Swimming with Humpback Whales in Rurutu

We learned about Rurutu through a travel magazine article which I picked up for John to read during a transatlantic flight. There was a story about a church build right on the beach but it went on to talk about how the Humpback whales come through here every year for three months to have their babies. Each year between July and September, the whales come to give birth to young. They stay for 3 months so the calves have a safe, shallow place to grow. When young, they have to surface every 3 minutes so the mother will rest on the reef at about 15m so her calf doesn’t have far to go. The number of whales varies from year to year, this year, there are 13 whales on the island.

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We arrived early and were greeted at the airport by the owner of Manotel Pension, Yves. He presented us with beautiful couronnes de fleurs and drove us to our place! This is the only island we will visit in the Austrell Island group. It is different from the previous 8 islands in several ways which are noticable even before you get off the plane. The landscape is mountainous with volcano limestone rocks everywhere and a combination of evergreen and palm trees. Unlike most islands, there is no lagoon here and no barrier reef- although there may have been at some point. The climate is cooler with a wide temperature between day and night. Last night, it got down to 12C but still reached 24C during the day. And the water is much cooler. It requires 2 wetsuits for us!

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The people here are very friendly- Rurutu is home to just over 2000 people. There are no hotels or big shops here, just 5 family pensions, 2 small shops and a post office (but nowhere to buy post cards)- although they have some outstanding restaurants! Walk down the road and everyone will smile and wave as they go past- and with so few tourists, it doesn’t appear that tourism has disrupted their normal lives. On Sunday, everything is closed and the roads are full of people in their Sunday best walking together to church. Much like Maupiti, you get the sense that you are just participating in their way of life, instead of disrupting it.

Outside our bungalow at the Manotel:

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The accommodation at the Manotel is very nice, spacious and clean and situated 50 m from the beach in an emmaculately groomed garden. Breakfast and dinner are included and are delicious. I think some of my favorite food on the whole trip will be from here! We spent the first day exploring the sea and saw a whale breach the surface about 10 times just 5 minutes from our place!

Walking the beach across from the pension we saw this whale breach after only 20 minutes of looking:

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Seeing this after having been here for only 2 hours made us super excited about seeing more of them! We had 2 bookings with them to ensure we get some good encounters.

Day 1 of swimming with whales:

Even before we get in the boat we see them from shore! 6 of us get in the boat and start putting wetsuits on- then we motor out about 5 minutes. The whale Axel spots is “a friendly one” and good for snorkeling so we sneak in. She is resting at about 10m with her calf. The size of them takes my breath away and we get within 4-5m but are careful not to disrupt her. We watch for about 10 minutes, frantically taking video and photos in an attempt to capture the experience. The calf moves around staying very close to its mother but the most movement we see from the Mom and a slow infrequent move of her pectoral fin. After 10 minutes, they both swim a bit deeper (it drops off from 15m to 100m very quickly) where it appears the calf is getting a breaching lesson. We stayed in the water and watched from in and out of the water as they swam down and breached. Unbelievable!

Snorkellers from the other boat approaching the whale and her calf. We were able to get within a few metres of her but left enough space not to disturb:

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Calf breathing at surface while mother watches from below:

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We got back in the boat and followed as they were soon approached by 2 males. They compete and show off for several minutes to demonstrate their strength- they want to mate with her. She is trying to protect her calf and I guess it’s very dangerous around all that comotion.

One of the males pectoral fin as he swims around the female:

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From the boat, we are getting a great show- the 2 males fight a bit but mostly just swim around the female showing off.

Large male in front with mother in background and calf in between:

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Whale giving us a nice show, you can see how close we got to him although at this point, nobody was in the water for safety reasons!:

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After an hour from the boat, the whales settled down back in shallower water and we jumped back in- swimming with 4 whales- 2 adult males, 1 female and a calf!!!!!

