Part 4: March 22 – April 6, 2007 – Two Weeks in Bora Bora, Ra’iatea, Taha’a and Maupiti
24 March 2007 – Flight to Bora Bora
Well the time had come for our family to leave Tahiti for Bora Bora. We had attempted to make the voyage with a friend who’s company runs a cargo ship but because we were travelling during the school holidays, the 12 spots available to passengers were all taken up. We were going to have to make the trip by airplane.
Fortunately we had obtained a family discount card with Air Tahiti when we first arrived and so we were able to get a 50% price reduction for the adults and our 12 year old daughter. All 4 of our children 11 and under received a generous 65% discount on their flights. This sure made a big difference as we purchased our families’ seven roundtrip airline tickets.
We arrived at the airport only one hour before our flight was to depart, about the same time that Air Tahiti was to start selling their standby tickets to those that had not checked in. We rushed off to the check in counter to give them our bags. Because we had arrived in French Polynesia more than 10 days earlier we were only allotted a 10kg (22 pound) limit per passenger instead fo teh international passenger limit which is double that. As a result we had to leave three bags behind with our host family, mostly which consisted of heavy books that we had brought.
Fortunately we mostly had shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather and we left behind all of our heavier clothes. We were slightly overweight with one or two pieces of luggage but the check-in agent didn’t make a big deal about it, perhaps due to the fact that we were seven people.
By the time we boarded our flight, most of the rest of the passengers had already found their seats. When the Air Tahiti staff however, saw us struggling behind with our children, they did usher us to the front of the line of passengers lined up on the tarmac to mount the steep steps at the rear of the aircraft.
Inside the plane there were still pelnty of seats. One aisle led down the centre of the plane with two seats on either side. We almost took up two full rows with our family.
I was fortunate enough to be located on the left hand side of the aircraft. This side of the plane on the trip to Bora Bora provided me with the best views of the islands while the other side of the plane mostly saw open water. We had not realized until after purchaseing our airline tickets that this flight to Bora Bora made a stop in Moorea. It is only a 10 minute flight to Moorea with a 20 minute layover to load and unload passengers. It was a excellent opportunity to see the island up close and to take photos from above as we landed and departed again.
The next 20 minutes of our flight gave us simple views of the clouds and ocean. The best views came as we started to descend to land in Bora Bora. The aircraft lowered as we flew over the island of Ra’iatea and Taha’a with Huahine off in the distance. I managed to get some beautiful pictures of the northern Taha’a motu’s which are the most beautiful corner of these two islands. Even from the air one could see the different colours of the ocean. The dark blues turning into a light pale blue colour as the shallow waters approached the reef and motu islands.
We next started to descend towards the airport of Bora Bora which itself is located on a remote motu of its own on the northern tip of this island group. As we came down I could see the adventure that awaited us. The colours fo the white sandy beaches and the pale blue waters were absolutely incredible. It was obvious to see why so many people refer to Bora Bora as an island paradise.
Upon landing the colours only became clearer and more dreamy. We landed on the motu where we were informed that we would then need to take a 20 minute boat shuttle to get to the main town of Vaitape.
We gathered our bags which did take about 20 minutes before bringing our belongings to the boat. I did not realize it but the porters here at the airport are Air Tahiti staff who did not expect payment for the service as we at first attempted to balance our family of seven’s belongings on the only rusty airport cart in sight. It was so rusty the wheels barely turned and I was surprised that it didn’t fall apart.
The porter grabbed our belongings without asking us and placed everything onto a large trolly cart which he then placed on the cargo side of the shuttle boat. The lagoon water at the airport is as dreamy light blue as any other motu island in Bora Bora. It was a bright sunny day and the perfect weather for taking a few pictures of the blue lagoon and white sandy beaches.
Our arrival on Bora Bora truely exceeded my expectations. My only suggestion however to those wanting to keep the dreaminess in mind is to stay in one of the hotels or pensions (guest houses) on the outer motus as the waters around the main island don’t generally keep the same beautiful blue colour.
Bora Bora Hosts
Our host family on Bora Bora are the most kind people. They don’t have expectations of us and give us the freedom to do as we wish. Considering we came as the last of a three week school holiday was wrapping up, we never expected the comings and goings of the houshold that we actually saw. Our host family of Gloria and Denis are parents to eight children. Their children have kids and grandkids of their own, many of which came to where we too were staying.
It has been great fun for our kids to have some other children to have some other children their age to play with for so many days in a row. They miss their friends and cousins from back at home and do tire somewhat of only having sibblings or parents to play with.
Although the other children do not speak English they have somehow managed to communicate with each other on a very basic level. At times they come to me for help on how to say something in French that they are desperate to say but otherwise they manage very well on their own. I think this is the best way for children to learn another language. To be placed among other children where they have a desire to learn to communicate.
Our host accommodation consists of a Pension under construction. Is is well underway but still very basic in process. The four rooms being built have the concrete walls poured, a roof over the top and is wired for electricity. The one room we are sleeping in has a tiled floor but all else remains to be completed. The washroom, mini kitchen, windows and beds are yet to be completed. We are however greatful for a place to stay and don’t mind sharing a washroom in the main house. We have been after all, looking to experience life in French Polynesia as the locals experience it.
