A Journey to French Polynesia by Dr Alison Coll
I have long wanted to travel to French Polynesia – since I began learning about the world really; it took me a long time to achieve this dream. Why the fascination? Hard to understand why specifically, but idyllic photos, Gauguin’s depictions on canvas, the variety of the islands, and the chance to escape from reality and everyday life are probably just a few of the reasons.
A few facts so readers can geolocate themselves. French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France located in the South Pacific Ocean, is made up of a total of 118 somewhat scattered islands and atolls, of which 67 are inhabited. These islands are further divided into five groups: the Society Islands Archipelago, composed of the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. A writer describing a different chain of islands in the Pacific described those as “a pattern of islands”, a description which could just as easily be attributed to French Polynesia.
For myself and my travelling – and life’s – companion, visions of Polynesia and the reality of getting here figure significantly in this account. The time difference between home in the UK, too, is also hefty – either 10.5 or 11 hours, depending on where you go – and travelling to initially reach the islands involved two flights (of plus and minus ten hours each): Heathrow to LA and then LA to Papeete, with a four-hour layover and a prayer the connection was on schedule. Getting there, for sure, was less stressful in the days when Gauguin set sail.
Due to many travelling mishaps on previous complex trips, we opted to go slow, and stayed overnight in Los Angeles to avoid the possibility of missing our connection, and potentially wrecking the start of the holiday. It did make the whole journey feel very long, especially as, on arrival in Papeete, we then had a further four hour flight to Atuona Airport on Hiva Oa programmed after a quick overnight in Tahiti. In essence, we spent three days traveling to reach the furthest island group of Polynesia, the Marquesas.
The big question for us from the outset was how many islands could we visit in a set time given the distances involved? We were, after all, on holiday and not a relay race. We wanted to enjoy each destination, yet we also wanted to experience the real and more rural Polynesia as well as visit the islands beloved by tourists.
After much study and debate, we decided to start the trip with visits to two islands in the Marquesas: Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva, the furthest point from Tahiti in our journey.
Next would be Bora Bora. This is iconic Polynesia, and we felt that to travel all this way and not stop by would be like going to Paris and refusing to (at least) see the Eiffel Tower. Finally, we opted for a few nights in the ultimate in luxury and eco-friendly tourism, The Brando Resort on Tetiaroa. The entire trip was to take us just under three weeks.
We flew from Heathrow to LA, and then LA to Tahiti on Air Tahiti, which was reasonably similar to other airlines’ business class products. On landing at Papeete’s Fa'a'ā International Airport, we were met and whisked to the VIP lounge where our passports were taken by an immigration officer who skimmed his eyes over us as the only security check. Casual entry formalities sorted, our cases were retrieved and in no time we were in the car on the way to the InterContinental Resort Tahiti, good enough for a few hours sleep before a very early start and a four hour flight to Hiva Oa.
Body clocks askew, the 5:30 am pick-up made no difference to us, and within ten minutes we reached the airport for our onward transfer. All domestic flights are economy class only, and there are no dedicated check-in desks for specific flights. Boarding was a bit of a free-for-all, with passengers being pulled forward as and when their flights were announced.
Our driver made us a little worried when he said we wouldn’t be allowed to take our backpacks on board as they were too large – the allowance being 5 kg. When we arrived at the airport, however, we realised everyone else’s was larger. Needless to say, we had no problem here or anywhere else on the trip, but careful packing is essential. The flight from Papeete to Hiva Oa was long but comfortable enough: the crew gave out one glass of juice, and we managed to buy a sandwich. In retrospect, we should have asked for a picnic from the Intercon; yes, hindsight is 20/20.
Hanakee Pearl Lodge, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands
As the Atuona Airport at Hiva Oa is very small, our bags were through in about ten minutes. The hotel was about a twelve minute drive up the hills, so, once in residence, we were perched on high with a fantastic view. Hanakee Pearl Lodge is small and welcoming, but we stuck to ourselves mostly as the staff all had limited English.
So did everyone else. We had booked a guide and a full schedule of trips round the island but, unfortunately, the guide’s English was adequate to guide us but not good enough to engage in a conversation or answer our many questions, a shame really.
Over the three days we spent here, we covered most of the island and felt we saw all there was to see. It is very green and luxuriant, with fruit of every description growing freely everywhere, just waiting to be picked. Volcanic in origin, there are mountains all around, green and verdant, like a miniature Hawaii almost. Hiva Oa’s claim to fame is that Gauguin lived and is buried here, as is Jacques Brel. The beaches are beautiful, and the people are extremely friendly.
