Dreams are Meant to Be Lived
Let’s be real. French Polynesia is as dreamy as it gets. I have wanted to sail these waters, since I was fourteen years old, listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash sing “when you see the Southen Cross for the first time, you’ll understand now why you came this way”. Although I have seen the Southern Cross under a dark, Peruvian sky high in the Andean Mountains, I had never experienced such a sight while living aboard a sailboat. It was a dream; and dreams are to be lived, so let’s get to the telling of this one.
French Polynesia is known as a couples’ destination. In case you are wondering, these islands are not just for honeymooners, although couples are the majority of the tourists you will encounter, the islands are great for adventuring with family and friends. Travel outside of the standard, couples resort vibe will require a little more research, creativity and planning, as the islands are very much geared toward the traveling romantic duos, but it’s well worth it. From private bungalows perfectly poised over clear waters to French champagne and wine, romance is in the air…but so is getting away from all of that, which is more my vibe, which is what I will share with you.
Did you know there are 118 islands in French Polynesia?
We spent our time in the Archipel de la Societie (The Society Islands). There are 4 other achipelagos, The Tuamotus, Gambiers, Marquesas and Austral islands. French Polynesia spans 4.5 million km in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That’s about 1.9 million square miles (million!), yet the landmass of all the islands combined is about the size of Rhode Island (crazy)!
What I liked about French Polynesia was almost everything. What I didn’t like was nothing. Kauai in Hawaii is the only Polynesia I had visited previously and I fell in love with it. While I was in Kauai I met a Tahitian man who has lived in Hawaii most of his life. He said French Polynesia is much more culturally in tact and much less crowded. He spoke longingly of his native land. I can see why.
We were in Mo’orea for four days before we saw or spoke to another American. I was immediately grateful for eight years of elementary and secondary school French; words came back to me with surprising ease. I was told that Hawaii gets the same amount of visitors in a day that French Polynesia receives in a year! This place is great for the off-the-beaten path traveler who does not require the abundant comforts of the typical American tourist.
Because we are educating the girls as we travel, we had them watch the 1984 movie, The Bounty, filmed in French Polynesia, detailing, albeit Hollywood style, the Europeans’ earliest interactions with the Polynesian inhabitants. We used the movie as a prologue to the history we would learn throughout our travels. The Mares (traditional Polynesian ceremonial sites) we discovered on our hikes moved me. I spent time meditating amongst the ruins and contemplated how life must have been, in tune with nature, living simply with traditional medicinal practices, in simple homes made of nature. Ceremonies invoked celebration or tribal factions fighting it out. The music and movement is intoxicating and sensual, connected to the steamy air and wild landscape, it’s roots-y, it’s grounding. The first Europeans came upon these lands and desired to tame the islanders; I fantasize about a re-wilding of the culture, a reconnection with sustainable, nature-based practices.
Polynesian elders orchestrated sustainable fishing around the islands, preventing overharvesting by systemically giving sections of the waters a break from fishing in years-long rotations. European influences brought religious indoctrination, exploited the kindness of the culture and created a level of disconnect from nature with patriarchal influences and puritan ways. Traditional art, like tattoos and Tikis, were forbidden, along with sexual freedom and polytheistic spirituality. Side note: Tattoo and taboo, happen to be two Tahitian words we have adopted in our English language.
The church gained a foothold and cultural control through education. Alcohol use increased and traditional plant-medicines were outlawed, as well as tattoos, traditional ceremonies and probably nudity for that matter. Over the past thirty-forty years tattoos have made a socially acceptable comeback and traditional-style Tahitian tattoos publically and proudly adorn a large majority of the local French Polynesian population. It’s common for travelers and tourists from all over the world to come to the islands to seek traditional Tahitian tattoos by local artists (my man being one of them. He endured a pretty brutal six hours for the Tahitian neck and chest piece he had been wanting since he visited the area sixteen years before).
Running miles and miles through the rural interior of Mo’orea, I could picture a simple, yet rich life among the tropical, lush hillsides. It’s still there. It exists. I don’t mean to romanticize it completely, as every place has its challenges I could write for hours about these islands, but I will attempt to keep it brief.
If you want to travel and really get to know a place, rent a house in the area. Food in French Polynesia is expensive. Even the “snacks” (local, casual restaurants), will run you at least $10-15USD for lunch. Shopping at the local markets is not inexpensive, but will save you hundreds in a week if you prepare your basic meals at home. The islands, French influenced as they are, are abundant with fresh baguettes! Be aware that you will likely be charged a higher price for food in the market than the locals. Most restaurants also have a “touristique” menu, with yup, you guessed increased prices!
