzas!) I happily wander the stones I have been given permission to visit. It’s quiet and serenely beautiful. Only lizards, crabs and butterflies accompany me on my excursions along the moss covered paths.
The slight fly in the ointment are the over excitable dogs that roam the roads, as in much of the Pacific, singly or in groups. (I can feel a Yap pun coming on here and I’m desperately trying to avoid it.) On the return journey Theo asks me what I will have for dinner. He says that one of his favourite meals is fruit bat. I don’t think it’s on the schooner menu.
This is a serious dive resort, the dive boats are smart and extremely well organised, (roofs with no holes to boot) and it promises a lot of its dives. To reach the reef we have to slowly navigate the very narrow channels through the mangroves that divide the four flattish, main islands of Yap. The banks are alive with tiny, scurrying red crabs.
Because I’m the only one not diving I have my own snorkel guide, Joe, in attendance. And he is very attentive. He brings me drinks, carries my bag and escorts me along the reef for a front row view of the manta rays and the reef sharks. He grabs my fins and twirls me around, pointing me directly at the mantas to take my photos, as they sweep gracefully into their cleaning station. (The wrasse on the reef nibble away the parasites that inhabit the manta’s wings, so the mantas tend to favour spots where they know the fish gather). Joe is also a betel nut addict. He and Nico, the dive guide, are sharing a Rasta bag full of the nuts, which they open and inject with lime powder. They spit into the sea, which isn’t quite so interesting and not very alluring. ‘Caring is sharing’, smiles the captain.
Later, Joe hangs grimly onto my fins again, this time to make sure I don’t get swept onto the reef while I’m shark watching outside the lagoon. There’s a huge swell on and I’ve been told to float in the water until the divers have finished – the boat at anchor is not a comfortable experience. I’m even feeling a little queasy bobbing about in the water. No wonder this site is called Vertigo. I’ve taken so many pictures on my thrilling big animals of the sea safari that I’ve exhausted my fresh battery. My butler dispatches my camera to the boat for me. And naturally eight sharks immediately swim right up close. How do they know? Nevertheless, it’s been an exciting trip and a surprise contender for Uepi’s thrilling snorkelling crown.
Dinner in the schooner bar. The Russian family I saw at the airport are at an adjacent table –we’re on nodding terms now.
There’s a sunbathing area next to a small shallow pool (with mantas painted on the bottom, of course). Space is tight and it faces east, so sunny spots are at a premium. There were four Germans on the dive boat yesterday and as soon as we had docked one of them headed for the only bed still in the sun and put her towel on it…I had planned to spend as much of today in the sun as I could and I’ve succeeded in beating the Germans to the optimally placed bed. But the forecast suggests that the weather isn’t going to comply.
I’ve noticed that there’s a brass ship’s bell to ring if you want to be served. Very nice. Though not to be confused with the bell on the top floor of the schooner which indicates that you intend to buy for everyone in the bar. There are also two working (loud) cannons on the schooner. They fire those when it’s happy hour.
I was going snorkelling today, but there’s been a continuous downpour again all night and the weather forecast is all doom and gloom. I’m told visibility won’t be good and it will be cold. Naturally, it stops raining as soon as I have made my decision to cancel. But it’s still very damp and muggy. My sarong is still really wet and it’s been hanging up to dry for three days.
I saunter into town (Colonia with a C) but that takes five minutes. There are four general stores in a row in one direction. The rickety shelves, cans, hands of bananas and racks of cheap clothes are now a familiar sight. Towards the port are a handful of restaurants and the local version of a mall. This is a lime green roofed corrugated iron building containing a variety of dilapidated shops and offices. It’s very sleepy and I’m not sure that anything is open. There’s no sidewalk through town, but the few cars are careful to drive slowly round me. I consider walking further, but I can see some dogs prowling in the distance. And I don’t have a stick.
My flight on to Palau goes at 11 pm. There’s a leaving garland too. And at the airport I’m talking to a flower bedecked family seeing off their son, who is returning to college. They insist on presenting me with a flower crown as well. Also seated close by are the Russians – the lady is smiling today.
Read more about Micronesia (FSM) here.
Another island - Bora Bora. Now I'm in the Leeward Islands, in the Society Islands. Another contender, after Aitutaki, for most beautiful lagoon in the world. It's a very close call. The views from the air are sublime. This is an extinct volcano (two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu); surrounded by a fabulous deep blue lagoon and scattered motu, with the turquoise shallows on the edge of the lagoon. The airport is on one of the motu, rather like the one in Gizo, in The Solomons. But here the motu is part of the outer reef and the boats meeting us are all tricked out speedboats. Just to spoil things a little, I've learned that the Tahitian language only has 14 letters. Apparently, ‘b’ isn’t one of them, and iconic Bora Bora is actually called ‘Pora Pora’, meaning ‘first born (of the Gods)’.
But onwards and upwards. I have joined the jet set and I have an overwater bungalow. They were invented in French Polynesia. How can you not?
OMG, possibly the most wonderful room I have have ever slept in. The volcano peak is framed in the window. I can sit in bed and look at it. Or I can sit in the bathroom and look at it. I have my own private jetty and sun deck, so I can snorkel or swim to the perfect powdery white beach. There is coral beneath my room and I have a glass coffee table that I can slide back to feed the fish below.