The guides, however, didn’t always manage to fully translate from French when speaking to us, and instead of talking about ‘wild’ pigs and ‘wild’ strawberries, as an example, they used the word ‘savage’ to describe the pigs and strawberries. In our minds, Marquesas soon became a ‘savage place’. Perhaps not the best image, but we couldn’t rid ourselves of it. Of course, this was compounded by the fact that many of the local tribes used to (a long time ago) eat their enemies in an effort to absorb their traits (apparently). According to his book on the subject, American author Herman Melville was captured and spent three weeks with one such cannibalistic tribe on Nuku Hiva, the largest of the Marquesas Islands. Clearly, since he lived to write about it, Melville wasn’t to their liking – that, or his traits as an author, didn’t impress.
Keikahanui Pearl Lodge, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands
The transfer between the two islands of Hiva Oa and Nuku Hiva was a 40 minute flight. There were no security checks, something so unusual in this world we live in and, therefore, a welcome respite from the norm.
The transfer to the Keikahanui Pearl Lodge was not pleasant at all. There were six of us squashed into an SUV for the one and a half hour journey over mountain passes with acute hairpin bends. On arrival, the lodge was essentially a mirror image of its sister Pearl Lodge on Hiva Oa we had just left, as in basic but more than adequate, with staff that spoke better English.
Once again, we had a full schedule of guided trips round the island, including a hike to Polynesia’s highest waterfall. Walking around, we did feel as if we were in the Garden of Eden, completely surrounded by many exotic fruit trees, with our guide picking one after another for us to have with our lunch. As he did, he quipped that there was no need for anyone to work here on the island, saying, “We have fish in the sea, pigs in the forest, fruit and breadfruit on the trees.” He added, “There are also wild goats and chickens. Why do we need shops?” When you looked around, it did seem to be a land of plenty, but most locals are moving away from this, and you can see the massively increasing tide of obesity, perils of a Western diet, no doubt.
Speaking of diets, negatives about the Pearl Lodges were mainly concerning the food. Very hit or miss, some dishes were quite good and others were really poor. On the whole, the food was better at Nuku Hiva, as was the overall management. When we had a problem at Hiva Oa and asked them to ring the manager, the comment was ‘we can’t, he’s the boss.’ We struggled with this attitude.
It appears that it is extremely rare for any English speaking tourists to visit the Marquesas Islands. Most visitors are French or Italian. Whatever the reason, the islands are very beautiful; truly what Polynesia would have been before commercialisation and tourism took over. I am certainly happy we made the effort to travel here.
One point I would make is that I think for most of the trips we undertook, you need to be relatively fit, which, while you may think obvious, is not spelled out in advance. One of the excursions was a boat trip to a small neighbouring island and a few villages. There were no easy mooring points, and we often had to jump up or down and cross large gaps which were difficult. The crew helped, but you needed a degree of agility.
Similarly, when out with one particular guide in the forest, he marched ahead not checking we were keeping up. Along the way, we found it difficult at times, so we devised our own to get through the fast moving rivers and varying terrains.
One other point to make with regards to the Marquesas, were the insects, microscopic ones called Nonos to be exact. They are a type of sand fly, invisible, but thriving on and near the beaches. They give you small red bites which are intensely itchy for a long time; mine remained noticeably with me for at least ten days. DEET doesn’t deter them, and the hotel advised using a local spray, but I didn’t find it much better, and I spent the rest of the trip scratching vigorously despite antihistamines and creams.
Bora Bora was the next stop, supposedly a straightforward three-hour flight from Nuku Hiva’s Airport with an hour’s layover in Tahiti and a further 45 minutes in the air to Bora Bora Airport. However, as we all know, even the best-laid plans...The night before departure, we discovered Air Tahiti had altered the flight time so we only had half an hour in Tahiti to deplane, collect luggage, re-check in, board and pass through security.
We were told that as this was their doing, they would have someone to meet us and whisk us through. We were sceptical, but there they were upon our arrival with a name placard. And because our flight was late getting in, we were down to twenty minutes but, lo and behold, we made it. Too close for comfort, but it was with great relief we as landed in the dark at Bora Bora Airport where we were met by the Four Seasons launch boat, and fifteen minutes later we were in our overwater suite with all the creature comforts (not to mention internet).
