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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Grand Cayman Snorkeling Videos

Rum Point beach view

My article titled Top Snorkeling Spots in Grand Cayman has been the most popular one on my web site over the years.  The folks over at Sunplay have seen my list and sent me videos of some of the snorkeling sites on Grand Cayman.  These videos include underwater photography!


Top Snorkeling Spots: Rum Point, Grand Cayman


Top Snorkeling Spots: Eden Rock, Grand Cayman


Top Snorkeling Spots: Wreck of Cali, Grand Cayman


Top Snorkeling Spots: Stingray City, Grand Cayman

Grab your fins and mask and get in the water!

Rum Point beach view
Rum Point, Grand Cayman.

Underwater in Fiji

Waya Island

The reef in front of the Octopus Resort on Waya Island in Fiji starts five yards from the shore.  It has the most amazing snorkeling I have ever seen.  The reef is full of healthy and vibrant hard corals.  There are giant brain corals 20 feet in diameter, staghorn, elkhorn; more species than I can identify. I have been to several Caribbean reefs and they look wrecked compared to this reef.  Perhaps this is what the Caribbean looked like 100 years ago, before the overfishing, clumsy tourists, and coral bleaching.

Ferry coming to Waya Island
Likuliku Beach on Waya Island

There are many different kinds of fish weaving in and out of the coral.  I see bright yellow butterfly fish calmly grazing in pairs.  There are Picasso triggerfish cruising the shallows.  Bright blue damsels protect their territory from attack.  I catch a glimpse of an octopus as it slides under a ledge fifteen feet down. As I glide over a wall I see a large moray eel ducking in and out of a cavity at the base of the wall, ready to catch any tang foolish enough to swim by too close.

I see a dark cloud up ahead. It is a gigantic school of fish.  They are small, maybe six inches long, but there are thousands of them.  I find out later that they are sardines.  They form an ever changing mass about 20 yards long by 10 yards wide by 15 feet deep.  There must be ten thousand fish in the school.  I slowly glide into the school and it parts around me.  I try to be as still as possible.  The school envelopes me like I am the eye of the hurricane.  The fish circle me and from time to time I extend my hand to the moving wall of fish.  This causes a panic and the fish reverse direction and flee from the threat.  No one wants to be the fish on the outside of the school, to be eaten by a predator in the great circle of life.

Waya Island waters
The water is clear in the Yasawa Islands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon I take a refresher course in scuba diving.  I think it’s a good idea since I haven’t been diving in ten years.  The instructor is a big, burly islander named Kuki.  Another guest at the dive shop is considering taking a Discover Scuba Diving class.  She asks Kuki how experienced he is at diving.  He tells her he’s been diving every day for 19 years! Kuki runs through the skills with me in the shallow waters a few feet off shore.  I am ready for diving again.

Octopus Resort dive instructor
Kuki, one of the Octopus Resort dive instructors.

The next day Kuki takes me out into the bay off Likuliku Beach.  The first dive is at a site called Three Sisters.  We get our gear on and fall over the side.  Kuki doesn’t wear a wetsuit.  He looks like he has enough insulation as it is. We slowly descend about 30 feet. The assortment of hard corals is amazing.  Near one table coral is a cloud of tiny bright blue fish.  A school of tangs glide past us.

I follow Kuki as he winds his way along the reef. I try to relax and use only my feet, while keeping my arms folded across my chest.  My breathing slows and I achieve neutral buoyancy. Kuki stops by a bramble of coral. He points with his underwater pen at a lionfish.  We count five lionfish in this spot.  A lionfish has sharp spines to deter predators and gulps his unsuspecting dinner whole.

I see an anemone about two feet across.  It is home to two large orange clownfish nestling in the tentacles of the anemone. These fish are not quite like Nemo but a different species. A clam about one foot long slowly flaps its lips at me as I stare at its electric green color.

After 45 minutes of fabulous exploration it is time for our three minute safety stop.  We hover fifteen feet below the surface and watch the timer tick down. As I rise to the surface I’m happy with the dive.  The visibility was very good, the corals were excellent and we saw many varieties of fish.

After a break we head over to another dive site.  This one is called Octopus Garden.  I see many of the same things at this site, but because it’s so good I don’t notice until the dive is over.  The most memorable thing of this dive was seeing a large Hawksbill turtle.  I was at about 50 feet in depth and the turtle was grazing near a wall about 20 feet below me.  It hovered there for a few moments and then slowly moved away to deeper water.

Kuki gave me a high five and a fist bump once we were back to shore.  It was a great way to spend a morning in Fiji.

Waya Island
Waya Island in the Yasawas, Fiji.

