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Friday, August 31, 2012

Papeete, Tahiti, Bora Bora

Friday, August 24

It was a bittersweet morning as the Aranui pulled into port in Papeete. The trip that we had been planning for more than 2 years was suddenly over. It had been such a success on so many levels – friendships, exploring new places, learning about Polynesian culture, speaking with and listening to French speakers, meeting new people, experiencing our first cruise (a unique one to say the least) and celebrating birthdays.

Yet here we were, bags packed, back in Papeete, awaiting our ride back to the now familiar Fare Suisse. We almost experienced one of our greatest travel mishaps at this point. We were expecting Beni, our hotel host, to pick us up from the ship. Instead a driver from a rental car agency arrived and asked for us by name. It was a large van and all 6 of us could fit in it along with all our luggage. We assumed that Beni had made this arrangement (it is dangerous to make assumptions!). So, we hopped into the van and the driver took off. After travelling on some unfamiliar roads, we finally pulled in to the rental car agency. It was only then that we realized there had been some kind of miscommunication. Through some halting conversation in French and English, we discovered that based on an inquiry Jim had made about the potential availability of a vehicle on this date, the agency had assumed we wanted to rent it for sure …. And so, had made arrangements to pick us up. Happily, we got it all straightened out and the driver of the van agreed to take all of us to Fare Suisse as we had thought would happen. When we arrived at the hotel, we learned that Beni was at the port looking for us (Oh no!!!). He was called and returned to the hotel with an empty vehicle and seemed no worse for the wear. Ironically, Beni’s vehicle could not possibly have transported 6 adults and all our luggage. So, in the end, the miscommunication turned out to be a very lucky thing.

Once settled in Fare Suisse, Jim and I headed out to explore Papeete. Although we had been there twice before, we really had not seen much of the city so today was our chance. We started at the Pearl Museum which provided an excellent historical overview of pearls as well as some detailed information about how the black pearls of Tahiti are produced, a different process from the production of the more familiar white pearls. To create a black pearl, there is actually a surgical procedure that must be performed on the oyster to insert a small round object into its gonads. Imagine the precision that requires. It takes 3 years for the pearl to grow. The pearl is harvested from the live oyster and the process is repeated. An oyster can produce up to three black pearls over its lifetime.

Following the Pearl Museum, we stopped at a café for a cup of espresso and mapped out the rest of the day. We spent most of our time visiting either churches or government buildings. We visited catholic, protestant, Mormon churches along with a beautiful Buddhist temple. We also visited the President’s palace (a modern colonial building), the archbishop’s palace (an original colonial building), the Town Hall (a lovely view from the top floor) and the territorial assembly where there was a wonderful garden around a beautiful pond. Jim and I spent a couple of hours in this garden relaxing, reading and simply enjoying the atmosphere.

We had lunch at the market and returned later in the afternoon to explore some of the stalls. Sadly, we arrived too late and much of the market had already closed for the day. We had a little time on our hands so we dropped into a nearby pub for a beer and a snack. Soon after we were seated, we spotted two familiar people on the street. John and Barbara were also out looking for a place to have a beer. They joined us and we chatted and drank beer until it was time to meet David and Sue for dinner.

We had dinner at the Roulottes, a collection of food trucks set up along the waterfront each evening. Choices of foods ranged from chicken and hamburgers to Chinese food and many different kinds of seafood. We each selected something and shared all the dishes among the group. We ensured we had saved space for dessert since the choices of freshly made crepes is hard to resist.

We returned to Hotel Suisse for a cup of tea and then tumbled into bed. It had been a great but tiring day.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

This was our last day as a group in French Polynesia. First thing tomorrow morning, Jim and I were flying to Bora Bora and later the same day, David and Susan were flying to New Zealand, and Barb and John are remaining in Tahiti for a few more days. So we decided that we needed to do something special for this final day together.

We booked a tour into the interior of Tahiti. We invited a young Swiss couple who we had met on the Aranui to come along with us and fill up the seats in the 4x4 jeep that was going to be our transportation for the day. Our guide was Tere. Happily he spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable about the history, the culture and the vegetation of Tahiti.

Most images of Tahiti feature the coastline, the coral reefs and the large surfing waves that have attracted millions of people to French Polynesia. Very few tourists are interested in exploring the mountain range and the volcanoes that created Tahiti in the first place. And very few people know that the population of Tahiti was much larger at one time and that most of the people lived inland where they could live safely and comfortably away from the dangers of the sea.

Today, Tere took us on a journey high into the interior mountains along the only road that has been built to cross the country. (It is not possible to go all the way across on this road due to a property dispute so you can go as far as the disputed property boundary and then you have to turn back.) Along the way, we were treated to views of towering mountain peaks, innumerable waterfalls, lush green valleys and steep forested slopes. We learned about native plant species and introduced species and saw firsthand how destructive the introduced species can be in places where they have no natural deterrents to their growth and propagation.

