How to travel to Tahiti and French Polynesia without having to sell a kidney to afford it: Ways to cut costs and maximize your travel budget.
French Polynesia is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. You have probably seen photos of the infamous overwater bungalows of Bora Bora, Moorea, and Tahaa, along with crystal clear electric blue hued lagoons. It’s a popular spot for honeymooners, divers, and and adventure-seekers.
Unfortunately, it is also one of the most expensive places in the world. In a way, this is a good thing because it keeps tourism down to a minimum, preventing the islands and culture from being overrun by the obnoxious and polluting “Disneyland” that has overtaken places like Hawaii. Sadly, this means that only a handful of people without well-padded bank accounts get to visit.
If you enjoy a “Robinson Crusoe”, culture-rich tropical vacation, there is a way. It will still be expensive, but it’s do-able. We went for our honeymoon and went into quite a bit of debt, which we were able to pay off eventually. I wouldn’t recommend this, but we were determined and diligent about paying it off, and don’t regret it. We learned a lot of ways to save money on the trip, which helped us tremendously. We also know a bit more now about how to do an even less-expensive and more culturally focused French Polynesia vacation for the future. Our 10 year wedding anniversary, perhaps?
Here are our tips for saving money:
1. Go with a Tahiti specializing travel agency.
Travel agencies specializing in Tahiti and French Polynesia book trips in bulk and get bigger discounts for you than if you were to book on your own. We worked with Tahiti Legends, an agency based out of California. All my correspondence was done online via email with an agent. I had already picked out where we wanted to stay from extensive research on Tripadvisor and some guidebooks, so I told her what dates we could go, where we wanted to stay, and she quoted us an itinerary that included everything but airfare including all transportation and tours. I have also read good things about EasyTahiti.com, a Tahiti-based travel agent. Costco Travel also has good deals sometimes.
2.Bring EVERYTHING with you.
Not to be redundant, but Tahiti is ridiculously expensive. A bottle of sunscreen costs $30.00 and a six pack of local Hinano tall beers at the store costs $18.00. Bring all sunscreen you think you may need (don’t be a dumbass, pack a lot and use it), bug spray, toiletries– everything. Don’t plan on buying anything other than meals and souvenirs. If you drink alcohol, you will be shocked and appalled at the $20 cocktail prices at the resorts. Liquor is really expensive in Tahiti and all has to be imported. The saving grace here though is that you can bring your own. Tahitian customs will allow up to two liters of booze (wine or hard liquor) per person. We packed a fifth of tequila, a fifth of vodka, and boxed wine. We actually packed a little more wine than was allowed….they didn’t seem too interested in checking at customs. It was all box wine too, which may show up looking like something else in the airport scanners. Or not. I don’t know. We got away with it.
Bring crackers, cans of tuna, jerky, nuts, any sealed non-perishable snacks that you could make a picnic with for lunches. Since this is French Polynesia, baguettes and cheese, pates, deli meats and fruit are all available and not too expensive in local grocery stores (still more expensive than the US) and can be added to what you brought for a nice beach picnic lunch. See if you can get your travel agent to work free breakfast into all your lodging, or at least add it in at a discount. The breakfast buffet price posted at the resort in Bora Bora was $40.00 a person–I kid you not. I think our agent worked it in for free because we stayed over 4 nights. That way, you just have to worry about dropping the dough on dinners.
4. Find out where the locals eat
Locals often frequent small burger joints and cafes called “snacks” or food trucks called “roulottes.” We ate at a couple of these close to our resort on Bora Bora, and at the roulottes in Papeete (kind of like a food truck round-up) Have dinner there a couple nights. The food is good and the price is going to be a lot cheaper than the resort and tourist restaurants. Also, try to avoid eating dinner at your resort. Their prices are atrocious and you will get a more cultured experience (and most likely better food) by venturing out into the island.
5. Go in the off season
We went in summer, which is winter in the southern hemisphere and the dry season for French Polynesia. The weather is better then and not as hot. However, if you don’t mind heat and some rain, the prices are much better in the northern winter time.
6. Skip the mega resorts
Because it was our honeymoon and I was determined to stay in an overwater bungalow at least a few nights, we didn’t do this. There are small family-run pensions and hotels that cost much less than the resorts. Speaking French helps with the small family pensions though, as many of them don’t speak English. I would love to visit Tahiti again in the future, but have more of a small pension cultural experience next time. We’ve done the overwater bungalow, it was amazing, but we probably won’t drop that kind of money on it again. This was also the trip that we realized that we just really aren’t resort people.
