Top 3 Pros and Cons of Traveling to French Polynesia

Taking a vacation to the islands of French Polynesia has long been on my travel bucket list. Recently I spent my two week honeymoon there and was surprised by what I found.

Pro #1: South Pacific Beauty

The islands of the South Pacific are well known for their beauty and mystery. Ever since the explorer days of Captain Cook, the allure of islands has captivated westerners. Because the islands are atolls formed from volcanoes, they typically have mountainous centers jutting dramatically into the sky. The mountains are covered in the lush landscape of the tropics, and surrounded by those fantastic lagoons. The view of the night sky is outstanding and for the first time in my life I saw the Milky Way, as well as thousands of stars. There are few places on Earth that rival French Polynesia in natural beauty.

Mt. Otemanu on Bora Bora
Mt. Otemanu on Bora Bora

Pro #2: Lagoon blues

The blue waters of the lagoons in French Polynesia are simply amazing. When you see photos of the water you automatically think that the photos have been edited and overly saturated with color. However, the water actually looks like that! The water is very clear and because white sandy bottoms are underneath the shallow water of the lagoons, the properties of physics applied to light waves through water results in those incredible blues. The darker areas of the lagoons are regions of coral reefs. In the Tahaa lagoon I drifted through the reefs along with the current while snorkeling. I floated past hundreds of brightly colored fish and saw unreal looking blue, green, and purple clams.

Bora Bora lagoon view
Those blues are real! No filters…

Pro #3: Over Water Bungalows (OWBs)

If you go to French Polynesia, if at all possible you must stay in an OWB. They’re more expensive than staying in a beach bungalow or a garden bungalow, but they’re worth it. Staying in an OWB is a pleasure perhaps best reserved for a special occasion like a honeymoon or a big anniversary. It can be a magical experience. The bungalows are spacious and have high end amenities, including decks, sitting areas, and offer spectacular views. Many OWBs have coffee tables with glass top surfaces so that you can see the fish swimming below you. At night you can turn on the under-bungalow lights to attract the fish and feed them.

over water bungalow
A luxury over water bungalow (OWB) on Tahaa.
OWB bedroom
A unique coffee table at the end of the bed with a view of the fish below.
OWB bathtub on Tahaa
Anyone ready for a bath?

Con #1: Expense!

The islands of French Polynesia are very expensive to visit. The islands are in one of the most remote areas of the world. There is little competition among airlines so the airfares are typically high. Almost everything on the islands have to be shipped in or flown in. Accordingly, prices for food and drinks are high. For example, I shopped at a small market on Bora Bora and bought a medium sized bag of Doritos for $7 and a 1 ½ liter bottle of Coca-Cola for $6. Of course, the prices at any of the four star and five star resorts are very high also, such as $26 cocktails, $24 burgers, $45 breakfast buffets, and $5 cans of soft drinks. An average meal for two at an island restaurant easily goes over $100.

Bora Bora beach bungalows
Beach Bungalows on Bora Bora.

Con #2: Infrastructure

In driving around the islands of Tahiti, Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Moorea, I was struck by the extreme disparity between the five star resorts and the poverty of the local population. It’s true that the big resorts provide the main source of employment for the locals, but it seemed that the rest of the local economy is in shambles. There didn’t seem to be any middle class, and the islands have very few shops, restaurants, and businesses. Locals typically live in rundown houses and shacks, some with corrugated tin roofs. Dogs run at large all over the island, with some unkempt dogs sleeping on the sides of the roads. It didn’t seem unsafe, just decrepit. Since the business infrastructure is so lacking, when it rains (as it did for four days when I was on Bora Bora) there isn’t much to do.

motu by Bora Bora airport
Not much on this motu….

