Blog posts

Tahiti (Nui and Iti)

This is the eighth and final in a series of posts, each one about an island we visited on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far, the sixth was about Raiatea and Taha’a, and the seventh was about Maupiti.)

Read more: Tahiti (Nui and Iti)

Right off the bat, let me clear up a common misconception – Tahiti is not a country, it’s an island. It’s the largest island, by far, of the approximately 120 islands in the country of French Polynesia. Its main city, Pape’ete, is by far the largest city in French Polynesia. But it’s understandable that so many people think Tahiti is a country – the native language spoken in most of French Polynesia is Tahitian; most people visiting French Polynesia will fly into the international airport on Tahiti; it’s not unusual to see French Polynesia referred to as Tahiti et ses îles (Tahiti and her islands). I guess “Tahiti” is a lot more concise than “French Polynesia”, but just keep in mind that they’re not the same thing. There’s more: Tahiti is a bit odd-shaped (see picture below), with a little nub that sticks out on the southeast part, looking like a separate island, and they even have a name for it – Tahiti Iti – that makes it sound like it’s a separate island. (“Iti” means “small” in Tahitian.) But it’s not a separate island, as the two chunks are connected by an isthmus (look it up). To sum up: Tahiti is the name of an island that looks like two islands, but isn’t; the little part is called Tahiti Iti and the big part is called Tahiti Nui (“big Tahiti”) or just Tahiti. And many people think it’s a country, but it isn’t.

Anyway … Tahiti was the last island we visited on our grand tour of French Polynesia. In the earlier parts of our trip, we had been to Tahiti a couple of times, because it’s the hub for all of Air Tahiti’s flights, and on a couple of occasions, we had to spend the night there between flights to and from other islands. So we knew it was “the big city”, and was going to be very different from the rest of the islands, and honestly, I was prepared to not like it. (We heard that from several people who live on the other islands – that they sometimes have to go to Tahiti, but they really don’t like it. Also, I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly with every passing day.) But we had a great time there, and met some wonderful people, and did some really fun things, so lemme tell you about it!

You may recall that we stayed in a few places on this trip that weren’t exactly Five Star accommodations. A couple would have been One Star, and one of them was a Black Hole. But on Tahiti, we did a Home Exchange and stayed in a modern apartment with a gorgeous view of the reef, ocean, and the island of Mo’orea in the distance. For the first time on this trip, we had all the comforts of home and not a single thing to wish for in our accommodations. As a bonus, our hosts, Chloe and Thierry, were fantastic and could not have made us feel more welcome. (More on that later.)

The view from our Home Exchange apartment, with Mo’orea in the distance

(A brief aside: for the past year, we’ve been using a website called to find places to stay in the US and other countries. We’ve used it in Scotland, Ireland, Bonaire, and French Polynesia, and later this year we’ll be using it to stay in Oregon and Mexico. I’ll do a separate blog post about it soon, but if you like to travel, I can’t recommend it enough. Check it out!)

Captain Ju and two Giant Spider Conchs (which were release unharmed)

Our first adventure was an all-day boat excursion around Tahiti Iti, with Captain Julien and five other guests. He took us around the lagoon (the area between the island and the fringing coral reef) and showed us a fish farm that consists of four big circular nets suspended in a deep part of the lagoon where they’re raising batfish for sale to local restaurants. He took us to a shallow sandy area where we found some of the giant spider conchs, which we brought up, got a good look at, and tossed back (they’re a protected species). We snorkeled on and around a coral head that rises at least 60 feet straight up from the bottom, where we saw several pipefish, a giant oyster, and an octopus! It would have been a perfect place for us to practice our freediving, but “Captain Ju” had a lot more to show us, so we couldn’t stay long. We swam in a clear, cold, fresh water river that emptied into the lagoon and had fresh poisson cru au lait de coco, which is our favorite new dish from this trip. And we saw Teahupoo, which surfers will recognize as one of the greatest big wave surf spots in the world, and the site of the surfing competition in the 2024 Olympics. (But the swell was small that day, so we didn’t get to see any giant waves.) It was a great way to kick off our ten days on Tahiti!

It’s not often that you get to snorkel to a waterfall!

A couple days later, our Home Exchange hosts, Chloe and Thierry, invited us on a hike with them and three of their friends, to see a waterfall and hopefully some of the rare Tahiti Monarch (a.k.a. Tahiti Flycatcher), a seriously endangered bird that lives only on Tahiti. The valley where we hiked is off limits for most people, but Thierry literally co-wrote the book on the birds of French Polynesia, as well as the book on the fish of French Polynesia, the whales of French Polynesia, and the very first scuba diving guide to French Polynesia! So we got a pass for the hike, which ended at a really nice waterfall, where we found a juvenile Tahiti Petrel stranded on the ground. This seabird can’t launch from the ground, and this one was probably a new flyer who got confused in the canyon and ended up on the ground. He wasn’t injured, but was quite weak, so we wrapped him up in a big scarf and got him to the local bird rescue organization, where he was fed, rested, and released a few days later. By the way, we did see a few Tahiti Monarchs, of which there are only a hundred or so still alive, but they’re just little black birds, and don’t make a great picture.

He was tired and hungry, and no doubt wondering what he’d gotten himself into!

Chloe and Thierry invited us to their home for cocktails a few days later, and after driving up, and up, and up for what seemed like a half hour, we finally reached their incredibly cool hillside home that has an even better view of the reef, the ocean, and Mo’orea than their apartment that we stayed in. It was over drinks that evening that we learned about their long history in French Polynesia (about 40 years), and about Thierry’s books, and about the whales. Approximately 30 years ago, humpback whales started coming to the waters around Tahiti and Mo’orea in increasingly larger numbers each summer, to bear their calves in the warm, safe ocean there. Thierry was running dive charters then, and was possibly the first to start getting in the water with the whales. Now, whale watching and whale swimming (snorkels only – no scuba gear) brings thousands of people to Tahiti each year. Thierry and Chloe still go out three or four times a week during the peak part of the season (mid-September to mid-October), when an estimated 2,000 humpback whales show up! Chloe desribed being in the water with a giant whale’s eye just a few feet away, clearly curious, but gentle as can be, as “one of those things that changes you”. So guess who’s planning a return visit to Tahiti! (No, not this year, and 2024 is supposed to be “The Year We Stay Home”, so maybe 2025?)

Chloe and Thierry’s back deck, with Mo’orea off in the distance

Regular Readers will recall that we got to experience a little bit of the annual celebration called Heiva when we were on the tiny island of Maupiti – traditional dancing and percussion, feats of strength and skill, etc. We were fortunate to be on Tahiti when its Heiva began, and we were even more fortunate to score two tickets for opening night. What we should have learned from Maupiti’s opening night is that Polynesians love ceremony, and that involves a lot of talking. A. LOT. OF. TALKING. When we arrived at our seats for the opening night ceremonies, we wondered why so many seats were empty – it was a sold-out event. 90 minutes later, after all nine judges and 48 other luminaries (no kidding – I counted) had been introduced, and the appropriate ceremonies performed, the seats started to fill up. But not completely, because the first performance was a group of at least 50 men and women from one of the islands competing in Traditional Chanting – a form of singing that was at times melodious, at times cacophonous, mostly monotonous, and at all times unintelligble to us, since we don’t speak Tahitian. It also takes them at least five minutes to get ready for, and then explain each song, so it was kind of a long 30 minutes.

But finally, they made their exit, and it was time for … another group of at least 50 men and women from another of the islands performing the exact same songs in the same Traditional Chant competition. Oh boy. So much chanting.

Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on!

Eventually, though – two and a half hours after the 6:00 start of the Opening Ceremonies – we got what we came for – the dancing! Over 100 dancers, mostly young and tremendously fit, all in amazing traditional costumes, took the floor and put on a show. I’ve never seen hips and knees move like that! They did three numbers, each in different costumes, separated by performances by solo or very small group dances, so it never stopped (the Chanters could learn something from them), and it was all fantastic. Not only the dancing, but also the percussion group that provided the beat. At least 20 of them, all in their own amazing costumes, pounding out the beat on drums, hollowed-out logs, nose pipes (yep!), and other traditional instruments. We were not allowed to take pictures or video, but if you want to get an idea of what we saw, this is the official video of one number from one of the dance groups, that shows pretty much what we saw: click here.

We did three scuba dives while we were on Tahiti, and we snorkeled at one of the public beaches. The first dive featured giant coral cliffs and so many turtles you had to get out of their way, the second showed us yet another species of nudibranch new to us, and on the snorkel, we finally found a big, perfect, gorgeous cowrie shell that we’d been searching for the entire trip. (But there was a dude still living in it, so we let him go.)

At last, a big, perfect cowrie!

I’ve written about the pearls and the carvings in earlier posts, and while we picked up a few small items along the way, we saved all of our serious shopping for Tahiti, because we knew we could find a lot of everything there. And since it was our last stop, we wouldn’t be lugging stuff around from island to island. (Never has the word “luggage” been more appropriate, as our two wheel-less duffle bags were at the full allowed weight the entire trip, and we lugged them around at least once a week since mid-April.) We had decided to bring home just a few things for us – a few pearls, a few carvings, and a few sets of the very tropical bedding like we had on the beds in most of our stays. Because Heiva was in town, there were two extra marketplaces set up for people from many other islands to sell their crafts; carvings from the Marquesas, woven goods from the Astrals, pearls from lots of islands, shell jewelry from every island, etc., etc. So we spent a lot of time shopping, and talking to the people selling, because in many instances they were the people who had made the items. Wanna see what we got? Well, I’m gonna show you. Not everything, but the highlights:

A tiki necklace carved from bone, from the Marquesas, for me
Black pearl necklace of pearls we selected individually, for Fran
A very tattooed tiki from the Marquesas, for the house

At the beginning of this post, I said that I had been prepared to not like Tahiti, but as you can tell by now, I liked it quite a lot. We both did. And although it’s very different from every other island in many ways, the farther you get out of the city, the more it looks and feels like the other islands. The reef, lagoon, ocean, mountains, and valleys are as beautiful on Tahiti as any other island. The people are, for the most part, just as friendly as anywhere else. And when you need a dose of city life, or just need something that’s hard to get elsewhere, you can probably find it on Tahiti. So when you’re planning your trip to French Polynesia, don’t necessarily skip Tahiti – you just might like it!

Here’s a link to a whole bunch of pictures and videos we took on Tahiti: click here.

And that, Dear Reader, is the last of the posts about this grand adventure of ours. I hope you enjoyed them all! We’re now back home after 108 days and 23 different beds since we left April 1, and it’s feeling really nice to be home. We have a bit more travel planned for the second half of 2023, although nothing nearly so ambitious as what we just did – in fact, I won’t be surprised if we never take such a prolonged trip again. It was a lot. But we’re so glad we took this one, and so glad that you’ve followed along at home! Maruuru!

Flowers for Maddie

Fran and I are in the final few days of a trip of a lifetime – we spent two weeks in the Galapagos Islands, followed by nine weeks on eight islands in French Polynesia. The longer the trip has gone on, the more I find myself thinking of Maddie. If you don’t know, Maddie was my daughter, who died in 2017 at the tender age of 22. You can read about that here if you like. In that post, I wrote “One of these days, when the feelings aren’t so raw, I may write more about Maddie…”, and today, finally, is that day.

Read more: Flowers for Maddie

Why now? Because I think she would have absolutely loved French Polynesia, and the things we were able to do on this trip, and she would have been right there with us, in the thick of all of it, soaking it all up, and smiling that smile of hers that, although rare, was pretty damned special when you got to see it. She would have loved the people – their outward friendliness, the way they embrace their incredibly gorgeous surroundings, their uncomplicated approach to life.