7. If you do stay at resorts, see about discounts for booking with the same resort brand for each island.
Our travel agent got us a bigger discount for staying at Intercontinental resorts on both Tahiti and Bora Bora. On Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, (the three most popular islands), big name resort companies like Sofitel, Intercontinental, Hilton, St. Regis, etc. have multiple locations. If you book with more than one of their resorts, they will often give you a better rate. Ask your travel agent to see what he or she can do for you.
8. Visit only 2-3 islands, and islands in the same archipelago.
The more islands you visit, the more inter-island airfare tickets you will need to buy. The flights are short, but they aren’t cheap. The three archipelagos of French Polynesia are the Tahitian Archipelago (Society Islands), the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas. If you stay within one of them to island hop, it will be more cost effective than trying to fly between two or three. To visit any of them, you’ll need to fly to Tahiti first, regardless.
The Marquesas are the most remote and have the most well-preserved Polynesian culture, with beautiful mountains but few beaches, the Society Islands include the most popular destinations such as Bora Bora, Moorea, Tahaa, and Tahiti, and the biggest resorts. The Tuamotus are smaller and more remote and include world-class diving locations such as Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon. Do some research and figure out what is most important to you to see and narrow it down from there. Tahiti and Moorea together would be an inexpensive option as they are so close. Moorea even has a ferry from Papeete. You can find many package deals for Tahiti and Moorea together.
9. You don’t have to tip
What…..? I know. It’s weird. And it feels so wrong. But French Polynesia is a province of France, and tipping isn’t part of the culture. Tax is also included in the prices most of the time. This makes the restaurant and bar prices a little less painful. $8.00 for a beer at the resort bar? Think of it as a $7.00 beer back home with the $1.00 tip. Still expensive, but it makes it a bit more bearable. Restaurant menu prices are what you see is what you get, so you don’t have to worry about all the tax and tip costs at the end.
On our next trip to French Polynesia, we’d like to get a bit further away from the resorts and mass tourism and see more of the culture. Rangiroa, Huahine, and the Marquesas are all at the top of our list. We’d also like to spend some more time on Tahiti and in Papeete. For details on our trip, check out our post on our Honeymoon in French Polynesia.
Our Honeymoon in Tahiti 2010: Waterfalls and ancient ruins in Tahiti, a remote tiny island paradise and a vanilla plantation on Taha’a, and an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora
I spent a year in Hawaii in college, studying art and anthropology and learning about Pacific Island cultures. That’s where I first discovered Tahiti, and I was obsessed with going there someday and staying in one of those overwater bungalows. Once I saw how much they cost, I was sure I would never be able to live my dream.
Seven years later I got engaged to Paddy, and I decided that our honeymoon had to be Tahiti, there was no compromise about it. Tahiti is a place for honeymooners and if we had to spend the next two years paying it off, dammit–it would be worth it.
So we did. We registered at Honeyfund, a great website where you can turn your honeymoon into a wedding gift registry. Our friends and family were very generous and that helped a lot. The rest we split between three credit cards, as we had already spent all our money on the wedding. Now, I would never recommend going into debt over a vacation like we did, but it was the only way to have our dream honeymoon and we took a gamble. We were already used to scrimping and saving every penny all year for the wedding, not going out to eat, and not going on any weekend getaways. I figured we could do that again for another year or two. I was nervous about illness, job loss, or anything else that could screw up our fast pay-off plan. But we did it. We put every extra cent we had into paying that debt off for a year and a half and we did it. We don’t regret a thing.
Depending on how much time you have, you will need to narrow your island choices down to 2-3 islands. Most people just use the main island of Tahitias a stopover and don’t spend much time there as it doesn’t have the beautiful lagoons and overwater bungalows like Bora Bora and the other islands. Bora Bora is the most popular island, followed by Moorea. I think there is quite a bit to see in Tahiti, but if all you are interested in is lagoons and overwater bungalows, you may want to spend less time on Tahiti.
At bit farther from the Tahiti archipelago are the Tuamotus, a geologically older group of islands that are much more remote. On this trip we chose Tahiti, Taha’a, and Bora Bora. If we go back, I think we’ll spend some more time on the main island of Tahiti, and I would also love to visit Huahine, Rangiroa, and Tikehau. If we head back to Tahiti, it will be much more off the beaten path. If you are into diving, Rangiroa is a world class diving destination.
Map of French Polynesia:
Click on any image below to enlarge
All flights to Tahitileave from Los Angeles in the United States. The flight from LA is about 8.5 to 9 hours straight through. We flew out at night and arrived in Tahiti at 5:00 AM. We had arranged an early check in with our travel agent so that we could get to our room and rest right away. We stayed our first two nights at the Intercontinental Tahiti, which is located conveniently two miles from the airport. We exchanged cash at the currency exchange at the airport as I was told on tripadvisor that some debit cards don’t work at the ATMs. Our shuttle driver gave us a welcome lei and dropped us off at the resort. We got a welcome drink of juice, and were shown to our room, which was a “panoramic view” room. The sun wasn’t up yet, so all we could see from our deck were the glowing lights of the pool down below. We shut the blinds and crashed for the next couple hours.