The same fish keep loitering there, luminous jade edged trumpet fish and angel fish. I can also watch them through the bedside table or the ledges round the bath; there is even a spotlight to illuminate my coffee table reef at night. The room is all Polynesian wood, art and weaving. And it has a TV. There are even ice machines in little thatched huts along the decking.
I sit on the restaurant terrace and watch all the guests parade into dinner. It's like Paris Fashion Week as they saunter along the catwalks in all their designer gear. There are no overweight female tourists here - though quite a lot of evidence of surgical intervention. Interestingly, quite a few of the men, even the young ones, are sporting little pot bellies. I suppose that's the affluent lifestyle. And, as usual, many of the locals are amply proportioned.
The staff are all togged out in their floral dresses. Both the men and women have long hair (often wound into a bun) and flowers behind their ears. I've discovered that putting a taire (the national flower of Tahiti) behind your ear is used as a symbol of your relationship status; if it’s behind your left ear you’re taken, behind your right and you’re single!
The flip side to this paradise? OMG (again) is it expensive. My buffet meal last night (with Polynesian dancing) cost £70 flat rate. Time to start that diet I think. There are plagues of flies that descend instantly if you attempt to eat outside. Water bungalows are pretty noisy at night, with the wind and the sea, not to mention the clattering of suitcases being rolled across the wooden walkways. The only English TV Channel is CNN and I can only stand five minutes depression. I also have another dodgy stomach.
Nevertheless, another Cycle Tour beckons. The road round the main island is exactly 20 miles long, just like Rarotonga. And this is France, so it's only appropriate.
I am well prepared this time. Sunscreen, water, map, shorts. I even work out which way the wind is blowing and head off into it so that I shall have the easiest leg to finish. Except that it doesn't work out like that. The wind is over 30kph and coming from the west. (It's been buffeting my bungalow all night). The island is long and thin and north orientated. The upshot is that the wind seems to be against me for most of the journey.
The road is mostly flat, as I circumnavigate the volcano, but there a couple of hills. So I push up them and resume my journey at the top, reaching for the brakes as I career down. Except that there aren't any. Not supplied on this bike. Terrifying. I discover that the only way to stop is to leap off the saddle, trying to avoid getting my calves bashed by the pedals in the process. I nearly end up in the water a few times. The car drivers come pretty close and almost force me into the deep drainage ditch the other side too. It takes a huge effort of will to finish this one. So I award myself the King of the Mountains green jersey. This is especially appropriate, as I spend most of the journey trying to cycle past one or other of the peaks.
The Bora Bora scenery is lush and dramatic. Some gorgeous white beaches. Out in the lagoon I can see the bungalow dots of the various motu resorts. Inland, the locals live a less luxurious lifestyle. The major settlement, Vaitape, is on the western side of this island, opposite the main channel leading into the lagoon. Most dwellings have corrugated tin roofs and the people surround their houses with colourful pot plants. And, deja vu, the odd cockerel running around. Washing lines are laden with bright tie dye and floral patterned clothes. There are numerous old cars around, some piled up alongside the houses. There are also family graves with headstones in front of some of the dwellings.
The small schools are just for primary aged children. The secondary school is on another island and the state pays for the students to board. They get to come home every five weeks or so. The islanders survive on fish and coconuts. Some of the men are bringing in today's catch, gutting the fish on the edge of the lagoon. They use little boats that are hoisted up on double wheeled winches, keeping them out of the water unless they are needed.
OMG, lagoon cruises here are amazing too. The coral is mainly soft pinks and purples, very Rennie Macintosh. There don't seem to be huge numbers of small fish, but I have been snorkelling with rays and sharks this morning. The sharks are reef sharks and lemon sharks; the reef sharks are dainty with dark pointy fins, while the lemon sharks are larger and keep their distance. There are small sting rays named Julie and Samantha (for some reason) who come to be fed; they are soft and velvety. However, the truly incredible experience is swimming with the manta rays. They are huge and so graceful.
Some joker has set the alarm in my room to go off at 6 a.m. every day. And all my efforts to turn it off, including disconnecting the power, have failed. But at least I'm up to see the sunrise over the mountains and have a last sun bathe on my deck. It's breaking my heart to leave my beautiful room on the water. All in all a great deal to see and much character in evidence,
But I can't declare Bora Bora the lagoon winner; it really is ridiculously expensive. As I said, this is France, but it's not in the EEC, so the currency is the pacific franc. They'll accept euros as well then? No, but they'll take American dollars. For twenty dollars, in the supermarché, I purchase three cans of coke, a small tin of cashews and two bottles of local mineral water. The roughly 70 pence change is just enough to buy me a plastic carrier bag to put it all in.
On the plane trip nearly all the passengers sit on the right hand side of the plane to get their last glimpses of Bora Bora. I am so concerned that the plane will flip over I almost say something to the stewardess. And I sit on the left, resolutely denying myself the view. But there was no accident, obviously. Moorea next.
(Read more about French Polynesia here.)
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