This kind of scene would have melted her heart

She would have loved the adventure – in particular, I’m thinking of the most challenging “hike” we did up a very steep, sometimes scary peak on Maupiti. She would have bounded up those rocks as if gravity held no sway over her, and when she reached the top, she would have been dancing all over the highest rocks (very unlike her father!), trying to get the best views all around the island.

She would have been up there in no time, wondering why I was taking all day

We rode horses one day, and while I’ve never been particularly comfortable around them, she did “horse camp” at Flat Rock YMCA Camp two summers, and loved it. (There’s actually an endowment there in her name now, to help someone attend who might not otherwise be able to.) She’d have hopped on that horse and our guide might not have caught her!

Although she was absolutely not interested in jewelry other than the most simple kinds, I think she would have been fascinated by the pearls, because they are a product of nature. Yes, humans help the process along, but the end result – the part that can almost take your breath away when you see a perfect one – comes 100% from that oyster, doing its oyster thing.

Nature made that pearl! Nature!

She was a drummer, from fourth grade on, and I don’t think there was much that gave her more pleasure than putting on her headphones and sitting down at her electronic drum kit and playing. She never liked to play for others – it was a private joy of hers – but I think she would have absolutely dug the drumming here! We haven’t seen as much of it as we hoped, but in the last few weeks, now that it’s Heiva season (their annual festival, held on many of the islands), we’ve gotten some, and it’s captivating.

She was too shy to ask to sit in – but she could have held her own with these guys!

She would have been absolutely transfixed by the tattoos! She was a big fan of the tattoo – I think she had more than a dozen, and all but one of them were plain black ink, like all of the tattoos in Polynesia. In fact, I can’t hardly imagine that she would have come here without getting one – a big one! – in honor of the cultural and historical significance of tattoos among Polynesians – and because she would have thought that it was really fucking cool!

Maddie and this dude would have BONDED!

She would have loved the diving and snorkeling we’ve done here, seeing new and amazing fish literally every time we’re in the water. (Although I’m not sure how she would have reacted to the hundreds of sharks in the South Pass at Fakarava. Knowing her – scared at first, and then totally into the experience, once she realized they weren’t going to eat her.)

But what she would have loved the most – and those of you at Posh Petals reading this, I think you can appreciate this more than anyone – are the plants and the flowers. In the last few years of her way-too-short life, she discovered a love of plants and flowers. And man, are there some plants and flowers here!!! Wow, wow, wow and ohmygod! There are flowers here that defy description. There are flowers here that don’t even seem real. There are flowers here with colors that you can’t hardly imagine being used in a flower. There are plants here with giant leaves, and leaves that physically respond when you touch them, and plants that create vanilla! And the plants and flowers are such an important part of life here – they’re used to decorate everything, not only on special occasions, but ESPECIALLY on special occasions. People – women, men, kids – wear a flower tucked behind an ear, or stuck in the hair, for no reason at all. So in honor of Maddie, here are some of the most beautiful flowers we’ve seen on this trip, and at the end is a link to a Google Photos album of every cool plant and flower from this trip. Enjoy! I know she would have.

A petite orchid
Crazy hibiscus
These grow wild all over Nuku Hiva
Reminds me of an octopus!
Like fireworks!
Even a simple wildflower made her happy. These flowers would have thrilled her!

Here is the link to the photo album with all the cool flowers and plants we’ve seen on this trip: click here.


This is the seventh in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far, and the sixth was about Raiatea and Taha’a.)

Maupiti is the farthest west of all the inhabited islands of French Polynesia, although not by much. It sits just 35 miles west of its far more famous sister island, Bora Bora, and 195 miles WNW of the main island of Tahiti. (To put that into perspective, Nuku Hiva, the island we visited a few weeks ago, is 860 miles from Tahiti.)

Read more: Maupiti

Early in this trip, as we told people all the islands we’d be visiting, at least two of them told us Maupiti was their favorite, and it was because of the incredibly laid-back vibe of the place. In 2004, the local population of about 1,200 voted “No” to a hotel chain building a resort there, preferring to maintain the slow pace. There is only one pass from the ocean into the lagoon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most dangerous in all of French Polynesia, so not many sailboaters go there. None of the restaurants are open for dinner. So if you go, be prepared to slow down the pace of life while you’re there.

The only pass into the Maupiti lagoon – one of the most dangerous in French Polynesia

But we really liked it! Not enough to unseat Raiatea from the #1 spot on our list of islands in FP where we would choose to live for two years – but if we ever return to FP, you can bet we’ll spend a week on Maupiti.

We hiked to the top of the tallest peak, about 1,200 feet up. It was not only the most challenging hike we’ve done on this trip, but the most challenging we’ve ever done together, and for me, at least, probably the most challenging I’ve ever done. It took about an hour and 15 minutes to get to the top, and almost as long to get back down, because the last 1/3 of the trail involves actual climbing of rocks, with each step considered very carefully, and made only after both hands had found good purchase on a rock or tree or root. But the view from the top was worth it! On the day we did it, conditions were good enough that we could easily see Bora Bora 35 miles away, but we could also see Taha’a, and Raiatea, 60 miles away.

I’m not sure which was scarier – going up, or coming back down!
But the view from the top was worth it!

We happened to be there for the start of their annual festival, called Heiva (means “community gathering”), which runs for about four weeks. It includes traditional dancing, a volleyball tournament, a triathlon, a bicycle race, and of course, tautai puputi, tautai pito, tautai puito, hira’a tarao (vahine), patia fa (tane-vahine), and a lot of other things on the calendar, which is all in Tahitian, and which we missed because they all happened after we left. We think they do a lot of carrying of things in races: carrying big stones, carrying fruit, carrying wives (all true, by the way). We did get to witness the traditonal dancing on opening night, by two local groups (one group of kids and one of mostly middle-age women), and a few groups from some of the other islands. It wasn’t a competition, just an exhibition, and it was really fun to watch. The costumes alone would have made it worthwhile.

So fun! Watch one of the videos in the link at the end to hear the music.

We stayed in an airbnb owned and operated by “John” (Jean, really), who speaks very little English, to match our almost non-existent French, but we made it work. We had half of his house, totally separate and private, with a full kitchen, living room, nice big bathroom with plenty of hot water in the shower (much appreciated considering how much time we spent diving and snorkeling), and three beds to choose from. No A/C, but plenty of fans, and like all of the other islands we’ve visited here that have a mountain in the middle, that’s all you need, because after the sun goes down, the temperature drops into the comfortable sleeping range. His sister and dad also live in his side of the house, but neither of them speak any English, so our conversations with them were limited to a cheerful exchange of “Ia Orana!” whenever we’d see them.

Our view from the balcony at John’s airbnb

While all of the above made for a really good week, I have to say that the real highlight for us was MANTA RAYS!!!!! Prior to this trip, we had never been in the water – scuba diving nor snorkeling – with manta rays, and they had been in the top three on our wish list of critters to dive with. (The other two being whale sharks and any sort of whale.) We saw one, very briefly, on a snorkel in Galapagos, and another, very briefly, on a scuba dive on Rangiroa. But we didn’t get a real manta ray encounter until Maupiti.

We’ve waited a long time to see this!

The first was while scuba diving with Maupiti Diving, the only dive operator on the island. Teddy, the owner, speaks English more than good enough to take us diving. Another of the divers that day is French but lives in Spain, so we were able to communicate with her in Spanish fairly well. (Much, much better than we were able to communicate with anyone in French!) We were scheduled for two dives, but the aforementioned pass between the lagoon and the ocean was really rough, so we did only the lagoon dive. But that was OK with us, because the lagoon dive is really the manta ray dive. It starts on the mooring ball between the two manta “cleaning stations”, and you visit them both, hoping to catch one or more rays getting their daily cleaning.

Circling back to the cleaning station (the coral head)

In case you’re not familiar with a “cleaning station”, it’s a place in the ocean where one or more small fish live and offer “cleaning services” to bigger fish, turtles, sharks, etc. The big fish come and hang out, and open their mouths, and sit still, while the little fish swim inside their mouths and clean the big fish’s teeth, tongue, gills, gill plates, and any parts of their exterior that need cleaning. Of course, the little fish aren’t using brushes and soap – they’re actually eating tiny parasites and bits of algae. The first time I heard about this, I was sure I was having my leg pulled, but then I saw it, and have since seen it hundreds of times, and it’s really quite amazing.

Hovering over the cleaning station with gills wide open

There are multiple cleaning stations in the Maupiti lagoon that are frequented by manta rays, and we dove on two of them. And there was a manta ray on one of them! We dove to the bottom and laid on the sand, about 25 feet from the coral head where the cleaning takes place, and just watched it happen. The rays very, very slowly flap their wings and swim around in small, slow circles, so the cleaners can do their job. On this first dive, we saw one ray get cleaned for about 5 minutes before it swam off. But we were stoked! We finally got a real manta ray encounter!

The next day, we did the same thing, but were rewarded with a much longer encounter – at least 15 minutes with a ray on one cleaning station, which then swam to another one nearby, where we got to watch it for another five minutes. When it left, it swam right by Fran, who got a great video of it, which you can see by clicking here.

Fran and our first really close manta ray encounter (click above to see the video she took)

On our last day on Maupiti, we did an all-day excursion with John, which started with him finding a manta swimming leisurely along the sand in 10 feet of crystal clear water, so we snorkeled along above it for several minutes. Then I dove down to get a closer photo, which spooked it and off it went. But John found another one almost immediately, so we followed and filmed it for several more minutes. But then, John put us on the cleaning station he knows about, and there were two mantas getting their daily hygiene, and then there were three! The water wasn’t as clear in that spot, but we were in no more than 15 feet of water, and they were above the corals, so no more than about 8 feet deep, almost directly under us. We hung out there for at least 20 minutes, in awe of their grace in the water, and so very thankful to finally have this opportunity. We got back in the boat only after we started to get cold, with cameras full of photos and videos, which you can see in the link at the end of this post.

I think we can finally say we’ve seen manta rays!

The rest of John’s excursion included snorkeling in a gorgeous coral garden with gin-clear water and only about four feet deep at most. Tons of healthy coral, and that always means hundreds of beautiful tropical fish. John plucked a giant clam from the bottom and served it up raw with a little lime juice. Not a lot of flavor, and quite chewy, like conch if you’ve ever had that in the Bahamas. He took us to his “camp” – a big plot of land on one of the motus (small islands) that surround most of the main island. He harvests coconuts into copra there, and his dad grows vanilla there. He also makes “Tahitian beer” there: water, sugar, and bananas in a big plastic barrel for about a month, which ferments into an alcoholic beverage that I would describe as “unpretentious but robust, earthy, with a hint of banana, and enough alcohol to knock you on your ass if you drink very much of it.”

Moonshine, Maupiti style!

We ended that day at John’s sister’s plot of land on another motu. She had prepared an island feast for us – grilled fish, tuna sashimi, grilled lobster, and poisson cru au lait du coco, served with rice, boiled manioc (aka tapioca) root, the ubiquitous frites (french fries), and ripe red banana for dessert. We got a tour of her chicken coop, where she has about 300 hens for egg production, which she sells to the local grocery stores. And she taught us how to weave coconut palm fronds into serving trays. We’ve done a lot of excursions on this trip that follow a similar model – take people snorkeling, feed them some local food, show them some local craft-making, etc. – and this one with John was as good as any of them, anywhere. Maybe it’s because Fran and I were his only passengers, maybe it’s because he was so enthusiastic about everything he showed us, or maybe it’s because of the MANTA RAYS – I can’t say for sure. But if you ever go to Maupiti, you really should stay with John and do his excursion – it will be as authentic a glimpse of traditional French Polynesian life as you’re likely to get anywhere.

