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  • Melissa Westemeier

french polynesia

I joked to my neighbors that anyone staking out my house in May to learn the family schedule would be deeply frustrated because of travel plans, college and new job schedules, visitors, and projects. My writing productivity took a hit, too, for these reasons, but WORTH IT.

Last summer D concluded we should take a vacation. A GOOD vacation. A DREAM vacation. The last time we went anywhere for more than one night, without children and without extended family as part of the package, happened when T was a baby. Park on that, reader. Over 20 years. Dang. Anyway, D declared our first "empty nest vacation destination" would be Bora Bora.

Where's that? was the first question people normally asked when they heard about our plans. Locate the Pacific Ocean on your globe and put your finger smack in the center of it. South of the equator, a bit northwest of Tahiti. That infinitesimal speck? Yep, that it.

Why? was the the other question people asked, and once I explained the overwater bungalow situation, people nodded along, comprehending the appeal because they'd seen pictures on the internet.

a view of an actual overwater bungalo in Bora Bora from OUR overwater bungalow

Actually, we went to Tahiti, Moorea, then Bora Bora. Yes, it was a long, long flight, but the French Polynesian hospitality began on the plane when our flight attendants passed out fresh blossoms and cocktails and we even enjoyed the journey to our destination. Our itinerary told us we'd get a lei welcome and visions of old episodes of the Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island came to mind. Would it really be that cool, or did I have an unrealistic view of the South Pacific thanks to Hollywood?

Turns out, French Polynesia IS paradise on earth and you really do get a lei welcome. We got three, one on each island, and there was a musical welcome in the airport, too! We stumbled off our flight in Tahiti at 9 p.m. to hear the cheery plunking of string instruments and singing, a trio of men were on a stage performing. (My hands were full with my carry on bags and fumbling for my passport, so I didn't get a picture) A sweet-smelling lei landed around my neck and we were whisked to our first hotel.

I woke up to a garden view of a sunrise and promptly found the waterfront where I gazed at the South Pacific. A man some distance along the black volcanic rocks practiced yoga and meditation. After several minutes, I became aware of movement on the rocks below and was treated to the sight of many crabs creeping and scuttling around. I've never seen such a variety of crabs, black, bright red, yellow, and grey shells.

my crabby friend

After a relaxing morning and a delicious breakfast where we first heard the word "Mauruuru," we saw a bit of Papeete. I've been studying French on my Babbel app, but in French Polynesia, they have their own unique vocabulary. They also have their own unique currency. We also learned that Tahiti's beaches are black volcano rock, according to our taxi driver this means "good drinking water." Moorea has less black volcano rock, Bora Bora has none. Bora Bora is the oldest site of a volcano, so has less land mass and more water as it is sinking. Tahiti is the youngest, with most land mass and highest mountains, too.

A ferry brought us from Tahiti to Moorea where we had a bungalow at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. We received another lei welcome before strolling to our garden bungalow with plunge pool.

The beach here was glorious and you couldn't find a bad view if you tried. Imagine a four-year-old with a huge box of Crayons charged with drawing flowers--any flower they wanted, any shape, any size, any colors. That gives you some sense of the flora in French Polynesia. Just ridiculous variety and it all smelled heavenly.

  1. I'm a terrible photographer

  2. this last is a BANANA tree IN BLOOM. Those flowers were MASSIVE

We enjoyed a half day tour of the island with Franckyfranck tours. This gave us some idea of Moorea's history, culture, agriculture and trade, and geography. Our tour included a pineapple plantation, a juice factory, a botanical garden where they grow Tahitian vanilla, a terribly labor-intensive crop, and amazing views of Cook's Bay and Magic Mountain.

D's like, Why are you taking a picture of your hand?

How else do I show the size of a baby pineapple?

Fun fact: Pineapple fields are a bit like corn, they get cleared out and

regrown every five years with a fallow season

built into the crop rotation.

We enjoyed sunset views and a traditional Polynesian feast with entertainment from musicians and dancers. The performance was incredible, these dancers and musicians had SO much energy and talent. Colorful, joyful, fierce, loaded with flowers because they feature huge in Polynesian traditions, and playful. Again, my photography is terrible, doesn't do the experience justice. The buffet offered fresh fruits and veg, fresh-caught seafood, pork. If you left hungry, shame on you. (I never left a table hungry during the trip)

Hands down, however, my favorite thing in Moorea was the snorkeling. The beach is one of my favorite environments, I love kayaking and snorkeling. The water throughout French Polynesia was crystal clear and so many shades of perfect blue. Beneath the surface, life ABOUNDED. You name it, shape, color, texture, size. I spent hours face-down (with my SPF 50 liberally applied to my skin) exploring the coral reefs. I've never seen such a healthy reef environment outside of Moorea, it was breathtaking. Our resort provided gear, they even let you keep it through your stay, our experience throughout French Polynesia was more generous than anywhere I've been in Mexico or Belize. Not sure why they have such liberal policies about letting guests freely use kayaks and snorkeling masks, but it was lovely not to keep an eye on the time and feel unlimited in how or when I could use gear for water sports. (Also? The gear was QUALITY. No leaks, good fit.) Every time I turned around, my eyes lit on a new discovery underwater. Whether you're in the water or in the rainforest, Moorea's ecosystems are THRIVING. Sustainability is a big cultural value for French Polynesians, Aldo Leopold would approve heartily of their lifestyle. They see the earth as providing for all of their needs, so they need to take care of it. Smart, right?

