A Very Brief History of French Polynesia

  • It's believed that the islands now known as French Polynesia, were settled as part of the Great Polynesian Migration, which began around 1500 BC. (Austronesian peoples navigated by the sun and stars to find other islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The first islands of French Polynesia to be settled, were the Marquesas Islands (in about 200 BC). The more southerly Society Islands were discovered around 300 AD.
  • European encounters first began in Tuāmotu-Gambier Archipelago, in 1521, with Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, sighted Puka-Puka in the. The Spanish were followed by the Dutch. In 1722, Jakob Roggeveen (for the Dutch West India Company), charted six islands in the Tuamotus and two in the Society Islands; one of these was Bora Bora.
  • The first European navigator to visit Tahiti, was British explorer Samuel Wallis, in 1767. He was followed by James Cook. The first actual European settlers (but not for very long) were Spanish, followed by Protestants from the London Missionary Society and then French catholic missionaries. The island kings and their subjects were converted and France annexed the islands, gradually expanding, despite resistance form the kings and the odd skirmish with the British.
  • The first official name for the colony was Établissements de l'Océanie (Establishments in Oceania). In 1946, Polynesians were granted French citizenship and the islands' status was changed to an overseas territory; the islands' name was changed in 1957 to Polynésie Française (French Polynesia).

Facts and Factoids

  • French Polynesia is now an overseas collectivity of France (which means it is semi autonomous) and its sole overseas country - a special designation.
  • It consists of 121 islands and atolls, which stretch an astonishing 2,000 kilometres across the South Pacific Ocean. Including the ocean, the whole of French Polynesia is equivalent in size to Europe. The islands are divided into five groups: the Society Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands.
  • In the 1960s, the overwater bungalow (as seen below) was created on the island of Moorea
  • It is thought that the word “tattoo” derives from the Tahitian word tatau.
  • About 10% of the population of French Polynesia today is Chinese. The Chinese were brought to the area in the mid-1800s to work in the plantations.
  • Tahiti is home to the Pearl Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated solely to pearls. Pearl diving was staple industry. So, French Polynesia's nickname - Pearl of Polynesia - is doubly suitable.

Flying into French Polynesia

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 - Pardonnez Moi

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.

Next up, Bora Bora and Moorea.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.

Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. At a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.

The Cayman Islands - in a Nutshell

  • The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, who called them Las Tortugas (turtles) and then Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But, by 1530,this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. The turtles were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
  • Due to their location, the Cayman Islands are more likely than any other islands in the Caribbean to be hit by hurricanes.
  • There has been vast amounts of immigration over the last few decades - the majority of the population was not born here
  • At one point, the majority of the government revenue came from the sale of postage stamps, primarily to stamp collectors around the world

Georgetown, the Capital of the Cayman Islands

Georgetown (named after George III) is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Twice as many companies as people. Though the first bank (Barclays) did not arrive until 1953. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.

Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.

Cocoplum Apartments

We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.

Seven Mile Beach

The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.

Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef

Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off. I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.

Governor's Beach

Another couple of miles further up, Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.

Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.

Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.

Cemetery Beach

At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.

Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There are dots of purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean, but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off-shore at all.

North End, Grand Cayman

The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. This is a very polarised population. and Hell is where the less well off tend to live, Unsurprisingly, the locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined.

The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.

Circumnavigating Grand Cayman

The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.

Smith’s Barcadere

Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown, depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.

Spotts Beach

Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. It's accessed, like all the beaches, down public right of way footpaths and it's another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.

Pedro St James

Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it, in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.

Bodden Town

Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.

East End, Grand Cayman

The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.

Barefoot Beach

Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.

North Side, Grand Cayman – Rum Point and Starfish Point

Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.

Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.

At least, it’s tranquil until all the tour boats turn up to admire the poor cushion starfish dotted, mainly solitary, under the dappled water. Loud music blares and the visitors munch lobster tails (it’s obviously an up market tour), as they splash around, asking if they can pick up the beleaguered echinoderms. Apparently, they want to make bikini tops out of them. The answer is no, they will suffocate out of the ocean. It doesn’t stop the intruders examining the creatures underwater. Some of the starfish beat a hasty retreat. The information boards say that their numbers have decreased rapidly over recent years. I wonder why.

Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park, Grand Cayman

The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is advertised as having seven main attractions – the Visitor’s Centre, the Floral (Colour) Garden, an Orchid Boardwalk (the banana orchid is the national flower), a Xerophytic Garden (plants which need little water), a Heritage Garden (sand and a traditional house and yard), a Woodland Trail, and the Children’s Garden. We enjoy a leisurely wander along the mile long woodland trail - rainforest, jagged limestone pools.

Then, through all of the other areas, except the Children’s Garden. The floral garden is indeed bright and attractive, with huge versions of all those plants, marantas, crotons, philodendrons, that we try and grow in pots at home. The two-acre lake, on the edge of a buttonwood swamp is tranquil and a brilliant mirror for the palm trees jutting over it. It’s also home to small Central American turtles called hickatees who paddle over, in the hope of food, give us the once over and then drift off.

But all this is incidental. We’ve come to see the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. It only lives on this island and the Botanic Gardens run a conservation project. They tell us that 40 of the creatures wander the park and I’m determined to see one. After a quiet start, my wish is granted and several iguanas of various shapes and sizes make themselves known. as does a rare and shy agouti, for five quivering seconds.

It's been a great and contrasting week. Now we’re headed back to Jamaica.

The Southern Islands, Cocos

I've flown into the Cocos Islands from Perth via Christmas Island. A quick bike tour down the side of the runway, to the southern tip of West Island, where there’s a gorgeous beach, islets floating beyond, in shallow glimmering water. The crabs here are mini robots, fast running, with vertical square heads and revolving eyes on top. Tiny reef sharks are so close in I can see the tips of their dorsal fins above the water.

The Southern Atoll

All the Cocos Islands, except one are in the southern atoll and I’m off to explore that on a motorized canoe tour. It’s an idyllic afternoon scudding round little palm topped dots. I’m allowed to be a princess, as Anthony from Perth does the necessary with the little outboard and we follow a rainbow of bright bobbing plastic boats. Sonal and Chris and Donna and Barry from my lodging have come along and there are more folk I recognise - they were on the plane from Perth.

We snorkel in a channel running half way round one island. It’s a natural water park – the current wafts us along the chute, past all the fish who are lurking in the overhangs and then catapults us into the ocean on the other side. Very clever. There are a multitude of garfish (under the surface), clams and sea cucumbers, as well as more small sharks and a couple of turtles. The current is so strong, it’s like watching a movie in fast forward and I’m hanging onto clumps of rock to try and take photos. We walk back the few metres across the island.

Julia and Tony are celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary and the next stop involves champagne, curry puffs, hordes of hermit crabs (I’m sure they can smell food, like robber crabs) and clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. (These can also smell a meal).

We meander round the atoll and  take a jungle walk to the highest point in the territory, on another island, used as a lookout during the war. It’s 13 metres high - this would not be  a good place to try to survive a tsunami. Then we fill a sack with plastic rubbish that has drifted onto the beach (a dent in the heap) and return to our boats, more alcohol and more meanderings.

The trip is timed perfectly, so that we return as the sun is setting over the islets.

A Boat Trip to Direction Island, Cocos - Meet Jaws

Next, I've planned a trip to Direction Island. You have to go on the special big ferry to Home Island, which then continues on to ‘Australia’s Best Beach’, Cossie Beach. But they’ve cancelled the ferry tomorrow (it only goes on Thursdays and Saturdays). The Visitor Information Centre (who actually seem to enjoy helping visitors here) say they can get me a glass bottomed boat trip that will include a visit to the beach, providing I can find three other people to join in. Sonal and Chris, from Christmas Island, are staying at the same place. And there’s an English couple, Donna and Barry from Essex, in the villa next to mine. Job done.

Today, the north part of the atoll in our glass bottomed boat, with  captain, Peter. The journey commences with a stop in the lagoon, for too much fishing, in my opinion. Chris and Peter enjoy themselves hugely, with the aid of some intricate red and white lures. They  land some large coral trout, which Peter excitedly explains, are a gastronomic delight.

We motor past some classic Robinson Crusoe islands with just one or two palm trees. Their names are less romantic - one is called Prison Island.

