Archive for October, 2007

Moorea! Wow! Moorea!

October 31st, 2007 at 11:17 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 6 of our Pacific Journey – October 25, 2007

Our first night on board the Pacific Princess went smoothly (now that we had our luggage), although we all woke up pretty early – around 6am, due to the increased rocking of the vessel. The Pacific Princess is a pretty small ship as cruise ships go, and that means it is more prone to ocean motion than a truly large cattle boat cruise ship would be.

Today’s stop was an exciting one for us – the island of Moorea. Moorea is actually the center part of an atoll. An atoll is basically a volcano that at first poked up through the water, and then gradually over hundreds of thousands or millions of years sank back down, while at the same time coral reefs grew at the outer edges. The end result as far as places like Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora are concerned is that there is now a big ring of coral encircling a lagoon, and in that lagoon are chunks of land – some large, some small (the small ones hereabouts are called “Motus” – more on those in the Day 7 installment). And Moorea is one of those big chunks of land. (I uploaded a wide panorama to the photo gallery showing the part of Moorea we anchored near, in Opunohu Bay – see link at bottom of this post.) Incidentally, “Moorea” means “Yellow Lizard”. We did not see any live yellow lizards on Moorea, however.

From the ship, Moorea looked lush and green, again no surprise considering the volcanic soil and ample rain fall. And, as with Tahiti, fires to burn off excess trimmed vegetation were visible and odiferous noticeable in numerous places (see photo in link at bottom of this post).

We partook of the large buffet breakfast, walked about the ship a bit, and then like good little passengers, found ourselves in the Cabaret Lounge along with all of our other fellow “Tour C – Moorea Island Tour” participants, waiting for someone to tell us where to go next.

That turned out to be a few flights of stairs down to where we boarded these little mini-ferry boats which have been given a delightfully touchy-feely name – “tenders”. I’m not sure of the origin of the word in this context, but undoubtedly it stems from the idea that its passengers are well tended to, tenderly so, that they tend to get off in a different place than they got on, and perhaps some other double entendre. Note to those who get motion sickness easily – do not, I repeat, do not, sit in the very front of the tender. Bad idea – I barely survived.

Once back on stable, solid land, in the coastal village of Papetoai (means “Water which does not move”), we milled about a bit until our cattle herders tour leaders pointed us to a couple of buses to board. As we lagged the rest of the crowd, which was mostly geriatric, we ended up on a smaller bus with only six other people. Sweet!

I should mention here that we estimate the median age of our fellow cruisers to be around 62. The few exceptions to that are a few sets of younger honeymooners, and another family with a baby. When we boarded yesterday, we did encounter a pair of 8-year British twins, but they must have been part of the out-going crowd of former-passengers-to-be. As best we can tell, outside of the one or two babies (they all look alike to us), Bas and Krystyana are the only other passengers below the age of 25 (those being the honeymooners). It’s also been a long time since Linda and I felt so relatively young in a crowd.

The downside to this lopsided age distribution is that everyone else moves really, really slow. The upside is that they are all very nice and polite, and actually appreciate the kids, including Bas, as they remind the older passengers of their grandchildren or even great-grandchildren.

Our bus driver was a native Moorean by the name of Sandy, and whose Polynesian name was Heimana (pronounced “Hey Mah-nah”) and rarely used.

Tiki Theatre Village

Our first stop was the Tiki Theatre Village, a recreation of sorts of a tribal Polynesian village. Here we encountered the tribal gift shop (where I ultimately purchased a nice Tahitian Shirt made in Indonesia – in contrast to nice Hawaiian Shirts made in China), the tribal tattoo parlor (yes – tattooing was in fact something that was part of tribal culture – each island has its own distinctive designs), the tribal tiki carving hut, the tribal pareo making hut, the tribal basket and hat weaving hut, the tribal pearl jewelry store, and the tribal live performance amphitheater. All guaranteed to be original and authentic, of course. Oh – and there were authentic tribal bathrooms too.

The first place we visited in earnest in the Village (other than the authentic bathrooms) was the tribal pearl and jewelry shop, run by a company called Virgin Pearls. Here we met Tihoni, a very nice young gentleman who told us he sold pearl jewelry by day, and danced at the Tiki Theatre by night (photos of Tihoni are in the photo gallery – click the link at bottom of this post). Tihoni explained that Polynesian pearls are graded when harvested based on luster, color, shape, and imperfections, in grades ranging from A to D. Grade A pearls are the best and most expensive, with only 2% of all pearls being graded that highly. Grade B pearls account for 7% of harvested pearls, while Grade C make up 53% of the mix. The rest are Grade D pearls and used for cheap jewelry.