We woke up a few hours later and decided to get up and make the breakfast buffet. Today was Sunday, which was the biggest breakfast buffet of the week. We could eat the regular buffet, or pay an additional surcharge to eat off the special buffet as well. We went ahead and did the surcharge. There were oysters, fruit, brie, meats, eggs, cheeses, pigs feet, head cheese, fried potatoes, and other items. One of my favorites was a doughnut shaped coconut bread which was made from coconut milk and coconut flour. It appeared that a lot of locals come to the breakfast buffet on Sundays and to spend the day at the pool. When the breakfast buffet was about to close, some local guys were piling a giant amount of oysters onto their plates to get as much as they could.
Above: View from our room
Below: Sunday breakfast buffet
Below: Deck in our room and our welcome leis
Below: our wing of the resort
Below: View of the main pool from the lobby deck
After breakfast we spent the day at the pools and exploring the resort. They had a big central pool, and a more relaxed sand-bottom infinity pool with a swim up bar. The drinks were very expensive, but we had to have one each at the swim up bar just because.
For lunch we ate some of our tuna and crackers and cookies that we brought from back home as a snack to tide us over for dinner. In the evening, we went down for a drink at the Tiki Bar by the pool, then headed over to Le Lotus restaurant for dinner.
Le Lotus was a fine dining restaurant in an overwater dining room right across from the building our room was in. The amuse bouche was some sort of seafood foam in a tiny cup. Not sure if we understood what we were eating, but it was good. I can’t remember what we had as a starter, but I remember having a swordfish dish with cuttlefish ink spaghetti. The prices were high, the portions were small, but the service was excellent and we were well aware of the high prices before we came. It was our first honeymoon dinner, and it was lovely.
The next morning we had booked a 4 wheel drive tour of Tahiti‘s interior. We ate at the breakfast buffet and were picked up by our tour guide early in the morning.
Tahiti is often associated with the lagoons and overwater bungalows of Bora Bora and other neighboring islands, but the main island of Tahiti is actually the youngest island in French Polynesia, and therefore has very little white sand lagoons and beaches. It is kind of like the Big Island of Hawaii, but with no active volcanoes. The Big Island has volcanic desert and white sand beaches on one side, and lush rainforest and black sand beaches on the other side. Tahiti has mostly undeveloped jungle interior and black sand and rocky beaches all around. Most visitors bypass Tahiti as a layover stop on the way to Bora Bora and Moorea, but I think Tahiti has a lot to offer and I would like to come back and see more. As it was, the Tahiti interior tour was very beautiful and reminiscent of what Hawaii may have been 100 years ago. Most of it is only accessible through four wheel drive vehicles.
There was one other couple with us from Australia, and our guide drove us around deep into the middle of Tahiti, showing us waterfalls, jungle, and rivers. A delicious chicken lunch was included at Relais de la Maroto hotel, the only hotel in the Tahiti interior and is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles.
After lunch, we saw some ruins of an ancient Tahitian village in the Papenoo Valley, which is now used as a camp where kids go to be taught about their heritage and the lives of their ancestors. Our guide told us all about the local plants in the area and what the lives of his ancestors were like.
I took some less-drowsy Dramamine before our tour and it seemed to help. I only began getting a little queasy towards the end but it wasn’t too bad. If you suffer from motion sickness, definitely take something at least 30-60 minutes before this tour. It is very bumpy.
That evening we ordered pizza and a burger from the room service menu, which was the cheapest dining option at the resort.
Aside from the island of Moorea, the closest island in the Tahiti archipelago which has a ferry, the only way to get between the islands is to fly. We checked out of our hotel and headed back to the airport to fly to our next destination, the island of Taha’a.
After a very short flight to Taha’a’s neighboring island Raiatea (there is no airport on Taha’a), we were met at the airport by a boat from our next hotel, Hotel La Pirogue on a tiny motu off the island of Taha’a. (I wasn’t able to find the website for this place online anymore, so I hope they are still in business, because it was an amazing place).
After a scenic boat ride, we were dropped off on the tiny motu island at Hotel La Pirogue, and greeted by the French owner with flower leis and a welcome drink of our choice. We were shown to bungalow #1, the closest one to the bar/restaurant/reception building. It was adorned with hibiscus flowers and a split of French champagne in ice on the front porch overlooking the beach with a view to the main island of Taha’a. There was a mini fridge, an electric hot water kettle with some Nescafe and tea and cups, and a small TV that had a handful of channels all in French. We didn’t bother with the TV.