Horsbrough Island

Next, Horsbrough Island, which is surrounded by huge green turtles and more small black tipped reef sharks. We snorkel at a coral bomie  with white tipped reef shark lurking and then at a wrecked nineteenth century barge,. It's an apartment home for golden yellow striped goatfish.

Shark Attack

Peter promises more sharks on our way to Direction Island and bangs the glass panel with a brush. Nine sharks appear, the usual white and black tipped reef sharks and some larger, two metre grey reef sharks. They circle impatiently, waiting for the fish scraps that Peter feeds to them. Peter invites us to swim  with the sharks, but they are much bigger than those I have previously encountered in the water. I decide to abstain. My wound is also open again.

It’s a very good decision. Chris descends the ladder, putting one  leg into the water, and then appears again in the boat announcing he has been bitten by a shark. For a moment, I think he is joking, but then I spot the crimson fountain spurting out of his shin. Peter instantly springs into action, grabbing a towel a to fashion into a compression bandage. Then we head for the clinic on Home Island, where a sizeable proportion of the population of the Cocos Islands reside. Peter is bailing out bloody water. Direction Island recedes into the distance. I’m thinking it might be one of those places that’s just not meant to be.

An ambulance waits on the quay and Chris and Sonal are ferried off. Peter then announces that he will take the rest of us to Direction Island. we are to wait on the beach, while Chris is tended to. It’s a hollow victory. We’re all feeling shocked and sober.

Cossies Beach, Cocos Islands - The Best Beach in Australia?

This beach has been named Cossies Beach after Peter Cosgrave, a recent governor. It’s a classic arc of pale white sand backed by palm trees (not bendy), giving way to clear azure water. I’ll mark it eight, or maybe nine, out of ten. It's lovely but it's not the best beach I've ever seen by some way. So I decide to write my own list of Best Beaches in the World. More small black tipped reef sharks are circling in the bay and I’m not to be persuaded into the water again today (or maybe for a long while). Eventually, we return without Chris and Sonal. Barry accidentally does a Colin Firth impression, his white cheesecloth shirt soaking in the bow spray.

Sixteen Stitches

Peter returns for the patient later. It’s a nasty bite, sixteen stitches in a shark’s mouth crescent shape, and there have been Zoom conversations with medics in Australia. He was almost air lifted out. But it's now deemed not life threatening, provided he keeps it clean and elevated. Sonal and Chris have another four nights in the Cocos Islands and Chris will be confined to barracks for all of that time. We’ve booked dinner at Maxi’s restaurant tonight (she only opens Thursdays) and she cooks the coral trout for us. Sonal and I ferry some up the road to Chris. It’s delicious.

Next stop, Perth again.

Who Owns the Cocos Islands?

  • The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, officially Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, are a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  (Not to be confused with the Pacific Cocos Island, owned by Costa Rica), An administrator appointed by the Australian governor-general is the senior governmental official in the Cocos and a Shire Council administers most local government services.
  • Oddly, many other services are provided through agencies of the Western Australian state government, but Cocos Islanders vote in federal elections as part an electoral district of Northern Territory.

Facts and Factoids

  • There are 27 tiny islands here, in Cocos, on two atolls and the airport is on the largest of them, West Island, where I’m based, along with the territory’s administrative headquarters. Total land area 5 square miles Population (2016) 544.
  • The highest point in the territory rises to only 6 metres above sea level.
  • The Cocos Keeling Island Golf Club is the only course in the world that straddles an international runway.
  • Crime is very rare - a judge pops over from Australia every so often.

What's the History of the Cocos Islands?

The islands were uninhabited at the time of their first European sighting, in 1609, by the English mariner, William Keeling, who was working for the East India Company. They were first settled in 1826, by an English adventurer named Alexander Hare, who brought his Malay harem and slaves. But he didn't stay long.

The production and export of copra is the territory’s economic mainstay. The inhabitants are predominantly the descendants of the original coconut plantation workers, mostly of Malay origin, and gain, mostly enslaved. They were brought to the islands by John Clunies-Ross, a Scotsman who also settled here, in 1827–31. The islands formally became a British possession in 1857, but the Clunies-Ross family retained complete control, supported by a royal grant. The press referred to them. as 'Kings of the Cocos'. The locals settled for 'tuan'.