Tihoni shows the different grades and types of pearls found in local watersPolynesian pearls can range in color from a rosy opaque to a dark shade reminiscent of the mineral hematite, and take up to six to eight years to be harvested. A lot of transplanting of mother of pearl from the inside of the pearl oysters occurs, to be used as the “seed” for new pearls, and typically the color of the mother of pearl will be similar to the color of the final pearl when harvested. In terms of shape, there are round (rond), semi-round (semi-rond), semi-baroque (round with a slight tear drop shape), “cercle” (almost ovoid, egg shaped), and baroque (more full tear drop shaped). A photo of these differences is also in the photo gallery.

After this educational lesson on pearls, we headed out to the nearby theatre and watched a number of musical and dance performances, as well as a pareo making demonstration followed by a pareo wearing/tying demonstration. A pareo is a large sheet of brightly dyed fabric, akin to a sarong. And in case that’s not clear enough, a sarong is a brightly dyed fabric akin to a pareo.

A lovely pair of coconut shellsPareos can be worn by men or woman (although frankly, I think they look better on women – just my opinion). Also worn exclusively by women at this tribal experience were coconuts – or more specifically, one coconut per woman, cut in half, with each half used as the cup of a primitive brassiere. No doubt this is where the term “a lovely pair of coconuts” stems from.

The dance numbers featured fire dancing – quite impressive. A female tourist in the audience commented on how the guys doing the dancing were hot! And no doubt they were, especially if their grips on their flaming torches slipped. And, of course, we had the obligatory dance-with-the-tourist-dance, where nubile (or at least more flexible) female native dancers plucked unlikely male tourists from the audience and got them to gyrate in amusing ways. At least we were amused (especially since they had not picked me to gyrate with them). It’s always easier to laugh at the foibles of others, right?

One of the lovely coconut-clad lasses took us back over to the pearl shop, and we were shown how to cut open a pearl-bearing oyster, and find the pearl. It was a small dark colored pearl (photo in gallery), of which Bas ultimately became the proud owner. That would be because his mother became the proud owner of a beautiful necklace featuring three Grade B pearls in three distinctly different shades, with diamond chips, on a gold chain, and his sister received a gold charm with mother of pearl backing in the design of a turtle. We were told that the turtle symbolized “Arenui”, which means big wave from the deep ocean (a tsunami?). Bas received the pearl from the oyster that was opened for us, while I got a polished oyster shell for my troubles (troubles which involved proffering my American Express card and signing the cheque).

After a few more native demonstrations and another examination of the authentic tribal restroom facilities (to ensure they were authentic, of course), and a pass through the gift shop, we were back off on our way around the island of Moorea.

Moorea, Moorea, We Love You Moorea (or at least like you a lot)

Moorea reminded us a lot of our home island of Bonaire, at least in terms of the ambiance and the people. Everyone was friendly, traffic was light, the water was beautiful, and there were no stop lights anywhere (at least as far as we could see). Of course differences arose too – the natives spoke French (and did not speak English well for the most part); Moorea is lush and green and tall, while Bonaire is mostly flat, arid, and filled with cactus and thorny plants; and it’s possible to drive across Bonaire instead of only around it, like on Moorea.

Close up of the lagoon cottages at the Sofitel hotel in MooreaThe beauty of Moorea made our hearts ache, and filled us with remorse that we had not known to bring our snorkel gear, for we truly wanted to explore the amazingly clear turquoise waters of the lagoons of the atoll of Moorea (check out the pictures of the Sofitel resort’s on-water cottages in the photo gallery – breathtaking!)

We also learned that “Bali Hai”, a place which was made famous in the musical South Pacific, was a mountain on Moorea. Made the place seem even more idyllic.

Fruit Juice Ferments Well

Our tour with Sandy nearly over, we stopped in at the Jus de Fruits de Mo’orea (Moorea Fruit Juice Factory), where, with Sandy’s help we sample several kinds of fruit punch (rum laden, of course), coconut cream liquor, coffee cream liquor, vanilla cream liquor, ginger liquor, banana liquor, pineapple liquor, and several more things we no longer recall (but are sure they tasted good). They even had some non-alcoholic fruit juices for the kids. We left fully loaded (in more ways than one).

A Lack of Dining Options For Lunch

As previously indicated, we try to check out local eateries wherever we go. And we tried to do that on Moorea too for a late lunch, but unfortunately, in Papetoai we had no options (other than a place that served hamburgers from a small wheeled trailer). We then looked to try and rent a car to drive ourselves around the island in search of better fare, but the only car rentals were from AVIS, for a paltry sum of US$104 for a four hour rental. We sadly decided that was not worth the effort, and joined our fellow cruise ship tourists in heading back to the Pacific Princess for a buffet lunch. That, combined with our great unfulfilled desire to snorkel or dive Moorea’s waters, left us a bit saddened.

As penance, we spent the remainder of the afternoon doing laundry, and then attended the mandatory safety drill, where we were taught where to go during an announced emergency on board the ship, as well as how to don our life jackets. They tried to make it as fun as possible for us, interjecting jokes about style and other things into the lecture, but it still was a bit tedious. But safety first, they always say.

