David Lytle is joined by author Bill Goodwin (www.billgoodwin.com) for a discussion of Bill's love affair with Tahiti and French Polynesia. From the dinosaur-looking island of Moorea to the awesome sight of Mt. Otemanu, and from exotic Bora Bora to the museums, Bill guides us around French Polynesia and explains why it's his picture of paradise. Listen in for a taste of the history, cuisine, culture and dramatic beauty of these islands, the proper way to pronounce, "Papeete," and how to afford a trip to these islands without breaking the bank.
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Top Tips from This Podcast
See transcript below for links to more information.
- Papeete: Walk the city, restaurants, museums -- Paul Gauguin Museum, James Norman Hall, "Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands".
- Must See: View the island of Moorea on the horizon at sunset.
- Must Visit: Moorea and Bora Bora Islands.
- When to go: May through September, more expensive but avoids hurricane season.
- Accomodations: Resorts are expensive, try for "small hotels and family pensions".
- Food: Food is taxed, grocery stores are more expensive. Eating out is comparable to the United States.
- Getting There: Air Tahiti Nui, Air New Zealand, Air France, Qantas.
- Saving Money: Shop around for package deals. Avoid buying meal packages.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle, editorial director for frommers.com. Today we're talking with Bill Goodwin about the South Pacific, specifically Tahiti and French Polynesia.
Bill has been a long-time author for Frommer's travel guides. He first started writing about the South Pacific in 1986. Hi, Bill, how are you doing today?
Bill Goodwin: Fine, David, thank you.
David: You're welcome, glad to have you. Your love affair with Tahiti and French Polynesia really goes back a long way. What makes these islands so special to you?
Bill: The extraordinary beauty, dramatic beauty of these islands. I've seen better beaches elsewhere, I've seen better mountains elsewhere and I've seen better lagoons elsewhere. But nowhere else have I ever seen a combination of those jagged green mountains just literally falling into lagoons. Every time I'm there I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I haven't gone off to some paradise somewhere.
David: That's fantastic. So to call it dramatic isn't really an overstatement?
Bill: No, it's not, it really is strikingly beautiful, almost all the islands are.
David: That's great. What's the culture like? Just in general all across French Polynesia, and then we'll get into more specifics of the individual islands.
Bill: Generally, French Polynesia -- as the name implies -- is French and Polynesian. The vast majority of the people are Polynesians and they still maintain a high degree of the Polynesian culture. Sort of a laid-back, easygoing lifestyle.
And on top of that of course, it's French. It's been French since 1842, so you have this French laissez fair ambiance about it too. Which altogether adds to the romance and you can get terrific cuisine while you're there too.
David: Great. So really, it's two sort of "live and let live" cultures that have a nice merging together, it sounds like.
Bill: Exactly right. There's always a bit of tension between the Polynesians and the French, the incumbent government out there would like eventually for French Polynesia to be an independent country, but in the meantime they're getting along. And tourism there has been booming in the last few years.
David: Right, I'm well aware of that. Now I know there are many more islands in French Polynesia than just Tahiti, but that's probably the big name. Can you just briefly lay out for us what the set-up is for French Polynesia, how is it laid out, how is it organized?
Bill: Sure. Of course it's in the South Pacific, it's almost due south of Hawaii and about half-way between Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia. So that's really remote. Everybody arrives on Tahiti, which is the largest of the main islands. And Tahiti is the main island of the society islands, which basically consists of Morea -- which is twelve miles from Tahiti -- and then slightly to the west of there is the so-called Leeward islands, which consists of the famous Bora Bora and Huahini and the two contigous islands Raiatea and Tahaa and a very small island called Maupiti to the west.
Up to the northeast of Tahiti there's a vast chain of atolls, these are low lying coral atolls with huge...
Bill: And then beyond that, about 800 miles from Tahiti are the Marquesas Islands, which of course were made famous a few years ago by the "Survivor" television series.
David: Right, right. I think that television series has done a lot for remote destinations around the world, if nothing else. Now I now that Tahiti is the largest island, Papeete is the capital of Tahiti?
