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.
Nothing was going to live up to the last three days. I would have deemed this hotel in Moorea very pleasant if I had visited here before the over water bungalows of Bora Bora. There are water bungalows, though not nearly as nice. (And this is where they were born.) There's just a view over the lagoon to the reef beyond and a teeny beach. No flower or shell garlands on arrival either. My room is tucked at the back, categorised as garden view, which works if you have a good imagination. Being positive, there is a great infinity pool that really does look as if it dissolves into the sea. And there is a lovely view of the mountains looking back behind the hotel.
I'm back in the Windward Islands. Moorea is known as Sister Island, as it's so close to Tahiti (44 kilometres). The word Moorea means Yellow Lizard in Tahitian. the, slightly astonishing legend tells that long ago, a happy couple lived on the island of TupuaiManu (now Maiao), The woman got pregnant and gave birth to an egg, which hatched to produce a yellow lizard. The couple were not initially fazed by this and they raised the animal, in a cave, until it grew so huge they became frightened. So, they abandoned it on a canoe. The yellow lizard was upset (not surprisingly), set off to sea and eventually died. His body eventually washed up on the shores of Aimeho (the former name of Moorea). The locals found the dead body and ran round proclaiming their 'lucky find', shouting: “A yellow lizard! A yellow lizard! ” So, Aimeho changed its name to Moorea.
Moorea is billed as having the most beautiful scenery in The Society Islands (the Tahitian group of French Polynesia). I can see why; it has glassy peaks that soar up, in jagged ridges, from the ocean. (I shouldn't have used up all my superlatives on Route 66). This must be why this island is also another contender for the original Bali Hai (the last suggestion was in Vanuatu). Some of the media suggest that one of the peaks, shark fin shaped Mount Mouaroa (often now known as Bal Hai), is actually the one used in the film South Pacific, based on James Mitchener's novel. It seems that James Mitchener did say that Moorea would have made an ideal setting for his book (he saw it after writing the epic), but the film was actually made in Hawaii.
Whales today. Three big ones and a calf all jumping in unison. More stingrays (literally more than before, though no names this time), more reef sharks. Unfortunately, more tourists pursuing them too. Most of the visitors in Polynesia are American and Italian (cheap promotional flights from Rome I'm told). There are far fewer conversations to be shared than in the Cook Islands, though I can hear the conversations of both nationalities quite clearly. Unfortunately, also a lot more hanging around on a motu while the captain does his act. I have seen coconut husking demonstrated three times now. It looks much too strenuous to attempt to me. Good job I have my book. Good job it's still sunny. There have only been small amounts of rain, at night, this last week. Very clever.
Very little done today. I saunter along the reed edge and watch an octopus desultorily dragging his girlfriend along on the end of one long tentacle. That’s marine romance in action. I sunbathe, read and do a few laps of the pool, avoiding the French aqua exercise class. Un, deux, trois. I also eat Polynesian buffet. Raw tuna, tuna salad, tuna steaks.
I'm leaving later today and feel guilty about yesterday's sloth, so at the last minute I (literally) jump on a 4WD that is leaving early for a tour of the interior. Good decision. Amazing views, from the Magic Mountain viewpoint, down to the reef and across the mountains, including Bali Hai, across to Tahiti and to Cook's Bay, where the explorer might or might not have first landed. I'm told that all of these mountains are extremely difficult and dangerous to climb. Even in our vehicle, the ascent is possibly the scariest ever, with part of the uphill track running along a narrow ridge, strewn with boulders, which falls away steeply on both sides.
A drive up to another viewpoint, the Belvedere, below Mounts Mouaroa and Tohiea (the tallest on the island). Lines of quad bikes shower us with dirt, as they bump in the opposite direction. Pineapple plantations, long lines of spiky fruit, on the slopes of Mount Rotui. (These are Queen of Tahiti pineapples, huge, sweet and juicy). Another legend says that an octopus used to live on this mountain and separated the island into two deep bays. Moorea is an extinct volcano, with part of the rim blown off, leaving a heart shaped island.
Neat little fruit farms tucked under the hills. Breadfruit, soursop, citrus, pawpaw (papaya), mango, barbadine, coconut and bananas. A few sacred open air temples, known as Marae, that date back 500 hundred years or so, complete with altars for the sacrifice of animals and the odd human.
I'm late for the bus to the airport, as I have been give the wrong time. I'm faced with a sea of glowering faces when I finally manage to pay my bill and clamber aboard. So it's not great news that I almost miss the flight itself as well. This too has been called before the stated time and I am sitting outside reading. I am waved onto the plane by an angry little man and it takes off early. Also possibly the shortest flight I have ever been on, Moorea back to Papeete. As soon as we are up in the air the tannoy announces that we are landing. It must have taken all of six minutes and we land one minute before we were due to take off.
(Read more about French Polynesia 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.)
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.