The Evening

We had booked for the first seating for dinner (there were two – one at 6pm and the second at 8pm), and had the pleasure of meeting three of our four dining companions for the rest of the cruise. Joanne and June were merry widows from Wisconsin, while Richard was a retiree from Florida. Richard’s wife Rhonda was unwell, and so did not join us.

I followed dinner with my first spa treatment, a 50 minute reflexology delivered by Cecilia from South Africa. Oh my.

Conclusion

In case it was not apparent, we all were enthralled with Moorea, and it is now definitely a place we must visit again, for a prolonged period of time. Sandy, our driver, told us we could rent a waterfront home for around $600/month, much better than the $1500/night for an on-water cottage at some of the hotels. Now we just have to figure our when and how we can get back.

Thus ends day 6 of our Pacific Journey.

Photos from this day can be found here.

 

From Tahiti To Cruise

October 29th, 2007 at 10:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 5 of our Pacific Journey – October 24, 2007

Jet lag is still an issue, apparently, as most of us awoke far too early, with the sun. However, that gave me ample time to return our rental vehicle by 7:15am, get a ride back to the hotel, and have breakfast with Linda and Bas. Krystyana, as a virtual teenager at age 12, apparently does not experience jet lag in the same fashion the rest of us do, and was still asleep.

Bas was all twitchy, as 10 year old boys are likely to be after waking up, and went exploring. While checking out the koi and other fish in the water feature next to the restaurant, he had an encounter with an arachnid. It was a non-contact encounter, fortunately, as the spider was rather large – larger than any other we had ever seen in nature, easily measuring five inches across (leg tip to leg tip). The spider seemed to be rather content with just hanging out, so we took pictures (check link at bottom of this post for some of those).

Jake Goes Plongée (Diving)

After breakfast, Bas and Linda went swimming, and I packed my gear bag to go diving with Eleuthera Plongée, a dive operation recommended by the tour desk at the hotel. They forgot to pick me up at first, so a reminder call was necessary to get the requisite ride to the dive shop, and we arrived there just before 9am. There were seven other divers ready to go out, and we loaded up on a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) equipped with a powerful Yamaha 225 HP outboard, and off we went.

The dive site we went to was called La Zélée – no idea what that means – located off the end of a breakwater outside Papeete. There was a sizable (and regular) amount of garbage floating on the surface of the water as we neared Papeete. Made me glad I had my tetanus booster and typhoid vaccinations just before we embarked on our trip.

Once at the site we entered as two groups. A smaller group went in for a dive at 40m (132ft), while a larger group (myself included) had a target depth of 20m (66ft). The waters were a bit rough where we tied off, and it was a good thing I got in the water quickly, else breakfast and I would have met again.

The water temperature was a chilly 79 degrees Fahrenheit (this time of year the water is around 85 degrees back home on Bonaire).

I should also note that I opted to take my Olympus SW770 camera in the PT-035 housing, not wanting to commit the time necessary to set up and tear down my more complicated DSLR housing and lighting. The result was that while I got photos of my dive, they were poorly lit, and due to slow focus, only a few of my photos were even remotely presentable (again, see link at bottom of this post).

One of my first observations once underwater was that there was hard coral as far as the eye could see, although not nearly as many fish as I would have expected for that much coral. My second observation was that I had forgotten how well trained Bonaire’s divers are, as my European co-divers here in Tahiti horrified me with their complete disregard for the fragility of coral. Their hands – gloved and ungloved – were grabbing live coral for support at every turn, and one clumsy diver even managed to topple an entire stand of branching coral with his fins. I turned to the divemasters accompanying us, and found they were not a whole lot better, unfortunately. So I just bit my tongue and tried to look away as the coral reef diver transgressions continued.

At the bottom where we gathered to start our dive were the heads of several large fish, presumably left there by fishermen cleaning their catch. I understood that spear fishing was a common sport out here as well, all of which might explain why there were less fish around than an ecosystem like this expanse of quite healthy hard coral should be able to support.

Our next featured “guest” on the dive was a large moray eel being cleaned by small fish, but other than the moray, and a shark we saw later, all the fish we saw were small – a foot or shorter. The reefs themselves were splendid – more coral species than I could remotely identify, and the fish I saw were brilliant in color and diverse in shape. Missing, however, were invertebrates of any sort. For the uninitiated, invertebrates are creatures without back bones/spines, and include critters like star fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, octopi, and others. I only saw one sea urchin, a Crown of Thorns (a type of sea start which devours live coral), and a number of the same type of yellow tunicate. I saw no crabs or crustaceans of any kind, nor any soft corals. Again, this was a surprise, because an extensive reef system like this one should support a broad range of creatures and life. Perhaps one of the readers of this blog who understands Pacific marine ecologies will comment.

