Trapped in Paradise

When we tell
people we were stuck in Tahiti for two extra days because of a strike, they say
‘poor you’ and seem unsympathetic. But this is perhaps because they share our
earlier romantic ideas of Tahiti as an archetypal tropical paradise, which is
far from the case, though as with every destination there are plus and minus
factors.

Altogether our
itinerary called for 4 nights on Tahiti (3 at the start and 1 at the end), 3
nights on Moorea, and 2 nights on Bora Bora. Tahiti itself is the largest
island in French Polynesia; it is officially part of France, French is the
official language, and the only city in the archipelago is Papeete, on the
north coast. Frankly, Papeete is a dump – most of it is scruffy, noisy and
rat-infested, although there are one or two nice parts, including a waterfront
park and a handful of bars and cafes. We spent a lot of time in our favourite
pub, Les Trois Brasseurs (aka 3 Bras), which was lively with good food and its
own micro-brewery. Another good feature of Papeete is the ‘roulottes’, catering
vans which congregate by the harbour every evening and serve a variety of food
at open-air tables at (relatively) reasonable prices. Another point to note
about French Polynesia is that prices are generally very high.

Outside of
Papeete there are some interesting sites and things to see. The beaches are
mostly black sand and not very exciting. We drove round the island and visited
blowholes and waterfalls, as well as the Botanical Gardens – with a fascinating
forest of native chestnut trees (mape) and a couple of Galapagos tortoises –
and the Gauguin museum. Perhaps the most interesting trip we made was into the
interior of the island on a 4WD tour, getting into the heart of the ancient
volcanic crater and seeing some amazing scenery.

Moorea is a
smaller island not far from Tahiti, and we made the crossing by ferry in half
an hour. We stayed in a beach bungalow; the beach itself was nice but not
extensive. Again we drove round the island taking in the sights. There are two
impressive bays on the north side, with spectacular views of the interior
mountains. We also did a 4WD tour here, and got some good views, but spent a
lot of time learning how to grow pineapples and vanilla (not something we see
ourselves ever needing to do). We also attended a local dance show, with much
shaking of hips (women) and waggling of thighs (men).

From Moorea we
flew to Bora Bora, which is even smaller and almost entirely populated by
honeymoon couples. It has a spectacular central mountain and a wide lagoon, and
we got good views of the former when crossing the lagoon by boat from the
airport, which is on one of the surrounding small islands. The weather was a
bit variable there, but we managed to do some swimming, walking and canoeing.
In fact we paddled a kayak out to the honeymoon island opposite our hotel and
right round it, just to prove we’re not totally unfit. We also visited Bloody
Mary’s, the most famous restaurant on the island, frequented by untold masses
of celebrities. It was all right.

Only when we
flew back from Bora Bora to Tahiti did our carefully-planned itinerary turn to
custard (kiwi for ‘go seriously wrong’). We had booked a night in a hotel (Le
Mandarin) in Papeete before flying out the following evening. When we reached
the hotel we were told there was a strike of civil servants, including fire
fighters, which had resulted in the cancellation of all international flights.
The next day we had our tour of the interior of the island, and kept borrowing
the driver’s mobile phone to check up on the situation with our flight in the
evening. When we returned to the hotel we discovered that planes were flying
again, but it was not clear whether we would be on the list of those able to
fly out that evening.  Later the passenger
list was faxed to the hotel, and we were not on it, so we checked in for
another night.

The next morning
we checked out, hoping to fly that night. We spent a long time at the Air
Tahiti Nui and Qantas offices, and were advised to go to the airport in the
hope of getting a flight that night or (if not) definitely in the early morning.
At the airport there was total chaos, with mobs of people trying to find out if
they were on the magic list which meant they could leave that evening. Needless
to say, we were not, and we were also informed that the morning flight had been
cancelled. So we got a taxi back to Le Mandarin and checked in again. After
another day of hanging round Papeete and the Qantas office, we finally managed
to leave the next evening. We, and all the other passengers on the plane, were
mightily relieved when the wheels finally left the tarmac and the plane headed
for Los Angeles!

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