Video of property and bungalow:
One of our biggest expenses here was bottled water. The tap water is not drinkable and the water was around $4.00 a bottle. There were two bottles provided for us by housekeeping each day, but the rest we had to pay for. While this was expensive, the owners have to purchase them as well from the mainland. Other than that, we had paid for a continental breakfast and full dinner meal plan so most of our food was included.
After we settled in, Paddy read for awhile while I went exploring the motu.
There was a path through the palm trees past several houses that I assumed were where the owner and staff lived. It lead back to a rocky beach facing the ocean on the back of the small motu. After that I walked along the front beach line, passing one small cabin but the island was for the most part pretty deserted on the east side. The west side of the island past our hotel was all private property. It was very remote and peaceful.
As evening approached, we figured we should not let our champagne go to waste. We sat and watched the sunset.
Once the sun went down, we headed to the restaurant for dinner. The staff didn’t speak any English, so the wife/co-owner came over to help serve us. We appeared to be the only Americans, most of the other visitors were French or Italian. The husband/co-owner was our chef as well. At first the wife was a bit snooty with us, feeding the French stereotype–but after she saw that we were making every effort to decipher the menu with our Rick Steves French phrasebook/dictionary, she warmed up to us quite a bit.
The food at Hotel La Pirogue was some of the most amazing food we’ve ever had in our lives. Combining French cuisine with Polynesian cuisine turned out to be absolutely brilliant. While Tahiti is expensive, most of the food is worth the money in the right places. This was one of them. Having already added the price of dinner into our honeymoon package, it was nice to order whatever and not have to worry about price. Alcohol was not included though, so we ordered a carafe of the house wine each dinner, as that was the most economical option. Fruity cocktails and bottles of wine and of course Hinano beer were available as well.
Dinner each night included a starter, a main course, and a desert. It was always more than enough to eat, and we usually split a desert because we were too full to eat two of them.
The next day we woke up and went to breakfast at the same restaurant area. Breakfast was the same each morning, with a basket of baguettes, butter, jellies, ham slices, cheese, fruit, yogurt, and cereals as well as coffee, tea, and juice.
That day we didn’t do much. We just went swimming, read books, and were generally lazy. For lunch we splurged on a crab sandwich and french fries from the a la carte lunch menu in the bar. It was big enough to share and very good, although it was imitation crab. There are crabs all over the island, so the fact that the crab wasn’t real was a little odd.
The beach was somewhat free of coral, but there were many sharp rocks and shells and bits of coral so we wore water sandals when swimming. Also, there were many sea cucumbers littering the sea floor, which squished when stepped on and looked like big brown turds. We tried not to step on them as much as we could. Swimming was nice, with very little current and warm, clear water. We also explored more of the motu coastline farther up the beach from the resort. We found ourselves completely alone. It felt very much like being stranded on a desert island.
Dinner was excellent again.
Once again we waddled back over to our bungalow full and happy. We read books and spent some quality time with our gecko roommates.
The next day we booked a day tour on Taha’a through Hotel La Pirogue. We rode across the water to the main island with a few other French and Italian guests, and then were split apart by language. We were the only English speakers, so we got our own private guide for the day.
Our first stop was an organic vanilla plantation, La Vallee de la Vanille. Taha’a is known as the vanilla island, as 80% of the vanilla in French Polynesia is grown here. Most of the farms are greenhouse farms, but this organic plantation owned by Moeata Hioe and her husband Danish expat Brian Hansen is one of the few left that grows vanilla the old fashioned way. Moeata spoke perfect English and gave us a tour of her family’s plantation, which has been in her family three generations. She seemed clearly in charge of the operation, and it was here that I began to realize how much equality and respect women have in Tahitian culture. In fact, in traditional Tahitian culture women were seen as so important to the family that if a couple did not have any daughters, they would select one of their sons to be raised as a woman. These transgendered children were called Rae Raes. Today, Rae Rae is the name for male to female transgendered Tahitians, and gay, lesbian, and transgendered people are all generally accepted by Tahitian society.
Raising vanilla beans is tedious work, especially organically. The vanilla plant is a member of the orchid family. There are no bees to pollinate the flowers, so Moeata and her family have to get up at 3:00 AM to go around and pollinate each flower with a toothpick. If they don’t do this before sunrise, the beans will not grow. Full grown beans are harvested, dried, and then separated by size for bundling and shipment.