Towards the end of our dive we did see a sizable (approximately eight foot long) white tipped reef shark, and I managed to get a photo of it from a distance. It did not want to hang out too close to us, alas – it probably knew how grabby my fellow divers were. Due to the distance of the shark from us, the image was rather blue, so I had to enhance it and convert to black and white to show better contrast, as you will see when you peruse the photos in the Gallery for this day.

We ended the dive after about 45 minutes, had a three minute safety stop, and made our way back to the dive shop. I made it back to the hotel by 11:40am, just in time to pack everything up and have lunch. Krystyana was just waking up.

Lunch was at Le Carre, the nicer restaurant at the hotel Linda and I dined at last night. Lunch was also included as part of our American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts package at the hotel, a nice bonus. Food was good on the whole, and I ended up with Kangaroo and lobster. The former tasted a lot like beef. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for desserts (except for Bas, whose lunch was a dessert), as we had to meet Center “Lily”, our van driver, for a transfer to the cruise ship at 2pm.

A Cruisin’ We Will Go…

After a smooth check-out (and yes, we would recommend the Le Meridien as a place to stay in Tahiti), we were taken into the heart of Papeete to the cruise ship pier. Docked were two vessels – the Paul Gauguin (Regent Cruise Lines) and the Pacific Princess (Princess Cruise Lines). The latter was our destination for an 11-night cruise to Hawaii, by way of Moorea, Bora Bora, and Kiritimati (known as the Christmas Atoll).

The Pacific Princess is a relatively small cruise ship as modern cruise ships go. On our present voyage there are only 669 other passengers on board, and half again as many crew. Contrast that to today’s mega cruise ships which hold thousands of passengers (I think I’ve heard numbers as high as 5,000 for the newest mega ships).

We were checked in by 2:30pm, and left our luggage with the handlers to get scanned and loaded on board. We had booked two connecting state rooms on the 8th level of the ship – both mini-suites (that was all that was left for connecting rooms when we booked – darn), one with two small separate beds (they call them “doubles”, but they sure look like “singles” to me), and the other with the two beds already put together to form a king bed, courtesy of our cabin steward Reynaldo from the Philippines (he said to call him “Rey”).

Rey brought us a welcome glass of welcome champagne, and we then scouted out the facilities on the ship.

There’s a salt-water pool on the 9th floor, along with the requisite pool bar. The 9th floor also features the Panorama Buffet (the vessel’s buffet dining facility), the Lotus Spa, an Internet room (with eight dedicated systems, plus WiFi, all for the paltry sum of only 50 cents a minute or so for a connection), and a games room stocked with a variety of board and card games.

The 10th floor features a running track (above the pool area), a library, and a lounge. Also on the 10th floor are two specialty restaurants, Sterling Steakhouse Grill and Sabatini’s (Italian food) for which there is an additional per person cover charge, with reservations highly recommended.

The 11th floor has two sun decks, and a golf driving “range” (a net set up about 15 feet from where you swing).

Heading down, there are staterooms on the 8th, 7th, 6th, and 4th floors. The 7th floor also has a Laundromat (which we put to good use today), and the 4th floor features the reception area and medical center in addition to staterooms, or, as the comedian on the boat suggested, “cabins” – a contraction of the word “cabinets”, as the cabins are smaller than cabinets.

The 5th floor is where most of the action happens, though. Starting aft, there’s the Club Restaurant, where table service dining can be had for three meals a day. At night it is fixed seating, and there are two seatings (we’re booked for the 6pm seating at table 34). Dinners also entail a “smart casual” dress code – buttoned shirts (polos okay) for men, and no denim. We also have two “formal” nights scheduled, for which they encourage the wearing (and rental) of tuxedos and formal gowns. We’ll punt on those and do the best we can with what we brought.

Forward of the Club Restaurant are the various gift shops, as well as the display of original art reproductions (an oxymoron, if you ask me) which will be auctioned off during the week. This is apparently a big thing on cruises now, as captive audiences will obviously buy anything presented to them when boredom sets in. For those wanting to donate funds to the cruise ship operators coffers in another way, forward of the gift shops is the ship’s casino, featuring five table games (roulette, several black jack tables, and a three card poker table), and lots of slot machines. It’s on par for size with the casino at Bonaire’s Divi Flamingo Resort, which is the smallest casino I had ever seen previous to this one on board.

And finally, in the bow of the vessel on the 5th floor is the Cabaret Lounge, where all of our sit-down evening entertainment takes place.

Having performed our own ship’s tour and seen all of the above locales, we decided we had time to disembark and take a walk around Papeete, and perhaps examine some local art and handicrafts. We set forth around 4:30pm, and quickly found that most things had already closed, or were about to close, for the day. And walking around Papeete did not do much to improve the image of the city that we had gained last night while driving through it. It was still dingy and dismal. We stopped into a few shops, mostly featuring pearls from other French Polynesian islands, and found most shop keepers to be somewhat aloof and distracted (probably because we must have been inconveniencing them by being potential customers, when all they wanted to do was close their shops so they could go home).