The day we arrived our hosts had purchased two fresh Tuna fish from a friend that were bigger and triple the weight of my 4 year old son. They sliced up the fish and placed it in the freezer in meal size portions with the exception of a bit that we were eating that first evening. I did not realize how much of a staple tuna fish and rice are in Polynesia. After a week at least 50% of the meals they cooked were rice with the meat from this same tuna fish they cut up on our first day. Tuna is wonderful but after a few days we decided on a bit of variety by making Mexican Burritos for our guests. A meal which they were happy to add a lot of rice to.
Bora Bora – Circle Island
On our second day in Bora Bora our host family was kind enough to lend us their truck to drive around the island. It was a great opportunity to drive clockwise around the main island from the main port city of Vaitape to see the island from shore. It is an entirely different picture to drive around the island and to see the motus and reef off in the distance. Although this view is not as beautiful as the view of the island from the far motu edge of the water where blue water surrounds you on all sides.
In any case Bora Bora is a beautiful island. We only had about 1.5 hours to see the island as it was getting late and we were informed that the lights on the truck did not work. As a result our drive was more-or-less nonstop with only the occassional photo stop.
The beatutiful island of Bora Bora is dotted with lush green vegetation and enourmous pinnacles of mountains on the one side with the mirky waters of the lagoon on the other. For the most part the waters around the main centre part of the island were a dark colour while they changed to a variety of light and dark blue colours closer to the motu’s that circle the main island.
As we drove around the island we got a good feel for the local life and culture of the island. The road circles around the island with an overland road in the centre. The road was full of an enourmous number of potholes that make for an exciting drive as we tried to avoid as many of them as possible. In the areas where there were entirely too many to avoid, we did our best to avoid the biggest ones. Although there are no potholes big enough to swallow a car, I was quite surprised by the run down nature of the road, something the locals themselves are not happy to put up with.
My son was excited to see on the far North-east side of the island, two enourmous rocks rising in the centre of the island with what looked like a large cave in between. His first reaction was to ask if we could go hiking up the mountain. Although time did not permit this, he was sure to take a picture so that he could later sketch it into his travel sketch pad.
As we continued to circle the island, it was obvious that the hotels of the island which have sprouted up over the past twenty or so years, have made sure to build on the best beaches or have simply created some of the best beaches on the island.
The Intercontinental Hotel looks out over the lagoon by the beautiful Matira Point. This point hosts a number of Pension hotels to the one side (along with a public beach complete with showers and a shaded thatched roof shelter). The beach on this side while beautiful, does have very large rough coarse sand and a shallow lagoon that will let you walk out a long distance without going too deep if the extremely strong current doesn’t push you too far out to another beach). The opposite side of this point that hosts the Intercontinental Hotel contains a beautiful resort with silky soft white sand, much different than the sand only 500 feet away on the other side of the penninsula. This sand is obviously well manucured and taken care of (if not simply imported from the centre of the lagoon).
The oldest accommodation on the island that is about 39 years old, Hotel Bora Bora, commands a beautiful view of one of the best stretches of beach on the main island of Bora Bora. To one side of the point on which this resort lies is a white sand beach, while on the other side is a deep coral reef lagoon on which were built the first overwater bungalows in French Polynesia. What makes this location unique is that because of its age, it has managed to have the waters of its own coral reef protected from fishing, something that leaves its reef overflowing with colorful fish of all sizes. To the other side of the point at this hotel is a nice soft white sand beach, perfect for a relaxing day in and along the water.
All around the island are the remains of World War II cannons that were left behind when the United States left the island they had once protected. These cannons are generally only seen with a short or long hike from the road with the exception of but one or two that can be seen from the road (if you know where to look). As we rounded the last part of the island towards the town of Vaitape we could see a large ship’s anchor and a rusted out cannon in the front yard of one of the local residents. It stands as a monutment to the long history of the ships and wars that have in some way affected the island in the past.
We have seen areas of Bora Bora that are well cared for while others are run down with garbage littering the beach (beaches not used by tourists). It was sad to walk by a run down home North of Vaitape where we could smell and see the soap suds that were coming from the shower of the house that were directed into the drainage that led to the ocean. This may indicate why the area around the main island (and away from the larger hotels) may be brown rather than blue.
The trip around Bora Bora opened our eyes to its history and to the growth of its tourism industry. It also showed us the beauty of the island which in many ways is coming apart in areas where it is not being properly cared for. With all the good and bad I would hope that the locals gain the support and determination to preserve this corner of paradise that is truely incredible to see… only for the time being I would reccommend you spend the bulk of your time in one of the hotels out on the outlying motus for a true look of what this island was probably like 20 or more years ago.
28 March 2007 – The Maupiti Express from Bora Bora to Ra’iatea
The Maupiti Express was definately an unforgettable experience. Our family woke up early in the morning to catch the 7 AM ferry that leaves Bora Bora from downtown Vaitape for stops on the islands of Taha’a and Ra’iatea. The trip to Ra’iatea takes just under two hours. The Maupiti Express also provides boat transportation to the island of Maupiti on alternate days of the week.