The road we travelled was poorly maintained in many locations and extremely steep in others (up to a 20% gradient). There were no guard-rails anywhere and some parts of the road had been blocked off due to erosion and landslides that had occurred underneath the road. To make things even more interesting, it rained off and on all day long. The back of the jeep was covered but open-air so there were times it became quite wet as well. We stopped for lunch along a river where there was a good swimming area. The young Swiss couple, Rahel and Daniel jumped into the water whereas the rest of us chose to eat our lunch and explore the immediate vicinity. Later (and much higher) we stopped at a hotel for a cup of coffee and to explore their well stocked wine cellar. Of course, we indulged in a shared bottle of wine. (Thanks Rahel and Daniel!) We continued to climb higher and higher and the road deteriorated rapidly. Still we lumbered forward to one of the most highly acclaimed points of interest, the tunnel through the mountain. It was dug less than 20 years ago to enable traffic to cross into the next valley without having to actually go all the way up the mountain. It was a pretty amazing structure in such a remote area. Once through the tunnel, we travelled only a short distance before we had to turn around and head back. Along the route, we saw several hydro-electric dams which produce much of Tahiti’s electrical power. We also had to ford 2 rivers. In both cases, the water was flowing over the ford. We arrived back to Papeete just in time to see a wonderful sunset over Moorea.

All in all it was a wonderful adventure and certainly provided us with greater awareness of the diversity of Tahiti and of how the population has shifted over time from living inland to living on the coast.

Back to the roulottes (food stalls) for dinner and then home to bed. Tomorrow will begin at an early hour.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The alarm went at 5:20 am. That is early no matter what time zone you are in. We had a 7 am flight to catch to Bora Bora. The hotel provided a shuttle to the airport and soon we were on our way! The sky was somewhat cloudy along the way, impeding our view of the coral-ringed islands below. But when we drew near to Bora Bora the clouds cleared and we were able to get one of those spectacular views of water colours, white surf, green earth and coral reefs from above. It was just as beautiful as we had expected.

The airport in Bora Bora is on an island so, right after luggage collection, we boarded a ferry shuttle to take us to the main town, Vaitape, on the main island. From there, we were driven around the south tip of the island to our resort, The Mai Tai.

Just enough time to check in, and then it was off to church. Back into Vaitape we went to attend the 10 o’clock service at the island’s protestant church. What a treat it was to observe this worship service. People from all over the island were streaming into the sanctuary. It was very large, very airy and very simple. We noticed a couple of unique things right away ….. ALL of the women were dressed in WHITE! White dresses, some quite elegant, white hats (yes, all but a few wore hats), white purses and even some wore white shoes. As luck would have it, I had put on a fresh white top this morning so I did not look totally out of place. We had read that, as visitors in the church, we would be seated in a place where we would be quite conspicuous. Oh yes …. The friendly female usher walked us right up to the front right pews and seated us in a place where everyone else in the congregation could see us. So much for sitting in the back row as we might have chosen.

The service began right on time with a procession of church elders walking up the aisles and taking their places on the dias. A woman’s voice broke into song and the entire congregation burst forth in 4 part harmony on the opening hymn. It was spine tingling. The service followed a somewhat familiar pattern with prayers and scripture readings and of course, a sermon. That was where the familiarity ended though. The entire service was conducted in a Polyesian language and there was not a single word except Amen that we understood. There were three congregational hymns, four choirs (some sang twice), at least five baptisms and full communion. Oh and a hell and brimstone sermon that lasted for a VERY long time. The service was more than 2 hours long!!!

But the music was marvelous. Each piece of music was sung in 4 part harmony without benefit of instrument or written music. All the words and the harmony were in the hearts and voices of the worshippers. This is what will make this experience memorable. However, I do not intend to go to church next week!!!

We returned to our resort and were able to check into our room right away. And, great news! We were upgraded to an over-water bungalow rather than an oceanview room. The reason ….. the oceanview rooms are high on a hill and due to our age, they would rather have us on level ground. I love being a ‘senior’!

Our bungalow was spacious, and well equipped, including a large deck with stairs and a ladder that provides direct access to the ocean. It did not take us long to change into bathing suits and jump into the crystal clear blue water. It was absolutely lovely. Other than going into the restaurant for dinner, we found no need to leave our room at all on Sunday.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The weather was a bit inclement today, making it the perfect day to have rented a vehicle for the round-the-island tour. The entire road around the Bora Bora coast is only 29 kilometres in length. But …. It took us the entire day to make the trip.

Along the first section of the journey, there were many, many photo stops as the road flanked the coast and Kodak moments presented themselves over and over. The colours of the water here are mesmerizing. Blue, turquoise, and green create bands in the water as the eye moves from shore to sea. Large areas of coral reef provide darkened patches in the colour palate, a kind of texture to the intensity of the hues.