Our grand take for shopping were a bag of pork rinds, some postcards, two packages of temporary tattoos (for Bas, lest you wonder) and a bottle of water.

The 800-Foot Baggage Delay

As we wandered by the check-in area for the Pacific Princess on the way back to the ship, we noticed that our luggage was still sitting out, lonely and desperate to join us on board, but not getting any attention from the luggage processors who sat around sharing war stories of some sort. When we inquired as to how much longer it might take, we received non-committal answers with assurances it would be soon. We neglected to ask what scale of time “soon” related to, however. Big mistake.

At 6pm, wearing what might best be described as “dumb casual” (all of our smart casual clothes were still in our luggage, which in turn was back on the pier), we cautiously approached the Club Restaurant, and much to our surprise were actually seated (we later learned that the dress code is waived for the first night while still in port), and proceeded to have a very nice meal with excellent service.

By 8:30pm we still had no luggage, so I sauntered out to confirm our bags were still on the pier, a mere 800 feet away from us. Yep – there they were, but at least they had a handful of other bags to now keep them company. Asking at the reception desk about the potential time and date of a reunion with our bags gave us pat responses: “soon”, “should be less than a half hour”, “Why? Don’t you have them already?”, “Your flight was late” (when I mentioned we had flown in two days ago, and arrived at the boat at 2:30pm, a mere six hours prior, they all got a bit flustered, but didn’t change their lines). The only token we got for our luggage reconciliation efforts were a couple of distressed passenger kits (kits with necessary sundries, instead of kits with distressed passengers in them – we didn’t need any more of those) so the kids could brush their teeth before going to bed. We finally located a senior Purser, who told us that the cruise line had no control over the Tahitian baggage screeners and neither cruise ship staff nor us as the baggage owners could touch the bags once they were in the hands of the screening staff. Effectively, we’d get our damn bags when we got them, and it probably would be before we left port at 4am.

Resigned to our bag-less fate, we decided to lift our spirits with a tour of the Lotus Spa and proceeded to book a whole bunch of treatments we probably didn’t need, and which cost far too much, but would be wonderful to receive.

I also managed to find a port-side WiFi connection for yachties, but suffered from technical issues as I was trying to post a message in this blog, so that effort had to be deferred to the following day.

We finally received our luggage right as we were getting ready for bed, namely around 10:30pm. Not a particularly positive way to start our cruise, but we consider ourselves taught a lesson – take out a set of clothes and toiletries before entrusting your bags to Tahitian baggage screeners at a cruise ship embarkation point.

Thus ends Day 5 of The Traveling Richters’ Pacific Journey.

Photos of our day can be found here.

 

We Explore Tahiti

October 29th, 2007 at 3:44 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 4 of our Pacific Journey

With trips of any length, one of the general planning rules The Traveling Richters follow is to assume that misconnections and other travel delays may occur, and thus build in extra time (usually a day or two) into our travel schedules to give us ample leeway to make corrections. However, when flights and other things go as planned, this tends to give us some time for further exploration and activities.

In Los Angeles we therefore had a chance to see the Dali exhibit by happenstance, and now in Tahiti, we had a full day to explore the island. Granted, one day might not be enough to see the entire island, but we were willing to give it a try.

Tahiti

It should be noted that Tahiti actually has two parts to it: Tahiti Nui (“Nui”, pronounced “New-ee”, means “great”), upon which Papeete is located on the northwestern corner, and Tahiti Iti (“Iti” is pronounced “eat-ee”, and means small). The two are joined by a few kilometer long land area, with Tahiti Iti at the lower east end of Tahiti. Tahiti Iti is less developed than Tahiti Nui, to the extent that there’s no paved road around the circumference of Tahiti Iti. The circumference of Tahiti Nui itself is approximately 120 kilometers, and that was the part we were going to try and explore.

In any event, we visited the tour desk at the hotel after a reasonable but very expensive buffet breakfast (which fortunately was included in our room package as part of the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program under which we booked the rooms), and reviewed our options to see more of Tahiti. We didn’t want to do a large group tour on a bus with human tourist bovines, and while a helicopter tour sounded interesting, it would only last about 20 minutes. I could also not get the other Richters to go diving with me. So we opted to rent a car and do our own tour. And I booked a one tank dive the following morning for myself as well.

One of the things we noticed upon getting out of our rooms in the morning, incidentally, was the smell of something burning. As it turns out, because things grow so quickly in Tahiti due to the fertile soil and precipitation, the only way the local population has found to get rid of excess foliage after cutting it down, is to burn it. And as everything is so green (and damp), there’s very little chance of a fire spreading. The result is that there are fires going regularly most everywhere on the island, which in turn produces this burning smell wherever one goes, and in some places, even a smoky haze.