The islands were transferred from Great Britain to Australia in 1955, when n umerous Cocos Islanders moved to the Australian mainland in the, because of overcrowded conditions on the islands. Control and land ownership were gradually prised from the family, by the Australians. Today, some four-fifths of the population - Cocos Islanders, or Cocos Malays, as they are often called, together with the descendants of the Clunies-Ross family - live on Home Island. Most of the Cocos Malays speak a dialect of Malay and are Muslim. The islands' motto is spoken in Malay - Maju Pulu Kita (Onward our Island).

Arriving in the Cocos Islands

I've arrived from Christmas Island. First impressions are exciting - this is how one expects coral islands to look. It reminds me of Funafuti, the main island at Tuvalu, in that half the island consists of runway and the houses are built alongside it; but this is way more sophisticated. No games on the runway here. In fact, nothing on the runway, unless you want a hefty fine. It’s also used regularly by the Air Force. The bungalows are large and well-tended  and the few shops, one supermarket and restaurants are clustered in and around the airport. My lodging, like Tuvalu is just over the road (hopefully no rats this time) and is elegant and modern.

Is There Wi-fi in the Cocos Islands?

Wi-Fi has to be paid for and even then is only found in certain hot spots. I buy three hours, but then park it, as I realise if I go just up the road I can get a free connection from the airport. I sit on the benching outside for a couple of hours catching up, enjoying the balmy breeze.

More free Wi-Fi very early (the Air Force are in, noisily showing off) and then they cut the connection. So, I go back to my hotspot . Except you have to use your time consecutively here and it all got used up last night, even though I wasn’t online . You win some and you lose some.

The little airport comes alive twice a week when the plane from Perth comes in. It does a triangle via Christmas Island. The café/bakery does a roaring trade as folk congregate round the tables after they have checked in. The enterprising owner manifests again, once we have cleared security, with a chef’s hat and another, tiny coffee bar.

Arriving in Koror

I'm coming from Micronesia to visit Palau and this is another of those instances where I’ve been teleported to a completely different world. As far as I can make out in the dark, as I arrive, Koror, the former capital of Palau, inclines more to Honolulu than Yap. I can see illuminated signs, glass fronted shops and petrol filling stations. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Names are confusing. There's Koror City, Koror Island and Koror State, which consists of several islands to grapple with straightaway.

I’m not sure if I didn’t read the small print properly, or if I was feeling particularly gung-ho when I booked my hotel, but this place is eye wateringly expensive. I recall that the mid-range places were booked out and the remaining options weren’t scoring much above 7 on booking.com which basically means really don’t bother. Anyway, my room has an ocean view to the front and a lagoon view to the back – so double water aspect in estate agents’ terms. It’s luxurious, pleasing to the eye and comfortable (it ought to be), though there is some sort of weird wet room arrangement in the bathroom where the shower is sited next to the bath, so you fill the tub up while you’re showering. It’s also got one of those fancy Japanese toilets. Only maybe not so fancy, as the seat has come away from its fixings.

I’m desperate to see the fabled Rock Islands. Both scenery (UNESCO) and snorkelling are touted as world class. The resort is, unsurprisingly busy, mainly with Japanese guests and I’ve already been informed by email that the dive shop isn’t doing any snorkelling this week as it’s booked up with divers. I emailed the hotel direct for alternatives, but didn’t get an answer and now they’re telling me there isn’t any availability today.

Chomping Parrotfish Off The Beach

So I’m on the resort private beach, which I have to own, since I’ve stopped being grumpy, is actually very nice, especially as there aren’t many beaches in this part of Palau. It’s quiet, with powdery white sand and I have one of those little blue cabana things to hide under. What’s more the snorkelling directly off shore is entertaining. There’s a spread of coral that’s seen better days, but the marine life doesn’t seem to mind, there are plenty of giant clams and the fish here are seemingly unfazed by human company. The reef echoes to the chomping of huge parrotfish, who are quite happy to hover just below me as they chew. So I spend most of the day out there chasing photographs.