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Day 2 of whale safari is not so successful. On the start of the trip we saw a whale which turned out to be “the shy one” so she swam away as we got in the water. This was especially disappointing given that the water is cold! The weather was windy and partly sunny so it got pretty cold in that boat waiting to find another whale! We toured the island in search of another whale and after an hour, we found one. But it too was not interested in hanging around so we carried on. In the end, we did not swim with the whales on the second day but watched them from the boat which was still great! I guess we were really lucky the first day to have such action:)

The back of the whale, this is the most common sight both from the water and the shore. This little bit of the whale is like the tip of the iceburg:

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We did manage to do a few things not whale-related. One day we did a 6 1/2 hour hike around the island, roughly 25km. This was unintentional as we had planned to do a smaller ring, stopping in a nearby town for lunch. But the iPhone map and reality didn’t quite align so we took an extended “walk” around the whole south part of the island trying to find a way off the ridge we stuck ourselves on! The views were beautiful though and despite skipping lunch and running out of water, we enjoyed getting some exercise.

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We also discovered a beach through some dense lush forest growing amongst the limestone.

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Rurutu marks the end of our time in French Polynesia- we have really enjoyed it here and plan to return someday to spend more time on Rangiroa, Maupiti, Fakarava and Rurutu. We also want to see Cook Islands so I guess a trip to South Pacific is in the plan, albeit not anytime soon! We saw 9 islands in total and spent 5 weeks and 2 days here. Here are some of the top memories:

  1. Swimming with Humpback whales in Rurutu
  2. Diving with dolphins in Rangiroa
  3. Drift dive in Rangiroa
  4. Generally amazing diving in Fakarava (especially shark tank)
  5. Eating my weight in fresh baguette and poisson cru (best food in Rurutu)
  6. The view on the top of the mountain in Maupiti
  7. The Hilton with Chelsea in Bora Bora- hanging out at her overwater bungalow
  8. Snorkelling with Manta Rays in Maupiti

2 Dives in Fakarava

We spent only 2 nights in Fakarava due to its price tag- we stayed on the cheapest place on the island at $120/night which was basically a small room with 2 beds and a roof. Brutally basic- luckily, we didn’t go for the accommodation! We were greeted with beautiful weather on arrival and met a lot of other travellers at the pension as we settled in. The bonus of our little bungalow was its location right by the sea.

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We spent the afternoon checking out the town and sorting our dives for the next day. The main town has only 2 shops so we grabbed a very simple dinner of pasta and sauce and joined two other couples for the evening.

The local grocery store- no fresh things in here, just tins of meat & veg, pasta, rice, beer and water. And baguette of course!

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Next day, we were picked up by our dive guide, Max. The first dive was just us and was a very relaxing reef dive. The pass is on the other side of the island so it took about 30 minutes by boat to get there. I think Max was checking us out in order to determine whether or not we would be OK on the advanced pass dive which was planned for the afternoon! Everything went great so we got a pre-briefing on the afternoon drift dive and headed to lunch.

A school of snappers with a parrot fish and angel fish amongst the coral:

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Here was our drift dive briefing:

The drift dive is intense and starts with a quick descent to 32m in the blue. You have a few minutes to find the shelf of the reef before starting the drift with some strong current around 12-15m. Then you get to a canyon where there is no current and loads of fish and sharks loiter here to break. It is only here where divers are allowed to take photos- no time before!

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Unfortunetely for us, after our quick descent to 32m and swimming around for 3-4 minutes, the dive was aborted. The currents weren’t right and the guides couldn’t find the shelf so we surfaced. Not all was lost though, Max suggested we do a shallow reef dive in a spot he doesn’t usually go- I will call this place the SHARK TANK. It was awesome. It was so full of sharks and other fish it almost felt like an aquarium. We enjoyed getting our fill of sharks for about 25 minutes then found a canyon and did a relaxing drift dive back to the blue for boat pick up! What an amazing spot- couldn’t ask for a better “failed dive”!

A sleeping 2m nurse shark we snuck up on at the start of the dive:

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We just rested on the sandy bottom and watched about 25 sharks swim around:

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Me looking at other sharks while missing this one completely:)

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What a lovely last dive- on the boat ride back, we saw some disruption on the surface, several hundred birds hunting something in the water. So we went to check it out and discovered about 40-50 mobular rays! We quickly grabbed our masks and jumped back in the water.

