Every traveler has a vision of paradise in their mind and a dream of one day making it to that special place which forever changes their life. What if you could not only find your personal paradise but also return for a second visit? In 2015, I traveled across the South Pacific islands for over six months and found my personal paradise in the Islands of Tahiti – officially known as French Polynesia. After recently spending four months in Hawaii, I couldn’t resist taking advantage of the short direct flight to Tahiti and revisiting paradise. In this two-part series, I’ll share with you images from this return visit and a few anecdotes on what’s like to relive what you thought was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
My six-month voyage across the South Pacific was a life-changing event but, believe it or not, even those six months felt like a rush. People often think of these tiny dots on the map as bite-sized islands where beach bumming is the only activity. However, the opposite is quite true and a few days on any given island are barely enough to scratch the surface.
I was especially inspired by my current favorite author – Paul Theroux – who often makes return journeys to places that inspired him the most. Through putting an emphasis on “slow travel”, Theroux is able to notice the inevitable changes that time brings with it while connecting to locals – both old acquaintances and new faces. I was eager to push my senses to their limits and to test Theroux’s travel style by only revisiting some of the favorite spots from the original journey.
This first (of two) chapter takes us to the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.
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Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and home to the territory’ capital (and only “real”) city – Papeete. On my first visit to the island, I experienced a strange set of events in what I regarded as my very own Christmas miracle. This time around, I had a few solo days before rendezvousing with my good friend – Isabelle – who was scheduled to land a week after me.
My arrival in the capital of French Polynesia coincided with former U.S. President Barrack Obama’s visit to the dream destination. He had just wrapped up an exclusive stay at The Brando – a five-star resort on the private atoll of Tetiaroa, and his presence in the region was definitely felt. Well… all you had to do is wander around the marina and notice the massive yachts brought over to charter the Obamas and their celebrity entourage around the islands (rumor had it that Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Ellen Degeneres joined the party). And if you really needed a “smoking gun”, the barrage of Secret Service agents pacing around the deck left no doubt in anybody’s mind.
I arrived in Tahiti on an early Sunday morning flight from Honolulu and couldn’t resist heading out to town for the special Sunday edition of the municipal market. Locals from around the island set up stalls on the streets around the indoor market and sell everything from breakfasts (pain et chocolat, croissants, coconut bread and the likes) to fresh fruit and seafood. What’s special about the Sunday edition of the Papeete Market is not only the outdoor scene but also that you must get an early rise since things wrap up by 9-10 am in time for the start of church services.
On my first visit to the South Pacific, I learned from locals that for the best church experience, even if you’re an absolute non-believer, you must head to the Protestant churches. In Papeete, the Paofai Church is the largest one. It’s hot and sticky inside but that doesn’t stop locals from dressing in their unusually warm Sunday church attire. The service is entirely in Tahitian so you don’t really understand what’s being said but that doesn’t really matter.
The highlight, aside from the charming outfits, is the beautiful singing throughout the service. Multiple coed choirs are spread around the church, and each on their queue begins to sing out loud in impressive acapella style. You really don’t know which group will perform the next song nor from which side of the church the chants will originate. It’s all part of the suspense!
Rain or shine, you can always count on the Tahitians’ love for dining out. Every evening just about after sunset, locals head to Place Vaiete – Papeete’s main square, right on the waterfront. By 6 pm, a dozen or so food trucks – known around here as roulottes – are already busy enticing potential diners to grab a plastic chair by their winning truck. The food is absolutely delicious and the ambiance is casual. Where else can you enjoy a delicious red tuna tartare for under $15? What’s funny is that no matter which dish you order – be it Chinese noodles, a crepe or seafood – it’ll always be accompanied by a basket filled with sliced baguette. This is a French Overseas Territory after all…
Hike to Mount Aorai
Package holidaymakers usually try to spend as little time as possible in Tahiti as part of their quest to quickly tick the box of visiting Bora Bora. But the biggest island in the territory is a paradise for hikers, and the hike to Mount Aorai is the jewel in the crown (literally, as you’ll soon witness). The 2066m peak is visible from Papeete and last time I only made it halfway to the summit since hiking in the rainy season is dangerous. This time around, I attempted the re-hike as the rainy season was drawing to an end.
The forecast called for a clear day and I made the arrangements of renting a car to get to the trailhead, prepared provisions, and set the alarm for 3 am to have enough time to summit and return to town. I woke up at 3 am, alright, to the sound of torrential rain hitting the tin roof of my room. So much for all that pre-planning… However, by 6 am things started to clear up and even though I knew the trail would be extra muddy, I decided to make a run for it.