Bill: [pronounces differently] Papeete.
David: Papeete. There I go with my mispronunciations.
Bill: Those tongue-tying names out there, in which several vowels are run together and each vowel is pronounced separately. So Papa-E-te is the way you pronounce it.
David: Good to know. Are there reasons to go to the capital? Or is it better to just land and then head of to some place that is more remote?
Bill: Well, most people now do go in and out of Tahiti very quickly, but I've always found that I have enjoyed my time there. In fact when I first got to Tahiti, I was on a sailboat and I woke up one morning -- we had come into Papeete harbor at night and I woke up in the morning -- and I saw this vibrant town sitting there at the base of a mountain. And across the horizon was the outline of Moorea, which was dramatically, it looks like a dinosaur sitting on the island.
Bill: If you take time -- especially if you're a city person -- Papeete is a bustling little town. It has a bad traffic problem, because it has overgrown, it has only two roads in and out of the place. But if you walk along the waterfront you'll see the cruising yachts from all around the world moored there, there are very good restaurants in town, there's good shopping in town. And then outside of town you've got three museums that are really worth while, one is the Paul Gauguin Museum.
David: Oh, fantastic.
Bill: Paul Gauguin was the painter and he lived his final years on Tahiti, did most of his famous work there. And there's a small museum, they don't have many of his originals, but it's very good to give you an idea of how he lived there.
The second is the home of James Norman Hall. James Norman Hall was the co-author of "Mutiny on the Bounty," the famous novel that led to a couple of movies.
Bill: And in his home... He was an American but he fought in World War I for the French, and became quite popular with the French. And he moved to Tahiti and lived most of his adult life there. And his family has restored his home to a museum, and it's interesting to go through, there's his original typewriter and his manuscripts. And you look out from there across the lagoon, and really anybody who's ever written would just go crazy sitting there looking at the manuscripts, this guy writing great books in this wonderful environment.
And the other museum is called "Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands," which not only has a great view of Moorea, but it's very good at explaining the Polynesian culture and the history of the islands. And of course -- as I mentioned -- you have to see the view of Moorea on the horizon, especially at sunset. Everybody heads out of Papeete -- generally -- around to the west coast, to sit in a hotel, have a drink and watch the sunset go over Moorea.
There's also things like you can take a four-wheel drive excursion, a so-called safari expedition.
David: Oh, right.
Bill: They go up into the mountains, especially through the central crater of Tahiti. And there's now a road that goes right across the middle of the island, through the crater, high up on the wall of the crater and through a tunnel and out on the south side. So those are terrific excursions, the views from up there are phenomenal.
One thing I forgot to mention, in Papeete they have a very lively municipal market, especially early on Sunday morning when everybody comes to buy their groceries. And it's fun to walk around there and see the fruit, the tropical fruits and the vegetables, the fish market is there. And then upstairs they have a terrific gallery of handcraft stalls, where you can go buy shell necklaces and other items.
David: So it's definitely a good place to observe local culture and maybe pick up some souvenirs as well?
Bill: Exactly right. It's terrific to see how the people live, how they shop. And then the handcrafts that they produce and they still produce a wide variety and very good handcrafts there.
David: What sort of handcrafts do they manufacture?
Bill: Shell necklaces and things made of shell. And then they're very good at making what they call tiva-vi. And these are applique quilts the missionaries taught the women how to make in the 19th century. And they still do this, these are wonderfully stitched, hand-stitched quilts that you can take home and put on your bed.
And of course the ubiquitous preu or sarongs that everybody out there wears, these now have gotten to be quite artful, you'll see all sorts of designs. And you can pick them up for about ten dollars, they're terrific souvenirs to stick in your suitcase to bring home.
David: Right, I've actually bought some, not from the South Pacific but from the Caribbean, I've purchased preus before. They're great to wear on a sailboat and they make nice gifts for people back home as well.
David: Just very attractive. This is an unfair question because I know that there are so many islands, but do you have a favorite island? One that you think stands out more than the others?
