Welcome to my travel log! You will find here a lot more than in the travel reports, stripped from political correctness. Enjoy!
Nov 12, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Nadi (FJ) - Suva (FJ) - Nuku'alofa (TO)
An early start. 6am wake-up call, and painful departure from my super comfortable and chic suite at the Westin. A quick ride to the Nadi airport and a short 20 minutes hop to Fiji's capital city Suva. The Suva international airport was about 20km east from the city. I checked my bag to Nuku'alofa and hired a taxi to take me to Suva for some sightseeing and then back to the airport. I had about 4 hours, which gave about 3 hours in the city.
Suva was rather compact but it was hilly, so some comfy boots for hiking were a bonus. I went to see lovely parliament building, whose grounds were open to visitors. Suva was experiencing light showers, so I could not take too many photos. I was actually surprised how many large cruise ships would dock in Suva for the tourists to descend onto the city to have a look around and do some shopping. However, few of them was actually going to see the parliament and the Suva's monuments. They were mainly interested in shopping!
The flight from Suva to Tongatapu (Nuku'alofa) left 30 minutes early without a warning! Flights with Fiji's Air Pacific have a tendency of leaving 30 minutes early without any prior advise. And although the recommended three hours prior departure seems ludicrous, it is probably wise to show two hours before departure, as they'd close the check-in an hour before the plane leaves.
So, I landed early, in the late afternoon, could still have a look around Tonga's capital. It was lovely. Nuku'alofa was a very interesting little town boasting a good number of interesting buildings. Those included the Royal Palace, The Parliament, the Free Church of Tonga, a few examples of other sacral and colonial architecture.
Nov 11, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Fiji
Late breakfast. Walk around the beaches of the Denarau island, and I quickly got bored. I got to the interior of the island, and started talking to the locals about a place, where I could meet more locals, have a beer with them and talk about life, the universe and everything. They hailed me a taxi and explained what I needed to do. I needed to go to see the first village on Fiji, go to Nadi riverside to a local, rustic bar and visit the Smugglers' Cove to see the proper beach life and talk to other travellers, which were more of my kind - backpackers.
And so I did. I first went to see the Vuda (Vunda) village, which was, apparently, the first village on Fiji. It was a large village. It had a very lovely cheif's house, several traditional monuments, a large church, a few historical and ceremonial structures, and cyclone-proof houses. It was Sunday, so no tours were allowed. Yet, my drivers was a cousin of one of the villagers, I was permitted to see, walkabout and photograph the place.
After Vuda, I went to the 'first landing' spot, where apparently the Fijians arrived from Egypt and Tanzania some 3,500 years ago. It was a lovely spot and a very funky and a low profile resort is now operating.
I stopped for a few scenic and panorama views, and ended up on the Travellers' Beach and the Smugglers' Cove, both of which were great places to relax and unwind at one of the few beach bars. I had dinner at the Ghost Ship, who organised an almost three hour-long cultural show for free. It was dancing (not just from Fiji - but from many islands of the Polynesia, Melanesia and Hawaii) and fire show. As I tucked into my lobster, I thoroughly enjoyed the show.
Nov 10, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Port Vila (VU) - Nadi (FJ)
As agreed with the taxi driver the day before, I went on the round the Efate island trip. I wanted to see the villages, how people lived, nice landscape and gorgeous beaches. I also wanted to see the traditional architecture and key sights of the capital, Port Vila.
Port Vila had few sights. The main ones were probably the Parliament building and the Chief's House. And then the rest was not terribly remarkable. An interesting spot was the fruit and veg market, which remarkably worked 24 hours, except Sunday, and therefore closing at noon on Saturday and re-opening at 4am on Monday.
The attractions of the capital and the island would therefore had to be the lagoons and the beaches. Of which there were many. But the interior also boasted a waterfall called Cascade Waterfall, and miles and miles of lush jungle, which seemed totally impenetrable.
The taxi driver told me this: "In Vanuatu we have chiefs, police, courts and the parliament. If you have a problem, you go to see the chief. If the chief does not solve the problem or the problem gets worse, you go to the police. If they cannot help with the problem, then you go to the courts. Each island has a chief. The chiefs come together to see the Chief of Efatu in the capital Port Vila and they discuss the policies, issues, needs and projects. Then the chief takes it to the Parliament". The parliament building is literally across the road from the beautifully decorated chief's house.
