French Polynesia - Recap part 1!

A day or two after I'd gotten back to SF after my two months on the road this summer, I got an email from one of my partner tour operators asking if I would be interested in joining their familiarization trip to Tahiti.  "Is that a trick question?", I wondered... but no, it wasn't.  My bookings and inquiries this summer (thanks to my awesome clients!!) made them think I might be a good candidate to become a Tahiti Specialist, and therefore, on December 1st I hopped on a plane to LAX to begin what turned out to be a completely amazing trip.  We saw and experienced A TON, and I wanted to quickly share the highlights of our itinerary (which would NEVER be a client's itinerary because they would kill me).   No matter what your itinerary- you're always warmly welcomed when you arrive (and the Air Tahiti Nui planes you fly in are are cute as well)!

First up - eight hours after we boarded in LAX we arrived in Papeete, the capital city on the island of Tahiti, which is the main, central island of French Polynesia.  There are five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia, but we would be focused on the most popular one on this trip - the Society Islands.  Before we began the day, we were treated to a day-use room to shower and freshen up before touring the Manava Suite Resort, which is a smaller, boutique-style hotel on Tahiti, about 20 minutes from the airport.  It has a lovely infinity pool overlooking the ocean (with Moorea in the distance), and is a nice spot for those on a budget needing a quick stop on the main island. 

From there we had a nice morning tour of the island of Tahiti (not the full island tour, which takes the whole day, but an abbreviated option) where we saw the house museum of one of the authors of the earliest version of "Mutiny on the Bounty", got drenched at a blowhole while watching crazy local body surfers, and saw a cute local festival underneath a picturesque old lighthouse.  After our tour, we stopped at a local spot near the port for some lunch, and then spent some quality time exploring Le Marche for some early souvenirs.  (Again, this would be a perfect last day itinerary, but we made it work on day 1!).  Here are a few shots from our day tour:

Filled with some purchases (or ice cold beer for the non-shoppers), we headed back to the airport for our quick flight over to our second island of the day, Raiatea.  The flight was all of 30 minutes (maybe?) and it's the CUTEST little open air "airport" you've ever seen.  We were quickly loaded onto a boat for our lovely half-hour transfer over to our own little private island resort for the night, the absolutely gorgeous Relais & Chateaux property called "Le Taha'a."  Now- Raiatea shares a lagoon with the island of Taha'a (meaning one reef encircles both islands), and the hotel Le Taha'a is on its own little island off the northern coast of Taha'a.  Bora Bora hovers in the background (further north a bit), and apparently is only about a 6 minute helicopter ride, but the open ocean between them can be quite rough.  In any case, we got our first absolute THRILL of the trip when we learned we were getting to sleep in over water bungalows at Le Taha'a!  For many of us, we hadn't even allowed ourselves to hope for that, since we knew by now that there were quite a few groups of travel agents traveling around the same time as us.  But, we got lucky thanks in large part to our awesome tour operator partner of Travel 2.  In any case, after a long and delicious dinner, we were all EXHAUSTED and were more than happy to collapse in our gorgeous bungalows (we didn't even bother turning on the under-side light to watch for fish through our various windows down to the water!).  Here are a few shots from the end of a long but fabulous day 1 (!!!):