A feast on the beach!

We packed a lot into our six days on Maupiti. Click here to see all the pictures and videos!

Raiatea and Taha’a

This is the sixth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, the fourth was about Hiva Oa, and the fifth was about Nuku Hiva and also included a “status check” on the trip so far.)

We’re back in the Society Islands, the group of islands in French Polynesia that includes the two most famous ones, Tahiti and Bora Bora. (We actually spent the night last night on Bora Bora: it was our ferry stop between Raiatea and Maupiti, which is where we are now. We had an expensive dinner on the waterfront – we were so close to the water I thought our waiter might fall into the lagoon – but that’s all the time we’re spending on Bora Bora. Too touristy and too expensive!) Raiatea and Taha’a are interesting because they share a large lagoon (defined by a fringe reef). In the photo below, the turquoise “border” is the fringe reef, and the dark blue between the green and the turquoise is the deep water in the lagoon. At one point on our boat tour around Taha’a, we went from 18 feet deep to 180 feet deep in about 3 seconds, as we left the turquoise and passed into the dark blue.

Raiatea (bottom) and Taha’a (top)
Read more: Raiatea and Taha’a

As I discovered and revealed in my last post about Nuku Hiva, my general happiness on a trip like this is heavily dependent on how much I like (or dislike) our accommodations. Let me say right up front, I loved where we stayed on Raiatea! It’s called Fare Oviri Lodge, and it has recently changed hands, after first opening about 11 years ago. The new owners have lived on Mo’orea for some time, and are now bringing this place up to snuff. It has three bungalow buildings – one is a really, nice, big one for a couple (it has a Jacuzzi), one is for a family with up to five kids, and one is split into two singles, each perfect for a couple. We were in one of those. Queen bed with plenty of space around it, room to unpack, a nice bathroom with walk-in shower and lots of hot water (very nice since we went scuba diving three of our days), and a very effective ceiling fan. (No A/C, so a good ceiling fan is essential.) The main lodge building is a big kitchen and dining room. If you want them to make breakfast for you, they will, and it’s excellent – or you can make your own. They don’t offer any other meals, but that was never a problem since we had a rental car and were in town every day for one reason or another, so we ate at a restaurant most nights, but used the kitchen to make dinner a couple nights.

Fantastic breakfast at Fare Oviri Lodge

Speaking of eating at restaurants, we got to spend time with our friends Max and Whitey again! Totally coincidentally, they had their boat on Raiatea for four of the same days we were there, and we had dinner with them twice. Didn’t get to dive with them – they had boat things to do – but it was fantastic hanging out with them – again – in French Polynesia!

One of the many great things about having dinner with them is that they speak English! Really well! (Although Whitey, being from Australia, gets a big kick out of asking the locals “Parlez-vous Australian?”) And since Fran is such a social critter (me, too, if the timing is right), we usually have a great time on trips having conversations with people we meet. But there are very few native English speakers visiting here, and most of the people who speak English as a second (or third) language aren’t conversational in it, so we’ve been Jonesin’ for some conversation. Max and Whitey helped fill that gap big time! And we might actually get to see them AGAIN, when we’re on Tahiti, which would be pretty incredible, and wonderful.

Raiatea is home to the second largest town in all of French Polynesia – Uturoa (population: about 3,700 in 2011) – which means it has pretty much everything you need, right there, in a store, on a shelf! This is most definitely NOT the case on any other island we’ve visited on this trip, so it was a bit of a luxury. Not that we need a lot of stuff, but we did need some little dessicate packets that keep our cameras dry in their underwater housings, and we walked into Gauguin Photo and they had them! We needed some beer that wasn’t Hinano, and we walked into The Bottle Shop and bought some Guiness Draft (the 16 oz. cans), some Duvel Belgian Strong, and a couple of craft beers made on Tahiti that weren’t half bad. So, you know… we were pretty happy to be in the big city of Uturoa for a bit!

We were on Raiatea and Taha’a for only five full days, and we did two dives on three of the days, which kept us pretty busy. Four of the dives were essentially the same – go outside the pass, hang a right until you come to the mooring balls, tie up, and dive the reef slope. (They call it the Miri Miri Dropoff.) It wasn’t spectacular, like some of our dives on Rangiroa and Fakarava, but the whole slope is covered in hard corals that are quite healthy, and there are tons of fish everywhere. With excellent visibility and virtually no current, we completely enjoyed all four of these “repeat” dives.

One of the fancier fish we’ve met here – a Flame Dart Fish, about 2″ long

Another dive was actually inside the lagoon, and right in front of the ruins of the very first resort to feature “over the water” bungalows. The resort opened in 1967 and they built three bungalows on the water, right at the edge of the shallow reef, before it drops off steeply. The resort has been abandoned for years, but one of the docks is still there, and we were quite suprised when the dive master said “when you get in the water, stay on the surface and swim to that dock – we’ll descend from there.” We weren’t 10 feet from the dock when he gave the “dive” signal, and down we went – almost straight down a wall, until we could see the wreck of the Nordby looming up from the bottom. It’s sitting mostly on its side, exactly where it sank in August 1900. We reached the deck at about 65 feet, and swam through the deck (all the wood rotted away long ago) and into the hull. The anchor is still there, right where it was stowed when the ship went down. Legend has it that the ship was scuttled on purpose so the owners could get the insurance money. It sat in place, slowly sinking, while they offloaded everything of value, and when it finally sank, they called Jake from State Farm with the bad news. The coolest thing for us about diving this wreck is that there are several species of nudibranch that live on it, and we found three of them, including one of the biggest, and most beautiful, of the hundreds that we’ve photographed before.

Three inches of gorgeous (at about 75 feet deep on the Nordby wreck)

One of our days was spent on an excursion to Taha’a. On a fast boat, it’s a quick trip to Taha’a, and we had a busy day: visit Pari Pari Rum Distillery at 9:00 a.m. (breakfast of champions!), snorkel the Coral Gardens, visit a pearl farm, have special Father’s Day lunch prepared in a “Tahitian oven” (dig a big hole in the ground, build a fire in it, put a bunch of food on the coals, cover and let sit overnight), and snorkel with a LOT of black tip reef sharks. I don’t have space to detail everything we did, but it was a fun day, and the weather was perfect to be on and in the water.

Sorting pearls at the pearl farm – we really wanted just five minutes with this pile!

Raiatea, like all the other islands we’ve visited that have a mountain (or mountains), is strikingly beautiful to drive around and to view from the sea. Our two 55 minute drives each day (to town, and back to our bungalow) gave us ample opportunity to see it in all lighting conditions, and there are multiple views on this island that will take your breath away. Views looking up at the sheer peaks, and looking out at the lagoon and surrounding reef – you want to have your camera ready on Raiatea!

The view on our daily commute to town

Each time we leave an island on this trip, we ask each other “If you had to choose one of the islands we’ve visited to live on for two years, which one would it be?” This morning, as we were traveling to Maupiti on the ferry, I think I presented a pretty good case to Fran for it to be Raiatea! (Not that we’re going to actually do that – nope, I really don’t want to have to learn French, and that would be a must for such an adventure.)

Here’s a link to all the best photos and videos from Raiatea and Taha’a: click here.

French Polynesia Status Check (and Nuku Hiva)

This is the fifth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, the third was about Fakarava, and the fourth was about Hiva Oa.)

We’re on Nuku Hiva, in the very middle of our nine weeks here in French Polynesia, which seems like a good time to take stock of the trip so far. I have to admit I have mixed feelings about French Polynesia. I’m writing this post at 7:40 p.m. while sitting on the bed in our room in Loic* and Chantal’s* house. I’m sitting on the bed because there is nowhere else to sit in the room, or for that matter, in the part of the house that we’re staying in, and I’m doing it at 7:40 p.m. because there is nothing else to do, and nowhere else to go. Even if there were something to do in the village of Taiohae, it would be a 30 minute walk down a pitch-black road to get there.

Read more: French Polynesia Status Check (and Nuku Hiva)

But there isn’t anything to do in the village, because everything closes before the sun goes down. On the plus side, we just had a nice dinner of fresh-caught tuna (some sashimi, some grilled) with rice, and local watermelon for dessert. Dinner conversation with Loic and Chantal was fun, the highlight being when Loic tried a little of our soy / wasabi mix with his sashimi, and had to refill the pitcher of water to regain normal feeling in his mouth and sinuses (accompanied by much laughter from Chantal, so it was OK). Dinner began as the sun set behind the mountain ridge that is scarcely a half-mile up the hillside from their house, giving us another visual reminder of how beautiful this island is.

(*Not their real names.)

Our breakfast and dinner view

Thus begins my attempt at explaining how I feel about French Polynesia, now that we’re halfway through the trip. There are parts that I love, and parts that I really dislike, and strangely, some parts that I both love and dislike. But before I do that, I have to share with you something I have just this very minute realized, while trying to compose this sentence – or perhaps just admitted – about myself: I’m either a snob, or a spoiled brat, or a bit of (maybe a lot of) both. And, since I’m baring my soul, a bit of a hypocrite. Because every single thing I can think of that I have not liked about French Polynesia has to do with my own comfort, or my own biases, or my own opinions about how people should think and behave. Ugh… that hurts, but I can’t deny it.

We’re staying with Loic and Chantal because they operate a pension (pen-see-OWN), which means they rent out part of their house to tourists. Because we made all of our travel arrangements very last-minute, and because the only actual hotel on the island is about $400 per night, this is where we ended up. I applaud them for having the initiative to run a pension, because it usually means that your guests will not only be sleeping in your house, they’ll be eating with you, too – so you HAVE to have some breakfast ready every morning, and you HAVE to make dinner every night. (In addition to making dinner for yourself and your children – they have a 10 year old girl at home.) But to be honest, they haven’t exactly gone out of their way to spruce the place up for paying customers, and breakfast is the exact same three items each morning, and dinner is pretty monotonous as well, and not at all nicely presented. Chantal works full-time so she’s rarely here, and Loic speaks very little English, making any kind of conversation challenging at best. So I have this little dark cloud over my head, because the accommodations aren’t wonderful.

The pool at Villa Enata (where we were last week)

And it’s because the spoiled brat in me can’t help but compare this week’s stay with last week’s, when we stayed with Mimi# and Pierric# at their fabulous home on Hiva Oa, and enjoyed wonderful breakfast every morning, and interesting, delicious, and beautifully presented dinner every night, followed by lively conversation, and we slept in a perfect little bungalow beside their house, with the most incredible views all around. But the village of Atuona also rolled up the sidewalks before sundown, and we also were a long walk up an unlit road, so we also spent every evening in our room, without much to do except read or write.

(#These ARE their real names! And their place is called Villa Enata, on Hiva Oa, and you should stay there sometime!)

Similarly, I also didn’t love our first week on Rangiroa because of where we were staying, but my mood improved immensely when we relocated to a wonderful little bungalow with a much better location. Same atoll, same village, same amazing scuba diving, and we even got to spend time with good friends who also happened to be there the first week we were – and yet, I was unquestionably happier the four days we stayed at Rangiroa Cottage than I was the previous week.

Here’s another thing – Loic, our current host, was born and raised here on Nuku Hiva. His native language is Marquesan – he didn’t even start to learn French until he started school, and he has taught himself all the English he knows by watching YouTube, and by trying as hard as he can to communicate with his English speaking guests who haven’t bothered to learn more than about four words of Marquesan or French. So how in the hell am I the one who’s unhappy about the lack of communication happening between us? He’s trying – HARD – to communicate. And I’m not. And yet I’m the one who’s always complaining that Americans don’t value other cultures, other languages. Hypocrite much, Mr. Smith?