Anyhow, we ended up renting a 5-door Peugeot 107 from a local car rental agency – Tahiti Auto Center (recommended). The proprietor spoke enough English for us to be able to communicate – a good thing because my French is limited to saying hello, good-bye, ordering food, and miming a request for directions to the bathroom.

Another segue here. As one might imagine, French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is the main island, as well as the most populated, is, in fact, French. French in nationality, French in language (although a Polynesian language is prevalent too), French in custom (many people on bicycles with baguettes under their arms or across their handlebars), French in price, and French in policing (the “Gendarmerie”). This is a good thing when you speak French and are familiar with the way the French do things, but a little challenging if you do not. That said, we managed all right in most situations, and in those where communications just did not work out we smiled, said thank you and were on our way.

However, one of the things I felt as a loss at this French-ness of everything in Tahiti was that there was no true sense of the underlying Polynesian culture as it had been before the white man came in and changed it all. And no, I’m not saying that because I feel that Tahitian women should be walking around bare breasted (not that I would mind in some cases), nor because some Polynesian tribes were cannibals (just read that in a Jack London book about the South Seas), but because I think that some of the cultural innocence and freedom that existed pre-“discovery” has forever vanished, to be replaced by traffic, pollution, work schedules, commerce, and alien societal mores.

Okay – back to our story…

After picking up our cute and petite (a French word, incidentally) rental car, we headed back up north past our hotel, exchanged U.S. Dollars for the local currency, the French Polynesian Franc, abbreviated CFP or XPF. For $400 I received about 33,000 XPF in return. After buying some bottled water and snacks nearby, we stopped in at the Musee de Tahiti et des Isles (Museum of Tahiti and the Islands), which documents the history of French Polynesia in terms of cultural and geographical matters.

At the museum, where almost all the placards were written in French, of course (and not any other language – that’s another French thing to do, by the way), we learned how atolls are created by nature, what sort of tools and weapons native Polynesians made and used, how volcanic rock was put to use in tribal environs, how outrigger canoes were made and paddled, as well as what art and religion consisted of in the times prior to European domination. We also saw representations of what early interactions between European explorer/traders and Polynesians was like, but did not get a whole lot of the historical details because of the lack of English placards. And before you start implying that I am an Anglo-centric xenophobe, let me gently point out that in the latest entry we found in the guest book at the museum, a couple from Denmark also made the request for signage in English. I personally would have been content with signage in German or Dutch as well, but those would be even less likely for the French to post than English.

The Tahitian museum also featured a nice botanical display between the several outbuildings comprising the museum.

Starting the Exploration of Tahiti

After the Tahiti and Islands Museum, we finally set forth on our island exploration. The interior of Tahiti is not populated because it is so mountainous. Instead, a majority of the population lives near the main road which circles Tahiti Nui. And to designate the location of business and sites along this road, the Tahitians use a kilometer number as measured from Papeete. So, for example, the Le Meridien Hotel has an address of PK15.3, indicating it is 15.3 kilometers from Papeete, and located between the kilometer markers for 15 and 16km. And you have to know it’s on the south road, instead of the north road (which also has markers for 15 and 16km from Papeete).

Our first stop on the south-bound road was at the Grotte de Maraa (PK28,5), the first of a set of three grottos or caverns in the cliff side, draped by heavy, lush green vegetation and occasional small water falls, water features, and ponds. Alas, local officials had blocked off access to the caverns and we were not able to get closer (without violating some sort of ordinances) than about 40 feet to the openings.

Gauguin

By the time we had finished wandering about, it was lunch time, so we made our way south to the Restaurant/Bar of the Gauguin Museum, which was actually located one kilometer north of the museum, and not connected to it in any way we could discern. One of the attractions of this restaurant, other than the fact that it sat on the water, was that there were several large penned off areas in back, along a pier, filled with a type of jack, some surgeonfish (the largest we have ever seen), and a few pufferfish. As it turns out, these fish are fed table scraps, and respond to feedings like a blend of aquatic dog and piranha. One would not want to fall into the fish pens by accident, as the water boils from frenzied action even at the drop of the smallest French fry.

The food at the restaurant, as well as the service, was passable, and not worth the high price. While portions were large, several of our dishes were overcooked and chewy. They did serve an excellent tuna tartare, and one of the fish dishes, featuring an over-baked Mahi-Mahi, was made very edible via a delicious vanilla-based sauce. A tour group arrived by bus shortly after we placed our order, and that delayed our meal quite a bit as well. Our advice – find someplace else to eat, but do check out the fish pens.

