Transcript: French Polynesia

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Writer Jason Cochran answered your questions on Tahiti, Moorea, and Huahine on October 5, 2004

No phone. No room service. No air-conditioning. No worries.

Simple is the way to go on the French Polynesian islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Huahine. All you really need is a thatched hut with friendly owners and a beachfront location.

Jason Cochran, who wrote "Tahiti Unplugged" for the October issue of Budget Travel magazine, answered your questions on French Polynesia on Tuesday, October 5, 2004 at noon ET.

Jason Cochran is Senior Editor of Budget Travel magazine. In addition to writing for publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, and Arena, he wrote questions for the first season of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He recently spent two years backpacking around the world, visiting six continents and over 40 countries. A current resident of New York City, he has also lived in Chicago, Atlanta, Key West, and Cape Town, South Africa.

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Jason Cochran: Hello, everyone! No sense in writing a long-winded introduction--we're all here for one reason. Let's talk Tahiti!

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Smyrna, GA: We are interested in a private bungalow with the ocean outside the door. Is there a reasonably priced option for this?

Jason Cochran: Absolutely! The whole reason for my being here today, conducting this Live Talk, is to discuss the cover story of this month's Budget Travel magazine. The October 2004 cover, "Sweet Tahiti" is all about those accommodations in French Polynesia that are right on the ocean AND affordable. Not a single international hotel chain is listed--just private, family-owned pensions. The great thing about all of them is that the owners are fully aware that you've come to Tahiti for privacy and romance, and they leave you alone. In fact, because of the low room density at these places, you'll probably get a lot more privacy at a pension than you would at a big resort. The answer to your specific question--a reasonable option--depends greatly on which island you're thinking about visiting. The options listed in the article are grouped by island, and it covers three islands: Tahiti (the biggest one), Moorea, and Huahine. If I were to name a place with the ocean right "outside the door," I would probably say Hiti Moana Villa or Punatea Village on Tahiti; Fare Vaihere on Moorea; and Pension Mauarii on Huahine. At all of those, you can roll out of bed, walk down your steps, and find yourself right on the water. (Now, if you're asking about what's called an "overwater bungalow," which is built on pilings right over the coral reefs, hang on until later in the chat, when I'll address that type of accommodation.)

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San Francisco, CA: We are taking the Tahitian Princess next month. Do we need to bring formal/dressy clothes?

Jason Cochran: Yes, unless you want to feel under-dressed during the few formal dinners that will be thrown. We're not talking tuxedos--but a coat and tie would be sitting. But you only need an outfit or two. You're going to be in your bathing suits most of the time.

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Cambridge, MN: Hi Jason! I would love to visit Tahiti. Could you tell me when is the best time of the year to visit? And when is the time of the year that Tahiti is overflowing with tourists? Or do I even need to worry about that? Thanks!!

Jason Cochran: The weather patterns are a little different than what they are at home. February and March are very hot and humid--even the locals, who are presumably used to it, scramble for shade. High season is in July or August, when European vacationers flood in and the weather is splendid. Rain peaks from November to April. I prefer May or October, which have good weather but aren't that crowded.

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Benicia, CA: We really like Tahiti and went to Moorea when the dollar was strong several years ago. We would like to go to go again; the small hotels from the article seem ideal, but the price for airline tickets make it too costly. How can the small hotels compete with the ones who are combining with airfare? With airfare from SF to LAX and then LAX to Papeete, the cost becomes higher than the expensive hotel packages. Are there consolidators for airfare to Tahiti?