Our hosts and their family celebrating their culture

Alright, enough of the self flagellation. I now realize that if I tried to explain the things that I’ve not liked about French Polynesia, they would sound like the whinings of a spoiled brat, and should fall on deaf ears. Instead, let me dive into the things that I love about Nuku Hiva and French Polynesia, as there are many!

Typical of the views all around Nuku Hiva

Like Hiva Oa, the landscape here is stunningly beautiful. Tall (over 3,000 feet) peaks jutting up from the sea, with sharp ridges and dramatic cliffs. Covered in green, which when you walk through it, is revealed to be a fascinating melange of flora. In our hikes the past two days, we have walked past coconut, breadfruit, starfruit, grapefruit, passionfruit, guava, banana, mango, almond, and papaya, all within picking distance. We have seen rosewood, bamboo, teak, wild hibiscus (a tree, not a bush), and manioc (better known to us as tapioca). Multiple colors and styles of hibiscus, bougainvillea, wild orchids, and a little purple flower you can eat, and it tastes like mushrooms!

Guava fresh from the tree (This one’s for you, Beth!)

Our hike yesterday began with a 30 minute boat ride to another bay and beach, and on that ride we stopped for five minutes to watch eight or ten manta rays swimming all around the boat. (Oh, how we wanted to jump in with them!) The view of the cliffs and the peaks from the sea is spectacular, with the big swell crashing into the jagged rocks and sending water and spray 30 feet into the air. The views from the anchorages, where the sailboaters spend their time, are almost good enough to make me consider getting on a sailboat here for a tour of the islands. (Almost.) While we were hiking, the owner of the excursion boat and a couple of guests caught at least 20 fish of at least five different types, all of which would be frozen and sold in Tahiti for spending money. (Whatever they didn’t keep to eat, of course.)

Waterfall hike lunch: Our guide Maria (left), then the fishermen

On our hike, which happened to be to a 1,000 foot tall waterfall, we met two different men coming the opposite direction. The first was easily in his sixties (probably seventies), and he was returning from a night hunting wild pigs with his dogs. His weapon? A big knife affixed to the end of an eight foot long wooden pole. The other gentleman was younger – maybe 30 – and he was wearing a necklace of wild pig tusks and bone that had come from animals he had personally hunted – probably with a weapon similar to the first gentleman’s. How much closer to the land can you live than that? How much more can you know about your source of protein than that?

This dude could be in GQ, sporting his hog tusk necklace

Everywhere you look you see evidence of the culture of these islands – stone tikis, carved poles supporting every roof and awning, tattoos that are almost exclusively of the old designs, designs so old that no one is even 100% sure what they mean (although there is general agreement on that). Boats bringing their fish and crustaceans to the public pier every morning after a night of fishing – with rod and reel, deep-drop rigs, handlines, and by freediving for the lobsters and crabs. You want fresh seafood? It’s at the pier, but not in the grocery store. Fresh produce? At the outdoor market next to the pier, not the grocery store. Drive anywhere and you’ll see the low covered platforms where the coconut is getting ready to be bagged and shipped to Tahiti: copra, the last step before the production of coconut oil.

One thing that I love, but am also a little disappointed in, involves all of the pre-European community sites. I love that evidence of the ancient history of the island is everywhere (you see houses built on top of the stone platforms – called pae pae – that were built hundreds of years ago), and I’m sad that it’s not being preserved, nor even very well researched (you see houses build on top of ancient stone platforms!). A busload of tourists can traipse all over a magnificant site like Tohua Koueva, and if they happen to dislodge a stone with their Birkenstock, that was placed there a thousand years ago, oh well! Some of these sites, with the clear evidence everywhere of them moving giant stones all over the place, are a bit mind-boggling, and it’s a shame they’re not valued more than they are.

A small fraction of the Tohua Koueva site – so impressive!

On five islands so far, we have not seen a single bar – a place where alcohol is the main attraction. Some restaurants sell beer, but most don’t. Some grocery stores sell alcohol, some don’t. Most don’t sell cold beer. Most of the people we’ve spent time with here don’t drink, or if they do, they drink only a little, or only occasionally. Everyone knows I love a good bar and a regular drink, but I can also appreciate a culture in which those things are not important.

I don’t have detailed knowledge of the education system here, but I do know that most kids who live on any island other than Tahiti go to Tahiti for high school. From about age 16, kids leave their homes and their families and travel long distances (particularly for Marquesan kids) to live for three or four years in a very unfamiliar place, simply for the sake of education. Even earlier than that, some kids go to “college” – a form of boarding school for kids in what we would call middle school or junior high school. Many young people, after high school, go to university in Tahiti or France. (It’s paid for by the government – what a concept!) Education is clearly important here!

Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, was here on Nuku Hiva for three or four weeks, when he and another guy deserted a whaling ship that had stopped here. He wrote his first novel about it – Typee. We have now visited the Taipivai valley each of the last three days, and it’s obvious why he chose to write a novel about this gorgeous place and its wonderful people. (By the way, at least 8,000 people are estimated to have lived in this valley before the decimation caused by visiting Europeans.)

Looking across the Taipivai Valley, home of Melville’s novel “Typee”

This is a place where the views are spectacular and the people are as real as people can be. No pretense, and tons of pride in their culture, which is rich and fascinating. You know, I think I like French Polynesia a lot! I’m just going to have to put a sock in it the next time I start to utter a complaint about where we’re sleeping that night.

P.S. – I originally wrote this two night ago. I’m pleased to report that, since my little epiphany spawned by that writing, I have had a wonderful time, all the time! Breakfast, dinner, and the funky smell in our bathroom have not improved, but my perspective has, and it’s made all the difference in the world!

Hiva Oa

This is the fourth in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa, and the third was about Fakarava.)

Read more: Hiva Oa

For this post, we had to put some miles between us and Tahiti. Back to class for a minute – Hiva Oa is one of six inhabited islands in the Marquesas Archipelago, which is in the northeast corner of French Polynesia. If we had continued on our sailing adventure to FP, this is where we would have made landfall, as it’s the closest island to the Galapagos where you can check in. (Coincidentally, the day after we arrived here, Oneiro did, too. They were about 22 days getting here from Galapagos, and from all accounts, they had a wonderful time making their dream trip. In that same amount of time, through the miracle of flight, we have already had a fantastic time exploring three other islands. Different strokes for different folks.) Hiva Oa is 870 miles from Tahiti – that’s about the distance from Indianapolis, Indiana to Satellite Beach, Florida (the two places I’ve lived the most in my life). The little island right next to Hiva Oa (Tahuata) is where the first Europeans (the Spanish) “discovered” the Polynesian islands, in 1595. Of course, they didn’t discover it – there had been people living here for centuries. They just came across it while looking for the Solomon Islands. Came ashore, and while here, did a Catholic Mass, erected some crosses, and “through a misunderstanding, massacred about 200 of the natives”. (Yep – not making that up. Sigh…)

Copy of a Gauguin hanging in our guest house

We had only four full days on Hiva Oa, so we tried to make the most of them. The day we arrived (Day Zero), we walked around the main village of Atuona, which is where the French painter Paul Gauguin spent the last year or so of his life. He died and is buried here – we visited the museum the day we arrived, and later visited his grave in the local cemetery. In 2015, a Gauguin painting sold for about $300 million, so it’s no surprise that the museum here doesn’t have any originals. (You could buy most of the homes on the whole island for that, I’m guessing.) But they have some nice copies of many of his works, especially the works from his time in French Polynesia, which included a stretch in Tahiti before Hiva Oa.

Typical Marquesan tiki: big eyes and mouth, no neck, hands on belly

We also visited the local artist’s co-op, and the community’s outdoor gathering and performance venue, which is decorated with large stone tikis that have been given as gifts to the island from surrounding islands on various special occasions. But we were just priming the pump for the next two days, when we would get to experience some real local culture.

Fran clipping her toenails on the deck of our bungalow
Fran’s view from the deck of our bungalow, while clipping her toenails

Day One began with by far the best breakfast so far on this trip. We’re staying at a guest house called Villa Enata (“enata” is the word Marquesans use to refer to themselves), which includes breakfast and dinner. Breakfast every day: baguettes, fresh baked multi-grain bread, real butter, soft cheese, some kind of deli meat to eat with the cheese and bread, and fresh grapefruit, papaya, mango, star fruit, and banana, all of which comes from trees in their yard! Two or three kinds of homemade jam, local honey, and coffee. Finally – real, good, strong, flavorful, brewed, black coffee, in a pot that you can pour into your own cup and luxuriate in, as much as you want! (We have not encountered this on the entire trip, since leaving home March 31 – could you tell?) Dinner has been excellent as well, most nights featuring fresh-caught tuna, which is very common everywhere we’ve been in FP. Sashimi, tartare, carpaccio, and two other raw preparations that are to die for: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk) and poisson cru de chinoise (raw fish Chinese style). We’ll be making some of this stuff back at Southermost Smartini, you can bet!

Tuna carpaccio – one of many ways to enjoy fresh tuna in French Polynesia!

But I digress. I was going to tell you about Day One. After breakfast, we were picked up by a local gentleman who was introduced to us a “Bly”. He spoke excellent English, and we hopped in the back of his truck, then picked up another couple, and headed for the dock, where a third couple joined us. We all boarded a boat (mainly used for fishing, but today for carrying passengers) and headed for Tahuata (see above). Just like the first Spaniards, then the first French almost 200 years later, we made landfall at the small village of Hapatoni. As we walked along the beach in the village, Bly stopped about a half dozen times and told us how to use the fruit or nut or leaf or root of the tree or bush we were walking by, to cure insomnia, a stuffy head, ciguatera, and all manner of other maladies, as taught to him by his grandmother. He explained everything in a perfect mix of French (the other two couples were French) and English, with plenty of Marquesan thrown in for local flavor.

Translation: “Arts and Crafts”, maybe?

Our first stop was Fae Apuu Taiuoho, which you probably know means “arts and crafts”. (No, I don’t know what it really means, but it was on the sign of the place where we stopped, and inside were the amazing works of the local artists. See the picture.) The people on Tahuata live mostly off the land and sea, catching fish and raising goats, cattle, pigs and chickens, and lots of fruits and vegetables. But to buy things they can’t get locally (flour, sugar, Milky Way bars, etc.), they historically would process coconuts into something called copra and sell it in Tahiti. (Copra is the intermediate step between coconuts on the tree and coconut oil.) But several decades ago, they began to expand the practice of carving on the island, and now their “cash crop” is no longer copra, but carvings. And they are amazing. We bought some smaller ones to bring home, and wished that we could have bought some of the bigger ones, but getting them home would have been a problem. There were a few swords / spears (not really sure what to call them) made from bone and wood and the bill of a marlin, with a wrapping of twine made from coconut husk (all in the same piece) that were absolutely spectacular. Out of respect (or just stupidity), we didn’t take pictures of things – probably should have, huh? Below is a photo I found online of one of them.

I should have bought this…

(While looking up information about Tahuata, I found a really well-written blog post of a sailing couple, about their visit to Tahuata in 2015. Click here to read it if you’re interested.)

One of the gentlemen who did the carvings was a living exhibit of another art form that is attributed to the people of the Marquesas: tattoos! The word comes from the Marquesan word “tatao”, and is on exhibit everywhere in French Polynesia. A large percentage of the locals have one or more tattoos, and many of them are quite large, often covering an entire arm, or leg, or part of their torso, or, as our artist friend demonstrated, all of that and more! In case you’re wondering, I did buy something from him, because after I foolishly took his picture without asking, he threatened to disembowel me and serve me to his family if I didn’t. Best 472,000 French Polynesian Francs I ever spent!

The Illustrated Man

No, seriously, he was very nice, spoke way better English than I speak French or Marquesan, and had some incredible carvings. I did buy one from him, an exceptional tiki necklace, the smaller one in the picture below.