While we were talking to Moeata, her husband Brian came by and she introduced us. She said he was from Scandinavia so I asked which country. It turned out he was from Denmark, where I had spent a year as a foreign exchange student. I began speaking to him in Danish and he was very surprised to hear his native tongue out of an American in Tahiti. After feeling like the stupid Americans who don’t speak French, it was nice to be able to prove that I had some bilingual capabilities….even if Danish is kind of one of the world’s most useless languages to know. I didn’t expect to be able to practice my Danish in Tahiti. More proof of what a small world it really is.
We purchased some vanilla and vanilla products from Moeata’s family in her small open-air store to take home. After that, we moved on to the pearl farm.
Black pearls are Tahiti’s number one export. The reason being that black pearls are only found in one species of oyster that only lives in French Polynesia.
The black pearls are very expensive. The pricing depends on the size, shape, and luster. I wanted a pearl to take home, but could only afford one individual pearl from the mis-shapen pearl bowl for $20.00. I really like the mis-shapen pearls, they seem so much more unique and natural to me. I still have it, and am trying to decide if I should get a piece of jewelry made from it or not.
After the pearl farm, we continued on towards the harbor to set out on a snorkel tour. I got a few shots of the island along the way.
We made a quick stop at a small store to get water. Paddy and our guide went in together, and I stayed in the back of the truck. Our tour vehicle was just a small pick up truck with bench seats in it. As I waited alone, two Tahitian men approached me speaking French. I was wearing a halter top and my first instinct as in many countries was to assume they were hassling me and to not engage them. They realized I didn’t speak French and attempted a few words in English. I quickly realized that they were very interested in my colorful koi fish tattoo on the back of my shoulder. Tattooing is a big part of Polynesian culture, but it is all done in black ink, no color. As I am the palest person ever, color shows up very brightly on my skin and I wonder if they had seen a tattoo like that before. They asked me how long it took, and were very friendly. Then they both lifted up their shirts to show me all of their Tahitian tattoos, of which there were many. I am kicking myself to this day that I didn’t ask them if I could take a photo. I felt silly for feeling threatened by them. That is another thing I love about Tahiti. Never once did I feel leered at or hassled by men like I would in Mexico or many other countries. Men seem to respect women here, and skimpy tops and clothing isn’t seen as sexually inviting, but just a normal way of dress in the warm tropical weather. All of the Tahitian people we talked to throughout our trip were extremely friendly and welcoming.
We headed to a small port to get our guide’s boat to go snorkeling. When we arrived at the port, he made a couple phone calls and explained that his boat wasn’t fixed yet, they were still waiting on a part to be shipped that hadn’t arrived on time. He had called a friend with a boat to come help.
Very soon a man wearing a loincloth and a straw hat in a plywood boat arrived and we set off towards a motu.
On the way our guide played the ukulele and our driver sang along with him and blew his conch shell. We passed the fancy overwater bungalows of the Le Taha’a Resort, and arrived on a connecting part of the same motu that appeared to be the man’s property.
The property had many fruit trees, chickens, and small shacks. We borrowed some of his snorkel equipment that hung from the trees on the beach to snorkel in the coral garden. Our guide said the man who owned the property had been approached by the Le Taha’a resort many times with offers to buy his land, but he won’t sell. It became clear why Tahitians have faired so much better than the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were pressured, duped, and lied to by the USA into selling their land. Once the money from the land sale was gone, they had nothing. Our friend in the loincloth seemed to understand this very well. Many native Hawaiians are now homeless, living in tent cities on beaches as low-income housing becomes more and more scarce. On his land he had plenty of area for farming, vegetables, and fruit trees, chickens, and all the fish he cold pull out of the ocean right in his backyard. His family probably worked or went to school on the main island during the day. Healthcare and schools are free for Tahitians and are funded by France. I hope he never sells his land, his life looks pretty great to me.
We were shown the “starting point” for the coral garden. It was so shallow that we had to find a path through the coral instead of swimming over it. We were told to be careful of the spiny sea urchins living under the coral, as their spines cause a painful sting. Paddy was particularly freaked out by this. It was hard to make sure we could find a spot to stand in the sand when we needed to adjust our masks or look for each other, and bumping an ankle against a sea urchin was always a possibility. Halfway through, we got stuck and had to figure out a way around and over some coral, which was a pretty big challenge. Finally, we made it through, and Paddy was relieved. It was very stressful for him but I had to admit it was the best snorkeling experience ever for me. The water was so clear and the sea life and fish very abundant.
On our last day on the Taha’a motu, we decided to make use of the hotel’s free kayaks and explore the lagoon. It ended up being much harder than we thought it would be, as we had to fight against a current. We paddled down the west side of the motu in hopes of finding some more deserted beaches but instead found a lot of private property with signs posted in Tahitian–“tapu.” We saw a pair of sting rays swimming along near us, but they quickly darted away when we came closer.