Con #3: Inaccessibility

Because French Polynesia is thousands of miles from anywhere else on Earth, it is hard to get to, and traveling to one of the resorts can be an ordeal. A North American or a European traveler must first get to Los Angeles.  Flights to Papeete on Tahiti, the capital and main city of French Polynesia, leave late at night and take about 7 ½ hours. Since Papeete is east of the international date line, you don’t lose a day, but do gain three hours. With the overnight flight and time change, flights arrive in the early morning, such as 5:30am. If you are traveling the same day to a resort on Bora Bora or another smaller island, which is what most travelers do, you’ll have to wait around the miniscule Papeete airport for a few hours, since flights to the other islands leave mid-morning. After an approximately 30 minute flight to the smaller island, you’ll take a boat to the resort. Depending on water conditions and the resort being visited, the boat ride can take 30 to 45 minutes. By the time you are checked into the resort and finally collapse on your bed, you will be tired.

Intercontinental Moorea beach view
The beach at the Intercontinental Moorea.

Despite the disadvantages, I think traveling to French Polynesia was worth the expense and effort. It was a trip of a lifetime that was uniquely rewarding.

(During this trip I stayed at the Le Tahaa Island Resort and Spa, the Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort, and the Intercontinental Moorea).

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Best Beaches of the Big Island, Hawaii

Kekaha Kai cove

If you’re a beach lover like me, taking a trip to the beach is one of the most relaxing vacations. Sink into a beach chair, curl your toes into soft sand, and watch the surf roll in.

Whenever I go to a place with beaches, I always want to find the “best” beach. But I don’t want to stay in one place all the time either. I like to explore different areas of an island or coast.

Recently I traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first time. Here are the best beaches on the island.

Hapuna beach
A local girl catching some rays on Hapuna Beach.

Hapuna Beach State Park

This is the best beach on Hawaii. It is located on the northwest coast of the island in an area called the Kohala coast. The beach is hundreds of yards long, with soft white sand. Entrance to the water is sandy, smooth, and fairly shallow. It is an excellent beach for families with children. The surf break is relatively mild and is good for easy body surfing. There is no shade at this beach so bring an umbrella if you have one.

Kekaha Kai beach
An empty beach at Kekaha Kai early in the morning.

Kekaha Kai State Park

This state park is just north of the Kona International Airport on Queen Ka’ahumananu Highway. There are actually two separate beaches. The access to the first beach (the one farther north) is via a paved road whose entrance is across the highway from the Veteran’s Cemetery. It has soft white sand and park facilities, but no shade. Snorkeling is good along the rocks on the left side of the beach (facing the ocean). A local told me that dolphins are frequently seen in the shallow waters just off the beach.

Kekaha Kai cove
A secluded cove at Kekaha Kai State Park.

The second beach (the one farther south than the first), is accessed from the highway over a rough, unpaved road across a lava field. The road twists and turns for a mile or so from the highway to the beach parking area. Drive slowly or be prepared to lose a muffler if you aren’t driving a high clearance vehicle. From the parking area, it is a short hike of about two hundred yards to a pristine curved beach fringed by trees. This beach is typically less crowded than the others, probably because of the rough drive to get to it. It is a fine place to spend the day because there is shade.  Bring a beach chair, a cooler full of food and drink, and forget about the rest of the world.

White Sand Beach
The magic sands of White Sand Beach.

White Sands Beach Park

White Sands is located a few miles south of Kailua town on Ali’I Drive. It is a small beach, but it has soft white sand and is known for its surf break. Locals and tourists alike come to White Sands to ride boogie boards in the surf. A couple of days I was there, the surf was high and rough. I only managed a few rides on my boogie board before I was done getting tossed around and ground into the sand. To the right of the beach are reefs with lots of fish for good snorkeling and resident turtles. The beach is also known as Magic Sands Beach because winter storms sometimes make the sand disappear.

big fish
I went fishing and all I caught was this one…

 

Kahuluu Beach Park

This beach is a few hundred yards south of White Sands Beach on Ali’I Drive. This is a popular snorkeling spot. The beach has ugly gray sand and is generally unimpressive, but the snorkeling is superb. There are a lot of reefs spread around the bay in shallow water. The inexperienced snorkelers tend to stay close to the left side, but I found that the best snorkeling is farther out into the bay near the reef line. This is the only beach that I visited that had any food or drinks for sale. At Kahuluu there was a food truck parked near the facilities, selling ice cream, snacks, and sodas.

black sand beach
Hot on the feet!