We were advised to be early for the boat to ensure that we would have a place to sit down. When we arrived half an hour in advance, we were all surprised that there were only 30 people on the 120 passenger boat. we quickly chose some seats and sat down. Most of us sat in the midship section while my daughter wanted a seat at the front of the boat. The boat is fairly small for an ocean-going vessel. I have experienced in the past that the centre of a vessel is the most stable and so that is where I placed myself in case of rough seas.
As the departing time approached more and more people arrived until there were no more seats left. A young lady arrived late with her 2 children and so my wife had our kids move around and my son left to share a seat with my daughter at the front of the boat. No sooner had we done so than the lady with her children invited those she was travelling with (3 ladies and 6 children) to sit with us. Where we had once had four chairs facing another four chairs for 6 of our family members, we were now down to about 3 shared seats for 5 of us. We didn’t mind this however as it was a nice cozy boat and we were only going to be on the boat for 2 hours.
Finally around 8 minutes past 7 AM we were underway with about 150 people on the boat. We only hoped that there were enough life jackets on board for everyone. The ride was fairly smooth to start as the hessel headed to the pass that would lead us out of the lagoon and into the open ocean. Each of the Society Islands are surrounded by a coral reef that protects the island from the larger ocean waves as they first break over the reef before becoming smaller and reaching land.
It wasn’t until this trip that I truely appreciated how the reef protects each of the islands. No sooner had we exited the Bora Bora reef than we were able to experience the fun waves that rocked the ship up and down. The children especially seemed to be enjoying the waves as they sat at the front of the ship which bounced up and down even more that those of us located at the centre of the ship. It didn’t take us long however to realize what the voyage was really going to be like. It all started with the pale faced six year old girl in front of me. She started to perspire and for a short while I thought that perhaps she had a fever or a flu. I made sue to distance myself just in case so I would not catch whatever sickness she may have had.
Then everything started to fall apart. First of all this little girl sitting on her mother’s lap started to throw up. She was obviously sea-sick and not with a case of the flu. After a minute or two one of the two ship workers rushed over to provide the mother with a small green bucket. Then the little girl’s three year old borther started to vomit. At this point we moved over a little bit more and gave this lady all but two of our seats which five of my family now squished into. We wanted to give these young kids as much space as they needed and to provide as much distance between their disease that we prayed would not spread to us.
It was around the time of the throwing up of their third child that we all moved to a more ventilated area of the ship to have our own space next to the steward who proceeded to run around the ship handing out little green and blue buckets. The steward quickly opened the door at the front and back of the ship to provide everyone with more fresh air. The 4 fans on the ship only circulated the stench that was starting to waft through the air and was starting to make a few more stomachs weak.
The steward was also obviously very used to his job. it was like he could tell from the look on each passenger’s face when they were ready to loose their breakfast. He would rund down the one centre aisle of the vessel with a bucket in one hand and bracing himself by firmly placing his other hand on the ceiling of the vessel. My three oldest children who by this point were now at the front of the vessel (the most bouncy section). seemed to be doing ok and gave me the thumbs up signal. My eight year old son Dailin was located next to the front door and he had his head firmly placed in front so the fresh air was blowing into his face.
It was about an hour and ten minutes into the trip when my four year old Eli, who was on my lap, said the five words I was most dreading. “I feel like throwing up.” I quickly reached for one of the buckets that were in front of me searching for the cleanest one I could find. The buckets had all been used at one point or another and had been quickly rinsed out by the steward in order to get them back into circulation around the boat. I was not a moment too soon as he threw up the very second I placed the bucket below him. After he had finished he somberly laid down on my lap a bit exhaused from this exciting ride.
It was at this point I thought I was in the clear. We were only 10 minutes from the reef that would once again shelter us from the large waves we were currently being tossed in like a milkshake. Then my precious four year old said, “I have to go to the bathroom.” I tried to ignore his pleading at first, pretending I did not hear him. He persisted however a few more times with his assertation that he needed to go to the washroom before I understood the gravity of the situation. He had to go and could not wait another minute.
I held my breath and stumbled into the ladies washroom which was the only one vacant. My son was not about to wait. while he did his business I calmly and patiently held my nose next to the small vent that was head high in the door of the single toilet washroom. Being enclosed in this small little space was beginning to make me feel sick.
After a few minutes and as quick as possible, I exited the washroom with my son in tow anxious to sit down in the open. Even with 1/3 of the people on the ship throwing up or having had already thrown up by now, it was nice to be in the fresh air room again. It was at this point of exiting the washroom however, that I felt the sickest I had felt on the trip. And it was at this point that I fel that my stomach of iron was about to give in. I was only five minutes from calm waters and although this gave me the will to hold everything in, I was not sure what lay in store for me. I kept saying to myself that I only needed to hold on for another five minutes, only four more minutes, only three more minutes… and then we arrived within the lagoon, safe at last. We greatfully headed into the shelter of the reef near the island of Taha’a. The reef around Taha’a actually sicrles both this island and that of Ra’iatea. We were home free, at least for the outward journey.