Part of our loot from Tahuata

After Hapatoni, we visited the village of Vaitahu, where we had a fabulous lunch at Chez Jimmy, and got a good look at the beautiful Catholic church, made from all local stone and wood. We’ve seen larger, more impressive churches in Europe, but never one more perfectly suited to its environment. The story goes that the local people had only a small church, so they wrote the Vatican asking for money to build a nicer one: the money came, and this is what they built!

Catholic church at Vaitahu on the island of Tahuata

The last stop of the day was a secluded white sand beach with hundreds of coconut palms starting at the beach. We snorkeled a bit, and then Bly taught us how to cut a stout stick into a coconut husking tool, then husk the coconut, then crack it open, then remove the juicy white meat for snacking, then shred the husk so that he could, literally, rub one stick of wild hibiscus tree against another larger one, to start a fire in it. Finally, he taught us all how to weave the fronds of the coconut palm into wreaths to wear on our tourist heads, and little palm frond fish. By this time, Bly had earned a place on our All-Time Top Three Tour Guides Anywhere… and we couldn’t think of any two others who really deserved to be on the podium with him!

Our guide Bly (on the right) and his cousin Harry, playing ukulele for us at lunch

Fortunately for us, Day Two was also with Bly, this time on his home island of Hiva Oa. There was a lot of driving, because the main objective of the day was to see the most famous of the tikis on the island, and they are scattered far and wide. The road was surprisingly good 99% of the time, which is a good thing, because much of it ran right next to cliffs that, if we went over them, would turn our truck into a fiery ball of screaming, flaming tourists tumbling down to the sea. And while the road is as smooth as you could ask for, I could have asked for a lot more guardrails! But the tikis smiled on us (and Bly is an excellent driver), so we didn’t die.

Speaking of smiling tikis, there is a famous one on Hiva Oa, and it was our first stop. The vast majority of tikis seem to have no facial expression, other than “stern”, but this one is unquestionably grinning. No one knows why he’s grinning (I think it’s because he just got his new glasses and he can finally see!), but he’s the only one they know of who is.

The only two known smiling tikis in all the Marquesas

Our second stop was the village of Hanaiapa on the north side of the island, where we sat at the beach and learned about life in the Marquesas, from someone who has lived it, and continues to live it – the amazing Bly. As you might have guessed, Bly is short for Captain Bly, which is what he’s been called since he was a baby. When he was young, he literally thought his first name was Captain! But it’s not – it’s Bryan, and his last name is O’Connor! His great grandfather came from Ireland to French Polynesia and married a Polynesian woman. They had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son who married a Polynesian woman, and then they had a son and named him Bryan. How fun is that!

Wall art in the pretty Hiva Oa village of Hanaiapa

Bly (that’s what everyone still calls him) went to university in Hawaii and was there for three or four years, where he learned to speak excellent English. But he came back to Hiva Oa and, like all of his recent paternal ancestors, married a Polynesian woman (she’s from Nuku Hiva, about 100 miles away). They have six children, including a 1 1/2 month old boy named – you guessed it – Bryan O’Connor. 🙂 But the full names of all of his children are amazing Marquesan names, so be sure to play the video link below. Now he’s a local tour guide who carries on the Marquesan traditions with his family, and shares them with lucky visitors. If you ever happen to be on Hiva Oa, you Oa it to yourself to spend a day or two with him!

Click here to see Bly recite his children’s amazing names.

After learning about the family history of the Marquesan O’Connors, we drove from Hanaiapa for 45 minutes or so to Puama’a, the site of several tikis, including the largest one in all of French Polynesia*, and the only known tiki to be oriented horizontally (like a turtle). The tikis are scattered around a site that includes a lot of stone walls and platforms, which were common in Polynesian, and especially Marquesan, culture. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the tikis or the platforms or the culture in general because white men from Europe pretty much obliterated the people and their culture. An estimated population of 80,000 native people in what is now called French Polynesia shrank to about 2,000 by 1925, due to diseases introduced by Europeans and weapons wielded by Europeans. Because Polynesians had no written language, this decimation of the population also resulted in the loss of the vast majority of their stories – their history. And of course the Christian missionaries did all they could to stop the practice of so many of their traditions – carving tikis (“false idols”), tattooing themselves, building stone structures that weren’t Christian churches, etc. Way to go, white folks!

(* Largest of all the ancient tikis – of course there are larger ones created in modern times.)

One of the large stone foundations that they built buildings on – see Fran in the corner for scale

At some point during the day we stopped for lunch at Cafe Marie Antoinette, where we were treated to several local favorites: poisson cru au lait de coco (raw fish with coconut milk, which had already become a favorite of ours by that time in this trip), goat in coconut milk (it was cooked), wild boar (also cooked), fried tapioca root (a.k.a. cassava), and a couple of very sweet, very delicious desserts made with bananas, tapioca, and coconut. While enjoying lunch, Bly and his cousin Harry (we never got Harry’s story, sadly) serenaded us with ukelele and song, and then had us all do a sing-along that you can experience on one of the videos in the Google Photos library linked at the end of this post.

The only known horizontally oriented tiki

At another stop along the way – your typical roadside “scenic viewpoint” – Fran spotted something in the water about 500 feet below us (not joking), which turned out to be eight manta rays cruising around the bay. That brings to ten the number of manta rays we’ve seen on this trip, none of them very satisfactory. I mean, it’s cool to see them, even from 500 feet up, or cruising past or under you in a dive – but we want to experience them! That’s still possible: there’s a place called Maupiti…

How’s that for a view?

Wow, what a couple of days! But before I forget, I need to try to convey how incredibly beautiful the island of Hiva Oa is. You can get a small taste of it in the pictures in this post and in the photo library at the end, but as with virtually all majestic views, the pictures don’t do it justice. The peaks are so big and spiky and dramatic, often covered in clouds, or backlit by the rising or setting sun. The ocean crashes right into the feet of the mountains in so many places, which may explain why the ocean seems so big here! (I know – the ocean is big everywhere – but it seems bigger here.) The valleys are so green, the villages so colorful, the trees and flowers so gorgeous. It’s no wonder Gauguin fell in love with the place. So, too, did a very famous Belgian singer / songwriter / actor, Jacques Brel. He and his wife spent a good deal of time here during the final years of his life, and he’s buried here, not far from Gauguin’s grave. If you ever plan a trip to French Polynesia, you need to include Hiva Oa!

The lone tiki at Taaoa – possibly unfinished?

Days Three and Four were spent leisurely driving around the island in our trusty rented Suzuki Jimmy 4×4. It’s like a miniature version of the original Ford Bronco. We needed it to get up the hill to our bungalow, though! (There’s a video of that, too.) We visited another ancient village with stone structures scattered over an area of a couple of acres, with just one remaining tiki. We drove to the beach to watch the locals enjoying their Sunday. (They play a game here called petanque that is, as far as I can tell, just like bocce, and they play seriously!) And we soaked up the wonderful vibe of the island, and of our very special home away from home there, Villa Enata. I can’t imagine returning to Hiva Oa and not staying with Mimi and Pierric again!

One last look at our fabulous bungalow

Fun Fact: the time zone of the Marquesas is 30 minutes ahead of the time zone of Tahiti! Not sure why – time here doesn’t seem all that important, so it seems it would have been simpler to stay on Tahiti time. But they didn’t, and maybe that says something about how Marquesans feel about being Marquesans. I love it!

Click here to view our Google Photos library from Hiva Oa.


This is the third in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea, the second was about Rangiroa.)

Read more: Fakarava

Our first island, Mo’orea, is in the Society Islands. The second, Rangiroa, is in the Tuamotu Archipelago, as is our third, Fakarava. I really think I can make this post short, because there are truly only three things to do there: dive, visit the pearl farm, and relax. I’ve already written about diving and pearls (in the Rangiroa post), and I’m not going to write about relaxing, as fascinating as that sentence could be.

Two of our three lottery pearls

There was a fun twist to the pearl farm on Fakarava – three days a week, they hold a pearl lottery! You get to see the whole demonstration of how they cultivate pearls, like we saw on Rangiroa, but at the end, you can buy an oyster, and you get to keep whatever pearl it has produced! The oysters they put in the lottery have already produced one pearl, and from that they have a pretty good idea that the next pearl will not be especially large, or perfectly round, and probably won’t have spectacular color, but for about $33, you still get a nice pearl, which they put onto a simple black cord to make a bracelet or necklace, and every one comes with a story, and pictures! We bought three, and ended up with the necklace pictured below.

Our pearl lottery necklace

The diving is similar to Rangiroa, in that you dive in, or just outside of, a pass through which the tide rushes four times every 24 hours. Similar, too, in that some large creatures frequent the pass, most notably sharks. But the number and concentration of sharks is… well, let me put it this way. If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know before you get there that it’s going to be a big hole in the ground, right? But until you’re standing on the rim looking down into it, you simply can’t appreciate what people have told you about it. Same thing for the sharks of the South Pass (a.k.a Tetamanu Pass, a.k.a Passe Tumakohua) – you can hear about it, read about it, see the photos and videos from it, but until you’re in the middle of it, with what seems to be hundreds of grey reef sharks cruising around you – ALL around you – it just doesn’t sink in. There are some pretty good videos in the Google Photos album that’s linked at the end of this post, but if you want to see even more sharks than we saw, watch the documentary 700 Sharks. It’s about the sharks of Fakarava, during a time that the pass is practically overrun with groupers, because they gather there to spawn once a year, and sharks apparently like grouper tacos as much as we do! (While we were there, the groupers were gathering, but the actual spawning, which I think is what makes the sharks go crazy, won’t happen until the next full moon, two or three weeks after our dive there. Actually, tonight or tomorrow night, as I’m now typing this on Hiva Oa, our next island after Fakarava.) This video is from early in our dive, when just one shark seemed worthy of filming – and then it turned into a LOT of sharks!

Because black and white just looks scarier, don’t you think?

I’ve written a bit about some of our lodging on the various islands, and our lodging on Fakarava is worth mentioning. It’s called Ralais Marama, and is a collection of 10 bungalows, a small comfortable seating area at the main office, and a breakfast area – two tables, set up each morning with basic breakfast items. Baguettes (always baguettes in French Polynesia!), some other bread item (homemade donuts one morning, for example), fruit juice, coffee, tea, butter, jam, Nutella, cheese, and eggs if you want to cook your own. It was very nice to have, and was included. The bungalows were extremely basic – essentially tents, but made of 2×4’s and plywood, with large “windows” that opened on all sides. (Not actually windows, as there is no glass in them – just big holes cut in the walls that have plywood covers that you an tip out, or pul in to close.) Two twin beds pushed together in the middle of the room and covered with a mosquito net. No ceiling fan, but fortunately, the breeze usually cooled things down nicely by bedtime. Bathrooms were shared – four shower / sink / toilet stalls, only one of which had hot water. Bikes (mostly pretty janky, but the road is good and not too long) are provided. We met two young couples who were staying there while we were, and they were sleeping in actual tents in the small camping area at the back of the property, so – especially when it rained – we felt fortunate to be in our bungalow. It’s all about perspective sometimes.

So much nicer than a tent!

As simple as life is on Fakarava, it’s been our favorite one so far. Maybe because the diving was so good, maybe because the local people were so nice, maybe because the village is laid out so you can get to everything easily by biking – I’m not sure. But we really loved it!

Here are some of our better photos, followed by the link to the Google Photos album for Fakarava:

Two beautiful, but different, butterfly fish
Saddled Butterfly Fish
Giant Clam Close-up
Phyllidia madangensis nudibranch – I think! About 3/4″ long.
Two groupers and an octopus – look very closely!