Punaluu County Beach Park

Punlauu Beach has Hawaii’s famous black sand. The sand is crushed black lava. This beach is on the southeast side of Hawaii. If you are taking a driving tour of the island, it is about 67 miles (and 1 hour and 45 minutes) from Kailua-Kona.

It is definitely worth the drive to see this beach. It is spectacular. However, the black sand gets very hot! Wear water shoes or flip flops instead of going barefoot to walk across this beach. Also, the surf is rough and there are lots of rocks in the water at the shoreline. So it is not a good beach for swimming or lounging, but it is an amazing sight.

After previously visiting Oahu, Maui, and Kawaii, I think I like the Kona coast of the Big Island of Hawaii the best.

golf course view on Hawaii
Tropical paradise on the Big Island, Hawaii.
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Dubrovnik: Jewel of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik Harbor

Unlike many places in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, you can actually find a sandy beach in Dubrovnik. I don’t know if it was trucked in from somewhere else, or it if was naturally occurring. I don’t really care. I just want to sink my toes into sand when I’m at the beach.

Banje Beach
Banje Beach, just outside the town walls of Dubrovnik.

Europeans must have tougher bodies, and especially tougher feet, than I do. Most beaches on the Mediterranean and Adriatic are made up of pebbles instead of sand. Sometimes the rocks are rough like gravel. The pebbles can be the size of peas or even as large as golf balls. The beach in Nice, for example, has stones the size of lemons, but at least they are smooth.  The beach goers stretch out their towels and lay down on the rocks and pretend it’s comfortable. Seems more like a form of torture to me.

Dubrovnik Harbor
The harbor in Dubrovnik.

The coast in Croatia is beautiful. I only got to Dubrovnik and didn’t have to time to venture farther up the Dalmatian coast, or to go out to one of the many Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. The weather was perfect for lounging at the beach and swimming in the clear, cool water of the sea.

Dubrovnik walls.
The high walls of Dubrovnik.

Fortunately for my feet, I found that the closest beach to the Old Town, called Banje Beach, was sandy. It was an easy 10 minute walk outside the Port Gate of the Old Town. The view of the Old Town from the beach is fantastic.

I found a sandy spot on which to relax, however, the edge of the water was a small wall of pebbles…

Dubrovnki beach
Which way to the beach?
Dubrovnik street
A street in Dubrovnik at night.

Dubrovnik has existed for more than 1,000 years. The defining feature of the Old Town are the city walls that encircle the town. Some parts of the wall are twenty feet thick. There are only two gates in the wall. Some buildings in the town date from the 1300s. The town was bombed by the Serbs during a siege in the Yugoslav war in 1991, damaging more than half of the buildings and killing over 100 residents. I don’t remember hearing about that in the US news at the time.  In the late 1990s, the city repaired the damage caused by the Serb artillery shelling.

Dubrovnik side street
A narrow side street in Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik is very popular right now due to the hit TV show “Game of Thrones.” The Old Town is used to represent the fictional city of King’s Landing in the show. Walking tours of the old town that visit filming sites are big attractions for the tourists.

I liked walking around the Old Town, but it was so clean and perfect looking that I thought I had wandered into Disneyland or a movie set. Thousands of tourists (many of them from cruise ships) pour into the town every day. The main street becomes very crowded. It’s better to stroll along the backstreets in the evening.

Dubrovnik wall.
Dubrovnik town wall at dusk.

Dubrovnik, one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in the world, should be on your travel bucket list.