New Year in Palau

There are a couple of gala dinners going on here, but they’ve sold out of tickets. Nobody pointed out that they were happening, but I’m not too disappointed when it transpires that tickets are 150 dollars a pop. The beach bar is still open (only till ten as they have to do an inventory - on New Year’s Eve?) and I eat fish and chips with an American pilot called Bob until we are ejected. His co-pilot joins in our chat. Their ignorance of geography (and other airlines) is a little worrying. I’m asleep well before midnight, though there aren’t any fireworks to miss. They’re banned in Palau (along with firearms).

Snorkelling the Rock Islands

The only snorkelling tour with any space available is run by a Japanese company. The concierge who booked it told me that there would be 8 to 10 people on the boat. There are 16. And at least three other boats (all chock full) converge at every stopping place, so this is definitely mass tourism with a vengeance. The snorkelling is especially frustrating. The fish must think there’s a huge school of some  type of whale passing above them. In the end I swim to the tail-end and wait for the thrashing melee to progress ahead of me. The Japanese, as usual, take every opportunity to pose for photographs, leaping up and down on sand bars and even pushing me out of the way in the water, flailing their Go Pros and frightening away the striped trigger fish I’m trying to capture with my own camera.

Our Japanese whale school drifts along an impressive reef that’s 300 metres deep, unsurprisingly named The Big Drop Off. I’m less enthusiastic about the stop in a small bay, known as The Milky Way. The bottom is very runny white clay and everyone smears themselves and each other with it – and takes pictures, of course. Maybe it functions as a free spa treatment. I notice a statuesque totally mud covered figure posing on one of the other boats. It’s the Russian guy from Micronesia. His little boy, like me, has abjured the clay and his wife/girl friend and I exchange New Years’ greetings.

The Floating Gardens of Palau

On-board are upright seats with backs and nobody moves around; they are not interested in photos of scenery and some of them have their eyes shut as we speed along, bumping over the waves. This is a little trying, when the backdrop is so fabulous and my view is obstructed. The lift up seats to store your gear in the dry seem like a good idea until you’ve had to disturb the guy next you more times than he is comfortable with. But he’s Japanese, so he just smiles in a pained way. The refreshment bucket contains oolong, apple and green teas rather than coca cola and every time we arrive at a new destination the tour leader proclaims the name of the place twice like a herald’s announcement and everyone cheers. It’s both annoying and entertaining.

The scenery though is worth all the discomfort. The limestone Rock Islands are the granddaddy of (aptly named) Floating Garden Islands, like Halong Bay in Vietnam, El Nido in the Philippines and Kabira and Matsushima Bays in Japan. They spread over a huge area in the lagoon round Koror and are utterly gorgeous, covered in bright emerald foliage, featuring the odd white sand beach and surrounded by turquoise, sapphire and cerulean seas.

Super Snorkelling in Palau

I’m booked on a ‘super snorkelling tour’ of four sites with the same Japanese company, but they called at six last night to cancel. I wasn’t amused - it was too late to re-book and most of the tours, as I’ve reported, are full this week anyway. The concierge says he can get me a private boat for the day. I know these don’t come cheap so I’m hesitant, but he says he can get me a good price, considering I will need a sandwich lunch and a snorkel guide. He checks to find out where the tour company was going to take me and says he will find a boatman who will do the same.

Carter the boatman has turned up as arranged this morning. The good news is he has a very smart little vessel. The bad news is that he says the price agreed will only cover half a day, the sites mentioned are all too far away and the only person he’s brought along is his petulant eight year old son. So my snorkelling outing is a mixed bag.

Nothing as spectacular as yesterday’s Big Drop Off with its sharks and turtles, but it’s a pleasant morning and I get a much better view of the islands having a boat to myself. In addition, the weather has continued to defy the pessimism of the forecast. It’s been perfect blue skies with puffy white clouds for the last three days. I try not to think about the mounting cost of this sojourn in Palau. It probably equals the last three weeks in FSM combined.

I had optimistically expected that my room cleaner would report the broken toilet seat, but as it’s Day 3, and he hasn’t, I instruct him to do it when he finally arrives, in the middle of the afternoon. Now, they’ve replaced the whole ‘Washlet’ unit and it has a blue permanent light, while the bowl illuminates whenever I approach. The seat is much too warm for my liking. It’s like leaning against an electric fire, which is just what you need when it’s constantly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Fabled Rock Islands of Palau From the Air

This morning I’m blowing the rest of my budget on a flight over the Floating Garden Islands. It’s worth it. For an extra ten dollars they’ve removed the side of the Cessna (to pay for insurance I’m told). There is an amazing clear view of these strings of islands and the swirling iridescent water. We track all the channels and swoop over the renowned Diver's Blue Hole. My fellow passenger is an American student who’s also a qualified pilot, so I have a backup if necessary. It’s a truly wonderful 40 minutes. It has to be one of the best views in the world.