I loved our little villa right on the Opanohu Bay in Mo’orea. It was fully stocked, so I could make coffee and breakfast everyday, as well as lunch most days which is helpful because we eat plant based. We had dinner in a couple times and ate out most nights. It’s easy to spend $100+ for a nice lunch (and more at dinner).
Some restaurants we enjoyed and were able to find plant based options for Carter and me (girls eat omnivorously):
The Yellow Lizard is a cute, casual restaurant between Haapiti and Opanohu serving elegant French food and vegan options. The French influence provides an opportunity for good wine and yummy desserts for the girls and the husband and wife owners were kind. Lunch at the Mo’orea Yacht Club and the Sofitel were also great.
Here is just a small glimpse of what we loved about Mo’orea.
Mo’orea is a perfect blend of lush, misty mountains and crystal clear coves, bays and lagoons. Divers, snorkelers, surfers, hikers and honeymooners will be in paradise. We were lucky to happen upon the tail end (pun kind of intended) of the Humpback Whale season. It was also windy, which is of course a main reason why we came, but we learned our first day on the island that the mayor had just banned kitesurfing in three of the main spots we had researched. It wasn’t as if we couldn’t make it happen, but it was not going to be as easy to kitesurf Mo’orea as we had hoped. We decided to ease into the week, not at all worried about the wind, as we had plans for the next week, big plans brewing. It ended up being a great opportunity for me to jump-start my marathon training.
Mo’orea is a quiet island with little-to-no nightlife, plus we were not staying at a resort, so bedtime came early, which made for early mornings, perfect for cooler runs. I immediately felt safe running the main road and after the first day took to the side roads up into the mountains. The only thing I had to worry about were fast cars around the bends on my longer runs as it got later in the morning. The days begin early in the islands here. It’s light by 5:30am and I saw the school busses picking up children by 6:30am.
We spent a good part of the week exploring the island by foot, a few hikes to a high point, Magic Mountain on the coast line on Opanohu Bay and an inland hike up to a waterfall I have no idea the name, but that was a cool adventure through a rustic and tropical local village with a lush and muddy trail beyond the rough road that we managed to also clean the transmission from our rental car on the way up. There was no one there and it always feels great to explore on our own.
A highlight was getting out on the water with Dr. Michael Poole for his whale and dolphin tour. It is an absolute must and worth every CFP. We happened to get lucky and see a trio of whales for hours and a large school of spinner dolphins. Dr. Poole’s experience is eco-educational. Even if we hadn’t had the opportunity to see the animals, we would have learned so much anyway. Part of our small group got in the water with the whales when we first encountered them. Dr. Poole is careful to be unobtrusive around the animals, so we went in small groups of 4-6. Just as it was our turn and I lowered myself on the swim ladder, we had to pull the plug and get back on the boat! The whales were off on their way. We are only ethically able to be in the water when them when they are resting. It’s not cool to chase them down and drop into the water ahead of them, potentially disturbing their natural path of travel.
I was secretly disappointed, but alas, when in paradise a mood shan’t last long! We still had hours to marvel at their breaching, blowing and tail slaps from above! We also got to see Dr. Poole’s assistant collect small pieces of skin (DNA samples) that slough of the whales’ bodies when they slap their tails against the water surface. It’s their version of a loofah! It was incredible to me that we could motor up to the general area of the whale’s breach with a regular old pool skimmer net and gather a reliable source of DNA the size of a fingernail in the vast sea of blue!
Dr. Mike took a liking to the girls and appreciated what we are doing, traveling and homeschooling. He emailed me later that day and offered the girls a poster of all the Polynesian cetaceans he produced for the local schools. He invited us to his seminar at the Hilton the next evening, which we did and gave the girls the poster. We learned about the French Polynesia eco-system and the whales and dolphins of the area. Science class. Check!
Also at the Hilton, which is a five star, eco-resort in Mo’orea we experienced the Polynesian traditional dance and music show. We tend not to do the tourist things, but with kids, we find it’s important to balance out active sports endeavors with interesting activities for the kids. The whale trip, especially with the scientific angle was a win for all and the dance show was captivating. The dancer and staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
I’d also recommend Moorea Tropical Garden. It was half a mile from our house and it’s an easy, FREE activity. They offer a traditional, Polynesian lunch on Fridays. We sampled some sweet, homemade jams and sipped the most delicious freshly juiced pineapple-papaya juice. We got to pet the sweetest little white cat and Finley became obsessed with picking the fleas off her, even though they kept jumping back on the cat. Later that day we went and hiked a little mountain and had to laugh that the small French tour group we saw in a truck at the Gardens also showed up at Magic Mountain. We tried to explain to the girls that while tours can be good and informational, there is a certain amount of style points in doing it on our own!