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Three ways to visit Tulum

Caribbean Sea

I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.

I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.

Tulum beach
A beach paradise south of Tulum, Mexico.

Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.

Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

Caribbean Sea
The turquoise sea…. Natural… nobody cleans up the seaweed.

My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.

As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.

Mayan ruins
Some of the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.

Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.

Tulum ice cream truck.
The Tulum ice cream man.

Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.

I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.

Tulum beach
A hidden beach below the Tulum ruins.

Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.

For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.

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Partying With Supermodels On The French Riviera

private beach on the Riviera

The French Riviera has always had an allure for me. I like French culture, outstanding geography, sunshine, beaches (even if some have pebbles), and the sea. It all comes together on the Cote d’Azur.

Riviera scene
Aaahh! The French Riviera.

I also like movies and someday I would like to attend the Cannes Film Festival. On this trip I was in Antibes during the film fest.  Antibes is a small beach town a few kilometers down the coast road from Cannes. I wanted to pretend to be a paparazzi and try out my new telephoto zoom lens on some celebrities, but I had read that only officially recognized journalists and photographers were allowed into the tent areas where the stars come out to be seen.

The Cannes party scene is also legendary. The big name actors and actresses come to promote their latest movies (whether or not the films are in the festival). The movie studios throw elaborate parties full of the glitterati consuming champagne and caviar. Or so I’ve read in People magazine. I have never been invited.

So I avoided the crush of Cannes and stayed on the beach at Juan-les-Pins in Antibes. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled, the sun was warm, the beach sand was comfortable, a few sunbathers were topless…

juan-les-pins
The sandy beach at Juan-Les-Pins (minus the sunbathers :))

There are two parts to the beach on the French Riviera – private and public. A private beach is typically in front of a beach café/restaurant/club. The private beach has muscular young men in polo shirts bringing expensive drinks to patrons while they recline on comfortable padded lounge chairs. For the privilege of such comfort and service the beachgoers pay 25 euros per day to sit on the chairs and use an umbrella. Signs around the private beach notify the riff-raff to stay out.

Since I am too cheap to pay 25 euros to sit on someone’s chair at the beach, I find a spot on the public beach, which in many cases is right next to the private beach. At the beach in Juan-les-Pins where I was, I laid out my towel on the sand just a few feet from the private beach rope.

private beach on the Riviera
A typical private beach next to a public beach on the French Riviera.

A few days later I had an early flight to catch from the Nice airport. I was loaded with my backpack, rolling suitcase, and dastardly GPS unit. I was walking through the hotel lobby at 5am and noticed two guys in tuxedos sitting in the lobby.  They appeared to be professional photographers, with their big cameras on the table in front of them.  They were busily typing away on laptops, possibly uploading photos for their editors.

As I kept walking in my early morning haze while looking back at the photographers I almost walked right into two woman who were standing directly in my path. They were stunning models in evening dresses. They looked like the eye candy you see on the Oscars broadcasts, the women who politely usher the long-winded Hollywood stars off stage.  Brightly colored long dresses, 5 inch stiletto heels, big hair, painted faces, long legs.

“Excusez-moi,” I stammered, momentarily disconcerted by their surprise appearance.

I walked out the front doors of the hotel and saw two more exquisite supermodels in evening dresses sitting at a table by the front door.

“Excusez-moi, monsieur!  Avec-vous une cigarette?”

What? Are you talking to me? I still wasn’t fully awake.   Was I dreaming? No, this is happening and she is talking to you. She’s asking you a question.

“Uh, non… Je ne fume pas,” I answered.

I kept walking without saying anything more. The two beauties smirked and giggled.  One of them called after me:

“Êtes-vous American?”

Yes, I am.  I would like to sit down and have a chat with both of you, I want to know which Cannes party you went to last night and why you didn’t invite me along to escort both of you, but I’m married and I have a plane to catch.  To America.

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