The lagoon at the Four Seasons Bora Bora is very beautiful; the water is a deep turquoise and is overlooked by the (now extinct) Mount Otemanu volcano, supposedly one of the best vistas in Bora Bora. The overwater suites are enormous and well thought out in virtually every way.
There are many excursions available from the hotel, all are costly, but we decided to just chill on our deck and enjoy the water. There are four restaurants: one a fancy French-themed one, two with more local flair and one for breakfast only. They are of variable standards: some good meals, some mediocre. All are expensive.
Would I go back to Bora Bora? Probably not. We felt we should go, but we didn’t venture off the resort as we wanted to just unwind and relax at that point. For US visitors to the island, it’s not so terribly far away as the UK is, and therefore the journey here is probably worth it. For us, it wasn’t quite special and different enough to warrant the travel time from the UK. It’s that simple.
The Brando Resort, Tetiaroa, Windward Islands
Our last resort was The Brando on Tetiaroa, an atoll situated about 53 km (33 miles) from Tahiti. Opened now for about four years,Tetiaroa was a private island Marlon Brando bought after falling in love with it when he was on location filming Mutiny on the Bounty. It is run as a totally eco-sustainable resort. It consists of 35 villas and has its own very small airstrip and private airline.
Arriving on a six seater plane, you are welcomed by the manager and a troupe of singers and musicians before being whisked off in golf cart for a personal tour and check-in within your villa.
The villas are beautifully decorated; they’re spacious but they are reminiscent of a luxury hotel suite, not a cutting-edge villa. They do not compare favourably to the villas at other eco resorts like Miavana in Madagascar or North Island in the Seychelles, both in the same price bracket. You do not walk in and feel this is amazing; we felt more bedazzled walking into our bungalow in Bora Bora, although the outdoor space here is comfortable and attractive.
There isn’t any butler service nor any kitchenettes in these villas, but there’s just a kettle and a Nespresso machine. The villa consists of a living area, a master suite with a dressing area, a large bathroom with an outside bath and a media room/ study with a sofa bed for children. There’s a mini bar with complimentary drinks and nuts and a couple of nibbles. Occasionally, cakes were left in the room at tea time.
Depending what tariff you are on, spa treatments may be included – one per day. We were advised to book these all on arrival as the spa is popular. So we did and while the treatments vary in quality, I didn’t feel they compared to many I have had in the UK and elsewhere.
You may do one trip per day, but some, such as snorkeling, are only offered three times a week. They cancelled the one while we were there and couldn’t do another as were then using the boat for private functions. There are only three boat trips that are complimentary, the rest are all privately hosted.
The Brando has become popular. While we were there, it was running at virtually 100% occupancy, and it was obvious that they were beyond stretched at the seams at times. Mistakes were made with room service orders and spa treatment bookings.
Is the Brando worth the hype? Does it have the ‘wow’ factor you would expect it to? Is it as good as the Amazing Hotels TV programme proclaimed? In our opinion, yes, somewhat, but so do a lot of other places in the world. The island is beautiful, the sea many shades of blue, the staff extremely helpful but you can find this in many other luxury island resorts. We decided that, as lovely as it is, the Brando name weighs heavily in this property’s favour.
Would we come back again? Our general consensus is that we were underwhelmed. The experience for us was not unique enough; we could have been at any luxury chain hotel while this was supposed to be a unique and very personal experience.
We arrived back to Tahiti at 2.30 pm, and since our flight to LAX was not ‘till midnight we had organised a driver to show us around. He was enthusiastic, spoke good English and showed us as much of the Island as possible, which was wonderful.
The return journey; reflections
We got back to the airport to wait for check-in to open at 9 pm. At that point, we had someone arrive to do an accelerated private immigration and security check which was great to beat the lines.
Our original flight out on Air Tahiti had been on a modern aircraft with seats that were virtually flat. On the return journey, the plane was old and held together by duct tape in places. The seats were not flat-bed by any stretch of the imagination, and thus this ride turned into a rather uncomfortable eight-hour flight.
In conclusion, did I think this long expedition was worth it? Most definitely. Polynesia is an amazing and beautiful destination, and the people are welcoming and friendly. Every island is special and different to the other. How could we have planned it even better? We felt we should have gone for a slightly longer time and visited a few more islands. Because, for all you adventurers out there, even if the accommodation everywhere is not ultra deluxe, you’ll get a true taste of French Polynesia in all its glory, varying personalities and truly unique characteristics.
Photography courtesy of Dr Alison Coll
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