Click here to see a great video Fran took, starting with a totally white trumpetfish (which we have never seen before – and we’ve seen hundreds of trumpetfish) cruising with a young female Napolean Wrasse. But at about 6 seconds in, in the lower left corner, a dark shape comes in – an octopus! The rest of the video focuses on it, although “Thelma and Louise” hung around the whole time, occasionally coming into the fram.

Here’s the link to all of the pictures and videos from Fakarava:


This is the second in a series of posts, each one about an island we’re visiting while on our grand tour of French Polynesia. (The first post was about Mo’orea.)

Rangiroa is an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, which is the middle, and largest, group of islands in French Polynesia. In the map below, it’s to the right of the “S” in “SOCIETY” and a little to the left of, and below, the “T” in “TUAMOTU”. While Mo’orea doesn’t have a whole lot of options for things to do, I think it’s safe to say that Rangiroa is even sleepier. It’s the largest atoll in French Polynesia and the second largest in the world – about 46 miles from end-to-end inside the lagoon. But the motus (islands) that make up the big oval around the lagoon are very narrow, very flat, and many of them are quite rocky (ancient coral reef), so not a lot grows on them. Except coconuts.

The first one we were on during our eleven day stay (the name of which I never was able to determine) had more coconut trees per square kilogram (or maybe square kilolitre? I never have understood the kilometric system) than anywhere we’ve ever been. (Except our backyard, of course.) And where you have a lot of coconut trees, you have a lot of… can you guess? No, not coconuts, numbskull – crabs! Big gray land crabs that live in holes the size of my left foot (ask me how I know this), and much smaller hermit crabs that live in seashells, and that make a really sad “crunch” sound when you accidentally step on them on your way to, well, anywhere.

There were a lot of coconuts, too – that’s what the crabs eat when they can get it. (The rest of the time, they seem to eat dirt, which may account for the really unhappy look on their faces.) So many that they’re in piles all over the island (coconuts, not crabs), waiting to be cracked open for the water and meat, or already harvested and waiting to be burned to help ward off the mosquitoes, or just lying there sprouting into – what else? – MORE coconut trees!

But Air Tahiti doesn’t have 32 flights a day to Rangiroa for the coconuts! No, only half the people come for the coconuts – a huge percentage of the flights are people arriving to buy black pearls, which are farmed / cultivated on Rangiroa, and sold in the pearl farm gift shop for 60 – 110% more than you can find them on just about any other island in French Polynesia.

The pearl farming thing is incredibly interesting. In a nutshell (or oyster shell), a mature oyster is gently pried open just enough for a technician to do some basic surgery inside. A slit is made into a part of the body of the oyster that they apparently don’t need, and into it is inserted a small – 6mm – sphere of Mississippi River clam shell (yes, really), along with a piece of the “mantile” from a donor oyster. (It’s on their driver’s license, so the technicians know which ones to use as donors.) The mantile is the tissue that normally generates the oyster’s shell, which is commonly known as mother of pearl. When placed inside the pocket with the sphere of clam shell, this piece of mantile grows and slowly covers the sphere with the same material that makes up the oyster’s shell. 18 months later, after receiving a bath each month (seriously), the oyster is gently pried open again (think gynecological exam, ladies), and the pearl is removed. At the same time, another sphere, this one the same size as the pearl which was removed, is placed back in the pocket, and the process starts over again, to make a bigger pearl. An oyster in French Polynesia can produce four pearls in its lifetime. After the fourth one, they get to retire. And by “retire”, I mean, they get a quick tour of the kitchen – wink wink, nudge nudge.

That’s a really large black pearl, but the quality of this one is just OK

The process was invented over a period of 35 years, back in the 1800’s, by a Japanese man referred to as Mr. Makimoto. His goal was to produce perfectly round pearls, which were very rare up to that point. Now, about one in ten cultured pearls is round. Some are not quite round (they don’t roll straight on a glass tabletop), some are more oval or teardrop shape, and some are “none of the above”, due to some mishap in the process, such as a piece of sand getting inside the pocket before it heals shut.

The pearls of French Polynesia are referred to as black pearls, but they’re really mostly some shade of gray, ranging from almost silver to almost black. But some oysters throw in a little color into their work, so the pearls can appear greenish, bluish, pinkish, or purplish – and those are the most expensive-ish. A large (14 – 16mm) round pearl with great color(s), superb luster, and no imperfections sells for something in the neighborhood of $16,000. Obviously, Fran and I are not in that neighborhood, or school district, county, or state. The few pearls we’ll be bringing back are referred to here as “tourist bait”. You can buy them by the handful for $13 each, so you can take them home and make them into your own jewelry (which I swear I’m going to do, as soon as I learn how to make jewelry!).

The possible colors of French Polynesian “black” pearls

But the REAL reason to visit Rangiroa is not coconuts, and it’s not pearls – it’s scuba diving. (And now I’m being totally serious.) The ocean flows into and out of the lagoon with each tide change, primarily through two large gaps between motus, called passes. One pass is only for boat traffic, the other mainly for scuba diving. And the scuba diving is spectacular! We dove five times, and the first three were three of the best dives Fran and I have ever done. Each dive starts on the outside of the pass, in open water where the island drops off into the depths. The initial objective of every dive is dolphins – there are a group of them that hang out in that area – and they are friendly! We had two or more pay us a visit on three or four of our five dives, with at least one of them each time being very interactive with the divemaster. On one dive, as Fran was filming that interaction, another one swam up behind her so close that she just reached out her hand to stroke it as it swam by.

He / she was about 3 feet from me

After the dolphins, the dive moves into shallower water (50 feet or so), on the steep slope of the reef. The coral is abundant and very healthy, and the fish are everywhere, all the time. Every size, shape, color, pattern, texture, and behavior you can imagine from a fish, and it’s happening right before your eyes. Or your camera lens, which presents an interesting problem – which fish to shoot? The spectacular Moorish Idol, with its striking white, yellow, and black colors, funny snout with the pattern, and long, wavy filament-like top fin? Or maybe the very shy Flame Angelfish – bright orange with brilliant blue stripes and accents on fins and tail? Possibly the pair of (fill in the blank – there are about a dozen types) Butterfly Fish flitting tantalizingly near (but often just out of camera range). And all of that can – and often does – happen within the span of 30 seconds.

The number and variety of fish is overwhelming!

After 15 – 25 minutes on the slope, it’s time to actually enter the pass. (If there’s an incoming tide – if it’s outgoing, the whole dive happens out on the slope.) The current starts to carry you, slowly at first, and your inclination is to resist it, to stay in one place for a bit. But very soon, you pick up speed, until you feel like you’re on the observation deck on a train, just looking out at the gorgeous scenery as you pass by. The scenery will certainly include the common sharks (gray reef, white tip, and black tip), possibly spotted eagle rays, manta rays, the big sharks (tiger and hammerhead), moray eels, the giant Napolean Wrasse, and a continuation of the assortment of fish that started on the slope. Eventually, the divemaster gives the signal that it’s time to end the dive, and you begin to sob.

Max “flying” through the pass

Our first dive included good friends Whitey and Max, (more about them in a minute), who are no strangers to great diving. When we all surfaced at the end, every one of us exclaimed something like “WOW!” or “Oh my god!” or “That was fantastic!”. We dove with them twice more, both times with similar results – lots of grey reef sharks, a manta ray(!), dolphins, and all the other usual suspects. By the way, we dove our best three dives with Y AKA Plongee (“plongee” means “diving” in French), a small husband-and-wife operation that we loved. There are several other dive operations, and Fran and I did dive with one other later, but we liked Y AKA the best.

Coincidentally, Whitey and Max (John and Maxine White) are on their round-the-world sailing adventure, too, about a month ahead of Liz and Paul, the couple we started this trip with (Panama to Galapagos). Through no planning, but excellent luck, we were on Rangiroa at the same time Max and Whitey were, so we got to dive with them. And it looks like we’ll cross paths with them again in a few weeks, when we’re all on Ra’iatea at the same time.

Now you now more about Rangiroa than you probably wanted to know, and more than I intended to tell you. The only thing left for me to do now is point you to our Google Photos Library, cleverly titled “Rangiroa”: click here to see it.


This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of seven posts, each one about one of the islands we’re visiting in French Polynesia.

After Galapagos, we spent a few days in Quito, Ecuador, which was unexpected. (Because we thought we’d be leaving Galapagos on a sailboat bound for French Polynesia – which we did not do.) Quito is a city of over 3 million people, and is at an elevation of about 9,000 feet, both of which came as a big surprise to us. 9,000 feet – even at the equator – can get pretty chilly! Fortunately for us, it was in the 60’s during both days we were there, because we had packed for French Polynesia – short pants and t-shirts! We enjoyed Quito, in large part because we spent the first of our two days there exploring it with Beth and Pat, who faithful readers will remember from the Galapagos post. But I’m not going to write any more about it. If you want to know more about Quito, GTS! (That’s what Fran’s sister Ingrid says to her teenagers when they ask her almost anything – “GTS! Google That Sh**!”.)

Read more: Mo’orea

From Quito, we flew to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, spent a few hours in the airport, then flew to San Francisco, spent the better part of a day, then flew the 8+ hours to Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia, and from there, we took the half-hour ferry ride to the island of Mo’orea – which is the topic of this post. I’m going to try to make a post about each of the islands we visit in French Polynesia, and each of them will be fairly short, and not very funny – sorry. I’m trying to be more timely, and it comes at the expense of humor.

Mo’orea is just west of Tahiti, in the Society Islands

Before I dive into Mo’orea, let me give a brief geography lesson. I was totally ignorant of the geography of French Polynesia, and you may be, too, so here goes. French Polynesia is a country – sort of. It’s part of France – sort of. But it refers to a bunch of islands and atolls (121, officially) in five main groups: the Society Islands archipelago, comprising the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands; the Tuamotu Archipelago; the Gambier Islands; the Marquesas Islands; and the Austral Islands. The Society Islands includes the most famous of the islands, Tahiti, which is home to the capital city, Pape’ete. It also includes the second most famous island, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea, the topic of this post. There is a group of islands between the Marquesas and the Tuamotus, called the Disappointment Islands. Not sure why they’re not listed anywhere – I’m sure that’s disappointing to the residents there. (What the Fakahina?!?!) During this trip, we will visit seven islands in three of the groups, and if I don’t run out of steam, you’ll get to learn a little about each of them over the course of the next few months. If you want to know a lot more about them, GTS!

Mo’orea, like most (all?) of the islands and atolls of French Polynesia, is what’s left from a very old volcano. The peaks in the middle are dramatic – lots of sheer cliffs, mostly completely covered in green. When the sun is just right, or the clouds are covering just the tops of them, they are quite striking. The reef completely surrounds the island, and the only road of any significance runs the entire 61 kilometer (38 mile) circumference. You can’t get lost – everything is on this road, either “ocean side” or “mountain side”. We couldn’t rent a car (none were available for rent during our stay), so we rented a scooter, and drove the entire way around the island at least four times during our week there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do on Mo’orea. There are some touristy things to do, but not many, and we tend to shy away from those things anyway. You can get in the water at the three public beaches, but only two of them had water we could snorkel in – the third had such a current ripping across the beach that we could barely keep from being swept away. And there are some hikes you can do up those gorgeous green peaks. So we did a little of each.