About three minutes into the lagoon of Tahaa my four oldest children and wife went out to the front outside section of the boat where they could get some fresh air. No sooner had they done so and they were calling me to the front of the boat. I wasn’t sure what they were so anxious about and so I grabbed my camera bag in one hand along with my sleeping four year old in the other to join them in the front of the ship.
Their excitement was due to the ten dolphins that had been swimming in front of the boat and were now swimming alongside. They mostly swam below the surface only to barely skim the surface of the water. As you can imagine my children were all excited to see these dolphins following the boat and they were dissappointed to see them dissappear as we approached the dock in Tahaa.
We continued the 20 minutes past Taha’a to the island of Ra’iatea where we were to spend the next few days.
I had decided 3 things of discovery on this trip to the neighbouring island. 1) Travelling by boat (especially a small boat) is not for the weak stomach – maybe even skip breakfast. 2) The front of the boat which bounced up and down to a greater degree was a better place to sit as the side to side wave movement was less obvious. We all determined that on the return trip we would sit at the front of the boat in the two seats that faced the front open door which blasted in fresh air. 3) I discovered why a oneway Maupiti Express ticket was 3000 CFP ($40 CAD) while a roundtrip ticket was only 4000 CFP ($53). After taking the trip oneway in such a fashion, one would be unlikely to make the trip again unless they had already made the mistake to have previously purchased a roundtrip ticket.
In the end we all survived and enjoyed the last home-stretch ride within the security of the lagoon back to Ra’iatea.
Ra’iatea and Taha’a
My two night and three day trip from Bora Bora to Raiatea was a nice change to a quieter pace of life. Raiatea is a much larger island than Bora Bora but its population is only about 3500 compared to Bora Bora’s 5800. Raiatea also has 170 square kilometres while Bora Bora has 47 square kilometres in land mass.
The island of Ra’iatea and Taha’a are both circled by the same coral reef that forms an hour glass shape around these two islands. The largest island of Ra’iatea hosts what I would consider the most beautiful city in the Society Islands, that of Uturoa. The city has a wooden boardwalk that wrap around the harbour, complete with a dock that can accommodate not only the small but also the large ships that visit this island.
Upon arrival I made sure to rent a car, for this is the only way one can really visit this island. Everything from Pensions, Hotels and the main city require a car in order to get around and I was glad that I rented one from the start. The only problem with this small little island is that there is not a large selection of cars to choose from. The largest car seats only 5 people and so we would have to squish our family of 7 into a small car. With the price of car rentals in the Tahitian Islands starting at $100-175 CAD per day including the required insurance, this was acceptable enough to us). After checking into our pension, we wasted no time in starting our drive around the island, after all we would only have two days on this island.
We started by heading south along the east cost. Many of the sites on the tourist map are not indicated with road signs so it is important to pay close attention to the mileage markers on the side of the road and to use your best guess as to where to find each site. The drive along this coastline showed a brown water lagoon almost half way out to the reef. This included the entire section of Faaroa Bay.
The coastline is beautiful with lush green vegitation but it was apparent that a great deal of construction was digging away along the coastline. Large sections of rich red earth now lay exposed along this stretch of coastline. Perhaps the brown lagoon was due to the heavy rains that hit the island as we arrived but perhaps it is also due to the enourmous amount of development that is also taking place here.
Tractors dot the coastline as people from Papeete and other islands search for a more affordable place to build and live. With the quiet and seeminly peaceful lifestyle on this island it is no wonder that people want to come from busier cities and islands to build their homes here.
We took the inland road from Faaroa bay to Faatemu Bay which mounted slightly to provide for great views of pineapple plantations and ocean views. We then circled what was the most interesting part of the drive when we followed the coastline first east around Mount Oropiro and then back north past a few points of interest.
We first reached a turnoff that took us to one of the many Vanilla farms in this region. At this vanilla farm we enjoyed the beautiful lillypad filled pond by their small store and learned about the long and patient process of farming vanilla beans which are pollinated by hand due to a lack of bee’s that can do it naturally as in other parts of the world. We also made sure to buy some Vanilla beans from this silver medal Vanilla award winner for the year 2006.
Our next stop near Opoa was the site of a collection of sacred marae sites that have been preserved along this coastline. At the entrance to this site there are also a collection of informative illustrated pannels that teach about the significance and uses of the Marae’s as well as other historical information such as the trees and canoes of the past in this region. Each of the three marae’s in this area have their own history and use and provided each of our children with an informative break from our drive around the island. As we rounded back to Faaroa Bay we once again drove along the inland road of pineapple fields so that we could experience the drive along the west coast of the island.
The west coast of the island of Ra’iatea contains not much more that small towns and their convenience stores. It was a relaxing view of the island which contrasted the construction of the east side of the island. Along this side were a cluster of amazing motus not far off in the lagoon. There were the occasional shallow beaches here as well although none that are mentioned on any tourist map. It was along this stretch of inland road that I got a true feeling for the slower pace of life on this island and for the peacefullness of the people. Residents waved as we drove by and had a amicable atmosphere about them that made this truely feel like a friendly island.