Anusua village had possibly the loveliest beach and picnic area on the island, although the beaches in Epau and Eton was also gorgeous. The owners of the rest stop, which included a large dining room under a traditional roof, were also very friendly. The sign at the gate read: "welcome to our piece of paradise". And I have say that it was a true piece of paradise. The beach was small but the coastline was very dramatic with a number of volcanic boulders sticking out above the waterline. The ocean kept on shifting its colours from turquoise to light blue to navy blue to pistachio ice-cream. Small palm trees and yucca-type plants at the shore were green with their long leaves added to this dramatic picture. I wished I had been able to stay there a bit longer, chat to the people and explore the beach area. The spot might have been amongst the most picturesque beaches in the South Pacific.
The Air Pacific flight to Nadi left on time. It was a short hop, about two hours on the ATR72 aircraft. Nadi was the first major airport I was passing through. It is Fiji's main international airport, although Suva's airport is gaining some momentum. Still it will take years and year, before it achieves the same level of sophistication. But this also meant that if a jumbo jet from Australia or New Zealand lands right before your tiny aircraft from Vanuatu, you are stuck in the immigration queue for an hour or so. And then, you might wait as long for your bag to turn up on the carousel.
Before I could dispatch myself to the Denarau island, where I was staying I needed to check my transportation to Suva, where I needed to get to in two days, to take my flight to Tonga. I was scraped by a tour agent at the international arrivals hall, as soon as I asked where the Air Pacific or Pacific Sun airlines' offices were. She arrested me for almost 45 minutes trying to explain to me that driving to Suva would take half a day and that the airline offices were already closed. It was already 6:30pm indeed.
However, as she was terribly unsuccessful in selling me the ticker for the Nadi-Suva flight, she stated that I could just walk to the domestic terminal and buy a ticket from the check-in counter! I was not impressed. And after I bought my ticket (FJD95), which took 5 minutes, the taxi driver to the Denarau island told me that driving to Suva would take maximum 3 hours and bus would take approximately 5 hours. Driving was my preferred option, as I would see more of the country, but he said that it would cost me about JOD180, which was twice the price for the flight that was taking 20 minutes.
I stayed at the Westin on the Denarau island. It was a former Regent of Fiji, country's best hotel. It is kept in the character of Fiji, styled in the traditional architecture. Unlike all other resorts on the island, which were cosmopolitan and characterless. The Westin upgraded me to an executive suite, which meant that I had two bathrooms, sitting room, a terrace, fully equipped kitchen and a sizeable bedroom. All with lovely solid wood furniture. I got loads of free bottled water and a complimentary red wine (they knew I liked shiraz) and a couple of Fijian gifts, including handmade pineapple soap. The grounds were extensive, there was a beach, waters ports centre, activities centre, a number of pools, two restaurants, and a bar. The breakfast buffet was massive and included free sparkling wine!
In the evening, the hotel organised two events. One was he fire walking (mainly Saturdays) and daily fire show, which commenced at sunset. The former included a buffet dinner, and required a prior booking. I was too late for the fire walking, but I gate-crashed the event a waiter finding about my VIP status, allowed me to join. It was a great night. It was great to learn about the Fijian culture, the kava ceremony, the outfits, the warrior customs, the food and, of course, the ritual of the fire walking. Plus the buffet dinner was superb. It was a perfect conclusion of the day, not counting the complementary bottle of wine I got from management...
Nov 09, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Noumea (NC), Port Vila (VU)
The Noumea international airport (Tontoua) is about 50km from the city centre and it takes approximately 45 minutes to drive there. For about half of the way, there is a motorway. When landing in Noumea, there is no public transport of taxis, which is really odd and extremely inconvenient. The routine is to have someone pick you up (that's what the locals do) or to rent a car (that's what the locals and travellers do). A taxi ride if booked in advance would cost 11,000 francs. The car rental was at least 13,000 francs. Fortunately, a company called Arc du ciel does hotel transfers and charges 3,000 francs (or €30) one way. From the airport they leave after all passengers collected their luggage from the incoming flights. On the way back, they depart on specific hours from specific hotels, and it is always best for the hotel front desk to confirm your seat. This is not always too convenient as often the minibus would deliver you to the airport as early as 2 hours before departure.
So, before my flight to Vanuatu, I had some time to explore the capital of New Caledonia. Noumea is a large place. It can be divided into several distinctive parts. One definitely industrial, another business, yet another residential perhaps and the one to relax, do some water sports, lounge on the beach - I guess this one could be the zone touristique. The city overall looked rather relaxed, thought. It was modern and seemed safe. It resembled mid-size French cities from the end of the 20th century.
I loved the beaches and their vicinity. It was great to see how relaxed the atmosphere was, how nice people were towards one another and how well developed the place was. Le Fare Palm Beach was a superb place to hang out as it extended into the ocean on a large wooden pier. And the Baie de l'Anse Vata was the perfect crescent beach with a strip of green, where one could do a picnic under the palm trees.