Jason Cochran: Because of the purchasing power wielded by the big hotels and the airlines, they can often come up with air-hotel deals that are unbeatable, in terms of price. But not always! Often, only the least expensive hotels are packaged with airfare at a price that beats the family-owned pensions. Which means that your hotel could end up being kind of gross. The fancy resorts most people dream about (overwater bungalows, clear waters, huge blue pool) are often much more expensive than the lowly two-star resorts that first grab shoppers' eyes with ultra-low prices. So if you're going to go the package route, do some serious research into the hotel first, just to make sure it's the kind of place (with the kind of peace and on the kind of clear waters) that you're dreaming of. You may find that it's still to your benefit to buy hotel and airfare separately. To shop for airfare alone, make sure to look for deals from the big player to Tahiti's capital city, Papeete: Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui-usa.com/). Sometimes, but not often, Qantasqantas.com/) sells codeshare sale flights there, too. Air New Zealand offers what's called the South Pacific Airpass, and if you're planning on visiting a few other countries or islands in the region (including Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and Fiji), you can often put together a multi-stop package at a substantial savings. Flight Cenflightcentre.com/) can often find flights for cheaper than anyone else, and it also offers a lowest-price guarantee. Other players to check: FlyCheap (800/FLY 1800flycheap.com/) and Air Tickets Direct (800/7; airticketsdirect.com/). Sometimes you can find a marked-down "Bula Fare" on Afic (airpacific.com/), fly Fiji from Los Angeles or Vancouver, and then change for a flight to Tahiti for a few hundred dollars. It takes more work and planning, but it's possible to save that way. If you're feeling really ambitious (and if you speak French), check in with a French travel agent before booking. Huge amounts of French people vacation and retire in Tahiti (it's like France's Hawaii), and so there are plenty of flights heading from Paris and other French cities all year round. Which means there are are plenty of deals to be had, if you have the language skills to buy them.

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Mesa, AZ: Jason, Not a question but more of a warning: I visited Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea in 1996 and discovered that the sun is so powerful down there that you MUST wear a hat and drink plenty of bottled water or face island fever, which happened to me. I was quite miserable for the entire trip, so please take heed and also have plenty of bug spray to repel mosquito bites. Other than that, the scenery and people were wonderful experiences not to mention the snorkeling. Thanks.

Jason Cochran: I love it when readers help me out! You're absolutely correct. The sun is a whopper in the South Pacific, so arrive prepared. Buy sunblock at home, since it's cheaper in America (nearly everything you'll buy in the islands has been imported all the way from France). And only drink bottled water, since the tap water throughout French Polynesia is not considered safe to drink (although some hotels and pensions treat their water for guests' convenience). Most hotels and pensions will also provide the tools you need to keep the bugs away--but even fancy hotels can't keep mosquitos out (no matter what that Expedia TV ad says). Fortunately, on the water, there are far fewer insects than there are inland.

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Cleveland, OH: What is the total air time for this trip from Cleveland, OH? Is a day lost on the return trip?

Jason Cochran: I'll answer this in terms of Los Angeles so it will be of use to everyone. The flight to Papeete takes about 7 1/2 hours from LAX. From there, flights to the most popular outlying islands take as little as 10 minutes (Moorea) to about an hour (Bora Bora). I'm guessing that Cleveland is about three hours from LAX, so add that to the total--though, of course, you'll have time to get off the plane and stretch your legs in LAX. Also, French Polynesia is not on the other side of the Interntaional Date Line (it's actually slightly more eastern than Hawaii is), so you don't lose or gain a day when you travel to or from it.

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Petersburg, IN: Do you need to be able to speak French to get around Tahiti?

Jason Cochran: Not really. It's a tourism hotspot. Although many innkeepers, drivers, and staffers only speak French fluently, they are used to dealing with international tourists who speak other languages (German, English, Spanish, Dutch). So almost anyone you'll meet in the tourism industry can either speak workable English or get by with a few words. It's easy for Americans to forget how often people in the rest of the world have to adapt to the language barrier. For them, it's not a problem when languages don't blend. Also, most places have written English-language materials on hand for guests just like you. Even the menus are usually available in English--although since French cooking terms are so common in America, you will probably be able to easily order without the help. Grab a French phrase book and memorize the essentials (thank you='merci", hello='bon jour", and so on), and you'll be just fine.

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Atlanta, GA: How warm is it without air-conditioning in September through November? (The promised ceiling fan and trade winds in Grenada in May were not enough!)