Bill: Well, there are two of them out there that really are head-and-shoulders above the rest. And the author James A. Michener when he wrote "Return to Paradise" back in 1950, he said he thought Bora Bora was the most beautiful island in the world. I tend to agree with that, but I prefer Moorea, and it's a very close call, but they're very different.
Moorea, of course, is only twelve miles from Tahiti, and there are ferries that go back and forth. But it is essentially half of an extinct volcanic crater, and these phenomenally beautiful jagged peaks all along the top of the crater and then down in the middle there's a huge big black basaltic mountain that sticks up by itself.
And on either side there are finger-like bays that run in to the heart of the crater wall, of the crater floor. One is called Cooks Bay, and the others called Opunohu Bay. And these two, especially Cooks Bay, to my mind the most beautiful place in the South Pacific.
But Michener preferred Bora Bora, and I think it's extraordinarily beautiful, but there you have a reef enclosing a spectacularly beautiful lagoon, and in the middle of that there's a small island sticking up with a huge tombstone-like mountain looking down over everything. And that, in many respects is the trademark of Tahiti and French Polynesia, is Mount Otemanu on Bora Bora.
David: Oh wow, I mean you are doing a fantastic job here of just describing this. I feel like I'm there now, and actually I wish I were there now.
Bill: Yeah, so do I.
David: How often do you go? Is this an annual trip for you or do you go several times a year?
Bill: I go over there at least once every two years, and quite frequently every year. It all depends on, like "Frommer's South Pacific" is updated every two years, and so I'm always over there. Now that we've got "Frommer's Tahiti," which will be published very soon.
David: Yeah, I've got a copy in my hand now.
Bill: Oh, good. Of course that means I'm going to have to spend more time in Tahiti, so I hope to get back over there, but I've been there at least two dozen times and the longer the better. Sometimes, always for at least a month, and sometimes for as much as three at a time.
David: Yeah, is it hard for you to leave?
Bill: It just tears my heart out to get on the plane and leave.
David: Yeah, it's easy to fall in love with very beautiful places.
Bill: Oh, the first time I was over there, I sailed out. I was with a partner, we intended to sail around the world. We managed to get to Tahiti without killing each other, but then I got off the yacht.
My girlfriend flew out, and we spent as long as the gendarmes would allow us to stay in French Polynesia, for me it was seven months, and they said finally, "You have to go." I decided all right, I'm going to leave, but I'm going to come back as often as I can.
David: Yeah, that's fantastic. So you've got a love affair with Bora Bora and Moorea definitely. What are some of the other islands like? Like the atolls? Is there a lot of tourism there or are they more remote, difficult to get to, so they have less of a support structure?
Bill: Out in the Tuamotu Archipelago there are four islands that have International Standard Hotel. One is Rangiroa which is the most Fijitive of them -- and that has the worlds second largest lagoon, and that has the best diving and the best snorkeling in all of French Polynesia, and some of the best in all of the South Pacific. Especially if you like diving with sharks and big manta rays, that is the place to go.
David: Oh wow.
Bill: Now bear in mind the atolls are very flat, these are little skinny islands that are like a necklace enclosing the lagoon. So you do not get the magnificent mountainous beauty that you get in the society islands. So I always recommend to people, if you are going to go out to the Tuamotus, go out there first, and then go to the society islands with the beautiful mountains and all that, otherwise you may be a little disappointed to go to the great islands first the most beautiful islands and then go out to the lagoons. But if you like to dive and snorkel, that is the place.
Also out there there's Tiki Hau, which is a smaller atoll right next to Rangiroa. It's much more intimate there, you don't feel like you're in a touristy place at all. And then Manihi, which is another one, that's the heart of the French Polynesian black pearl industry. Black pearls are the second biggest earner for French Polynesia behind tourism.
And then there's Fakarava, which is the world's third largest lagoon. It sees fewer tourists, but it also has an old village way out at the end of the atoll, so you add a touch of history to go along with the great swimming, the great snorkeling, and the great diving.
David: Now is that a Polynesian village?
Bill: It was a settlement back in the 19th century when the traders -- the French and the European traders -- showed up, and then of course the missionaries were right in tow. And it was abandoned some years ago after a hurricane, so you see the ruins of an old church, there's an old jail there, you just wander around in this little ghost town, which is very, very unusual out in that part of the world.