We completed our drive about four hours after starting it by rounding the North side of the island and driving through the town of Uturoa, just in time to stop by one of the many Roulottes that dot the parkinglots of town at night for a quick bite to eat.
Pension Tepua – Gendarmes Hangout
It seemed like our Pension/Hotel was the local hangout for the local division of police. Whe we arrived a police van was parked outside and three Gendarmes were watching the sports channel. They appeared to be on a lunch break taking time out to keep up on the world of sports.
As we drove around the island we were stopped by the police who said hello and that they had seen us earlier in the day. They were the same police officers that we had seen earlier in the day.
For the next few days we saw the Gendarmes at the pension day and night and I began to wonder if they were supposed to be working or if they just had their residences at the Pension. In any case seeing and getting to know the Gendarmes did come in handy.
The pension itself was clean and comfortable. It is located on the water with its own dock complete with picnic table and shelter on the end. It catered to just about everyone and everyone with its dorm style hostel section with shared kitchen and private bungalows (which were actually 4 units with lofts in one continuous building). The pension itself was a bit crammed with its walkways and beautiful gardens but it was sufficient space for our family of 5 children. The favorite part for our children was the rare (for pensions) but small fresh water swimming pool.
The Missing Wallet
The morning of our second day on Ra’iatea we headed out to the grocery store to buy a few things for lunch and to get some information from the local tourist information centre. As we left however my wife was not able to find her pouch that contained her purse. Thinking it was somewhere with our belongings we headed out with my wallet to purchase what we needed. During this morning we experienced the two extremes of hospitality that we never could have anticipated.
Our first stop was at the tourist information centre which was a bit hard to find. It was tucked away in the fancy building on the wharfside in front of where the large cruise ships park. It is obvious that this is the main place that the big ships come to but it was not obvious (nor were there any signs) directing those that were coming from the downtown area for information.
We approached the tourist centre to get information on the selection of tours of the lagoon and to the neighbouring island of Taha’a. Upon asking for information on the tours that the local companies provided I was directed to look at a tourist brochure which listed all of the tour providers that existed in each of the Society Islands of Tahiti. When I asked about the tours they provided the unhelpful worker told me that I needed to decide what I wanted to do first and then call each of the tour companies for information.
I have to admit I did get a bit flustered at this point thinking perhaps it was my lack of the French language that was to my disadvantage. There were a number of other booths in this centre but none of them were open as there were no cruise ships docked on this particular day. When I asked about another informational sign I saw about river cruises (on Tahiti’s only navigable river) I was again told to decide what I wanted to do and then call around.
I left outside as flustered as ever. My wife still inside without me knowing it. When I saw my wife again she explained to me that she had had a very similar experience with the reception of the sole worker at the tourist office. I was extremely surprised that such a person could actually manage to maintain a job at such a critical ambassadorial location as a tourist office.
Due to my surprise I have to admit I did return to the tourist office to be the pestering visitor that I can be when someone is rude to me. I went back and asked if they were paid by the city or by the state (it was the city) and told them that the information provided me was not helpful enough. After asking more questions (which was like pulling teeth) I finally was shown a list of three standard lagoon tours and what each of the tours included. This was of great help, but I was again told to call around for avalibility which I later did do at an expense of about 15 dollars in phone calls.
Well this was the only case of unhelpfullness I experienced on the island because the next experience blew me away. As we headed off to the grocery store to cool down in its beautiful air conditioned freezer section, my wife was approached by the gentleman that had served us pizza’s the day before at the outdoor roulotte (van converted into a pizza restaurant). Apparently my wife had left her wallet pouch at the table outside their stand the night before and he wanted to inform her that he had turned it in to the police station that morning.
She was extremely amazed by his honesty and kindness and after finishing our shopping, our next stop was at the police station. After my wife identified herself and was presented with the purse she had lost, she was instructed to go through the contents to ensure nothing was missing. To her amazement nothing had been touched and her purse and waist pouch were completely intact. Nothing was missing.
We headed back to where we were staying and again when we arrived, the owner of the hotel told us that the police had told him about our pouch having been turened in (this was the local hangout for the local police – Gendarmes of the island). Once again we were amazed how quickly we could be identified and notified in such a small town island of an object that we had lost.
In Search of a Swimming Hole
Our second day in Ra’iatea was a hot one. The sun was shining and it did not take us long to jump into the swimming pool at our pension to cool off in the water. It was great to have a place to cool off as the water at this location was not that clear or good for swimming in.
As the day rolled on however our 5 children were anxious for a place to get away to and to see a bit more of the island. For this reason we decided to go to the 3 waterfalls not too far away, to swim in the pools below the falls. It did not take us long however to discover that nothing on this island is marked. We drove up and down the road a few times in search of the elusive waterfalls. Even when asking someone nearby, they did not seem to know where the falls were.
I finally threw out my tourist map and pulled out my Lonely Planet guide book. From the rough map on it I decided to take the exit at the Kaoha Nui Ranch which lead us down a dirt road to where the falls were. About two kilometers down this road we saw three young boys on the side of the path eating passionfruit on a grassy hill. When we stopped to ask them about how to get to the waterfalls they advised us that it may not be the best destination without a guide and with 5 young children.