Jason Cochran: Most of the time, you'll be fine if your hotel is near the coast. In February and March, though, the air is often as still as if someone switched it off, and even sleeping under a ceiling fan can be uncomfortable. Of course, that gives you a good excuse to go swimming every hour!

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Irvine, CA: What excursions do you recommend on Moorea, for 2 very active 30-somethings? We leave on Saturday for 1 week.

Jason Cochran: My favorite activity was swimming with the stingrays. You're taken out on a boat deep into the northern lagoon, where you anchor and then jump overboard into waist-deep water. Your guide hauls out a bag of frozen fish and the stingrays, who became tame by getting their lunch like this every day, come sweeping in. You can feed them by hand, pet them, and feel their spongy flesh. Bring your own mask and flippers and you can swim with them. Several companies offer this excursion, which is usually preceded by a "swim with the sharks" feeding and followed by a picnic on a lovely offshore island (motu) that's fringed with coral gardens. I went with Moorea Explorer, which also supplies transportation to and from where you're staying. It takes all day and costs in the neighborhood of $70. I loved it. (They used to have a few such stingrays on Huahine, too, but a few locals decided to take advantage of their tameness--and speared them for dinner.)

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Rancho Santa Margarita, CA: How prevelant is it to use ATM machines on Moorea (and other islands) for exchange purposes? Do the various vendors strictly take the Tahitian currency, or are USD accepted? Thank you!

Jason Cochran: Big topic! Before you go to French Polynesia, grill your bank about whether your card will be accepted in ATMs there! Some people report no troubles, but others (including me) have had serious problems. My card didn't work at all, at any machine, and if I hadn't brought plenty of travelers' checks, I would have been in trouble. So make sure your ATM card will work--just call your bank's customer service line and get to the bottom of it. The official name of the country, for your reference, is French Polynesia (Tahiti, the name of the largest island, is the nickname). If you run out of money, don't expect your bank to be able to rush to the rescue right away, since many big companies (Citibank included) do not have offices anywhere in the entire region. If you want to feel completely safe, bring travelers' checks as a backup--all hotels take them, and you can always re-deposit them in your bank if you don't use them. Credit cards are widely accepted, but American Express is not as widely taken as the others, so don't rely on it, either. Many places, especially shops and restaurants, only accept cash. Dollars are not accepted--you must exhange your money into French Polynesian Francs, which currently trade at about 92 to the US Dollar.

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Manhattan, NY: Hi Jason, I was wondering how Tahiti compares to the Hawaiian experience?

Jason Cochran: I prefer it. Hawaii, for all its palm trees and breathtaking mountains, is still America, and no matter how tan you get there, you're still aware that you're sort of at home. In French Polynesia, French is the mother tongue, and that gives visitors a real sense of having traveled. When you strip down and lay upon the sands of a Tahitian beach, you really feel like you're in a distant idyll, far from the mundane world you know, and that goes a long way toward helping you feel like you've escaped from it all. The food is French, too--not to say Hawaii's cuisine isn't marvelous, but how can you argue with fresh baguettes every morning? Lastly, the beaches in the two island chains are totally different. Hawaii is all about crashing surf. French Polynesia is a country of lagoons, which means most of the shoreline is protected by coral reefs in the distance, so the warm ocean water simply laps against the beach as calmly as the water might quiver in your bathtub at home. So in FP, snorkeling and swimming are much less taxing compared to Hawaii, and you can see a lot more interesting and colorful sea life without much effort. In the end, Hawaii makes me feel like a jungle explorer, and French Polynesia makes me feel like a castaway on a tranquil beach.
By the way, one addendum to my answer to the previous questions: Each island, most of which take less than an hour to drive around, has at least one ATM on it. Tahiti has many more, but most of them cluster around the city of Papeete. All the hotels and shopkeepers can tell you where the nearest ATM is located.

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Diamond Bar, CA: I do not have adventurous tastes, so can I get a steak or a cheeseburger?? Also, the wife likes topless beaches. Is this the standard there? Thanks.