David: That sounds unusual. You just mentioned a hurricane, what are the chances? Do they see a lot of strong storms? And what's the season for that out there?
Bill: Hurricane season in the Southern Pacific runs from November through April, but Tahiti and French Polynesia are a bit east of the main hurricane belt, they don't get nearly as many as in Fiji -- say -- to the west, that's not to say that you wouldn't get them occasionally, but there is a chance, always a chance.
Bill: That's also the summer season though there, from November through April, which is warmer and more humid during that time of year. The best time to go is the opposite season which would be the Northern summer which would be Southern winter over there. And it's drier, it's cooler, the weather is just superb from around May through September.
David: That's the peak season, probably more expensive to go then.
Bill: Yeah, prices tend now -- in learning about seasons though there -- they tend to be a little bit more expensive. July and August are also the traditional European holiday months, so you have a huge festival in Tahiti and French Polynesia called the "Fete," around July 14th, or Bastille Day. And then you have the great dancing contests and the hand craft shows and all that, it's a terrific time to be there, if you can get a hotel room. You need to book well in advance.
David: Right. Now, options for staying there, are they only resorts or are there other... I mean depending upon the destination, you sometimes can stay in somebody's home, or there are youth hostels. Does French Polynesia have something like this?
Bill: Most of the properties out there are expensive resorts, most of which feature the famous over the water bungalows, the romantic bungalow built out over the lagoon. But it's getting to be now that there's a much broader variety of accommodations. The French used to test their nuclear weapons out in French Polynesia, and when they stopped that in 1996, they've been encouraging local development in order to make up the difference in all that money that they were sending out to Papeete.
So now you've got -- not a home-stay -- but what they call small hotels and family pensions. Families will buy a standard bungalow that the government actually issues, and they all look alike when they are put up. And they'll put up two, three, four of these bungalows. And you can expect to pay less than $100 a night, which out there is dirt cheap.
There's also a number of smaller hotels that fall into the moderate range, that are say $150 to $200 a night on Tahiti, on Moorea, and a few on Bora Bora. Bora Bora tends to be expensive, that's the magnet, that's the high-end market, that's the honeymoon market.
But if you go to Tahiti, and you go to Moorea, and an island we haven't mentioned, which is Huwihini, out near Bora Bora there are options, you do not have to spend a fortune out there, if you know what you're doing and, of course, pick up a copy of "Frommer's Tahiti and French Polynesia."
David: Sure. Of course, we always recommend that. I guess these are never really a true budget destination, but you can do them more affordably.
Bill: Yeah, in some places there are places you can camp. On Moorea and on Huahini, you can actually put up a tent. And there are small pitch zones, as I've said. The cost of food over there, almost all food is imported and it's heavily taxed. They raise their money -- their taxes -- not through an income tax, but through an import duty. So, if you go into a shopping center or a grocery store, you're going to pay more than you do here. But that's true of the locals as well as us. Meals in restaurants, however, if you avoid buying the most expensive wine, you can dine out for about what you'd pay at a comparable restaurant here in the United States.
David: That's good. That was actually on my list of what to ask, what the cost of food was going to be, because I know oftentimes more remote destinations, especially islands where you simply can't grow everything you normally would, that things do have to be shipped in and your prices go up.
Bill: That's exactly right. The cost of living over there is generally more than you'll find here. But that's not to say it's astronomical, if you're traveling on a budget and you stay at a place that's reasonably priced, and you're careful about your meals. For example, there are two terrific Italian restaurants in downtown Papeete where you can go to dine for ten or fifteen bucks. That's about what I would spend here in the Washington D.C. area where I live.
David: Other than an Italian restaurant, what sort of food do they have? What is native cuisine? I'm assuming you're going to have some great mix of French cooking and Polynesian fare.
Bill: That's exactly right. You'll find that the French chefs over there tend to use a lot of local ingredients, fresh vegetables, fresh fruits. Vanilla beans are grown there, so you'll find quite a few vanilla sauces. In fact, from time to time I say to myself, "I've had enough vanilla, that's enough vanilla sauce, I'd just like a piece of fried fish."