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Mobular rays swimming together at about 2m hunting:

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Mobular rays are similar to Manta rays but are more brown and smaller in size. They were hunting as a group, pushing small fish together and forcing them to the surface. The birds benefit from this as they swoop down to grab a snack of their own. Meanwhile, a layer under the small fish, large tuna swim around, probably feeding as well and under them John spotted a shark! Wow- the foodchain right in front of our eyes. What a random surprise on the way back from our dive.

After such a great day in the water, we needed to grab a beer and enjoy the sunset on the beach.

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And since we saved so much money the previous night on pasta, we splurged and ate at the nearby roulotte for dinner- steak and frites:) It turns out Fakarava does not have an ATM so we had a very strict budget!

All in all, we enjoyed Fakarava and had an amazing experience in the water, despite the aborted drift dive. I feel like more time spent here would have been great and we would have seen some really special things diving. I would definitely put Fakarava on the “to return” list but we will have to stay in much nicer accommodation!

Unbelievable Diving in Rangiroa

We spent 5 days here and did 8 dives, 2 a day. We were nervous about the level of accommodation we would be enduring after the Hilton but we were pleasantly surprised by our little flat with separate bedroom and kitchenette, a stone’s throw away from the bright blue sea.

Our view from the entry way of our flat in Rangiroa:

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The waves are so loud but it’s great to fall asleep and wake up to that sound. The snorkeling isn’t great here in the lagoon but we’re not bothered- we are here to dive! We are on a 2 a day schedule while we’re here using a 20 dive pass with TopDive and will use the dives between us on 2 islands, here & Fakarava. I’ve never seen such nice facilities at a dive center – particularly such a remote one – they have free transport, hot fresh water showers, a sundeck, free nitrox, great staff and a beautiful spot near the Tiputa pass.

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The first two days we did a reef dive in the morning and the pass drift dive in the afternoon. The pass couldn’t be dived in the morning as the current goes out to sea, but it changes about every 6 hours so in the afternoon it was OK. We have seen friendly turtles, groups of 30+ sharks (locally known as the “wall of sharks”), huge Napoleon wrasse and surprisingly healthy coral. The current is strong but as we’re usually going with it, it’s no problem.

This turtle swam to us! That is a first, our guide Moana and I pet it and played with it briefly:

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But the BEST DIVE EVER was on the second afternoon – we did a drift dive through the pass but started in the blue looking for dophins, and we found them! A pod of about 7 approached us after 2 minutes in the water. They swim around us an let many in the group pet them- I got close but not close enough. They got within a meter of us and seemed very curious- they copied some of the movement including turning in a circle.

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They swam with us for about 8-10 minutes before swimming away. Then we were off for another viewing of the “wall of sharks” which is right on the corner heading into the pass. After passing most of the way through the pass in a very swift current, we descended like aircraft landing on a runway to get into a canyon at about 26m. This was soooooo much fun! The current flew us along for about 8 minutes until we reached the end where we started an extra long safety stop. It was fun to have the current push us along, combined with the eddies and side to side current so it was really an adventure!

Divers petting the dolphins- unfortunetely one of them is not me…yet:

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Unfortunately neither of us actually got to touch the dolphins but we’re not too bothered – for some it’s not something to recommend as they are wild animals. We wanted to be sure that if we did, it was because we had been invited to do so. Of the 8 dives we did here, on 4 we saw dolphins and 3 they stayed and played with us for up to 10 minutes! It is so amazing to interact with these intelligent animals- you can tell they are interested in us and swim fast around us, sometimes surfacing briefly, then returning to us! During one dive, there was a dolphin who was so excited it swam super fast with its mouth open clicking and singing- we weren’t sure what that meant but were later told he was just excited and playful!

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Me and 2 dolphins – at the moment they appear to be swimming away but they did come back!

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7 out of 8 dives we did at Tiputa Pass which was right next to the dive shop. But this morning we did the 15 minutes boat trip to the only other pass in Rangiroa – Avatoru pass. We were hoping to have good current but it was slack tide so we just enjoyed the reef, looking for big fish and dolphins of course! We also saw a large silvertip shark which came up pretty close to us. The final dive in Tiputa we also saw a manta ray, after which two dolphins flew past us without stopping – maybe just to say goodbye. Someone in the other group saw a hammerhead shark – we are still waiting for our hammerhead encounter but maybe in Fakarava or the Galapagos we will be more lucky.

