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This was our 20th anniversary trip and will probably be enshrined in my mind forever as my favorite trip of all time.
We flew to L.A., spent the night and then caught an Air New Zealand 747-400 to Papeete (pronounced Pa--pee--ay'--tay) the next night. Its an 8 hour flight out of L.A. and Air New Zealand is one of the best airlines in the world!
Touchdown came around 2:30am local time in Tahiti. We were immediately greeted by a Polynesian floor show at the airport but right off the bat we realized that THIS was different stuff than we had seen in Hawaii. These were local folks who competed with each other on costumes, music, etc. It wasn't all just one big tourist show. From the airport our extremely friendly Tahitian driver whisked us off to our hotel--the Tahiti Tahara Hilton. This hotel is unusual in that it sits on top of a hill and you actually take the elevator DOWN to get to your room on the terraced side of the hill. On the way to the Tahara we noticed what we thought was something strange. All the car headlights were shaded with yellow. Our driver explained that most cars on Tahiti come from France and its a local custom in France for cars to shade their headlights with yellow filters because in France many of the roads are small and the glare can cause accidents. Later a visit to Paris confirmed the yellow light explanation!
Even though we had been up all day prior to even boarding our flight at LAX for Tahiti and had flown 8 hours, we were still very excited to be there. By the time we hit the sack it was approaching 4am, their time, and the first glimpse of the sun was apparent.
We plopped down for a little shut-eye. I was the first up a couple of hours later to get my first glimpse of paradise! It was beautiful! You could see the famous Sea of the Moon and the imposing island of Moorea across the sea.
We packed our bags for the short steamer ride to Moorea and headed for downtown Papeete for the journey.
You can get to Moorea (or the other out islands like Bora Bora, etc.) by plane or by ferry. If youre just going across the Sea of the Moon to Moorea Id highly suggest the ferry.
The thing was so old that it had hair. We were encouraged to leave all our baggage downstairs and then ride upstairs on the passenger deck. I asked about theft danger but the polite Tahitian in charge assured me that it would be safe. For the description on what we found on Moorea, click on Moorea on the top of this page.
Tahiti is an island with two main features---Tahiti itself which is connected to a smaller little lobe called Tahiti Iti. You can easily tour both in one day in your rental car. By the way, if you dont know how to drive a stick--youre outta luck! They dont have ANY automatic rental cars in Tahiti! This is the only place we had ever been to in the entire world other than Rarotonga in the Cook Islands where there were NO McDonalds, KFC, Burger Kings or Dunkin Donuts. At least there werent in 1991 but now, alas, there is at least one McDonald's on the main island of Tahiti. Drat! Not that McDonalds is bad but the old tradition was nice.
There are brown sand beaches on Tahiti but most are black, volcanic sand. While Tahiti is certainly beautiful and quaint, the South Pacific youve dreamed of is just off shore on Moorea or Bora Bora or one of the other "out" islands.
The people of Tahiti seemed friendly. Downtown Papeete was surprisingly busy and I couldnt help but think about a favorite restaurateur named Trader Vic as we walked around. Trader Vic in real life was Victor Jules Bergeron who founded the Trader Vics chain and invented the Mai Tai cocktail. Theres an interesting story behind the Mai Tai.
Trader Vic had a little bar in Oakland, California back in 1936 called Hinky Dinks. He later went to Hawaii, returned and dubbed himself "Trader Vic" and opened a new place in San Francisco by that name. One day Trader was behind the bar when Polynesian friends dropped in and asked the Trader to whip 'em up something tropical. Trader Vic poured in a couple of different rums, some triple sec syrup and fresh lime juice over crushed ice. His friends sipped it and proclaimed it "Mai Tai." That means the very best in Tahitian. Thus the famous cocktail was born in 1944. Still one of my favorites but ONLY if its made from scratch. None of those pre-mixed, sickening package or bottled concoctions! And the lime has to be fresh. To prove this at the few remaining Trader Vics restaurants (there are still restaurants in London and Munich, I know for sure because I was there!) they ALWAYS include the spent lime shell of a freshly squeezed lime on top of the crushed ice in the drink!