Beach Bungalows at Chol

Then I travel north, away from the Honolulu like Koror, through jungle covered mountains that are much more reminiscent of the wild FSM. This island is called Babeldoep (it’s like being in Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and the highest point is Mount Ngerchelchuus (242 metres).

The accommodation is also a huge contrast. I’m in a small darkish bungalow, just behind another stunning beach with shallow sand banks out to the distant edge of the lagoon. There are hammocks, slung between the palm trees, which are amusing for a while. Then I drag a sunbed into the shallow water and spend the afternoon there. It’s difficult to concentrate on a book, when the views are so dazzling and constantly changing in the light. And the Russian trio have turned up yet again. I’ve been taking their pictures frolicking in the water and making sand castles. (Female Russian appears to enjoy this as much as, if not more than her son.) The father has asked me to send the pictures on, so I’ve discovered his name is Anatoly.

Dinner is a solitary affair, but a delicious one. Coconut fish curry with accompaniments in curled leaf baskets. One of these is koroke – a fried vegetable fritter. If anyone else is eating then they’re doing it in their bungalows. There are lights strung all around the walkways. It would probably be very pretty if someone turned them on.

Kayangel Atoll

I’m risking another Japanese tour today, to Kayangel Atoll at the very north of Palau. It’s a bumpy ride, as the swell is almost bad enough for the trip to have been cancelled. This time there’s one dry box and it’s under the captain’s seat. He’s Palauan and not nearly as amenable about being disturbed as my previous Japanese neighbour. Maybe that’s why my belongings are all soaked when I finally remove them. There are no Japanese proclamations today, but there is a lot of leaping up and down for photographs again. And our male guide seems to feel the need to add showers of seawater as an additional effect. I’m again, not very amused.

There is fishing - the snapper seem to be queuing up to be caught. But I’m much more impressed by the very tasty sashimi and tempura the guide subsequently produces. The beach is literally heaving with hermit crabs. These have congregated, in what looks like a mass of crawling pebbles, all attempting to snaffle the barbecue remains. We are taken on a mini tour of the main island - 57 inhabitants. Our guide is explaining about the uses of the tropical plants. ‘The underside of the banana leaf is exceptionally soft’, he says. ‘You can use it for toilet paper’.

Palau - The Last Paradise

The atoll itself is exquisite. The most turquoise of water, the most striking of sand bars. The bay is dotted with young turtles, swimming on each side of the boat as we glide in. More time to sit and wonder at the horizon. In these lagoons it melds with the reef edge and is an extraordinary solid indigo line laced with surf. The lagoon is a dappled stretch out to the reef and the skies are astonishing. They are huge, with amazing snowy cloud patterns laid on an azure background.

In hindsight, it would have been better to stay admiring the view, but I’m keen to try and get a better photo of the turtles. So I’m off, clambering over the rocks on the beach. Until I slip on a seaweed covered slab and land heavily on my coccyx. It’s still hurting - I’ve commandeered a bag of ice and I’m sitting on that. My trusty Nikon camera hasn’t come out of things too well either. Parts of the lens went flying. I’m hoping it will last the course.

Life at the Riverside Beach Bungalows

While I’m trying to balance on my ice I’m savouring another solitary dinner, sweet and sour parrot fish. Yet again its’s incredibly good. I might have made yet another bad decision though, as I’ve chosen to eat outdoors. There are hordes of night insects. My banana in coconut milk is covered in a great deal of additional protein by the time I get to it. The bungalow area is teeming with other wild life. There are enormous toads hopping around the path and the wall and roof are festooned with lizards. Both are fine by me - they will help to keep the insects off my food. I'm glad I've got my room refresher with me. They definitely help to keep the mosquitoes away from the bed.

I’m walking wounded today, so I’m sitting on ice as much as possible. It doesn’t help that I’ve also got a gaping hole underneath my toes, where my replacement flip flops have disagreed with my feet.