Us with Moana, one of the dive guides who is also the local dolphin expert. We enjoyed diving with her and learning about the 7 named dolphins of the area, especially “TouchMe”, a dolphin that likes to be petted (especially by blondes!), hence the name.

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5 star Luxury at Bora Bora Hilton

We really worked the system to get 4 nights in a villa on the beach at the Hilton for free – and it was worth it! We have been thinking about this for over a year, when we both got American Express cards to collect points which were then converted to Hilton points, along with some of our AA miles :) So the 75GBP annual fee bought us $2400 worth of hotel. The Hilton owns the motu opposite the main town of Vaitape – it’s home to some beautiful coral and some very friendly fish. We met my friend Chelsea who flew in from St Paul to relax in her overwater bungalow for a few days and catch up.

John in front of the main island on the ferry from the airport to Vaitape:

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Chelsea and me in her over-water bungalow where we spent a lot of time:

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Our time in Bora Bora was spent doing 3 things: swimming, consuming food & wine & catching up with Chelsea. Oh- and enjoying the crazy nice accomodation and grounds of the Hilton. Our room was so big and comfortable I just wanted to hang out in there all day, however, we did manage to pull ourselves away from the motu on two occassions and take the ferry to Vaitape for some village exploration and a fabulous lunch at the famous “Bloody Mary’s”.

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Chelsea also brought a MUCH appreciated care package from my family which included my favorite brownies ready to eat, post cards from Mom, Dad, Lisa, Tom, A Anne, Grandma, AK, Sarah, Samm and loads of beautiful art from Annie, Lucy and Sophie. I read everything 3 times and we ate brownies for breakfast all 4 days. I also got a seamstress tape measure which Chelsea used to measure me for my wedding dress so I can finally order it- thanks guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Muma- you must have spent loads of time collecting all the notes- thank you so much:)

Me with coffee, brownie and all our notes, I’m feeling a little closer to home:

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Us with our art work from the girls (BTW, this is our balcony):

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The snorkeling was surprisingly good here, just under the bungalow we saw loads of colorful fish, octopus X2, a sting ray, sea urchins, sea clams- purple, green & blue, and pretty good coral. I’m sure Hilton crew remove a lot of urchins so people don’t step on them, and people regularly feed the animals here so their behaviour is quite different but it’s fun that they followed us around waiting to be fed!

A little octopus that we found right under Chelsea’s bungalow:

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Me and Chelsea entertained ourselves for quite awhile feeding these and several other fish with Triscuit crackers and bread rolls:

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We ended up eating at the beach restaurant at the Hilton which had pretty good food for a price that, whilst 5-6X what we are used to paying, was still within reason. But the service was astoundingly BAD. I couldn’t believe how inept the staff in the restaurant was which, when spending that amount of money for a room, is really surprising. Anyway, we did enjoy some poisson cru and fancy cocktails. Oh- and you’ll notice for the first time in 8 months, I’m wearing new clothes!!! Chelsea brought me some new items which were much appreciated!

The three of us at the Beach Restaurant Bar at the Hilton splurging on fancy cocktails- $17 each!!

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John and I really thought a fancy break at the Hilton would do us good- but actually, it had the opposite effect! We both were reminded what it feels like to have the comforts of home, friends and family, and the loads of other things we generally take for granted- and instead of motivating us to continue travel, we really want to go home! Earlier in the trip, we had a really nice break staying on the gorgeous luxury sailing boat in Raja Ampat for our 12 day dive trip- and that did give us motivation and excitement to continue the adventure. This time, I think we are just getting a bit tired- still loving the travels and blessed to have the chance to do it, but generally, spend more time thinking about friends and family and weddings and work…

Mom and Dad at Washington Square in WBL, MN having leaving drinks:

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Our room in Bora Bora:

View from the main entrance:

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Our villa is the one in the middle:

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View from our balcony:

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Standing near the office:

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Guest services & infiniti pool:

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Paradise in Maupiti – my favorite place in the world

Sadly, we only got 2 nights here but it was amazing from the moment we landed. This is the smallest airport I’ve ever seen and consisted of one open-air building and about 2 staff.