We headed onward to the actual Gauguin Museum, which, much to our pleasant surprise, featured many placards in English, detailed the life and times of famed artist Paul Gauguin and his love affair with Polynesia. We learned that many of Gauguin’s paintings were either staged or fabricated based on real people Gauguin had sketched, but put into more “native”-like settings. That was a bit of a disappointment, as his images of Polynesia served as the bases of many a fantasy about life in the tropics. One thing, however, that Gauguin lamented about in his correspondence with associates in Europe was the very same thing I touched upon earlier in this post, namely a concern that Polynesia’s culture and way of life would be irreversibly changed for the worse as a result of French (and European) influence. His idyllic paintings were an effort to preserve some of that culture.

The Gauguin Museum, while being rather informative, was sadly shabby and run-down, mostly because it was open to wind and reflected sunlight, and all the reproductions of Gauguin’s works had faded and in some cases browned, losing the colors one can see in the originals. If a visitor did not know what the originals looked like (fortunately there were reasonable reproductions in the gift shop at the museum), the faded images would give them serious pause about the quality of Gauguin’s works.

Tahiti Botanical Garden

Once we finished our visit, we went across the parking lot to the Tahiti Botanical Garden, primarily to see the Galapagos Tortoises we had read were there. However, the tortoises were a bit of a let down, or more accurately, the muddy conditions the Botanical Garden staff had them living in were. As far as we know, Galapagos Tortoises are more used to drier climates, and to us the pair of tortoises just seemed miserable.

Having paid our 1500 XPF (US$17.50) admission however, we decided to check out the rest of the Botanical Garden, and were happy we did. The vegetation was lush and huge, with a blend of dry and wet lands. There were also few other visitors. The only odd thing we noticed (other than a bit of disrepair in the man-made walkways) was a dearth of birds and insects. We would have assumed that tropical plants and wetlands would have attracted both, but instead, the only living things we encountered were plants.

By the time we concluded our visit at the Botanical Garden, it was close to 5pm. We continued our drive south, around Tahiti Nui, ending up on the north road as we passed the road to Tahiti Iti. We intended to stop at the Arahoho Blowhole, but managed to miss it as a result of road construction and a resulting lack of parking and signage.

We also discovered where people go to surf on Tahiti (which we’ve been told is the home of wave surfing, not Hawaii as people might think) – namely around PK15 on the north part of Tahiti Nui. Dozens upon dozens of surfers were out in the water enjoying the large waves.

Papeete

We had originally intended to visit Papeete and check out the shopping, but by the time we finally made our way through the city, everything was closed, traffic was horrific, and the general ambiance uninviting. Papeete was gray and dingy – a stark contrast to the green beauty of other parts of the island. We were glad in retrospect to not have wasted our time by starting our day in Papeete.

Winding Down

We got back to the hotel a bit after 6pm, and Linda, Bas, and I headed down to check out the cool-looking pool at the Le Meridien. From the photos you can see in our gallery (see link below), it appears the pool has a sand beach around it, and in fact it does. And, in fact, the sand is actually spread throughout the pool too. It’s effectively a fresh water (chlorinated) sandy beach area, and the water was comfortable, even for thin blooded islanders like ourselves.

After a proper soak we got Bas back to the room, ordered him and Krystyana room service, and then had a date night at Le Carre, the in-hotel “restaurant gourmetique” (as our driver, Center Lily, had referred to it the prior evening when she delivered us from the airport). We had the eight-course Chef’s tasting menu, which was interesting and tasty, but lacked inspiration. There were also no suggested wine pairings, so we had to come up with our own – a thing that surprised us at a French restaurant. The desserts were excellent, as one would expect as part of a French dining experience, however.

We came back to our rooms to find a rather severe squabble had ensued among our offspring. No need to go into details, other than to say that no blood was shed, and no bones were broken. Fences were mended by the following day.

Conclusion

We all decided at the end of our day in Tahiti that the island was far too busy and congested for us. The traffic was non-stop (probably because there was only one main road), and while the island was not remotely dirty compared to other tropical islands we’ve visited (although Bonaire, where we live is a true gem of cleanliness), the perpetual odor of burning plants was off-putting, ruining the natural beauty and ambiance that one would expect from some place as lush as Tahiti. And our brief driving tour of Papeete left us underwhelmed – it was dirty and sullied, and yes, clogged up with automobile traffic. It was good to have visited Tahiti to see what it was like, but we would be hard pressed to come back again other than in transit to some other more desirable location.

Photos

Photos of Day 4 of our Pacific Journey can be found here.

 

Photos from Day 3 – Los Angeles to Tahiti

October 27th, 2007 at 5:28 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Uploading on a slow and expensive satellite connection isn’t great, but at least it works.

Click here for a view of the photos from Day 3 of our Pacific Journey.

We also have five days at sea, so the kids will be doing school work, Linda hopes to do some painting, and I plan on getting this blog up to date with photos and stories. Oh, and of course, visiting the on-board spa for additional inspiration.