After muscling against the current back to our bungalow, we spent the rest of the day reading, relaxing, and finishing off the rest of our box wine while watching the sunset. Dinner was amazing again.
After breakfast we were given shell leis by the hotel owner (flower leis are given to welcome, shell leis are given to say goodbye) and put on our boat transfer to the Raiatea airport. After a very short flight, we arrived in Bora Bora. Unfortunately, we found ourselves to be amongst a huge sea of Japanese tourists on a tour group. I think that three countries compete for the title of Worlds Worst Tourists, and the Americans and the Japanese are neck and neck, followed by the Germans. Bora Bora is the most popular island, so I suppose it made sense that we’d be woken out of our remote relaxing island haze upon arrival by masses of pushing and shoving clueless Japanese tourists.
We found our transfer boat to the Intercontinental Le Moana Resort, and sped off, dropping people off at various motu resorts along the way. Finally we arrived at the tip of the main island of Bora Bora, at Matira Point and were escorted to reception. We were given cold wash cloths and a welcome juice drink and seated in the lobby. A woman made it through the Japanese mass confusion and gave us a tour, and then escorted us to our overwater bungalow. At long last, the overwater bungalow I’d dreamed about was about to be ours for five whole nights.
We had a king sized bed, a TV and DVD player, mini fridge, large bathtub, shower, closet, safe, living area with a coffee table that opened so that we could feed the fish below, and a two level deck with lounge chairs and a ladder into the lagoon. We also had a small gift basket including a split of champagne for our honeymoon. It was so amazing it didn’t even seem real. We settled in and went for a swim.
One thing that was slightly less than ideal about the Le Moana is that it is very windy on that side of Matira Point. It was warm wind, so it wasn’t a huge deal. The trashy paperback I was reading blew away on the last day–I set it open on the lounge chair and went inside for a moment and when I came back it was gone. I only had two pages left, too. I guess I’ll never know how that story ends. It seemed windiest the day we arrived. The public beach is in walking distance from the resort on the other side of Matira Point and there was no wind there, so if you need a break from all the wind, that’s a good place to go. There was barely anyone there and it is just as sandy and beautiful as the resort beach.
We decided on the Intercontinental Le Moana vs. other resorts with overwater bungalows because of it’s location attached to the main island as opposed to a small motu offshore. In addition to the resort restaurants all being insanely expensive, we wanted the option to eat at a variety of local restaurants and have access to a store to pick up beer, wine, and snacks. There was a store less than a mile down the road that sold baguettes, pate, meats, cheeses, fruits, beer, wine, and other items. We picked up some beer and wine and food for lunches there so we didn’t have to spend a ton of money at the resort. It was still expensive though–as mentioned earlier a six pack of Hinano tall beers is $18.00. We were able to find decent and relatively inexpensive French wine at the store though. We made lunches out of baguettes, cheeses, pate, and fruits along with the snacks we brought ourselves.
Below: The Tiare market about a 10 minute walk from the Intercontinental Le Moana
The day we arrived also happened to be Paddy’s birthday, and they were doing a seafood buffet and Tahitian dance show that night. The price was ridiculous at $100 per person, but we just decided to go for it. Paddy is pretty good at getting his money’s worth out of a good seafood buffet. The fish was very fresh and the dance show was great. The power went out for a little while (probably because of the strong wind that day), but the dancers made use of torches and drums and still put on a great show until the power came back on.
We spent the evening relaxing in our Bungalow watching season 2 of True Blood on DVD that we’d brought with us.
The next morning we went to the breakfast buffet, which was full of pushy Japanese tourists as expected. We returned to our bungalow to a disturbing amount of birds lined up in creepy little rows, only on the bungalow next to ours.
We spent the day visiting the public beach (Matira Beach) and enjoying the resort. We had an obligatory drink at the resort pool. It was a $18.00 cocktail and an $8.00 beer, so we just had one each.
After that, we spent the rest of the time snorkeling around our bungalow and relaxing. There wasn’t much coral in the lagoon to see, but the sudden drop off causing a dramatic color change from pale blue to dark blue clear water was very interesting to snorkel over. It felt a little like flying.
Our bungalow neighbors were a Japanese couple. They had all kinds of water camera gear, with little cutesy charms hanging off of it. They both wore long sleeve rash guards to protect from all sun exposure, and even though they had all kinds of cool tech gear to take photos and movies while snorkeling, they wouldn’t leave a five foot radius around their bungalow. As we were out snorkeling in the lagoon, I looked back at their bungalow and in the window of their bedroom were a row of about 10 stuffed animals all staring out at me. It was kind of creepy. They didn’t have any kids, and the woman had actually packed all those stuffed animals in her suitcase and then arranged them in their bungalow so that they could look out at the lagoon all day. There are some things about Japanese culture that I may never fully understand.