The weather cooperated but only to the exact same spot that I made it to last time. Tahiti’s jagged peaks are so damn impressive and the best part is that you always have the trail all to yourself. I managed to catch clear views of the diadème – the strange rock formation that looks like a crown and for which Tahiti is known as the “Queen of the Pacific”. I even managed to spot a hidden waterfall that I thought I was hearing amid the rolling clouds. By 10 am, the party was over and the mountain range which up until now had managed to block the clouds could no longer bear the load. It was time to head back down with a feeling of satisfaction for having “gone for it” and with an excuse for coming back again in the future.
Road Trip in Tahiti
With my good friend safely landing in Tahiti, we set out on a small road trip around parts of the island. We made it to Papara Beach – the widest black sand beach on the island – before paying a visit to the pair of giant Galapagos turtles and strange-looking mape trees of the Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens. One of the turtles is said to be over 200 years old and its signs of aging are quite obvious. During my last visit, you could actually enter the turtles’ housing and hand-feed them but that is no longer allowed due to their fragile state. UPDATE: in January 2018, stray dogs entered the turtles’ enclosure, seriously wounding the two and eventually leading to the death of the male turtle.
We wrapped things up in the village of Teahupoʻo – some 90 minutes outside of Papeete. Teahupoʻo is known “the end of the line”, the place where the road ends and from where only a boat can take you further along the coast. It is also one of the prime surf spots in the world – the site of the annual Billabong Pro. Unfortunately, the surf Gods weren’t cooperating on this day and we had to settle for the fine views and an ice cold coconut before the ride back to town.
The island of Moorea lies just a few miles off the coast of Tahiti but life here moves at a much slower pace. Known as the “Magical Island”, Moorea is accessible via a 30-minute ferry from Tahiti. The maritime journey is a very scenic one and, as the island’s beautiful skyline gets nearer, the excitement on the exterior deck reaches a climax.
Having previously spent a month in Moorea, there were many places to revisit, locals to say hi to, and to really make a point of it to slow things down – especially in the absence of free WiFi or adequate 3G reception. The biggest plus of coming back to Moorea was reconnecting with my friend – Yann. He and I were neighbors the last time around, and we spent many days together hiking, chilling, and chatting about life. Yann is a wizard when it comes to cooking and sparking bonfires at the beach. Luckily, I made it to Moorea just a few weeks before Yann left French Polynesia after spending a few years in paradise.
Hike to Mount Rotui
A visit to Moorea can totally just revolve around its beaches and blue lagoon, but with such dramatic natural beauty, it would be a shame not to hike in search of spectacular views. Lucky for me, Yann knew the way leading up to Mount Rotui – Moorea’s signature mountain which splits its large twin bays – and he also had in his possession a machete – essential hiking gear when you’re one of the first hikers on the trail after the wet season amid the overgrown vegetation. The hike affords incredible 360-views of Opunohu Bay and the dreamy lagoon.
Capitalizing on the fine weather, two other hikes which won my heart over the last time around deserved a second visit. In the first hike, I met a couple of local 20-year-old men chilling with a bag filled with locally-grown “bush” at a spot overlooking the Opunohu Valley. They come here every day to pass the time and make their living from renting out small bungalows owned by their family. In the second hike, a cloud-free day amplified the intense blue colors of lagoon over Temae Beach dotted with the Sofitel’s overwater bungalows.
The Pineapple Route
Moorea is the “pineapple capital of French Polynesia” and its lush Opunohu Valley is where most of the sweet fruit is grown. Walking along the “pineapple route” on the foothills of Mount Rotui, you can closely inspect the fields and, in case you weren’t aware of this already, observe how the fruit practically grows on a bush. After working up a bit of a sweat, we headed to the local juice factory and distillery where a visit to the factory shop includes tasting after tasting of fruit juice and liqueurs. It’s best to avoid driving after such a visit because the friendly ladies pouring the drinks don’t know the meaning of the phrase “no thanks, I’m getting dizzy”.
Next Stop – Huahine!
After reconnecting with Moorea and finally adjusting to “island time”, it was back to Tahiti to catch the flight to our next stop – the island of Huahine. In French Polynesia, every domestic flight is a scenic flight and in the absence of assigned seats, you better make sure to grab a window seat and have your camera handy. In this early evening flight, we flew over Moorea and got to enjoy spectacular views of its skyline.
In the second and final “return to paradise” post, we’ll revisit the islands of Huahine and Bora Bora before wrapping things up in the most beautiful island in French Polynesia – Maupiti!