After talking with them a little bit longer they provided our children with a couple of handfulls of passionfruit before giving us some directions to another little swimming hole about 2 km further on down the road. While we talked with them we noticed a large number of mosquitos that joined us in the car and decided to just continue to drive down the road to the falls. W e were able to see the falls from the end of this dirt road at a distance. Given that it would be easy to find the falls but may be difficult to make our way back to the car (and to avoid the mosquitos) we drove back to the main road and followed the directions to the swimming hole that the locals use.
This was the best advise we could have followed. Only a short distance down the road after marker 7 we turned right on the first road after a small bridge. Only 200 feet down this little road we saw an Avacado tree (beside a Pamplemousse / grapefruit tree) with a few swings hanging below it. Playing on the swings were some local children and their dad. When we asked these people where the swimming hole was they directed us to park our car here in the field to the side of the road and had one of their boys lead us down the trail to the swimming hole. The trail was simple, well used and easy to follow but it was a nice touch for this young 10 year old boy to lead us to one of his favorite swimming spots by his back yard.
For the next two hours our children each had the time of their life as we jumped from 8 foot banks into the crisp cool fresh water. There were 3 rocky streams that lead into a deep pool of water. There were places to sit in the flow of the stream, explore the waters up and downstream as well as to just sit down in the water and cool off.
About an hour after we arrived, 3 older men showed up and were absolutely astonished to see 5 white kids and their parents swimming in the local swimming hole. They had just rowed their outrigger canoe from about 2 km north on the ocean to the inlet of this river. They parked their canoe and walked down the path to stop for a refreshing swim. It was at this point that we saw them do what I had not thought possible. The deepest part of the pool was only about 10 feet deep but after they dove from the 10 foot tall tree-roots we had jumped from they showed us the vantage point from which the locals jumped from.
One of the three men proceeded to climb a tree on the opposite side of the river. It rose straight up with a natural ladder that connected between the two main trunks of the tree. About 20 feet up a broken branch jutted out (from which my 11 year old son took a plunge) but this local resident did not stop there. He proceeded to climb up to the lowest branch of the tree that was about 60 feet from the ground and climed 20 feet out along the branch before jumping into the water. I was sure he was going to hit the bottom of the pool. He probably did, but not hard enough to do any dammage because he came back up out of the water as he had before.
I was told the local children as little as 8 years old, jump from this tree branch and dive in head first into the pool of water. They are used to the pools of water here and know them well. A bit too scary for my adventuresome spirit.
After some time our children were not anxious to leave this new-found swimming hole. They would have stayed hours if permitted to do so. This little spot could easily take up an afternoon (as long as you stay in the water away from the mosquitos that are around). Upon leaving we thanked the little family that lived by where our car was parked and headed on back to our Pension.
As we headed back towards town we saw a fruitstand at the side of the road between the 4 and 5 km roadside markers. We turned back to pick up some fruit from the local lady that sold produce here. There were dozens of types of fruit in this fruitstand and lots of it. As we selected different pieces of fruit that were sold by the pound we were a bit surprised. She looked kindly at each of our 5 children and as we selected a pineapple, papaya and bunch of bannanas she told us the bag of produce would only be 300 francs (three dollars). This seemed a bit strange as we had paid much more at the local stores for produce than this.
As we talked to this lady she told us that every piece of the produce came from her garden only a short distance down the street. The pineapple, bananas, mangos, pappaya, limes and oranges. As we were about to leave she proceeded to hand over to our children bags of fruit that we had not asked for but as a gift to us. Our children (and especially 6 year old) was excited to get his own pineapple, bag of limes, pineapple and more. By the time we left the fruit stand we ended up having at least 4 times as much fruit as we had paid for (and even what we paid for did not reflect the true value of the produce). The kindness of the owner and her apparent love for our children was very obvious as we drove away at 5 pm as she closed up her fruit stand. It was obvious that she too had enjoyed our visit as she waved to us goodbye and our children shouted out Merci through the windows of our car.
The island of Ra’iatea was truely an unforgettable experience of people that welcomed visitors and especially our children that we had brought with us. The interaction we had with each person on the island truely gave us a feeling of the close community and friendship that the people on this island obviously share.
Taha’a Island Tour
Visiting Taha’a is not an easy endeavor. There is no airport on this island that is located next to Ra’iatea and the shuttle boats to this tiny island will only drop you off on the small remote landings. The only true way to visit the island itself is to rent a vehicle or bicycle (if you are energetic) and the only way to see the most beautiful part of the island is to travel by boat.
For these reasons our family decided to visit Taha’a by taking a tour that combined both a land and sea component. Most tours pick up passengers from Ra’iatea because there are many more tourists there than on Taha’a itself. There are two main types of tours to Taha’a. Both tours circle around the lagoon and make a stop at a pearl farm to explain the process of making pearls. They also both stop at a Vanilla Farm or similar location to explain to visitors the importance and process of producing Vanilla on this island known as the Vanilla Island. Taha’a is the largest producer of French Vanilla and it is still one of their main exports. The only difference with the two tours is that after a traditional lunch on a deserted motu, you can just hang out to snorkel or swim or you can take a boat back to the main island and take a 4×4 trip around the island to explore the interior of the island.