Many people live in this area of the island (heading north on the east side) although there really are no communities to speak of. Individual homes pepper the roadside, kept in Polynesian style, clean and tidy. Many homes had extensive gardens of flowers, fruits and vegetables. Roadside stands were fairly common, selling fresh fruit (especially bananas and coconuts for drinking), tomatoes and cucumber, and occasionally fresh fish. Outrigger canoes were all along the shoreline as well as any other kind of boat you could imagine, from little tin tubs to full-sized sailing yachts. A few very large private yachts were anchored in the bays but if they do not have sails, they are viewed with great distaste, being merely oversized motorboats. Some have helicopter pads and several other watercraft on board, yet, with no sails, they are not seen to have value on this island.

As we continued on our journey, we stopped at several snack bars and general stores. This island is a much more tourist-driven area than others we have visited (even Tahiti itself) and the merchandise in the stores reflects that. There is a much greater ‘western’ influence in the products that are available – lots of junk food, water toys, Carters clothing for children, plastic and tinfoil picnic dishes, souvenirs of all kinds, especially with Bora Bora inscribed on them. We found ourselves missing the deep culture, crafts, music and dance that we had found on other islands. There was also much more English spoken here along with Polynesian. French, although everyone speaks French, was less frequenty used.

After a few hours of poking along, we finally arrived in Vaitape, entering the town from the north end. It is a long town stretched along the coastline, consisting of an interesting mixture of homes, businesses and some small industry. The centre of town features 2 large churches, one protestant (the one we attended) and one catholic. And a long strip of services and tourist shops. But before we began to explore the town, we decided to have lunch. There is a famous restaurant here called Bloody Mary’s. It has been in business for a long time and has attracted all manner of famous and infamous people. Names like Bill Gates, Marlon Brando, Phil Donohue, Goldie Hawn, were listed among the names of many celebrities who have eaten here. So, we joined the crowd and were totally impressed by the service, food quality, cleanliness and prices. Jim had a mahi mahi burger (delicious) and I had a garden salad (fresh, colourful and tasty). And of course, we indulged in their famous Bloody Mary’s. Before long, we felt refreshed and rejuvenated, ready to head back out into the heat and explore Vaitape.

We needed to visit a supermarket, an ATM and we also wanted to take a look at a local craft market. All were easily located in the heart of town. We quickly disposed of our business and moved on to a café known to serve good coffee and have good internet service. We indulged in both. And, we still had time to return to our resort with enough daylight remaining for a refreshing swim.

We ate dinner in the resort restaurant (seafood salad and swordfish skewers; mussels and lambchops). Nicely presented and great flavour.

When we returned to our room, we discovered that we have a glass-topped table that enables us to view the coral under the cottage …. And it has a light on it for night viewing. What fun we had watching the fish, so many varieties, some familiar and some new to us. We even saw a stingray slide past.

Snorkelling awaits us tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

We still had use of our rental vehicle until 10:30 this morning. So we had an early breakfast and headed back into Vaitape. Jim wanted to get his beard trimmed and I wanted to visit some pearl vendors. We also enjoyed the drive along the coast in the morning light.

Tuesday seems to be market day in Vaitape. Roadside vendors with all sorts of merchandise – food, pareos (sarongs) and crafts were displayed on both sides of the road through the main area of town. We had great fun looking at what was available as well as stopping into several pearl shops.

Time passed quickly and soon we were on our way to drop off our car and return to our resort. As soon as we arrived back ‘home’, we jumped off our ‘personal’ ladder and donned our snorkels. What a delight it was!! Such an array of fish greeted us ….. both large and small. Among the first creatures I encountered was a sting ray gliding along the bottom of the sea, deep in the crystal clear water that surrounded our bungalow. Blue fish, yellow fish, turquoise fish, pink fish, rainbow fish, white fish, gray fish, black fish, striped fish, luminescent fish all awaited our viewing pleasure. (We are currently trying to identify the many varieties we have seen here.) Around and under our bungalow, there is an amazing growth of coral, many colours and textures providing wonderful food sources and hiding places for the fish. The water is shallow in places above the coral and the drops off quickly to much greater depths, therefore attracting fish that prefer a range of water depths. The water is so clear that no matter the depth the bottom is clearly visible along with any sealife that passes through.

We spent the remainder of the day enjoying the warm water, the gentle breeze, the shade of our deck, and the array of beautiful fish that surrounded us. It was a perfect day on Bora Bora.

A couple from France invited us to have a drink with them before dinner. They had also travelled on the Aranui at another time and wanted to chat about our experiences. We are happy to say that we held our own in an entirely French conversation for over an hour. There were times we stumbled on words, of course, but for the most part we could express our ideas and understand much of what they said. It is rewarding to know how much our French skills have improved in the month that we have been here.