First thing the next morning, after a delicious buffet breakfast (which was a trend- every hotel has a LOVELY and extensive buffet which is usually included), we took a tour of the property.  Everything from the spa to the beach bungalows to the pool was fabulous.  A wonderful mix of authenticity with luxuriousness and REALLY excellent service.  Though it is a smaller resort (only 120 maximum guests at any one night), it is nicely spread out and therefore really quite private.  The even have a little man-made motu just off-shore for you to have a private dinner on, and they even have their own super cool coral garden you can snorkel through.  As is the case with all of the resorts we toured, the non-motorized water sports are complimentary (kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, snorkeling equipment, etc), and the food was pricey (eg: a light lunch by the pool was about $20). We did learn that pre-purchasing meals is really a smart idea, not only so that you have less to worry about on-site, but also because pre-purchased meals are taxed less, and therefore you can SAVE quite a bit of money.  Once our site tour was done, we headed out to the boat dock for a quick 10 minute transfer over to the main Taha'a island for a fun and informative jeep tour of the island.  This allowed us to check out the interior of a quieter, less populated island than Tahiti, and it delivered!  Stunning views (it's REALLY pretty there y'all), and neat cultural experiences.  We stopped by the side of the road to watch a gal drying coconuts (a typical job for families which is mega hard).  We toured a vanilla farm and learned how labor intensive that process is (eg: they HAND POLLINATE each flower, and they only have 6 hours on ONE DAY to do as many as they can), plus we learned about other medicinal oils and other uses for vanilla beans.  Then we also toured a little family-owned & operated pearl farm.  That is ALSO an incredibly labor-intensive & delicate process that takes years to accomplish, so there IS a reason why Tahitian products are so expensive.  One of our two jeeps even got to stop at their driver's home briefly and got to ride back to the port with her adorable little two-year-old daughter.  SUCH a cutie, but then again - ALL the locals we'd encountered to this point were just lovely (that's another trend, which I'll get to more later).  Here are quite a few pics of both Le Taha'a our island tour:

Once we made it back to the resort, we were given a precious few hours of free time to eat some lunch and enjoy the resort a bit.  A few of us braved the stronger-than-usual current to check out the coral garden.  Their snorkeling guide (a character straight out of a movie) was super sweet and made sure we all made it safely through, while also ensuring that we loved our first experience of the coral & fish of the area. I had my first attempt to use my iphone underwater with this special sealed bag I bought instead of investing in an actual underwater camera, and sadly it was NOT successful.  HOWEVER - the snorkel was very cool, which is the important thing!  All too soon it was time for us to use an awesome beach bungalow (and, for some, its outdoor shower!) to freshen up for the trip back to Papeete.  When we got back to a sweltering Tahiti (we arrived in the midst of a three-day heat wave the likes of which haven't been seen since the '70's!), we were transferred over to the Intercontinental French Polynesia located right there in Papeete about 5 minutes from the airport.  It's the sort of "main" resort on Tahiti, and though a BIT of a "standard" chain hotel, it IS a nice resort and would be a really good introduction to the islands.  This was going to be our home for the next two nights, and my GOODNESS do they start with a good first impression - the bell boys were all quite handsome young men and many were wearing teensy little tight sarongs (and little to nothing else).  Many in our group were practically swooning - another trend to the trip!  Rather than touring the hotel, we were whisked right away down to the main buffet dining area as the traditional Polynesian dance show was starting.  The buffet food was fairly uninspired, but the show was AMAZING.  Especially in the heat we had, the energy and professionalism of the dancers was impressive.  Here are a few shots from part two of day two:

For this post, I'll end with a brief report on or next day's activities: the Tahiti Travel Exchange 2015.  Each year the tourism board for the islands of Tahiti puts on a trade show in a single day, which brings together agents from North America and vendors from across the islands. There were about 130 agents in the room and over 30 suppliers (hoteliers, tour companies, pearl producers, etc...).  We were educated, entertained, and really treated like rock stars all day.  Super informative and well-run event, plus the snacks were delicious!  (Lots of fresh fruits and french pastries - fabulous combination!)  We also had a long-enough break at lunch to take a self-tour of the resort, which really was in a lovely setting.  They've even added a few over water bungalows, and announced plans to refresh the standard rooms in the coming year. After many hours of meetings & prize giveaways (our group was sadly mostly un-lucky with the prizes), it was time for what was mostly a great cocktail party.  I say mostly because it was SERIOUSLY hot, and so humid that it began spontaneously misting at some point during the evening.  Not rain, just water springing together to form drops on an incredibly humid night.  There was another, more elaborate, show that night - set to the story (I think) of Swan Lake, and I felt even worse for these dancers who were absolutely dripping by the end of their performance.  Even the locals couldn't believe the weather, so I think you don't need to worry about that issue for your trip!  Here are some shots of the InterContinental Papeete and the Tahiti Travel Exchange:

I'll stop here because Bora Bora and our last day on Moorea deserve their own post.  I'll try to get it up soon before I forget all the details!