David: Right, sometimes you want to make it as simple as possible.
Bill: But speaking of fish, there's one dish you'll see on every menu, and that's "poisson cru," which in French means "raw fish." It's similar to ceviche in South America, where they cut up tuna and they marinate it in lime juice, which has a way of cooking it. Then, they combine that with coconut milk and fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuce, and it makes a terrific salad.
David: Wow, that sounds really fantastic. And believe me, I love to eat, so learning about anything that I could possibly make myself. I never would have thought of the idea of ceviche with coconut milk, but that seems very intriguing to me.
Bill: Coconut and lime juice comes out sort of picante, it's very nice, sweet and sour sort of flavor. Also, every resort has at least one island feast every week, and by that I mean food cooked in an underground oven in a traditional Polynesian way. Before the Europeans came out there, the Polynesians had no forks, no spoons, nothing. They ate with their hands, or using leaves, and they would cook their food in an oven underground. They would heat up rocks and put pork and fish and vegetables and coconuts and let it steam for hours, and then take it all out and have a huge feast, which they would eat with their fingers. Now, you find it in hotels and you go through it and you'll find it's called "umu," and what they may call "maha Tahiti" or "Tahiti food." So you go into a buffet and there'll be the roast pork, the vegetables, the seafood, it's a terrific feast.
David: Wow, sounds great. We've only got a little bit more time. I mean, there's so much that we could talk about, but I think we should give our listeners some tips on how to plan their trip, to get to French Polynesia. That's half the battle of traveling, getting to the place that you want to get to. Who goes there? I mean, who should you look into for your flights, should people book packages as opposed to just booking a flight and a hotel separately? Any tips you can give, I'd appreciate it.
Bill: Air Tahiti Nui, which is their local carrier, has the most flights in and out of French Polynesia, all of them to Papeete on Tahiti. There's also Air New Zealand, there's Air France, there's Qantas, but basically the most flights are on Air Tahiti Nui, which is going to start code-sharing with Air New Zealand in April of next year.
It's about a seven and a half hour flight from Los Angeles, and Air Tahiti Nui also has a direct flight nonstop from New York right into Papeete, which takes about twelve hours to get there. It arrives a little before midnight local time, so you can get a good night's sleep before you head out and tour the islands the next day. Some of Air Tahiti Nui's flights going from Los Angeles will leave in time to get you into Tahiti before sunset, or right after dark, so you can connect then on to Moorea, on to Bora Bora, and not even have to spend a night in Tahiti. Of course, coming back you're invariably going to have a red-eye overnight, so you're going to be a little jetlagged coming home.
David: Oh yeah, those are killers too.
Bill: But you should shop around for package tours and other discounts -- we give a list of these in "Frommer's Tahiti" -- and agents who handle discounted flights. One other tip I would give is, you'll see a lot of meal packages offered. Well, dining out over there is one of the key evening activities. I would suggest avoiding buying a meal package except maybe for breakfast. Otherwise, go out and enjoy the cuisine.
David: Right, take your time and check out the different restaurants.
Bill: Exactly. Part of being there.
David: Mixing with the nightlife.
David: What's nightlife like? I mean, I would imagine with a lot of honeymooners that there's going to be, you know.
Bill: You find surprisingly little. There are nightclubs in Papeete city, and you can stay up until the wee hours most nights. But elsewhere, basically if you go to Bora Bora and Moorea, your evening will consist of having dinner and then perhaps a dance show afterwards. And those Tahitian dances, those hip-swinging dances to the beat of the drums are famous. I mean, even Hawaii started doing Tahitian dances. But all that's over around nine o'clock in the evening. If you're on your honeymoon and you can't figure out what to do between nine o'clock and midnight, that is your problem.
David: Nice. OK, Bill, thanks so much. That's all the time we have for today. This has been really fascinating talking to you, I appreciate it.
Bill: My pleasure, David.
David: OK, have a good day.
Bill: Thank you.
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