First, the snorkeling. Almost immediately upon getting in the water, we started seeing fish we had never seen before, except in the fish ID books. The most immediately obvious were the butterfly fish, four species of which we’re familiar with in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Well, French Polynesia doesn’t have any of those four, but it has what seems like a newly created species of butterfly fish approximately every additional 10 minutes that we’re undewater here! They are absolutely everywhere, and absolutely beautiful! Most seem to be some combination of black, white, and yellow, but the combinations seem endless, as are the shapes and sizes. Some are kind enough to allow a decent photo now and then, but some are so shy that it may take the rest of our trip before we happen to snap even a good speciment shot. This happens frequently: see a fish you want to photograph, start moving towards that fish to set up the shot, and another equally or even more beautiful fish swims in front of you, distracting you from the first fish, and now you’re about out of breath so you can’t chase the second fish. Oh, well – we love seeing them, and chasing them, and are so happy when we do manage to fire off a good shot of one.

Snowflake Moray – we’ve never seen this guy before!

Most of the above can be said about the angel fish, the surgeon fish, the trigger fish, the unicorn fish, and several more groups of fish that we see all over: there are a lot of different ones, all are beautiful or strange or worthy of shooting for one reason or another, we’ve never seen them before, and they are challenging to shoot. I’ll include some of of our better shots from Mo’orea in this post, and will provide a link to all of our pix from there. Also, if you keep up with my posts about each island as we go (assuming I keep up!), you’ll see more and more pictures, and will start to recognize the usual suspects, because I know we won’t stop shooting them!

Longnose Butteryfly Fish, or Forceps Butterfly Fish – I can’t tell them apart

We did only one touristy thing: we took a boat tour of the two big bays on the north end of the island, with some dolphin watching, snorkeling, and lunch. The dolphins here are of two different species – at least the ones we’ve seen so far. On the boat tour, we had a couple small pods of what they call locally “spinner dolphins”, because when they jump out of the water while underway, they sometimes spin in the air. We’ve had spinners swim with us in the Caribbean, and they left no doubt that they were spinners with their aerial displays. The ones we saw here didn’t spin, but they were just swimming around in a bay, looking for lunch, so I wouldn’t have expected to see them spinning. Still, they didn’t look like the same species we saw in the Caribbean, so I guess I’ll have to GTS one day.

The snorkeling we did on the boat tour was in very shallow water, after the boat was parked so they could prepare lunch. There were some fish, but the main attraction was the sharks and rays. Everywhere you looked there were white tipped reef sharks in the 3 – 5 foot size range. We were in an area where lunch is often prepared for tourists, and the sharks get the scraps, so of course they hang out. It was not at all a shark feeding type of thing, however (we think those should be abolished – bad for the sharks, and occasionally very bad for divers) – the sharks are just hanging out, hoping for a scrap of fish now and then, which makes for some fun snorkeling. The rays are doing the same thing – very similar to the rays we have in the Atlantic and Caribbean, but a different species. (Reminds me of that old Steve Martin bit, which he concludes by saying “Those French have a different word for everything!” French Polynesia seems to have a different species of everything.)

Our entertainment while lunch was prepared – lots of black tip reef sharks

Finally, it was time for lunch. I didn’t expect lunch to be the highlight of the excursion, but it most certainly was! They set up the table and chairs in the water, about knee-depth. On the table they set bowls of tuna in coconut milk, tuna carpaccio, grilled chicken, grilled fish (not tuna), pasta salad, a cabbage salad similar to coleslaw, but not quite, and fresh pineapple, dragonfruit, and ripe papaya. All of it was delicious, as freshly made as it could be, and came with the added benefit of rays and little fish tickling our ankles and feet as we ate! (Side benefit of our excursion that day – we met Francesca and Luis, a couple from Puerto Rico now living and working in, of all places, Chattanooga, Tennessee! They were great – we had dinner with them a few nights later. They’re the couple on the left in the picture.)

Lunch not “on the water”, but “IN the water!”

The last activity we did was a hike up one of the peaks. Not the tallest – that would involve some actual mountain climbing. But one in the middle that, from the top, supposedly has a panoramic view of most of the island. I say “supposedly” because, when we were no more than five minutes from the peak, we encountered a landslide that had occurred just the night before, the result of some crazy wind immediately following a really thorough drenching. We managed to clamber over the first fallen tree in our path, but after that, what was left in our path was a bit too precarious, and we didn’t want to become the most talked-about event on the island for the next week: “Stupid American Tourists Killed Trying to Traverse a Fresh Landslide on the Three Coconuts Peak.” Sub-headline: “What The Hell Were They Thinking?”

The best view we could get from our truncated hike

We chose not to scuba dive on Mo’orea, because it’s not known for it, and the next two islands (Rangiroa and Fakarava) are, so we decided to save our dive budget for later.

Lodging on Mo’orea was interesting. There are a few very nice places – one of them has the little bungalows over the water, which look fantastic, but they’re also $850 per night, so no, we didn’t stay there. But mostly, there are small, quite modest places mostly with the name “Fare Something-or-other”. Fare means “house” or “home” in Tahitian, but it implies “guest house”. We didn’t stay in one, though, so I don’t even know why I’m telling you that. We did stay in an airbnb that was listed as a “Private room in a home”. Shared bathroom, shared kitchen, shared everything except the bedroom. OK – we had to book on short notice, let’s give it a try. What we didn’t find out until we arrived was that we would also be sharing the mold and fungus in the bathroom, the dog hair from the five dogs, the clutter from the woman’s grandchildren, and the grease, dirt, and food waste in the kitchen. Needless to say, we spent just one night there.

The second floor sleeping quarters of our bungalow at Mark’s Place

Fortunately, we then found Mark’s Place! Mark is an American who moved to French Polynesia in 1981 when he was 28 (he’s now 70), and to Mo’orea in 2000. He bought a piece of property with nothing on it, and started building things. (He’s a carpenter / furniture maker by trade.) First, a workshop, then a very tiny place for him to live. He just keeps building things, and now has five or six bungalows of varying sizes, and one of them, big enough to sleep eight, became available unexpectedly, so when we called about needing a place right now, they said sure, come on over, and we’ll charge you only the rate for our smallest bungalow. So we had the beautiful two story bungalow that sleeps eight upstairs, and downstairs has a full kitchen and dining room, and a bathroom with two sinks, two showers, and two toilets. And it came with two kittens! Not tiny kittens, but kittens in the 5 – 7 month range, who both loved to be petted, and one of whom would sit on a lap for the duration of our morning “long coffee” sessions. Boy, did we make a move up in the world when we came to Mark’s! And Mark is a super nice guy who is a much better talker than listener, but fortunately, he had a lot more interesting things to say than we did, so it worked out just fine.

Alright, that’s all I have for Mo’orea. So much for making a short, sweet post with some pictures. Better luck next time! (That’ll be Rangiroa.)

Here’s the link to our Google Photos library for Mo’orea – enjoy!

P.S. – Although we live in a place where coconuts are common (we have 13 coconut trees in our yard), it wasn’t until we visited Mo’orea that we started to learn all the really great ways to use the coconut and the fronds. You can bet we’ll be stepping up our coconut game when we get back to Southermost Smartini!

Freshly shredded coconut, banana, and lime juice – so good!


Our transpacificus interruptus left us in the Galapagos Islands, but before Sail Fail, we had already planned to be there a while, and had booked a weeklong cruise on the Aida Maria to see the wonders of the archipelego.

Read more: Galapagos!

The Aida Maria is a 16 passenger “cruise ship” that travels around the islands of the Galapagos, stopping at all the cool places to see all the cool things. We were amazingly fortunate that dear friends Beth and Pat were able to fly in and join us for the adventure, and a good time was had by all. In fact, this was one of those rare occasions when an event actually exceeds expectations. Lemme tell ya’ about it!

A marine iguana and a penguin – buddies, or just neighbors?

The above picture kind of summarizes the trip – animals everywhere, all the time, and they were animals we don’t ever see in Florida, or anywhere in the US, or even the Caribbean. The marine iguana lives only in the Galapagos Islands, as does the Galapagos penguin. In fact, it’s the only penguin that lives north of the equator. (Although just barely north of the equator – the farthest north part of Galapagos is not even 1 full degree north of the equator.) And as you may have heard, there are about 14,000,000 other species that live only in the Galapagos, and we got to see every single one of them! (OK, I’m lying… but it seemed that way!)

Jairo, our excellent Galapagos National Park guide

The Aida Maria and its crew were excellent. Jairo was our National Park-certified guide, and he told us all about everything, every day. Angel was the steward, and he simply could not have taken any better care of us. Walter was the chef, and his stated goal was to make every one of us gain 10 pounds in our week onboard (I think he succeeded!). And the rest of the crew, mostly silently and mostly in the background, made sure we got way more than our money’s worth. If the cabins had been a bit larger, it would have been damned near perfect. As it was, it was only fantastic.

On one of our many snorkels, we swam with a manta ray, penguins, sea lions, marine iguanas, and more sea turtles than we could count. (I actually tried and failed to keep count of them.) We also saw, above the waterline, blue footed boobies, which are some of the most impressive boobies I’ve ever seen, anywhere. (Sorry about that – it’s a federal law that anything written about the Galapagos must include at least one “boobies” joke.)

Three penguins in this shot!

We saw giant Galapagos tortoises, and Galapagos terrestrial iguanas, and lava lizards, and Darwin’s finches, and Darwin’s Galapagos Lava Finches. (Not really – but about 90% of the critters we saw had one of those three modifiers in their name, so we just started calling everything “Darwin’s Galapagos Lava <fill in the blank>”.) We saw Galapagos tortoises mating. We saw flamingoes mating. We saw lava lizards mating. We saw Nazca boobies, and blue footed boobies, and great frigate birds all mating, or in the process of getting ready to mate (think of all the primping you used to do before going out on a Saturday night, and all the preening you used to do in the disco – that was everywhere around Galapagos!).

Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is

We had marine iguanas swim at us so close we thought they’d crash into us. We had sea lions biting our snorkel fins and gloves. We had penguins darting around us like kids at a carnival after two full helpings of cotton candy and a Coke. We saw albatross and boobies and frigate birds on their nests.

Fran, me, Beth, and Pat celebrating our equator crossing on Aida Maria

With one or two exceptions, every fish we saw was new to us, so we’ll have at least 30 new species to try to identify from the pictures we took. I could go on, but I won’t. I’ll just post a few photos, and then give you a link to all the pictures and videos we took on the trip. To paraphrase The Dead – what a very cool trip it was!

One of my favorite pix of the trip – Godzilla! (Photo credit: Pat Winkler)
Hey, baby – you ever see such blue feet? Let’s get it on!
Thassalotta iguanas! And a flightless cormorant just for fun.

Here’s a link to all the pictures and videos – enjoy!

Sail Fail

I’ll cut to the chase: Smartini (a.k.a. Fran and Butch/Brian) are not cut out to be sailors, and after 7 days and nights sailing from Panama to the Galapagos Islands, we have opted out of the sail from Galapagos to French Polynesia. We’re still going to FP, but we’ll be flying, not sailing. If you want to know why, read on!

Read more: Sail Fail

Before going any further, my sincere apologies to anyone who ever visited us on Smartini (the boat, not Fran and me) and found life aboard just a little (or maybe a lot) less comfortable than you had anticipated. We found it to be very comfortable, except for the occasional bad weather day underway or really rolly anchorage, but it’s what we were accustomed to. If you found yourself counting the minutes until you could get back to dry land and air conditioning, (to use the probably now outdated vernacular of the cool kids), “I feel you, dog!”

Liz, Paul, and Oneiro in Puerto Rico, March 2019

I don’t want to imply that our very good friends and gracious hosts, Liz and Paul, didn’t warn us; didn’t, in fact, make it a point that life on Oneiro (their 46′ Hallberg-Rassy sailboat) would be considerably different than life on Smartini. When we asked them about bringing a tiny projector with us so that maybe we could watch a movie in the cockpit on our long journey, the response was something like “Well, when sailing, the boat is always moving, sometimes quite a lot, so it’s not likely that we’ll ever want to just sit and try to watch a movie. In fact, a lot of the time, you really won’t feel like doing anything at all.” Now, if that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is – but Fran and I must have been thinking “Yeah, we lived on a boat – we know there’s always some movement – we’re used to that. How bad can it be?”