Jason Cochran: You may not be adventurous, but it sounds like your wife is! Happily, you'll both be satisfied. Burgers and sandwiches are very easy to find throughout French Polynesia--they've become world cuisine. And French Polynesia shares France's taste for terrific bread. Getting an "all-over tan" is no trick, either, since there are miles of beaches that are pretty much empty. Not only is it considered acceptable to go topless in the islands--thank that European culture--it's easy to accomplish. Just find an empty beach and do your thing. Moorea's beaches are generally uncrowded once you get away from the resorts, but for empty beaches practically everywhere, Huahine's the place. There's barely a tourist in sight on most of them.

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Ann Arbor, MI: I'm looking to head out to Polynesia next spring and stay there on an extended vacation for at least a few months. Problem is, I really have no idea how the temporary/summer work scene is. I've worked summers in Lagos, Portugal and Barcelona, Spain, but I've never had the opportunity to travel to the islands of Polynesia. So, my questions are how easy is it to find decent work there, what time of the year is best for getting a job, and how easily could one simply live there for at least a few months. Im a young guy who just wants to experience the world before I get too caught up in the inevitable "real job" scene. Thanks in advance.

Jason Cochran: I don't know much about the ins and outs of the job scene, but I do know that it's fairly saturated. Because French nationals can move there and work there legally, Tahiti has plenty of itinerant visitors who will beat you to the drudge work. Just about every job is already taken by a local or by a French national. And because tourism isn't doing gangbuster business right now, there isn't that much call for temporary help. Better to find a cheap place to stay (Huahine has bunches) and sack out with your savings. You're probably not going to find work.

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Smyrna, GA: You addressed getting to Papeete. How do you get from Papeete to Huahine?

Jason Cochran: From Papeete, flights go to all the tourist's islands, including Huahine, Moorea, and Bora Bora. (There's a half-hour ferry that goes to Moorea from Papeete, too, because the two islands are so close.) Inter-island flights generally cost about $100 each way; Air Tahiti is the dominant player.

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Minneapolis, MN: Hi Jason, Imagine my surprise when I received my new issue of Budget Travel! The day before I was able to book frequent flier tickets to New Zealand via Tahiti in March (by the way, the same thing happened last year when we were planning a trip to Croatia--you are very timely with your articles!). We will have a four day layover in Tahiti. Should we go directly to Moorea and spend all our time there or should we plan to spend some time on Tahiti? I plan to book in one of the pensions you mentioned. P.S. Where will your next article take us?

Jason Cochran: Thanks! I love hearing that my articles are helping people--I work very hard researching them! To answer your question, yes, I'd head off to Moorea for the duration; most of the time, transpacific flights are timed in such a way that you'll be able to leave Papeete for another island right away. I personally find the island of Tahiti to be too crowded and full of traffic, and I get more of that "South Pacific" feeling on the outlying islands such as Moorea and Huahine. (I don't care for Bora Bora--it's gorgeous but everything there is MUCH too expensive and the visitors tend to hang out at resorts rather than do anything interesting. Huahine is my favorite.) And to answer your last questions, it looks like my next article will be a collection of dream driving tours across three very different areas of Australia. Look for it this winter!

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Temple City, CA: What is happening with the old Club Med property on Moorea? Will it reopen in some form? Do you recommend the Club Med on Bora Bora?

Jason Cochran: The Moorean property doesn't look like it's going to open anytime soon; there have been some squabbles with the local people, who don't want to relinquish the land back to Club Med. In fact, some islanders have moved into some of the old bungalows and taken them for their homes! That leaves the Bora Bora location, which is sumptuous to say the least. It attracts a slightly less active clientele than the Moorea campus did, but for my money, it's prettier. Speaking of Club Med, you can often get a really good deal for stays there if you don't book ahead. When you get off your international flight in Papeete, head into the city center. On the main road facing the harbor, there's a Club Med office. Pop in and ask if there are any last-minute deals. Resort occupancy throughout the islands has been pitifully low lately, and so you can almost always score a deal for around $80 a day (or under half the published price), including all food, drink, and sports, plus transportation to and from Bora Bora from Papeete. It's a risk that the Club Med will be full, but chances are you won't be sorry.