The flight to Port Vila left on time. It was a small ATR42-500 aircraft, I think. There is not that much to write about this flight, other than the aircraft was clean and the personnel was professional.
Vanuatu made it to this holiday's itinerary in the very last minute. Almost as a stop-over between flights. I was not preparing for any significant exploration of the area, therefore. Yet, as soon as I landed in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, I changed my mind. Still in the taxi from the airport, I made arrangements with the driver to take me around the island next morning.
Vanuatu has 63 islands. This report is about the capital island, the Efate only. And although life on the island is being geared up towards the modern life similar to Australian or European, a few villages boasted a few elements of the Vanuatuan traditional customs. It was appeared to me that the archipelago required a much closer look, to more remote islands and to have a peek at the unique and beautifully aligned with nature lifestyle. Vanuatu is now the country to come back to!
But not to the hotel that I booked, the Warwick Le Lagon Resort. It was overpriced. It might have seem very basic after my stays at the Le Meridien in Tahiti and Noumea and the Hiltons on Mo'orea and Bora-Bora, and yet £168 per night for a room by the lagoon was asking way to much! It was not worth it, I have to say. The grounds were nice and the main facilities kept up nicely, yet the rooms were rather basic. And for that price, the resort charged extra 500 vatu for a bottle of water every day. Not only was this an extortionate price, this did not make a positive impression on me at all. This is a perception thing. If they charged £170 per night then offered that damn bottle of water for free, it would make a completely different impact. Anyway, I did not have any of that water anyway.
I liked that the resort employed mostly local staff, who were very friendly if a little sheepish. English was their second language and management, in the welcome letter, asked to be patient with them even if one had to repeat oneself until understood.
Nov 08, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - International Date Line Gap
Since I crossed the International Date Line from east to west, I lost a day. This means that in 2012, I practically did not have the 8th November in my life. And if that was my birthday, I would be gutted. But of course it was not.
Well, to be perfectly honest, I had an hour or so of the 8th November. It was spent on the road transfer from the remote international airport of Noumea to the Noumea city proper. And since the ride was during the hours of darkness, I could hardly count this as a life experience. It was uneventful and I have to say, that had I known that the airport was so remote and that there were not taxis, I would have stayed somewhere local and explored that part of the island, whatever that would mean.
So, I will call this the International Date Line Gap (IDLG).
Nov 07, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Bora Bora, Papeete, Noumea
I had an early flight out of Bora Bora - 08:45am. There was an afternoon flight that I could take, but it was landing too close to my connecting flight to Noumea. I did not want to risk it, plus I could take it easy and browse Papeete a little bit more. It paid off as I found the stunning building of the City Hall. Uh, I did manage to leave my luggage in the left luggage room at the airport for 700 francs. So, I just needed to carry my airbook and the camera.
After seeing nothing else but small villages on Mo'orea and Bora Bora, it was weird and ... relaxing to be back in a larger city. Pepeete suddenly looked a lot more attractive from the second sight. The open air cafes everywhere, music playing in the background, loads of people, some exceptionally beautiful. And of course the sunny and hot weather helped as well.
It was striking to see how life on Tahiti is all the same as anywhere else in the world. People sit at tables, drink coffee from the uncomfortable thick white china, lager is a popular beverage (they even have Stella Artois from tap!), wear t-shits. Sitting at a cafe, I was thinking how this place could be just anywhere in the world: Marseilles, St George's, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Dakar, Bangkok, Seoul, Sydney... and would go well with what it was, tables, chairs, decor.
I had lunch at Les 3 Brasseurs and then a couple of drinks, a small lager (500 francs) and a can of 7Up (450 francs) at Le Retro cafe and bistro located at the Centre Vaima overlooking the harbour. I had an hour to kill before returning to the airport for the flight to Noumea. The flight will be 6 hours and 20 minutes long and, as I will cross the International Date Line, I will sadly lose a day of my holiday! Departing Wednesday afternoon, arriving Thursday night. Oh, well.
At the airport, I managed to take my bag as a carry-on. It now weighed almost 13kg, without my computer inside. I had my cargo pants, so I could place my wallets, mobile phones, etc in the side pockets, yet this would be rather uncomfortable during 6 hours and 20 minutes flight. Having my bag with me, I could stick them inside the bag and wheel I wound without the awkward ballast in my pants' side pockets.