A Day at Poipu Beach, Kauai

A View of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kawaii, Hawaii

The turtle slowly grazed among the rocks along the shoreline. It was a big sea turtle, with a shell about three feet long. It was mostly submerged. Once in a while it would come up for a breath, look around at the sunburned tourists lying on the beach, and duck back down to continue its late afternoon snack. The beachgoers walked by, oblivious to its presence only three feet offshore in two feet of water.

A View of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
The gentle waters of the lagoon at Poipu Beach, Kauai

I had snorkeled in the waters all around the sandbar at Poipu Beach that day, searching for turtles. A guy I talked to in the pool at the condo complex told me that there were typically a dozen turtles in that area. I saw lots of fish while I was snorkeling, but no turtles.

Snorkeling in Kauai is a little different than in the Caribbean. The water visibility is much lower. The water is full of bubbles from the powerful surf and it mixes with the sand and red dirt runoff from the recent storm. In the Caribbean, most fish that one sees are small. The locals have caught and eaten a lot of the larger specimens. However, here in Kauai I saw many larger fish very close to shore.

There were Naso Tangs more than one foot long. I saw several Humuhumunukunukua’ua’a (the Hawaiian state fish and my personal favorite) that were also approximately one foot long. Pairs of Moorish Idols glided along the rocks, pecking away at algae. A very large Unicorn Fish boldly sailed within a few feet of my head. I think he was wondering what I was doing on his surf and turf.

After a long time fighting the surf to get to the outer edges of the reef, I gave up and collapsed in a heap on the beach. It was time to take a nap. The soft strains of Hawaiian ukelele music from a stereo at a local family’s picnic lulled me into sleep.

Beach next to Poipu Beach, Kauai
A walk along Kiahuna Plantation Beach, Poipu, Kauai

Later, parked on the beach, I scanned the ocean for any sign of whale activity. Just when my eyes started to get tired, I saw a whale spout. It was almost to the horizon line and at the very edge of my long range vision. After a few seconds I saw a whale rise up out of the ocean and then crash back down.

As the sun was starting its daily descent to the horizon, I wandered the beach where the ocean meets the sand. As I walked, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head to see the turtle catching a breath five feet away from me. It winked at me, and then dived to rejoin its family.

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Relaxing at Rum Point, Grand Cayman

Rum Point on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands is one of my favorite places on earth. It is on the north coast of the island, far from the crowds of Seven Mile Beach.

Rum Point Beach
Another day in paradise

The point itself is a small peninsula, with a splendid white sand beach on one side, and rocky iron shore on the other. I like to walk along the iron shore coastline and gaze at the multi-million dollar beach villas, trying to decide which one I would buy if I won the lottery. Along the way I comb the beach for nice shells or interesting flotsam, but all I ever seem to find are plastic bottles washed ashore from Cuba.

Since the Rum Point beach is within the North Sound and far from the reef line, the water is typically very smooth and shallow for at least 50 yards from shore. This makes it great for small children to play in the water and in the sand at the water’s edge. The sand is perfect for making elaborate sand castles. The beach is partially shaded by large pine trees bent by the easterly winds and there are many beach chairs and hammocks for comfortable lounging.

There is a small reef to the right of the pier which is only 20 yards offshore in shallow water. This reef is very accessible for beginning snorkelers to see the colorful fish of the Caribbean in a safe environment.

Rum Point
The crystal clear waters at Rum Point

For those a little more experienced or adventurous, swimming out around Rum Point itself is another option. This area is a marine preserve with lots of sea fans, coral, larger fish, and even some lobsters, conchs, and octopi if you look closely. If the weather is right, there may be a current running from east to west over the point. By starting on the east side, you can swim out 30 yards with your snorkel gear and then float all the way to the pier. No need to paddle, just relax and watch the fish as you coast on by.

The Wreck Bar and Grill is on site to provide a tasty island-style lunch and a fruit smoothie for hot afternoons. Water sports such as paddle boats, wave runners, and small sailboats are available for rent through the Red Sail Sports operation. A trip out to Stingray City in the middle of the North Sound on a large catamaran is good way to spend part of the afternoon.

The beach sometimes gets crowded with cruise ship passengers, who come by boat for a few hours in the middle of the day. Thus the best time for quiet relaxation is in the late afternoon. The sun is not so hot and the shadows from the trees shade you nicely as you snooze or catch up on your reading.

The view from the pier at Rum point
A walk on the pier at Rum Point

Rum Point is also an excellent spot to watch the sun set. As the sun goes down over the calm waters, you can ponder what to do tomorrow. The answer might be to do the same thing that you did today. Nothing but relax.