While we were snorkeling we had an hour long rainstorm which was kind of fun. It was weird to be in the water in pouring rain and be completely warm. It went away after a little bit and the sun came back out.
That evening for dinner we went to La Bounty restaurant, which was about a mile down the road from the resort and we could walk there easily. This ended up being our favorite meal on Bora Bora. It was all open air and it seemed to be popular with French expats. There were a lot of stray cats around that would wander in and out of the restaurant. We had a carafe of the house wine, and an appetizer of tuna tartare three ways: traditional French, Japanese style sashimi, and Tahitian style poisson cru. It was excellent. Poisson cru is kind of the Tahitian national dish. It consists of raw tuna, coconut milk, lime juice, carrots, cucumbers, and onions all mixed together. The lime juice par cooks the tuna. It’s eaten as a snack all times of the day, and is served from roulottes (food trucks) or local “snacks” late at night as well. For entrees Paddy had a steak dish with fois gras and I had a duck breast with fois gras.
After dinner we went back to the bungalow and watched movies we brought and enjoyed the complimentary honeymoon champagne.
The next morning we went on the quintessential Bora Bora tour: a shark and ray snorkel “safari.” We had this tour added into our honeymoon package, but you can always wait until you get there and book tours with the concierge as well.
We were picked up with several other tourists, including another couple on their honeymoon from the US. We got on a boat and drove around to some other motu resorts to pick up other guests. Then our guide took us out to the deep water of the lagoon, threw a bucket of fish parts in the water and told us to jump in. The wife of the American couple who was along with us was too scared to get in the water, which was a shame, because it was quite an amazing experience. The sharks were black tip reef sharks, and only about three feet long. There were a lot of them, but they were all interested in the fish parts the guide threw in the water and didn’t pay too much attention to us. There aren’t as many big sharks near Tahiti lagoons because the bigger sharks don’t make it into the shallow lagoons from the outer reefs, they tend to stay out in the deeper waters.
After snorkeling with sharks, we went around to another part of the island in the shallow lagoon where there were a couple other tour boats and a lot of very large sting rays. I asked the guide if they ever sting anyone, and he said they never do. I think you would have to try to grab one or threaten it in some way. Still, it was a little unnerving seeing their long tails with the sharp stinger spike on the end swishing by our legs while we stood in the lagoon. Paddy had a fine time with the sharks but decided to stay in the boat most of the time for this part. As for me, this was one of the main highlights of our whole honeymoon. The rays were used to the guides bringing them fish, and would come up and jump up on you like dogs begging for food. Sometimes five of them would gang up on one person, which happened to me once. It was a little scary but totally fine. I was surprised at how intelligent they seemed.
That night for dinner, we went to Bloody Mary’s. No trip to Bora Bora is complete without a dinner at Bloody Mary’s. We were given the option to add this dinner pre-paid into our trip package, and I’m glad we didn’t. The pre-paid package was twice as expensive as what we actually paid and didn’t even include alcohol. Bloody Mary’s is a couple miles from the Intercontinental, but if you make a reservation they send a complimentary taxi to come pick you up. We arrived a little earlier than our reservation and had a drink at the bar with another honeymooning couple from the US. Against one or two warnings on Tripadvisor, I ordered a bloody mary. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best, but it really wasn’t bad. It was also the cheapest cocktail I ordered in all of Tahiti at only $8.00.
The outer walls of Bloody Mary’s are full of celebrities’ names who have eaten there. The drill is this: You goo up to a table full of fresh fish just caught that day sitting on ice, and tell the woman at the table which one you want. They then cook it up for you with some side dishes and serve you at your table. One thing that kind of rubbed us the wrong way was that tipping is not part of French or Tahitian culture, but when we got our bill there was a tip line on the receipt (most machines have these) and a note requesting a tip for service. I think that because so many Americans come to this restaurant they decided to start asking for tips as an extra way to get money out of the tourists. We left 10%, but thought it a little cheesy considering the culture.
Overall, we kind of loved and hated this place at the same time. It was overpriced, but the food was good. The atmosphere was lovely: romantic lighting, sand floors, and polynesian decor. The bathroom was awesome, I had to take some pictures. The sink was a stone fountain that you pulled a ring hanging from the ceiling to use the water. However, it was the touristy version of Polynesia and not the authentic version. We’d go back, but probably more to have some drinks at the bar than to eat. I would recommend going there once on your trip though, it’s worth the experience.
The Intercontinental offered a shuttle to the main town on Bora Bora of Vaitape. I think it was about $11 per person round trip, and runs once in the morning and once in the afternoon. We went in the morning and walked around the town, which is pretty small but very nice and amazingly clean. The main grocery store on the island is in Vaitape, and you’ll find the best prices here on food, beer, and snacks. There are also several shops to browse. You really don’t need much more than an hour here.