The experience going through departures at an international terminal in French Polynesia was much different than going through a domestic terminal. In the latter situation, one can appear at the airport 10 minutes from the departure time and still check in! The Faaa International airport opened check-in counters just under 3 hours prior to departure of the flight and the immigration desks opened an hour later. Access to the terminal was not possible before that. Inside, after security screening, the waiting lounge was spacious and airy. The were no windows on the ground floor and plenty of comfortable sitting; mainly sofas. Contrary to some reports, the duty free did not sell pearls. Just the regular stuff: tobacco products, spirits, fragrance and some cheap souvenirs.
I crossed the International Date Line at 06:45 am UT, which was 19:45 local time some 38,000 feet below me. As the nearest land was Tongatapu of the Kingdom of Tonga.
Nov 06, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Bora Bora, day two
Having been rather underwhelmed with Vaitape and the attractions of the main island, I decided to stay on the motu, explore the beaches and the hills. And chat to the personnel at the resort. In the meantime, I made an enquiry regarding a helicopter flight over the island, so I could take some pictures. But he flight never materialised. The concierge at the hotel was not the best that I had a chance to use.
Anyway, the most approachable and talkative were the pool boys: Tapu, Heiki and Tini. Tapu, who played some sort of ukulele and sang almost all the time had worked at the resort for just over a year. Tini, with an impossibly well tanned skin, had been with the hotel for five months and Heiki with an infectious smile and friendliest attitude had just started three days before my arrival. From Heiki, I found out that there were regular, although I am not sure how frequent, boats between Bora Bora and Raiatea. The boat was called Aremiti 4, and it was a fast boat, taking about 2 hours one way. This was where Heiki attended High School, and commuted weekly. He was only 18 and still lived with his parents. He had a typical Polynesian look. Well, that's what I thought at the time, anyway. The hotel's policy was that the pool boys wore only sarongs, and employed good looking blokes. Tini, in particular, was in a great shape, and looked like the guy on the 500 francs banknote. So, I thought they looked very Polynesian until that evening. The hotel organised a Polynesian night with girls and boys showing off Polynesian dance moves. There was a guy, who looked extremely Polynesian; dark skin, lovely tattoos, a little dark neared and rugged features. Not as rounded face as the Samoan or Tongan rugby players, but a bit longer face with more pointy chin. The girls were also very interesting. Two of them very pretty, looked amazing in the different Polynesian costumes, revealing a lot of flesh...
Now, the truth about the Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort... It is a newlywed couples retreat as revolting as sweet white icing o a wedding cake. Seriously! The resort itself is wonderful, spacious, beautifully laid out and perfectly maintained. Yet, the atmosphere is something different. Every little thing is geared up towards the honeymooners. Everything for two. I mean everything! So, when I was traveling alone, it was so awkward. I was charged for everything twice, which I had to correct all the time! Just one buffet dinner, just one shuttle ticket... But when the stuff was free, I did not care; yes, I'll take two beach towels, two pineapple juices, two tubes of the moisturising lotion... One thing that I did not really care about we're the questions; table for one? trip for one? spot by the pool for one? Yes, for one! When I travel to the top end luxurious resorts looking for a sugar momma, I do not take witnesses with me!
Nov 05, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Bora Bora, day one
The 07:45 flight from Mo'orea (MOZ) to Bora Bora (BOB) on Air Tahiti left on time. The curious things about that flight. One, there was absolutely no security screening (which, I must say was very refreshing and I reminded me of the trouble free flying in Madagascar). And two: the 10kg weight limit for the luggage was not enforced! I packed carefully to fit inside this limit and it was all unnecessary, it seemed.
The flight would have been nicer if there were no clouds obscuring the islands and atolls below. Plus the picture-perfect island of Bora Bora would have been easier to snap from the plan.
The Bora Bora airport is located on a small reef island, which the Polynesians call motu. So, the only way to get to any hotel, resort, shop, erm... actually to anywhere, one needs to take a boat. Air Tahiti provides a speed shuttle to the main village on the main island, Vaitapu. It is included in the price of the air ticket. The from Vaitapu, one can take a road transport to accommodation on the main island or take a resort shuttle to one of the many 5 star hotel resorts situated on the reef islands surrounding Bora Bora. An alternative is to take a shuttle straight from the airport, as all of the resorts provide their own boat. The Hilton charged 9,900 francs for the return transfer from the airport, whilst their Vaitapu-hotel shuttle was 700 francs (also return).
The Hilton resort was large. Larger than the one on Mo'orea. The main reception was located on a large overwater villa. There was a large number of overwater bungalows, a couple of Presidential overwater villas, garden villas and mountain bungalows. All located on the western side of the westerly motu. Not ideal for the views of the magnificent Bora Bora and her peaks, but perfect for sunsets. I got a lovely garden villa with an ocean view, half of which was the bathroom!