[Humor Alert: at this point, I will attempt to use humor to convey my feelings about being on a sailboat. If you are a sailor, and particularly if you are Liz or Paul, do not take offense – it’s humor, or at least my best attempt at it, hoping it will help me avoid some serious PTSD.]

Happier times, before I had any idea what we were in for

“How bad can it be?”, we thought. “Like riding on a bucking bronco, inside a washing machine that’s tumbling down the side of a mountain”, is the answer. The first two days and nights, when we had a 5-6 foot swell coming from behind, in 18-24 knot winds, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking that I would rather be almost anywhere, doing almost anything, other than what I was doing at the time. Getting a root canal? Easy. Prepping for a colonoscopy? Child’s play. Having my fingernails extracted with pliers, while getting a root canal and prepping for a colonoscopy? Sign me up! Just GET ME OFF OF THIS BOAT!

Fortunately for me – and for Fran, Liz, and Paul, who were no doubt also wishing I were off the boat, so they didn’t have to endure the waves of miserableness (I know, “misery” is the correct word here, but somehow it doesn’t quite convey what I was actually feeling) emanating from my every pore – it got better. The big swell became much smaller, and eventually disappeared. The wind dropped to 10 – 12 knots, and then to practically nothing as we neared, then crossed, the Equator, so the seas calmed considerably. And while that reduced my physical discomfort to merely “annoyed”, it freed up my brain to think about the prospect of the wind and swell kicking up again, and of me being stuck on the boat for another 94 hours, 36 minutes, and 14 seconds.

And I began to wonder what kind of person actually chooses to travel long distances via sailboat. An adventurer? An explorer? A lover of the open ocean? Nope. A masochist, plain and simple. Let’s examine the facts: here is a person who, ON PURPOSE, locks themself in a contraption in which everything is smaller, tighter, hotter, wetter, louder, and smellier than, for example, a Dodge Grand Caravan with broken shock absorbers and no air conditioning, transporting a half dozen sumo wrestlers across Alabama during a thunderstorm in August, after feeding them all Burrito Supremes from Taco Bell. A person who, ON PURPOSE, spends days and even weeks on end (it’s about 24 days from Galapagos to French Polynesia) without a decent shower, fresh food, a good night’s sleep, Netflix, or a full day without banging one’s head on something hard at least once. (Hmm… does the frequent head banging factor into the decision to be a sailor? Worth investigating.)

Even changing lightbulbs is difficult on a sailboat – this is my view from the top of the 66′ mast, where I ventured to inspect the special sailboat lights (among other chores)

Everything you do on a sailboat at sea is difficult. Food preparation involves wedging yourself into the tiny galley with your knees and hips, and trying to maintain some upper body stability while cutting only the food, and not a finger. Cutting up a fresh pineapple can take an hour (not making this up). Pouring anything from one vessel into another is almost sure to result in some spillage – water into your water bottle, hot coffee into a mug, rum into a shot glass, tequila into a shot glass, pure grain alcohol into a shot glass (anything to numb the pain!).

Sleeping is difficult. Getting from any part of the boat to any other part of the boat, no matter the distance, is difficult. Going to the bathroom is difficult. Getting dressed and undressed. Brushing your teeth. Washing dishes. Reading. Writing. Finding a place to sit comfortably. All difficult, and when the conditions are bad, practically impossible. (Nothing particularly funny about this paragraph, especially since it’s all true.)

Paul in the cockpit of Oneiro – this is where we spent most of our time when the seas were rough

But Sailor Man* doesn’t seem to mind, or barely notice for that matter. Because Sailor Man is too busy being Sailor Man, doing Sailor Man stuff: checking the sails, checking the wind, calculating how fast the boat is going relative to the wind speed, and dreaming of what it could be doing with just two more knots of wind, or ten more degrees of favorable wind direction. Then adjusting the sails (which often means making a particular rope looser or tighter by six inches, as if that’s really going to change anything). Occasionally doing something called a “jive”, performed when Sailor Man determines there might be another 0.05 knots of speed to be had if he moves the sail from one side of the boat to the other – never mind the fact that the boat is now heading farther away from the destination than before the “jive”.

By the way, I may have the terminology wrong, but I hope I will be forgiven, because everything on a boat – not just a sailboat, to be fair – has a made-up word that is, I think, intended to allow Sailor Man to easily identify another Sailor Man, so that they can immediately begin to talk Sailor Man talk to each other. Every one of these words is, as far as I can tell, a made-up word for boats: clew, vang, jib, spinnaker, genoa, luff, leech, tack, mast, batten, halyard, sheet, brail, tricing line, warp, whip, jackstay. Then you get to combine them for even more confusion: jib topsail sheet, peak halyard, bunt line, boom vang. You would think a “sheet” would be the sail, but you’d be an idiot (in the eyes of Sailor Man), because a “sheet” is the rope (oops – “line”) that you pull on to make the sail loose or tight, or tall or short, or something. There’s something called a “clutch” that is really more of a brake, but why use a word the way everyone else uses it? That would make it too easy to understand! (I was going to try to make up some words to pump up the humor volume here, but as it turns out, it wasn’t necessary, as every word or phrase I’ve listed is absolutely legit.)

One topic I have avoided so far, because it’s so sensitive to Sailor Man, is running the engine. Sailor Man hates, with a passion that burns white hot, to run the engine. It means that the normal sounds of pure sailing – the wind filling the sails, the sleek hull of the boat slipping through the sea, the smashing of waves into the bow, crashing and clanging of dishes, glassware, cookware, water bottles and everything else that isn’t glued into place, the loud “Dammit!” of the crew as they bang heads, shoulders, knees and toes into hard parts of the boat (collectively known as the “clee yardlings”) – all of those sounds are drowned out by the gentle droning of the engine, burning the precious diesel, thereby eating away at the financial reserves and possibly preventing the planned purchase of the new wartsail. A sound which, to Sailor Man, is the sound of failure – failure to capture the wind and travel freely across the Seven Seas. Never mind the fact that, when pinned down, every Sailor Man I’ve ever met admits to running the engine about 50% of the time, something they call “motor sailing” to make it sound a bit less like failure.

In the end, I have reached the conclusion that there is something in the genetic makeup of Sailor Man that makes him yearn for the sea, that makes him eschew comfort for the feel of the clew and the cleat, yawing along the mainsail, with the boom vang and the topping lift in perfect harmony. And I just don’t have it, nor do I understand it. Literally – who can make sense of all the jibberish?! Put me on a 737 with a gin and tonic, and wake me up when we’re on final descent.

[Serious Alert: now that I have made you laugh yourself silly, let me be serious for a moment.]

All joking aside – and all anti-sailing bias aside (as far to the side as I can park mine) – I have great respect for people who live on their sailboats and sail them incredibly long distances to see amazing places. What they do is not at all easy, and they do it because of some inner drive to accomplish something that a tiny fraction of humans will ever do. They really do endure long, boring passages knowing that the boring parts can be interrupted at any moment by a terrible squall that could break their boat, or by a collision with a whale that could break their boat (not kidding – a sailboat similar to Oneiro was sunk by a whale collision just a week before we flew to Panama), or by equipment problems that could endanger their lives. It’s not much different from people who climb the world’s highest mountains.

Paul and his 20 lb. blackfin tuna…

Paul has wanted to sail his boat around the world for far longer than the four years we’ve known them, and he’s finally doing it. Fran and I are honored that they (Paul and Liz) thought enough of us to include us on this important leg, and I feel bad that I let them down. (Fran, being Fran, would have made it all the way to French Polynesia with a smile, regardless of the circumstances.)

… and the resulting feast (1 of 3)

Because they allowed us to tag along, we got to see a bit of Panama, and will see a lot of the Galapagos Islands over the next 10 days. And then we’ll spend a couple of months in French Polynesia, which we think we never would have visited otherwise. (Reminder – we’re flying there, not sailing.) On the Panama – Galalagos leg, we saw dolphins jumping on several occasions, and the Southern Cross in all its glory (although, to be truthful, it’s not a very impressive constellation – the Big Dipper kicks its butt in that department), and had a red-footed booby ride on our bow rail for more than a day. We witnessed Paul fight and land a 20 pound blackfin tuna on tackle more suitable for catching small river trout, and then had delicious sushi (twice!) and tuna tacos as a result. We crossed the Equator and celebrated with a bottle of Veuve du Vernay champagne.

Champagne at the Equator

And most of all, we were reminded that good friends don’t have to love all the same things to be good friends. Fair winds and following seas, Oneiro – we’ll see you in Tahiti!

* Thanks to another sailing couple we met while on Smartini, who we have become good friends with, Jim and Kathy Booth. They introduced us to the concept of Sailor Man, which is not a real person, but rather, a concept, an ideal, a persona taken on by anyone, man or woman, who takes the helm of a sailboat on the open ocean. When speaking, the term is said with a certain emphasis, similar to the way one might say “Superman!”. Or, more appropriately, “Underdog!” Some of Sailor Man’s character flaws endearing traits include attempting dangerous tasks, such as going up the mast in high winds, when there is no reason not to wait until later; always, in every instance, viewing other sailboats as opponents in a race; the belief that their boat’s brand, model, size, and sail plan is really the only one that makes sense, and why in the hell would anyone have anything else? Oh, Sailor Man, you amuse us so!

“It’s Underdog! (Or is it Sailor Man?)”

Smartini Goes Sailing

You know that the boat we lived on for five years (called Smartini – what else?) was NOT a sailboat. It was a trawler, a slow, comfortable, motor boat. Neither of us had any sailing knowledge when we decided to buy a boat, so we went the easy route – buy a motor boat. But the majority of people we met and became friends with during our crusing years were on sailboats, and frankly, our conversations with them about sailing reinforced our choice of a motor vs. sails. (Here’s the gist of it: a sailboat big enough to live on comfortably has every system that a motor boat has – including a motor – and it also has all of the sailing stuff: mast, rigging, and sails, all of which need to be maintained and periodically replaced. So in our minds, the ONLY benefit of a sailboat is that, sometimes, you get to go somewhere without burning fuel. I say “sometimes” because every sailor we’ve met admits that they run the motor – either in conjunction with using the sails, or instead of using the sails – about half the time.)

Continue reading “Smartini Goes Sailing”

Bonaire Dive Trip

Fran and I just returned from a 10 day dive trip to Bonaire. My long-time friend and business parter, Joel, joined us for 8 of those days. We had a good time, with plenty of great diving, although Fran got strep throat about halfway through the week, and didn’t dive after that.

One aspect of this trip that’s interesting is that we did it using, a website I highly recommend you look into. We exchanged our house with a house in Bonaire, so Anke and John stayed here while we stayed there. (We also exchanged vehicles and boats, but that’s not normally part of a Home Exchange.) We’ve done several exchanges since June of last year, and will keep doing it – it’s a great way to visit some amazing places and not have to spend anything for you lodging.

Unlike most of my previous posts, this one is going to be more pictures, and fewer words – since I know that’s what you all really want anyway! So here you go: Smartini Goes to Bonaire!

Continue reading “Bonaire Dive Trip”

The Key(s) to Happiness

I’ll save the suspense: yesterday (January 2, 2022), Fran and I moved to the Florida Keys! We’re renting a place in Key Largo for all of January (thanks, Jim and Kathy!!!), and we’re scheduled to close on a house on Big Pine Key on the 28th of this month. We’re so excited!

Part of the backyard of the new house
Continue reading “The Key(s) to Happiness”