 

Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti

October 25th, 2007 at 10:14 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 3 of our Pacific Journey We started the day off with a delightful breakfast at the Tart restaurant at our hotel, checked out leaving our armada of luggage in storage, and walked to Beverly Center, a shopping mall in Beverly Hills. There, Linda got her right ear re-pierced (graphic photo here). We followed up with lunch at P.F. Chang’s, where the ambiance was apparently so mellow the kids could not stay awake and both sprawled into slumber on the bench we sat on.

This is a good time to point out that our general rule when it comes to choosing dining establishments when traveling is that we avoid fast food as best we can, and we try to avoid chain restaurants too. Instead we try and pick something interesting and when possible, reflective of local culture and cuisine. However, at times, we’re left with having to chose between the lesser of evils, and such was the case here. Don’t get me wrong. We actually really enjoy P.F. Chang’s, but had there been another sit-down restaurant nearby which wasn’t a chain, and offered good variety, we would have chosen that instead.

After rousing the kids enough out of their slumber to get them to eat something, we took leftovers with us, grabbed a cab back to the hotel, and met up with our driver Gennady again. He took us to LAX for our flight to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui. Check-in was smooth, even with all the luggage we had, although attempts to wangle an upgrade to business class proved unsuccessful (not enough seats and they wanted too much money).

Let me pause here to say that rarely have we seen flight crew more attractive, and more attractively dressed than those for Air Tahiti Nui. All were slender – men and women alike – with beautiful faces, and vivid uniforms reminiscent of elegant Hawaiian shirts (or more appropriately, Tahitian shirts). In flight, the woman changed from formal jacket and skirts into flowing, flowery muumuus, and almost glided down the aisles. Simply graceful and stunning. Sadly we did not get any photos of these icons of the sky. U.S. airline flight attendants could certainly learn a thing or two from those on our Air Tahiti Nui flight.

After seven and a half hours in flight in the sardine section of the plane, we arrived safely and almost uneventfully at Papeete (pronounced “Pah-peh-eh-the”)’s Faaa (pronounced “Fah-ah”) airport on Tahiti. I say “almost” uneventfully because I suffered a major eating mishap – I managed to spill my entire hot dinner dish of chicken in glutinous sauce into my lap. Cleaning up was a challenge, but my appetite was assuaged by the leftovers from P.F. Chang’s. Fortunately we brought those (and did not have them challenged by TSA as a dangerous substance) aboard with us.

After landing, it was another half hour in line for immigration and then a few minutes collecting our array of bags and we were out of the corridors of foreign entry bureaucracy and getting lei’d. The lei-er was a young woman by the name of “Center”, also known as Lily, and the leis were wonderfully fragrant and oddly reinvigorating. She brought us to the large van the hotel had arranged for us, at even though she was petite, measuring just a bit north of five feet in height, she could haul heavy luggage with the best of them. In fact, she was offended when I gallantly offered to put the bags in the van myself instead of her.

A 20 minute ride later, and we were at the Le Meridien hotel in Punaauia (no recollection on how that’s pronounced, but it’s not as an English speaker would remotely expect), and shortly thereafter in our connecting rooms with a combined pool and ocean view (although viewing any significant part of the ocean required a minor acrobatic feat – one of potential injury – on the balcony). The rooms were spacious, with nice bathrooms offering a separate tub and shower, but the beds were too soft.

Considering we had just lost another three hours due to the time zone (GMT-10, no daylight savings observed) and it was around 11pm local time (making it 5am Bonaire time) we were wiped out, and crashed almost as soon as we turned off the lights.

Thus ends Day 3 of our Pacific Journey.

I’ll provide a separate post with links to photos once we find a decent enough Internet connection to upload them.

 

Internet Challenges in French Polynesia

October 25th, 2007 at 12:06 am (AST) by Jake Richter

For those of you wondering about our sudden silence, it’s not because we had any problems getting from Los Angeles to Tahiti, but more that technical challenges of sorts have arisen here in French Polynesia.

While WiFi Internet access was available in our hotel (the Le Meridien), it was rather slow, and quite expensive. A full day of access was a mere US$78. We punted, assuming that we’d get a better deal on the Pacific Princess cruise ship, which promoted having WiFi access in key spots on board.

However, while the WiFi access is there, the cost is a wee bit greater than even at our hotel – a mere 50 US cents per minute. If I left my notebook connected to the Internet all day, we figure that would be a connection charge of US$720 a day. Ouch!!!

Anyhow, while we’re still in port, it appears there’s a WiFi service for yachties – Iaoranet – which offers an hour for 6 Euro (about US$8.77) and seems to work fine from our stateroom. I’m presently using that service, however slow it is, to get things up to date here tonight.

And yes – we have been busy, so hopefully we can get all the photos uploaded before we leave port at 4am this morning for Moorea.