Us on arrival on beautiful Maupiti wearing our goodbye laias from Raiatea and our welcome laias from Tea:

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We were greeted by our Tea (Tay ah), who owns the pension where we stayed. He helped load our stuff into a small boat and we (and 4 of his friends) were off- first stop, the main island to pick up some beer from the single shop that sells it! We then plopped ourselves under a palm tree for an hour, getting to know the guys and settling into the Maupiti way! (or should I say, Polynesian?). Tea translated as needed since the guys didn’t speak English but we had fun speaking French and it never ceases to amaze me how much people can communicate without language anyway.

Relaxing under the palm tree with our new friends:

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We got to the pension and met the 2 other couples and had dinner. Tea and his wife prepared outstanding food which we enjoyed on the outdoor patio near the sea-side beach (as opposed to the lagoon side). The next morning, Tea took us to the manta cleaning station where we spent an hour snorkeling with 3 big mantas! The lagoon is pretty small and very shallow so even as we approached the pass, you could see the bottom.

John and one of three mantas at the cleaning station:

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Three large reef mantas playing around at the cleaning station:

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We headed to the main island for lunch- at the only restaurant around. We saw a few other people we knew from Raiatea- then hiked to the top of the mountain- 400m even though it was hot, we just couldn’t resist the view since the sun came out and it was clear. It took us about an hour to get to the top- it was short, but it was hard and I think John suffered a bit (and for the next 3 days!) but it was well worth it.

View from the top- you can see the barrier reef all the way around the island and the single pass (here) between 2 small motus:

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Panoramic view from the top- ours is the motu on the left:

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It had been an amazing day so far but to finish it off, sat on the lagoon side beach at our pension and watched a beautiful sunset.

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The next day we had half day until our flight to Bora Bora so we snorkeled the sea side of the motu. It was really cool to see the reef so close to the beach- on most other islands, the barrier reef extends miles away but here, just outside the pension it is as close as 15m away. We were tempted to swim to the edge but it’s so dense with coral and the water is so shallow, it’s impossible. We did enjoy some very careful snorkeling though and the crystal clear water, healthy coral and plentiful fish made for a top-notch snorkel!

John snorkeling with his hands amongst the coral on the sea side of the motu, about 20m from our bungalow:

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Amazing clear water a short walk down the beach, at least it was deep enough to swim but just barely!:

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I feel like Maupiti is French Polynesia’s little secret- and I desperately hope it stays that way. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, that’s for sure, but it’s somehow better than so many other places and I’m not sure I can articulate why… I think it’s because I didn’t feel like a tourist, I felt like I was seeing the REAL Maupiti, seeing real people living their normal lives, and for a short time, we got to live there too. Maupiti is home to only 1100 people so it’s no surprise that everyone knows each other. But maybe it is a surprise that they appear to genuinely like and respect each other- they are always greeting and helping and chatting- in stark contrast to the cities of China, actually, a stark contrast to most places I’m most familiar with.

John walking the beach on the sea side of the motu where we snorkeled on the last day:

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Another factor is that for the first time, the idealic beach paradise that has long eluded us proved its’ existance. The IKEA art and desktop screen savers always present vacant beaches in crystal water with bright green palm trees – but everytime we find such beauty, it’s scarred with people, buildings and other human “things” and it’s barely recognizable as the thing it once was. But here, what you see is what you get. These photos are not an illusion of a place that is no longer here, it’s REAL. I hope we have the occassion to find some more of these treasures before they are gone.

The beach on the lagoon side- the lagoon is behind me:

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8 days in Raiatea

We had decided to spend 8 days in Raiatea because we got a good weekly rate deal on a decent bungalow with a kitchen (important to stay under budget), and that number was just the way it worked out with the flights to Maupiti. It gave us some time to chill out and catch up on some tasks that we needed internet for – so a couple of those days we effectively spent working.