Dinner followed …. And the rain started .... The water swirled so much that even under our bungalow, it was difficult to see the fish that swim at night.

It was a dark and stormy night …….

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tropical Fish seen under our bungalow in Bora Bora
Neon Damselfish
Greasy Grouper
Emporor Angelfish
Butterflyfish – Tear Drop, Threadfin, Racoon, Pyramid
Masked Bannerfish
Vlaming’s Unicornfish
Moorish Idol Fish
Mullet Island Fish
Pineapple Sea Cucumber
Sea Urchin
We slept in a bit this morning, kind of a rare thing for us these days. We must have needed the rest. After a late breakfast, we set about our daily business …. To enjoy the setting we are in and the opportunities it affords us. Even on rainy days …..

It had rained overnight and large puddles had collected on the roads and walkways. And it rained intermittently throughout the morning as well. So … we decided to enjoy our room and take advantage of the time to catch up on our
diary and photo collection. My, we have seen some wonderful sights on this trip.

We wandered down to the beach restaurant for lunch. Mahi mahi was on the menu as a main course (Jim) and as a salad (me). We thoroughly enjoyed our meal, so much so that we made arrangements to have our dinner there tomorrow night.

While we ate, the sky brightened and we even saw a sliver of blue. The wind abated and the water calmed so we knew that snorkeling was going to be the activity of choice this afternoon.  We donned our gear and plunged in right from our deck. While in the water, not only did we enjoy seeing an amazing array of fish, but we also met a very friendly Australian couple who seem to enjoy many of the same things we do. We had a great chat and then snorkeled on.

The rest of the day seemed to speed by. It turned into a lovely afternoon and we enjoyed watching the colours of the water in the lagoon on front of our bungalow. Before dinner drinks ….. and then another delicious meal in the resort restaurant.

During dinner, the Australian couple, Penny and Chris, who we had met earlier arrived in the restaurant. We sat at adjacent tables and it was not too long before we were fully engaged in cross-table conversation. We carried our conversation into the bar area of the resort and spent a lively evening together with not one speck of alcohol. Sometimes when you meet people, you just seem to click!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Unlike yesterday, there was no sleeping in this morning. We had a ‘skype’ date with our grandsons. Rise and shine and turn on the computer. In the end we had to settle for a phone conversation since the video did not work. The internet connections throughout French Polynesia are a bit spotty at times so you learn not to count on anything complex. We did enjoy catching up with Karen and with Wesley. Edward apparently was also on the phone briefly but really had very iittle to say (he is only 8 months old).

We had an early breakfast and Jim left on an excursion that would take him around the island of Bora Bora by boat. There were four points of interest during the excursion and Jim was very happy about each one. He was actually in the water and snorkeling in all four places. First, the boat (8 passengers) stopped to see some manta rays. Although the water was a bit cloudy with sand, Jim was able to see three large manta rays. Next, they stopped at a place where clown fish and anemones share the water.  Again ,,,, very happy. Then they went to a spot on the coral reef where the coral is at its best. “Don’t pay attention to the fish here,” said the guide. “The coral is what you need to focus on.” And the last stop was one of the best snorkeling locations on the island. Jim reported that the number and variety of fish in this place was truly amazing.

While Jim was away, I walked to the local grocery store for a baguette and cheese for lunch. Then, I had a very leisurely and relaxing morning on the deck of our bungalow. I spent time reading, watching fish, sunning (I know this is not a healthy activity), and snorkelling. The water was warm; the fish were beautiful; the waves were small. All in all it was wonderful to be floating in the water on a gorgeous day in a beautiful setting surrounded by tropical fish. I had a terrific morning.

When Jim got back, we indulged in the baguette and cheese and went straight back into the water. Our ‘fish list’ got quite a bit longer this afternoon as we were able to see several varieties of fish that we had not previously seen. We also discovered there are several sea urchins living under our bungalow. Note to self: Never put your foot down without flippers or beach shoes on. Sea urchins can be very painful and dangerous to humans.

Chris and Penny joined us for before dinner drinks. Once again, we sat on our deck and enjoyed the conversation as well as the changing light as the day transformed into night. The full moon lit up the sky and created a sheen on the sea. It was a beautiful evening.

We tidied up and were about to head out dinner when the sky opened up and it poured rain. Where did it come from?? But as quickly as it began, the rain ended and we could walk in comfort to the beach restaurant where we had a delicious dinner with the water lapping at the shore just a few metres from our table.

Now back in our bungalow, we need to pack to leave this magical place in the morning and I am going to sit outside and enjoy reading as the sea laps gently on all sides.

The Aranui cruise was an adventure and a cultural extravaganza; our week on Moorea was beautiful and filled with variety; Bora Bora is exquisite … and could become quite addictive. We do hope to be able to return one day.

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