Probably the most interesting part of both tours is the visit they make to a Coral Garden on the North Western side of the island. Both tours make a stop here which was the highlight of our trip. Our boat stopped on the edge of an island that only had a narrow channel between it and a neighbouring island that was home to Polynesia’s Relais and Chateau Pearl Beach resort. We were instructed by our captain to put on our water socks as the coral in this area was frequent and sharp. Were we ever glad that we had brought them along because they were essential.
We hopped off the edge of our boat which was anchored about 40 feet from shore into water that was about 2 feet deep on a soft white sand beach. Palm trees hung over the edge of the island as if on some sort of South Pacific movie set. The colours of the sand and trees made me feel like I was in some sort of magical paradise… which I was. It was exactly like one of those dreamy screen savers that I had on my computer which I had thought was some fake computer generated image. I never knew such a picture could actually be real… but it was.
Our captain led us to shore as we grabbed our snorkelling gear, cameras and children. We were all loaded up and ready to have a great time in the water. For about 8 minutes we skirted around the edge of the island along a coral path that paralleled the island next to us. It was in this narrow channel that we were going to spend the next hour. Two people in our group unfortunately did not know to bring their water socks and tried traversing the trail in bare feet. I’m sure there was no way they could have made it with their feet intact as even along the trail there were areas where the trail itself was made of small pieces of loose coral. It looked like a bit of a painful experience for them but they were determined to make it into where we were going to get into the water.
Halfway to our destination our guide had us leave our camera and other belongings that we would not immediately need, hanging on a tree by the water’s edge. It wasn’t too clear to me why we were placing everything here but it became more clear as time went on. Our guide did not communicate very well what was going on each step of our trip and so we just brought everything we thought we would need, even things we did not need at all.
Well the time finally came for us to get into the water and so armed with our snorkels and masks my wife and five children all hopped into the water with me. The three two older children started out with the child size snorkel and masks (nobody has child size equipment on the islands so bring your own) while my wife and I attempted to use the adult sizes we had brought from Canada. Unfortunately we did not test out the masks we had purchased prior to coming to French Polynesia. The problem we kept having was that the seals on the mask didn’t do their job and so water would come trickling or pouring in. As a scuba diver I managed to get by as I continually clearing my mask as I had been trained to do, but as for my wife, she had to make frequent stops to readjust and clean out her mask. The salt water would occassionally come in and sting my eyes too, and when this happened, it was not possible to continue on without making a stop to clear my eyes as well.
Our family had also purchased the special snorkels that seal out water even when you go under water. The problem we had with these is that without our knowledge, our 4 year old who was helping us pack, removed the small plastic seals that keep the water out of the snorkel. This meant that the two child snorkels had to be replaced as soon a we arrived in the South Pacific with the cheap old fashioned kind that are much harder for children to use as they do have to learn how to clear them out by blowing out the water.
We all managed however with the help of one other lady in our tour group who helped carry our 4 year old around in the water. As we surveyed the colourful coral below us we kept an eye on our other children who floated around in the water. I had to keep my 6 year old in my arms the entire time as we discovered the reason for leaving our belongings on shore close to the boat. In this narrow straight, the current was very strong and each person had to make a constant effort to stay in the same place and even moreso of an effort to go against the current. After fighting the current for a little while we all realized that this was not the point of what we were doing. Our guide (who explained nothing to us) started to float with the current along with his bucket of fish pieces.
Our guide spread out fish pieces all around us and as he did so, we saw swarms of fish around us coming for their afternoon lunch. The fish gobbled up the food and were of all sizes and colours. Some fish were bright orange, yellow and blue, while others were striped, rainbow colours or in a variety of skinny, fat and spiny shapes. On one occassion we came to an area where there was a patch of stringy gelly like fingers that waved around in the current. It was in this patch that my four year old yelled out “Nemo” as he saw the same fish and habitat of one of his favorite Disney movies. Here he was in what looked exactly like the home of Nemo, complete with the bright orange fish that had a white stripe along the side.
My children and I floated around in the water and as I was getting out they spotted a 6 foot long eel that had a massive head. Our guide tried to draw out the eel from his home with a piece of fish and even had a tug of war with him but the eel was too big and won the battle for the fish.
What made this area so amazing was not just the fish and sealife but also the amazing sizes and colours of the coral. There was sharp spiky finger coral, brain shaped coral and chunky coral. The formations and sizes of the coral were absolutely amazing. With rich white, yellow, blue colours that only added to the view under the water. It was at this time that I had wished I had bought an underwater camera to take on the trip. The life under the water in French Polynesia is as diverse if not more diverse as the live above the water on these beautiful islands.
Sadly enought it came time for us to get out of the water and return to the boat which by now was not very far away. It was amazing how quickly an hour had passed by as we floated along in the water. I could have spent the entire day here, if not longer. I was jealous of the people who were staying in the hotel next to this beautiful coral garden, not because of their overwater bungalows, but because of the underwater garden only steps away from the remote motu islet they were staying on.