Our bungalow:

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We stayed at Pension Manava which was about 6km outside of the main town of Utoroa. Not having a beach or any decent access to the water for swimming or snorkelling, I was initially worried about being a big cut off from anything to do. In fact we didn’t find any great water accessible from the shore in Raiatea – the best turned out to be the town “Beach” in Utoroa – which was good for swimming but not great for snorkeling. But in the end it was fine – one day we rented bikes to go to town, we rented a car for 2 days to explore the island, we did a day’s diving excursion and a day tour of Tahaa island – so filled our time well enough.

Lovely flower ladies posing for a photo- there was a flower competition on the beach the day we went:

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Taputaputea Marae- located right at the only “beach” so we enjoyed walking around both times we visited. This is the main altar:

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The highlight was probably the diving – we weren’t expecting much but we got a great pass dive with more sharks than I’ve ever seen in the water at once, big schools of eagle rays, barracuda and jackfish.

Family of 13 eagle rays which was admired from about 25m:

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One of about 7 sharks in the passe, most black tip but also grey reef:

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Huge schools of jackfish and barracudas were everywhere! These are jackfish:

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This was followed by lunch on the nearby motu – we were left there for about 3.5 hrs with a cooler full of great food, very few other people around and some nice snorkeling nearby. We then found some dolphins on our way to the second dive – they enjoyed playing in the bow wave and wake of our boat and we messed around with them for 20-30 mins.

The motu where we were dropped for lunch:

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Pod of dolphins that played with us between dives:

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The second dive was also pretty good – the wreck of the Nordby which sank in 1903 – a three-masted ship which is much older than any other wrecks we’ve dived on before.

On the 5th day, we did a boat tour to Ta’haa which is a neighboring island. The weather was not ideal but we enjoyed a late morning snorkel in the coral garden, a tour of a vanilla farm (smelled delicious!) and lunch on a motu. The water in the coral garden was so clear and although challenging due to the shallow depths, it was really fun to interact with the fish.

John making fish friends with the help of some old baguette:

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Above water of the coral garden which was between Raiatea and Tahaa:

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After 8 days of relaxing, we were ready to head to Maupiti!! We enjoyed a Leffe beer at the airport as it was the same price as the local brew! And there was great live music so barely noticed the flight delay which we now assume is the norm:)

Adopting the Polynesian lifestyle in Huahine

For the first 3 or 4 days the weather was a bit changeable, but we enjoyed the time relaxing inside when we had to and on the beach when we could. The weather was been warm but cloudy with persistant (though intermittant) rain. And the gusty winds are something I’ve not experienced before – they come through every few minutes and make me think the house is going to fall over!

Beautiful tropical waters and typical weather- sun versus cloud/rain at the “Eagle ray spot” at the edge of the Fare beach:

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It’s gorgeous here and there are far fewer people than the other islands we’ve seen so far. We are staying at a well-known pension on the main road of the biggest town – Fare. But it’s a pretty small town, just big enough to have a supermarket, bank, pharmacy, post office, a couple of pensions/restaurants and a small market area. And for the first time, we’re in a dorm (as it was FAR cheaper) but aside from the lack of privacy and constant mosquito attacks, it’s actually kind of fun. There are some great people here – a German family, an Australian couple and a French couple. We hang out together in the living room/kitchen during the day- playing Scrabble and making meals. We even did a cocktail hour last night- we made Pina Coladas in a big pot and all 9 of us sat around the table chatting.

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Every day we walk 5 minutes to the beach and snorkel. There isn’t much to see in terms of coral or even fish but there is a resident family of eagle rays whom we have seen everyday. There is a Muma ray with her 4 babies and they let us snorkel with them for 10-15 minutes

The Muma ray that we snorkel with at the beach across from our pension:

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John snorkeling at about 4m with the Muma eagle ray:

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In the afternoons, between snorkeling, we eat baguette sandwiches and play games with people – I learned chess but Scrabble is a fav. I can’t remember the last time we had so much time to just relax, read and play games. It’s been really great but we were keen to rent a car for the day with 2 of our dormmates, Jess & Dave and spend time around other parts of the island. We visited the marae (ancient stone temple platforms), snorkelled, lunched on the beach, grabbed a banana split and coffee for a treat and snorkelled again. The weather is getting better but the afternoon was still cloudy!