That afternoon we had scheduled a pricey but worthwhile tour with Bora Bora Photo Lagoon. Damien is a French expat who runs these tours in his “Love Boat,” all while taking professional photos of you on the excursion. He takes you around the entire island of Bora Bora, making a few stops for photos on a friend’s private motu, snorkeling, and finally drinking champagne out of a coconut in the lagoon. He tells you all about the island, and at the end loads all the photos (about 300-400 of them) onto a disc for you to take home. This half day tour costs about $400, which was very expensive but considering the private tour and professional photos of us on our honeymoon to keep forever, it was worth it. Some of the poses he asks you to do are pretty cheesy, but just go with it. He takes so many photos that you can be assured he will get those five fantastic ones that are frame worthy. Damien was a great tour guide and a genuinely nice guy. I would recommend his tour highly.
That night for dinner we decided to save some money and eat at the local “snack” right across from the Intercontinental Le Moana. We got some burgers (fish and beef) and fries for about a total of $25-$30. They were really good.
The next day was our last on Bora Bora. We spent the rest of the day enjoying the local beach and our bungalow. We had thought there wasn’t much snorkeling to be done around the bungalow as there wasn’t much coral. We had some extra crackers leftover from the snacks we had brought from home, and out of curiosity I crumbled one up and dropped it off the deck. I started a feeding frenzy. I grabbed a mask and snorkeled around the bungalow while Paddy crumbled more crackers to attract more fish. It ended up being pretty good snorkeling.
That afternoon we went back to the public beach (Matira Beach) and had some lunch at the small local Snack Matira. It was good and a really nice view of the beach.
For dinner we had made reservations at Kaina Hut, which had rave reviews on Tripadvisor. They are also far from the Intercontinental but offer a free pick up and drop off service with a dinner reservation. Maybe it was an “off” night, but this ended up being our least favorite dinner on Bora Bora. It was very expensive (expected), and the breadfruit gnocchi appetizer was alright. The atmosphere was nice, with sand floors and shells hanging from the ceiling. I had a seafood pot pie sort of dish, and Paddy had a steak. What ruined the meal for him was that he ordered it medium rare and it came well done. I wished he would have said something to the manager when it was served but he didn’t and it ended up ruining the whole meal. Many other people had a great dinner here but we wouldn’t go back.
The next morning we said goodbye to Bora Bora and flew back to Tahiti. I got some photos of the Bora Bora airport, which is located on a motu off the main island. It’s pretty hard to believe that you’re at the airport when you look around.
The flight to Tahiti had some pretty incredible views leaving Bora Bora as well:
We arrived back in Tahiti and went to stay one last night at the Intercontinental Tahiti again. We had booked their cheapest room, but were upgraded to a Panoramic view room on the ground floor, which was nice. We wanted to see some of Papeete (the capitol city) before we left, so we found the local bus stop across from the Intercontinental and took the bus into downtown Papeete, which was about a 15 minute ride.
We walked around and saw a bit of the market as it was closing, and poked around a few shops. We were hungry, so we found a cafe on the harbor and ordered up some poisson cru. It was the best poisson cru we had the whole trip. The resort poisson cru and the poisson cru at La Bounty didn’t even come close. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the place we ate.
After our snack and a couple beers, we walked around a little more and waited for the Roulottes to arrive in the square near the cruise ship port. Roulottes are Tahitian food trucks, and every night at 6:00 PM they arrive at the harbor and set up some open air restaurants. There is a lot of pizza and Chinese food, and prices are very affordable. We weren’t super hungry after the poisson cru snack but ordered some soup and noodles at a Chinese roulotte anyway. It was great. If we’d had more time in Papeete we would definitely be eating here. The square was mostly filled with locals eating with their families.
After that we went back to the bus stop and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Finally a local told us that the bus stopped running at 6:00. He offered us a ride back to our hotel in the back of his truck, and he seemed really nice and genuine. We declined however, as you never know what someone’s intentions are with a tourist. We were able to flag a taxi and got back to the hotel. The Intercontinental bar was hopping with locals and a live local band. We went down and had a couple beers and watched the show, then went to bed to be ready for our early fight home the next day.
After two weeks, we were in love with French Polynesia but ready to go home. We were ready to go back to the world of affordable food and beer and not having to slather on the sunscreen all the time. We are hoping to return for our 10 year anniversary. If we go back we’d like to do a small pension/off the beaten path trip.
* Top islands on our list for our next trip to French Polynesia: More of Tahiti and Papeete, Huahine, Rangiroa, and Fakarava.