I took a ride to Vaitape to check the village life. It was nothing much, I must say. A few one storey square houses, a few shops, a bank, a post office and a couple of churches, one of which looked not bad at all. Uh, this reminds me of what I found about the lovely Polynesian tattoos. Two of the very handsome pool boys at the Hilton, with well sculpted bodies, had no tattoos at all. I asked them why. They explained that they they were churchgoers (one of them a Jehovah Witness) and therefore it was not appropriate for them to tattoo their skins.
So, I was bored in Vaitape. I found a local bar and restaurant (Le St James) and tried the new Tahitian dark beer, the Hinano Ambrée. It was good!
On the way back to the pier, I inspected a few shops and local merchant stands for black Polynesian pearls.
Nov 04, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Mo'orea, day two
On Sundays, there is almost nothing going on on the island. Almost the entire population attends church, and that is some 22 churches - there is definitely one in every village. And there are different Christian churches around. So, it was hard to get organised. No tours operated. No shops were open. Luckily, Hilton organised the tip to see the stingrays and sharks. I hopped on that boat.
It was quite a nice journey. The boat moved fast and weather was nice. The stingrays, which occasionally swam under my bungalow, were converging at the top of the lagoon a few miles west. There were many of them! The female were larger, much larger than the male and they floated in water like alien aircraft... They were not afraid of people and in contrary, were friendly and approachable. I guess this was because there were being fed. I had mixed feelings about this. I was not quite sure whether this commotion should all be happening, although I was intrigued and did want to see them up close and personal. I just did not like that at some stage the entire even turned into a circus with loads and loads tourists disembarking their boats and playing with the fish. The stingrays would literally eat of everyone's hand and would even investigate those, who had no treats in their hands.
Then, came the black tip reef sharks, and the atmosphere in the water became a bit tense. The sharks were curious and they did not approach people as close as the stingrays did. In fact, they did not touch anyone. They were just circling the entire fishing party. They were a few feet long and looked fierce. And beautiful. While the stingrays looked gracious and relaxed, the sharks appeared energetic and powerful.
Nov 03, 2012 12:00 AM South Pacific - Mo'orea, day one
A few pictures of the beach soon after sunrise, a full breakfast and a short taxi hop to the ferry terminal, and I was sitting at a large terrace with a glass of Hoegaarden. The friendly taxi driver told me that apart from the Aremiti ferries, one small and one large, there was a third boat that made the crossing from Tahiti to Mo'orea. It was called Terevau. It was a smaller boat, but it was faster. It took just 25 minutes to cross, while the Aremiti take from 35 minutes to 45 minutes. And it was cheaper, costing pedestrians 1,160 francs (€9.72) one way. As I arrived at the terminal early and the Terevau was departing at 8:50am, and therefore 25 minutes earlier than Aremiti 5, it made even easier decision to take it.
The ferry terminal was a great place! It was airy and the bar with a view of the harbour and the Mo'orea's peaks was stupendous. Nevermind that they were serving Hoegaarden from tap! It has a few shops and a cash machine on the first floor. Very convenient.
The crossing was very pleasant. The ocean was calm, and the catamaran jet stream boat rocked only slightly. A couple of dolphins jumped as we approached the Mo'orea island.
An elderly taxi driver, I think she might have been 75 years old, scraped me from the ferry terminal at the other end. Her English was superb and she had great American accent with a French twang. It was a pleasure listening to her as she told me stories about the island, pointed out sights and important features of the island's landscape, told me about pearls, schools, villages, churches and stopped at a panorama point so I could take photos. This ride, around a quarter of the island, already made my day.
The Hilton Mo'orea, where I was staying was a lovely place. As I checked in, a gorgeous lady (beautifully named Barbara!) from the front desk, who sported one of the loveliest tattoos I have ever seen, greeted me and said "welcome to paradise!". She upgraded me to the Panorama Overwater Bungalow with a north-facing terrace looking out to the turquoise lagoon and further out to the ocean. Sting rays casually swam around and under the glass floor opening in the bedroom. The price of this bungalow was $1,025 a night, and if you happen to order room service, it comes in a Polynesian canoe, right at the foot of your personal diving platform. Not bad at all.
Of course I had plans to venture into the island, and explore, but it was very hard to leave the opulence and luxury of the resort. Plus there was wifi throughout the entire property, so I happily snapped panorama pictures with my iPhone and kept on posting them on Facebook and sending e-postcards to my family and friends. And I really needed to relax.
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