Visiting the marae on the coast, 5km from Fare. Built about 1000 years ago.

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Climbing a coconut tree to retrieve two of the coconuts – opening them later was a challenge:

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Also we discovered driving around the island that they have some sort of Baguette postal service and instead of mailboxes they have baguette posting boxes outside their homes to receive fresh baguette every day – this one looks kind of like a baguette rocket launcher!:

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On the 4th or 5th day the weather really improved, the wind dropped and it has been mostly sunny. We explored some other snorkelling spots within hiking distance of town – and guess what, more eagle rays! They seem to be everywhere here in big family groups (quite unusual to see this) and it is really great to dive with them – I think the highlight of our stay here. Out of around 15 times we went in the water, we saw eagle rays every time except twice. The best snorkelling spot we found was around 40 minutes walk to the south-west of Fare – around the next bay to the point where there’s a very small beach to get in the water. The coral here was much much better (near Fare it’s mostly dead or in a poor state – the yacht anchorage close to town doesn’t help the situation) and there was a nice reef dropoff to dive down.

Hiking with our snorkel gear

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We found bigger and bigger groups of eagle rays:

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The largest group I saw in the water at one time was 12 eagle rays! I think I captured 10 of them in this picture. This is really impressive given that in other places in the world we have seen them, generally it has been a surprise to see even 2 or 3 together:

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We were lucky to be visiting at the time of the Heiva – a traditional Polynesian festival (but this particular one seemed to be in honour of Bastille Day – or at least coinciding with it) – and there were dance events on at a stadium near town. We went on the finals night and it was really a great show. The dances looked very exhausting, we lots of very quick movements to rapid drum beats. We didn’t understand anything of what was said or sung (it was all in Tahitian, with hardly anything said even in French) – but it was great to see a show that was put on for the local people, not for the tourists.

At the Heiva dance finals show:

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On the last day the weather was glorious and everything looked proper tropical! We met a lady on the beach called Rosie who was a princess from the Marquesas, visiting Huahine for a few days. She was hunting in the water for a type of sea urchin which had edible meat – she harvested a few and gave us the meat to try – raw marinated momentarily in sea water of course. It tasted a bit more like a vegetable than fish.. not too bad, but a rather unpleasant slimy texture. She also found some nice shells and gave them to Stef as a present. We finished the day by grabbing a bottle of the excellent tahitian Hinano beer and sat on the rocks at the end of the beach to watch the sunset.

Fare beach with the yacht anchorage in the background – definitely a great place to stop if you’re sailing through the area:

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Rosie, our polynesian princess sea urchin fisherwoman friend, brandishing some sea urchin meat:

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Sunset on our last evening in Huahine:

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Enjoying a beer watching the sun go down:

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We did great on budget in Huahine – our accommodation in the dorm for 6 nights cost 21000 XPF (~210 USD) for both of us including airport transfers and we spent on average around 3000 XPF (~30 USD) per day in the supermarket on food – we didn’t eat out at all and the only cafe purchase was a coffee on the day we drove around the island – for which the car rental was only 3300 XPF (33 USD) as we shared the cost with Jess and Dave – so all up around 225 USD per person spent here vs our $75/day budget for French Polynesia which would have provided 450 USD per person for our time here. So we’ve earned a couple of dives on Raiatea, and it’s important we achieved this anyway in order to pay for some islands where the cheapest place to stay is in excess of $100 per night. Hopefully we can continue to be a little under budget in Raiatea as that’s the last of the “cheaper” islands we visit.

French Polynesia- Tahiti & Mo’orea

We have been looking forward to this part of the trip for awhile! We flew from Auckland to Tahiti which took 4h30. We crossed the international date line on this flight so between that and the 2 hour time difference: we left NZ on the morning of the 9th and landed in Tahiti on the afternoon of the 8th. So my journal has 2 entries for both July 8 and 9:)

Tahiti has quite a reputation but as it’s also the most touristy, our expectations were low for the town itself. However, we enjoyed ourselves on our 2 day “layover”. We stayed at a great family pension on the west coast which provided a comfortable and quiet place to call home to 2 days. Relais Fenua is run by Annabelle who is really friendly- her daughter, Nau (sp?), is about 4 years old and the first morning we were there, she saw with us at breakfast and we played together for about 3 hours. She only spoke french so it was a good opportunity to practice!