We all sadly waved goodbye to this island paradise in the late morning as we continued our boat ride around the rest of the island of Taha’a back to the East cost where we started. The most beautiful stretch of water in Taha’a is in the North. Up in this area the water is a much different colour than around any other part of the island or even Ra’iatea. The water here is a pale blue colour with whisps of dark blue that fade in and out to give a bit of variety to the expanses of turquoise waters. The water here was so clear and shallow that we could see the white sandy ocean floor with its ripples of white below the surface. The water itself was rather calm and the slight ripples on the surface cast shadows of colour and hues accross the ocean as we clipped along the surface. If I were to return, I would spend the entire day along the northern coastline.
Remote Motu Lunch
Around 1:30 PM we completed our circlular trip around the island and stopped at a deserted motu islet out on the edge of the reef. After hopping off the boat again onto the sandy shore, we walked over to the shady thatched roof area where our lunch was waiting for us. We served ourselves up some of the local foods that included fish, rice, taro and breadfruit and sat down on the benches at the tables provided. We filled up on this local food as we sat on the point of the island with water on three sides. Being that the sun was too hot we stayed in the shade most of the time. There was also a plastic table and chairs in the sandy water nearby but being that it was in the heat of the sun I decided that I would retreat to the shade.
4X4 Taha’a Tour – Visit to “Mama”
Around 2:30 PM we boarded the boat and headed back to the main island. This was the beginning of our land tour that was to take us through the centre of the island with a few stops along the way. Not long after starting our 4×4 adventure we turned off the paved road that circles the island onto a dirt road into the interior of the island. About 10 minutes into our climb up the mountain we arrived at a spot where a slow trickle of water was coming down the road and where a slick of mud and potholes lay in front of us. As we tried slipping our way through this part of the road for about 5 minutes our driver finally gave up. We were not going to be able to take the interior road due to the road condition.
We backed down the mountain about a kilometer in the slippery narrow path which would have given my mother a heartattack I’m sure. But as we sat in the back of the jeep we just sat back and enjoyed the ride back down the island. Our driver finally found a narrow spot along the cliff wall of the road to turn around and we were able to enjoy the rest of the descent moving in a forward facing direction.
It was too bad the interior road was impassible as the rest of the tour just took us along the paved outer roads of the island that we could have visited had we just rented our own car. Apart from the random stops that our guide made to point out the different types of trees, animals and flowers along the way, the rest of the trip was fairly boring. The highlight of the land portion of the trip came however when we made a stop that we had requested earlier to purchase some vanilla. We had asked our guide to take us to a vanilla farm where we could buy some vanilla at a good price. Instead he took us to Mama. Mama lived on the North of the island of Taha’a and looked like she was in her late 80’s. She wore a beautiful green and white floral print dress with a fresh flower over her right ear (which means she is single). She had a smile on her face the entire time we were at her little store that was on the side of the road only a short distance away from a Catholic church of the town.
Our guide told us that he wanted to take us to the real “Mama” and that is what she was called. In her store were hundreds of shell necklaces lined on tables for sale. As we entered we were each given a red and orange hibiscus flower lei. The warmest greeting we could have received. We looked around her little shop and did not see any vanilla. We looked at all the handicrafts that she had made mostly out of shells. As we questioned her about the vanilla our guide had to do a bit of translating. I think she only spoke Tahitian with a limited amount of French if at all. After his prompting she went to the corner of one table and pulled out some vanilla from a small white plastic bag. Out of the bag she pulled little batches of vanilla that were each tied together with a little twist tie. She told us that the little packets of vanilla were 1000 CPF ($13) each. We bought two little packets of vanilla beans (10 beans in a packet) and then the children started looking at the necklaces. They all tried one on and liked them but in the end we only selected one necklace from our 4 children who had tried them on. As we paid for the one necklace Mama insisted that we keep one of the other ones. At this point my wife bought a third neck from the kind lady and she proceeded to give each of my children a little package of vanilla beans (5 more in total).
Mama was a kind hearted Tahitian woman that has not lost touch with the traditional kindness of the Polynesian ways. It seems that this would have been similar to how everyone must have been in old Tahiti. It was wonderful to meet Mama and a definate highlight to our land roving 4×4 adventure on the paved roads of Taha’a. She was sure to stand outside the litte store in the front of her home to wave goodbye to all of us as we left with a warm smile that we won’t forget.
We continued to wind our way around the island on our way back to where we started, passing by churches and small little villages along the coast. Near the end of our drive we took one of the many shortcuts on the island that mount the small mountain passes to the next village. Here we passed by the turtle sanctuary that takes care of injured turtles before arriving at the location where the boat would take us back to Ra’iatea. The journey of the day was a full one yet it was not too much for the children. With a combination of travel on land and on the water, it was a perfect combination of activities for our family. Not too much time in the sun and plenty of time to see the island inside and out.
The boat took us back to the main harbour in Ra’iatea where we only had an hour to wait for the Maupiti Express boat that would take us to Bora Bora. Fortunately for us the seas were calm and the boat was almost empty and so we had a nice leisurely (and seasick free) voyage back in the evening to Bora Bora.