When most people think about getting away from it all, they think vacation. But when on an extended journey of ten months, it’s important to establish a sustainable financial pace. Most people might not find food preparing and simple living the idea of a great trip, yet we knew we had to make some accommodations when we decided to charter a sailboat. First, we needed a captain. Carter’s and my sailing skills combined aren’t sufficient to captain the boat for a week around unfamiliar waters. That, along with the charter costs were going to be thousands more than we expected to pay for our week in a jungle villa on Mo’orea. We decided to cook aboard and didn’t pay for any tours or attractions outside of the one Polynesian dinner, Dr. Poole’s whale excursion and an incredibly informative vanilla farm and botany tour on Taha’a with Tahitian native Noah. He and his family live on the same property on which he has lived his entire thirty years and is an expert of the land. If you visit Taha’a, you must find him at the Vanilla Tours.
It worked out perfectly and I began to feel like a local. Our captain caught a Bonita one day that he and the girls ate. We shopped locally and I prepared most of our meals on board. My youngest, Channing, has really enjoyed this domestic side of mommy and asked me to cook more when we get home. I realized how much I have been working and away from home and began to love (again) the SimpleSlowDown life of food preparation and basic “home-keeping”.
One afternoon we took our kayak and paddleboard up the Faaora River on Raiatea and encountered a local farmer on a rowboat. We followed him a way up the river and he invited us in his land (this is where my limited French played a vital role). We ended up getting an up close and personal tour of his farm and left there with no less than thirty pounds of fruit! Our kayak nearly sank from the plantains alone! I had a blast getting creative with the interesting potatoes and plantain-like bananas. Simple living never felt so rich! I loved the farm-to-table, sea-to-table living on the sailboat! It was great to have a well-appointed galley with everything needed to prepare our meals!
We did hit a couple nice (read:expensive) places to eat for dinner on Bora Bora as our on-board food cache waned; the famed Bloody Mary’s offers an overt “touristique” spread, but it’s delicious and perfectly Polyneisan and festive inside. The Intercontinental, also on Bora Bora’s had cool, live Polynesian folk music, with great service and tropical, gourmet food.
When we first arrived in Tahiti, I was surprised how far Bora Bora was from Tahiti. Ferries and planes are a must for getting around the islands. Because we changed our plans once we were already there, it involved a little flexibility, as we couldn’t get a direct flight to Huahine to catch the boat. We had a long layover in Tahiti for the day, which we bought a “transit” (day) pass for all of us to enjoy the Intercontinental resort there (uh, wifi), spa (yes, please), pool (happy girls) and store the luggage until we took Tahiti Air to Raiatea, then Huahine.
Taking our time, sailing from Huahine to Bora Bora via Raiatea and Taha’a was spectacular. Adjective overload!!! There are not enough superlatives to describe this journey as one magical moment flowed into the next. From picture perfect waves peeling over the coral reefs, to eagle rays, stingrays, dolphins and swimming with sharks to the bluest blue waters and whitest, pure sands, I was smitten. Even the clouds, as many as there were some days cast a turquoise hue on the underbelly I had never seen before, reflecting the impossibly shades of aqua water below. There should be an entire language to describe the sights and smells of Tahiti and her islands, Bora Bora blues, Tiare flowers and Taha’ vanilla. Every day there is something more to delight and surprise the senses.
French Polynesia was a great way to start our journey of dreams around the world. The sloooooow or nonexistent wifi and relaxed pace of the island reset my hardwired Type A pace. Things are changing.
In response to a shorter, ”how to” blog I posted last month, I got a request to provide a general budget. I was asked if it is it realistic for a family to do a trip like this for $1k a month?
I replied back that I am not in a place to post general travel budget advice as we regularly blow our budget, then make up for it in different ways. For instance, we will eat at “home” for several days if we know we are going to splurge on something, yet we won’t waste money on many things like the Disney-ish, super tourist attractions. The fact that we are easily amused and inspired by nature makes spending less really easy. The down side is that off-the-beaten path can be either a bit more expensive to get to and/or not luxurious enough for certain travelers. I am ALWAYS happy to answer personal questions and make recommendations to the specific travel styles and needs of my readers…
Now, stop reading, and start planning your trip!