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Our time in Tahiti was spent walking the beach across from the pension (the first night we stared at the gorgeous stars for half hour), eating at the roulotte down the road the first night and the pizza the second. Roulottes are pretty common and provide great food for a reasonable price- it’s full of locals, not a tourist in sight!

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The next day we snagged the local bus to the airport ($2.50 vs the $35 hotel transfer) which got us there a bit early. We queued in a non-moving line for about 20 minutes before learning the staff was on strike so the flight may or may not take off… the flight between Tahiti and Mo’orea is 7 minutes. We chatted with other travellers – nearly all of whom were on their honeymoon and eventually, boarded our flight. The strike will actually take place tomorrow so we count ourselves lucky?

Landing in Mo’orea, you know straight away this is not a place for the “backpacker” type. Everyone is wearing fancy dress, heels, and carrying nice luggage and is on their honeymoon. Fair enough but what it also means is that hotel and transport operators aren’t expecting people outside the inclusive packages travelling on “vouchers”. We didnt have transportation from the airport pre-arranged and there wasn’t a taxi in sight so we were lucky to find an operator who let us tag along and he dropped us at our motel (“Motel Albert”) in Cook’s Bay.

Our place here is a spacious flat with a kitchen, across from the Bay and walking distance from a small market. It was impressive at first but after spending some time here- I can confidently tell you it’s no treat. There are about 1000 bugs – ants mostly and cockroaches in a kitchen which hasn’t been cleaned since 1982. Everything is old and has been housing spiders for a long time. The bed is lumpy and thin and the pillow have such a strong stench of must, we had to cover them with a towel and our silk liners. And don’t get me started on the *&^%ing roosters that start crowing (or whatever they do) and bloody 3am! This for $65 per night was one of the cheapest places we could find to stay on the island – and whilst it’s not quite roughing it like some places we have done (Thailand, Nepal etc) it isn’t exactly great value for money when compared with anywhere else we’ve visited in the world (paying this much in Australia or New Zealand – at least we got something clean and bug free).

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The weather is warm but cloudy the first day so we explore the bay, walking 3 miles in either direction of our place to see what is around. John snorkels and I swim. Eating in every night is fun – and cheap.

Our flat after light rain – Motel Albert

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Today the weather was much better, clear in the morning so we decided to rent a car – $70 for the day. The island is 60km around. We stopped at Belvedere Lookout – which has the best view on the island. We wanted to get there before it clouded over – you can see both bays from up there and there are some archeological points of interest as well- mostly evidence from tribes that lived there 600 years ago before everyone moved closer to the coast when the Europeans came.

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Us from Belvedere Viewpoint – with Opunohu Bay on the left and Cook’s Bay on right:

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Driving around the island provided many spectacular views such as this:

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One of two public beached on Mo’orea. We stopped here in the morning to snorkel for an hour, then again on the way back:)

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So the second full day was spent exploring the island by car – with many stops and swims in between. It was good to get out because seeing other parts really influenced our opinion – as did the weather I’m sure. The snorkeling was OK – the coral wasn’t great but what made it good was seeing 2 spotted eagle rays at the reef dropoff just off one of the main public beaches. All in all, Mo’orea is a beautiful island full of lovely people. But it’s very developed and touristy and if you’re not staying at the Hilton or Sofitel, it’s hard to access the best. These developments – and many people’s private homes – have blocked the entire coastline and fenced it so people even 20m away cannot see it! There are a few places along the road where the coastline is too thin to support a house – this is where we often stopped for a rest and photo opp – however, the rest is really off limits.

Tahiti in the distance – notice the outer reef which causes the waves to break – this occurs around the whole island and results in a protected, shallow lagoon hugging the coastline. PS – this is the Sofitel property:

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So we are off to Huahine tomorrow in hope of even fewer tourists:)