One night we ate at the resort's crepe restaurant, situated amidst their overwater bungalows. They have lights showcasing the reef at night and I could've sat forever staring at the activity below. We even saw manta rays and sharks! When we left, we were given leis made from shells as a gesture of farewell.

From Moorea we took a flight all the way to that tiny speck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We enjoyed our final lei greeting of our trip and boarded a boat to the Intercontinental Bora Bora, where we would stay in one of those fabulous overwater bungalows, just like you see on Instagram!

Above you can see the harbor of Bora Bora's tiny airport, initially built by the US during WWII. A cute island sign welcomes us. Remember, I suck at photography. This was taken with my phone, no filters or editing. THAT'S how gorgeous it is in French Polynesia.

Last lei greeting

Here we were even more stunned by the sustainability practices in French Polynesia. I didn't see a single-use piece of plastic during our time here--the straws were made of paper, our room card was made of wood. We were given metal water bottles (to keep) and told to fill them from the glass bottles of water provided in our room's refrigerator, replenished a few times throughout the day. Solar panels were mounted on rooftops throughout French Polynesia and I rarely saw traces of litter which demonstrated the pride people had in their environment. Apparently people rake their yards/gardens daily and put a premium on neatness. At the Intercontinental I only saw metal, glass, or wood used, rarely plastic and when I saw plastic being used, it was for durable purpose. The air conditioning was essentially a geothermal system developed using pipes installed below the water. The resort's restaurants used ingredients grown on site (and prepared by French chefs in creative and delicious ways). The Polynesian value of sustainability was evident in big ways and small, they walk the walk while talking the talk and put more "developed" countries like America to SHAME on this front. An environmentally friendly nation is possible, I saw this demonstrated everywhere I looked in these tiny islands in the middle of nowhere. It's a matter of will combined with a commitment to values that don't involve massive corporate profits for oil and gas companies.

Housekeeping left these sweet-smelling blossoms everywhere

organic garden in Bora Bora

Another example of flowers used as art

Another fun fact: Tahiti will host the surfing competition for this year's summer Olympics. There are some concerns about the logistics and impact, but everyone agrees they have the world's best waves. We didn't see any surfers, but rowers skimmed through the resort every morning and late afternoon at a breathtaking pace.

I was less impressed by the snorkeling in Bora Bora, and the terrain was smaller and less lush than Moorea and Tahiti. To be fair, the water in Moorea has more oxygen, which leads to more vibrant colors in the coral. Our resort had a lagoonarium, which is a human-planted reef. They're trying different methods to grow coral and restore reefs. That's not to say there's nothing to see, just much less coral and less biodiversity overall. However, I spent several hours snorkeling in the waters around the resort, even some time completely alone in the lagoonarium as it rained one morning. (I was wet anyway, what did I care if it rained?) Another morning a couple got married at the little chapel overlooking the lagoonarium with considerable pomp and circumstance, including someone blowing into a conch shell. We even chanced upon a good-sized octopus in the shallows of the lagoon one morning after breakfast. The difference in snorkeling around Moorea v. Bora Bora is the difference between hiking in a national park filled with wildlife v. a garden. Both are nice, I just prefer the former to the latter.

hand-planted coral cultivated in coral gardens

We ate and drank like royalty, enjoyed fabulous hospitality (everyone, I mean EVERYONE was smiling and cheerful and friendly), I sampled all three of the Tahitian wines (the rose was my favorite), and ate pineapple and mango with every meal. I ate croissants every morning, tried banana juice (tasty), had mahi mahi tacos that slapped, and felt completely relaxed and content every minute from stepping on board my Air Tahiti flight out of LAX to when I returned. But as much as I loved French Polynesia, I learned I have to live there for ten years before I can buy property there.

It was paradise on earth and I'd go back. A man in traditional Polynesian clothing and lei blew us a farewell on his conch shell just like in the movies.

To sum up: French Polynesia is the trip of a lifetime. I loved it, especially Moorea. I came back without a sunburn but with my shell lei (now hanging near our front door) and my spirit refreshed by the experience. Five stars. Would recommend.

*HUGE shoutout to Jill Vosters, travel agent extraordinaire for helping us plan this trip.

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Jess Riley
Jess Riley
Jun 04

#GOALS! This looks like an amazing trip. I may hit you up for more info on this one! :) Hope you are well; would love to get together to catch up some time!


Julie Sucha Anderson
Julie Sucha Anderson
Jun 03

I wanna go! And, I'll snorkel with you all day. Congrats on the trip, boy mom. Well deserved.


Jun 03

WOW. Your photos are terrific and I am not ready to pack my bag and go! I'm thrilled you and D had such a wonderful time.


Becky Calvert
Becky Calvert
Jun 03

What a glorious adventure!


Jun 03

This does, indeed, sound like the trip of a lifetime. I loved the snorkeling you were able to do, and their mastering sustainability was out of sight! Thanks for sharing these great photos and your experience~

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