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Raleigh, NC: I am trying to decide between Moorea and Huahine - recommendations? And, should I get a car or mini-car?

Jason Cochran: Moorea has the laid-back resorts and the inland hiking, and Huahine has miles of truly empty beaches and a lost-in-the-Pacific vibe. I also love that Huahine has some unexpected oddities, such as an inland village with a freshwater stream populated by a team of giant eels! As for the car--definitely get one. Since distances are not great and the roads are generally flat, it doesn't matter what kind you rent (unless you plan off-road driving), but if you want to fan out and explore the many empty beaches, you'll need wheels. (Learn to drive a stick if you don't already know how--manual rentals are much cheaper than automatic ones!)

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San Diego, CA: Thanks for the subject! I read your article this morning on the various family-run hotel options on the several isles. My question is mosquitos. I didn't see mosquito netting over the beds. Are we destined to be eaten alive when we sleep at these places (or any of the hotels/resorts in Tahiti) or do the rooms provide any protection?

Jason Cochran: Yes, all the hotels, including the ones I describe, will give you the tools you need, whether that means coils, electic repellant, netting, screens, or just windows and doors that shut tight. Bring a little repellant with DEET in it, and that should take care of everything. (I was barely bitten myself when I was researching that story.)

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Atlanta, GA: My husband and I just got married and are planning to take our honeymoon this November. It has always been a dream of mine to stay in one of those over-the-water bungalows with breathtaking views and a lot of peace and quite. There are so many in the French Polynesian to choose from. Which resort offers the best deal (we were focusing a week either in Bora Bora or Moorea) with a good deal of seclusion. Thanks!

Jason Cochran: The least expensive overwater bungalows that I have found are at the Club Bali Hai, on the northern coast of Moorea. They're still around $250 a night, so I wouldn't call them cheap, but that's half as much as the bungalows at many other properties such as the Sheraton. It's on a deepwater bay with a stunning view of the jagged mountains beyond. As a rule, anything on Bora Bora is going to cost you top dollar, even if the quality isn't top drawer. Also look into a somewhat new Moorea Pearl Resort, on the north coast. It faces the open ocean on a huge lagoon. Its prices are creeping into the stratosphere, but compared to its competition, it's a better value. (Keep in mind, by the way, that overwater bungalows are increasingly despised by locals, since they're so bad for the environment.) I would avoid the Sofitel on Moorea, since it has seen better days.

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San Francisco, CA: We're returning to FP for the 3rd time in December. What are your recommendations for best cheap (but memorable) restaurants on Moorea? Thanks.

Jason Cochran: My favorite is Mahagony, on the northeast coast of the island. Its escargot blew my mind and they have a creme brulee to die for! It's not far from several of the big resorts, including the Pearl, the Beachcomber, the Sofitel--and the gorgeous place on the cover of this month's Budget Travel, La Baie de Nuarei.

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Pittsburgh, PA: Why don't you include Bora Bora as one of your top sites in French Polynesia? I was just at Tahiti and didn't think it was so great.

Jason Cochran: Bora Bora is great, but it is overpriced and it's generally booked by package tourists who don't want or need help in finding family-owned pensions. There are few private accommodations there. Tahiti island, on the other hand, is the first place every visitor from North America will first touch down, and depending on their flight timings, they may have to spend a day or two there. It's also the best place to learn about modern Polynesian culture, since the big museums and markets are located there. The area near the city is not too appealing, but if you go to the "back end" of the island, far from the urban sprawl, the beaches and hiking are quite rewarding.

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Jason Cochran: Looks like that's all (s)he wrote! I'm out of time, but thanks to the past hour, I'm in a Tahitian state of mind! Thanks for some great questions--I hope everyone who asked one gets a chance to visit these beautiful islands someday soon.

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