A honey moon couple, Professor Dan and his new Japanese wife, are staying in an adjacent bungalow. They’ve just come by and given me some champagne. It will help to anesthetize the pain.

Perfection in Palau

It’s my last United flight this evening, on to Manila and I’m consolidating my bags and trying to offload the excess before I’m back on a one piece of luggage limit. I’ve sold the Filipina cook my bought in Guam bag (when the airline lost my luggage) at a knock down price. I've also given her and the Girl Friday who manages the bungalows some of my now surplus clothes. And the offending flip flops. Now I’m savouring the lagoon for the last time, trying to commit its perfection to memory. Honeymooner Dan has designated himself my barman. He has set up his table on the sandbar and is concocting cocktails for us from soju and oolong tea. Amazingly, magician-like he produces all the ingredients, including ice, from a cool bag. Ah perfect…….

Read more about Palau here.

Bora Bora - OMG

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?

A Room on the Water

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.

The Bronzed and Beautiful at Play

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.

Bora Bora - Le Tour Propre

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.

Life on the Island

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 Bora Bora Part 2

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.

Adieu to Bora Bora -Heartbreak

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.)

I visited the Maldives, in 1999, when the atolls were still divided into hot and cold water - not the ocean - the resorts. Much has changed since then, not least the names of the islands. There are a plethora of new resorts. Roughly 120 island resorts to choose from in the Maldives and still growing. I can't even find a name that looks familiar to me. I've plumped for the island that looks most like my photos.

Maldives - in a Nutshell

  • Maldives has been a strictly Moslem country since the twelfth century. The first of the colonial powers to settle there were the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. The British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon in 1796 and the Maldives was tagged on as a British Protectorate. The protectorate came to an end in 1953, but British influence remained until 1965 and formal independence. Maldives joined the then British Commonwealth.
  • Questions have since been raised around human rights. Reports in 2012 suggested corruption, lack of religious freedom, abuse, and unequal treatment of women. As a result, Maldives left the Commonwealth for several years, but has since re-joined (2020).
  • There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives, on 26 atolls. They are divided into: inhabited islands with chiefs and counsellors (187 of these), uninhabited islands (which include tourist resorts) and (recently) disappeared islands.
  • If global warming continues on its current path the whole of Maldives may well end up on the disappeared list. Maldives is the smallest Asian country by both land area and population (roughly 375,000) and the lowest country in the world, with maximum and average natural ground levels of only 2.4 metres and 1.5 metres above sea level, respectively. For the moment, it still serves as an idyllic tourist destination with excellent snorkelling and diving on the many coral reefs.
  • Tourism is the backbone of the economy, but it's a relatively recent development. Fishing is the other mainstay. The traditional fishing boat is called a dhoni - they're also used for tourist expeditions and snorkelling trips. The first visitors arrived in the 1970s.

A New Millennium in Makunudhoo, Maldives, Maybe

this was a see-in the New Millennium beach break. The flight to the capital, Malé was tedious. It was a very cramped charter plane via Colombo. The capital city Malé occupies a whole island and, with over 100,000 people crammed onto it, is by some measures, the world’s densest city. The seaplane from Malé to Makunudhoo (maybe) was far more acceptable, thrilling even, with great views of the islands and reefs.

Our island was tiny and could be circumnavigated in less than ten minutes. We had our own strip of powdery white beach - it was peaceful and gorgeous. The house reef was a few hundred yards too many away, for comfortable access. The aquamarine lagoon was clear and shallow, so the swim wasn’t too daunting - until I disturbed an octopus who shot out of the water in front of me. My scream woke up every one dozing on their sunbeds. The sights were suitably rewarding when I finally arrived - the coral teemed with tropical fish and turtles. Swimming alongside a turtle is incredibly relaxing; they look so serene.

The food wasn’t great – it’s all imported of course. The island is much too small to grow anything. New Year’s Eve brought live music and fireworks, with a flaming sign - Happy First Second of the Second Millennium’. I don't think they had the right millennium. But it's the thought that counts...

Newsletter Subscription

Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.

I keep your data private and only share your data with third parties that make this service possible. Privacy Policy. No spam I promise. Unsubscribe any time.