To get your juices flowing while planning a trip to Tahiti, try and visit a Trader Vic's near you. Here's a new web site for the late Trader's restaurants and products: http://www.tradervics.com/ Check it out! If I might suggest......(!!!)....start your meal off with a Mai Tai, of course, and some fabulous Crab Rangoon! And for this Trader Vic worshiper, the meal wouldn't be complete without a famous Hot Buttered Rum after the meal. By the way, as a radio news guy I had the pleasure of having one interaction with the Trader before he went to the big beach in the sky. The Chinese New Year celebration was approaching. I was News Director at KLIF radio in Dallas at the time in 1976. I had been "pitched" by La Choy and other mega companies to put their people on the air to talk about it. But I thought to myself: "Where could I find a genuine Asian person for the interview?" Bingo! Trader Vic's popped into my mind. They still had a restaurant in the basement of the Dallas Hilton on Mockingbird Lane at that time. So I called and hooked up with restaurant manager Warren Chow. He was eager to do the interview so after I had lunch I looked him up and did the interview. Mr. Chow couldn't have been any nicer. He gave me the whole scoop on the restaurant chain including some rather unusual tactics used on the staff. He said often times they would kick waiters on the shin. Why? To condition them to be nice at all times. If they could still be nice after taking a kick on the shin by their bosses then they would certainly be able to tolerate even the worst patrons. That's what he told me, anyway. Anyhew...I was so impressed with the kind treatment, I fired off a letter to Trader Vic himself at his flagship restaurant at 20 Cosmo Place in San Francisco. Days later I got a reply. I still have the letter and it went something like: "Dear Mr. Schuman. I'll be go to hell! In all my years, this is the first time a media member has ever had anything kind to say about my place. It made my day!" Typical from the old salty dog.
The famous, if not severely twisted artist Paul Gauguin spent quite a bit of time on Tahiti and we visited his museum. It was mildly interesting to me but extremely interesting to my wife Cindy who is into art.
You've heard of the word "taboo" right? Well it's actually a Tahitian word and on the islands it's spelled Tabu which means--keep out. It's their version of the NO TRESPASSING sign over here.
I might explain that we spent two days in Tahiti after spending a week on nearby Moorea.
Our hotel this time was the Park Royal Beachcomber...known locally as simply the Beachcomber. Once again we had an overwater bungalow but it wasnt nearly as neat as the Bali Hai on Moorea. It was more posh and more like a traditional hotel room even though it was on stilts. It did not have a plexi glass window in the floor and was air conditioned. Sadly, the lagoon it sat on was pretty much devoid of fish although still a pretty blue color. Somebody even said there might be a pollution problem in the water surrounding the hotel so we didnt go in the water.
I was very surprised to find EXTREMELY modern super markets in the Papeete area. They had everything you could think of. Interestingly--and if you think about it it makes sense--while most items were expensive, cheese from France was quite inexpensive and French wine was also a good deal. Tahiti is actually a part of France.
On Tahiti and on Moorea everybody had a mail box (just like the ones we have here on posts) and they also had a bread box. Sticks of wonderful, cheap French bread were placed in the boxes each morning. The French love their bread..and so did we!
Papeete had a great selection of fresh seafood in the super markets unlike on Moorea where a fish market consisted a cable suspended by two poles along the roadside with several big tuna hanging by their tails. And oh yes, there was usually a woman there with a small tree branch seemingly batting the fish. This was to keep the flies off! No refrigeration of any kind in these markets by the roadside.
Touring the island we saw some neat vistas, grottos and cascading water falls. And the people in the countryside were extremely friendly. They didnt speak any English, just Tahitian and when we stopped at one isolated roadside hut to buy some soda my wife just opened up her wallet and the shop keeper reached in and grabbed the appropriate amount of French Pacific Francs. Id be surprised if you would ever been ripped off there.
Public transportation is provided by a curious vehicle known as Le Truck. These are long trucks with a roof on the back and a bench on both sides where people can sit. You enter through the rear by climbing up a step. Theyre everywhere and cheap.
Curiously while youll see plenty of the Tikis that you expected to find in French Polynesia you wont see any originals. The local missionaries destroyed them because they were considered pagan worship objects.
Its too bad the very famous and infamous bar Quinns is no longer there. They knocked it down in the 70s and while many were glad to see it go Ive heard so many stories about the brawls and fun that occurred there that I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to check it out! Still downtown Papeete has a pioneer atmosphere about it.
By all means if you go to that part of the world you should spend at least a couple of days on the island of Tahiti itself. Art lovers could probably spend a day at Gauguins museum itself. But the real charm and the true French Polynesia you came to find can be found in the surrounding islands...places like Moorea and Bora Bora.
Currency is the French Pacific Franc. Driving is on the right (and pretty easy--even I managed okay) but remember, no automatic shift cars! Youll need a passport but not a visa.
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