French Polynesia is wonderful. It's been less than a week, and I can barely wait to return.
We left Wellington at about 8 PM on Friday, which meant we were able to work a full day beforehand. Not only did that save me having to use more precious vacation days, but I have so much to do that I could barely afford to take off the week. Nonetheless, I finished all I needed to, delegated the rest, and headed off to the airport.
Our Auckland stopover was a few hours, which gave us a chance to relax from the long workweek, have a few drinks, and generally get into holiday mode. At midnight, we boarded a plane to Pape'ete (pronounced, Pa-pay-AY-tay) the capital of Tahiti and the largest city in French Polynesia.
Approaching Tahiti, the first thing you see is her lesser-known sister island, Moorea. While Tahiti is green and rolling hills, Moorea is downright ominous. It's craggy, black, ultra-volcanic... the overall effect is like witnessing a handful of devil's teeth rising from bright blue ocean. It is said that one of the artists who migrated to Tahiti had a daily routine of waking up, making coffee, and painting Moorea. It is truly visually strange enough (and oddly, beautiful enough) to easily merit such dedication.
We landed amid the beautiful lagoons of Tahiti's Fa'a airport at 6:00 AM... Friday. After crossing the date line, we got two full Fridays. :-)
Our flight to our next destination, Huahine, was not due to leave until 5 PM, and there was none earlier. So we stored our luggage, and took the opportunity to explore Tahiti. Surprisingly, Tahiti is not at all the lagoon-and-palm-tree image I had expected. The tireless, populous bustle of Pape'ete is far more remeniscent of urban Mexico, but where the ubiquitous adobe-red colour is replaced with an aggressive, living green. Even the air smells of plants barely kept at bay by civilization.
Having long parted with the tourist-hordes headed for their five-star resorts, we took Tahiti's public transport, "le Truck" into downtown Pape'ete. I had heard good things about the market there, and it was apparently one of the few places where you could eat truly cheaply. The ride there was great -- picture a red truck with a semi-enclosed seating area on its rather large flatbed, with three benches running lengthways. It filled up as we approached the market, and we took its emptying as a cue that we had arrived. We navigated ourselves through and around all the neat sights of the Marché, and then went on a quest to find a historic cathedral, the Notre Dame.
It was completely unlike any church I've ever seen. Decidedly un-ornate, with white, tall walls and open-air windows and doors, its only decorations were the usual sequential paintings of the twelve stations of the cross. However, these too were unlike anything; they were highly stylized, with all characters of obvious Island ethnicity and garb. Each painting had a fairly long explanation under it done in rudimentary lettering, entirely in French. We sat there awhile, partly to soak it in, partly to rest. Then we made a move to the seaside.
There was very little there, but we did spot a building that looked nothing like the rest of Pape'ete. It was hut-shaped with deep-brown-coloured wood, large glass windows, and had that familiar overall gloss that reads, "money". Sure enough, it was a tourist bureau... and thanks to it being their low season, we were the only customers there. We asked the staff for suggestions on what to see, given that we needed to return to the airport by 4PM. They suggested the "lagoonarium", and then a museum.
Dodging intermittent tropical rains, we made it to the bus that would take us to the Lagoonarium. This bus was much more like the buses we know, and its rocking motions made it extremely difficult for David and I to keep our eyes open. Luckily, we got off at the right stop, which happened to be, primarily, a beautiful restaurant. We got two tickets -- $5 each -- to the Lagoonarium, which turned out to be a submerged viewing area for a semi-netted-in natural space. The viewing area is joined to the overwater restaurant by a very, very long dock. The soothing sight of pretty fish swimming by put us in danger, once again, of falling asleep on the spot, so we returned to the restaurant for a coffee. Or three.
We were so tired, we could barely get off our chairs. So we drank more coffee, and then more, and then Dave had a beer, and then we started getting hungry for lunch. The place wasn't exactly cheap, but between our total exhaustion, the fabulous view, and the luscious-looking Polynesian buffet being set out, the decision was a no-brainer. So we got some celebratory beers and enjoyed the delicious regional delicacy, poisson cru (raw fish, grated carrots and chopped onions marinated in coconut milk and lemon juice). By this time, the place had filled up with elderly tourists of all nationalities, and it got surprisingly lively even before the music started. A large, floral-shirt-clad Polynesian fellow got on a keyboard and sang for us all, which was every bit as much warmly entertaining as completely kitchy. But we had to move, if we were to see (and find) the museum.
We got back to the road just in time to catch the bus; luckily, staying awake during the ride was much easier this time. We kept our eyes peeled, continually consulting the map, and eventually passed a long, anonymous road where I could have sworn I'd briefly glimpsed a sign saying "Musée". On a hunch, we got off the bus to walk down said street.
It was long, it was well-conquered on both sides by green, green plants, and it was eerily deserted. Plus, aside from the arrow-sign I'd seen, there was no indication of there being a museum at all. But we kept walking.... after all, it was daylight, and in spots where the greenery let up enough to let us see what was behind, it seemed to be a residential area. Aside from the distance, the walking was made difficult by the brutal sun, the thick, muggy air, our exhaustion, and the general suspicion that we might be lost. But we pressed on, and eventually found another sign -- one confirming it was the RIGHT museum -- pointing us down another long, empty and unmarked street. Encouraged, we proceeded, and eventually the trees cleared away and we saw our destination... right next to an amazing black-sand beach.
Naturally, we investigated the beach first. Black sand apparently has volcanic origins, and I had only ever seen it before on certain beaches in New Zealand. One NZ beach in particular is a popular year-round resting ground for seals, who take advantage of scarce warmth by sprawling over sun-radiated black sand. Here there were no seals, and the warmth was my no means scarce. The water was this amazing light turquoise, luminous and alive in the near-blinding sunshine, washing over an onyx-black beach. A sight like that went a long way to restoring the tired bodies Dave and I had, as our Friday was already very long, and it was nowhere near over.
Afterwards, we made our way back to the museum. It covered a general history of French Polynesia, its topography, flora, fauna, culture, and anthropological significance. And best of all, it was air-conditioned. We lingered there awhile, and took off at about 3PM when the place filled up with tourists. Before getting back on the bus, we hit the local grocery store to stock up on snacks for the rest of our journey. The only thing I knew about our next destination, Huahine, is that it is the one island that has gone largely untouched by the tourist industry. Meaning, restaurants, supermarkets, and convenience stores were going to be a totally unknown quantity, particularly in relation to wherever our lodgings were.
We got back to the airport, transferred our bags from storage to check-in, and boarded the plane to Huahine without incident. Huahine is an island halfway between Tahiti and Bora Bora, and is known as the "savage beauty". We'd chosen it as a destination due to its relaxed reputation and road-less-taken status. My research had turned up a highly recommended pension (guesthouse) called Rande's Shack, with whom I had been in contact to arrange for airport pickup.
Breathing a sigh of relief, we finally pulled up to our lodgings. Finally, we can rest. Then, out of nowhere, Rande gave us a big hello, and said to hurry getting settled -- another guest wanted to go to dinner with us. Huh?! So much for an 8PM bedtime... Nonetheless, we had a great time. The other guest was Rudi, an American staying with Rande whilst doing renovations on his own hotel, Te Tiare. Well, what better endorsement could there be for our own accomodations if the owner of the island's only five-star resort was staying next door? ;-) Dinner was lovely, and Rudi was great company; he had all kinds of fun stories about his life, his family, and the resort.
Despite the enjoyable dinner, I was most grateful to see our cabin again. We were fast asleep even before our heads hit the pillows.