On a recent trip Graeme Kemlo discovered that this French Polynesian paradise is the perfect playground for the budget conscious.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY GRAEME KEMLO
Yes, affordable Tahiti. Two words you probably did not expect to see together, but in a move to improve its tourism numbers battered by the GFC, French Polynesia, through Air Tahiti Nui, Carlson Rezidor and Tahiti Tourisme set out to dispel the myth, taking 10 Australian buyers and my good self to this evocative destination.
Strictly speaking Tahiti’s just one island, the largest and most populous in French Polynesia, but she possesses such an alluring charm and a reputation for seducing those who see her verdant volcanic mountains rising from lagoons of aquamarine – from seafarers well before Captain James Cook, to artists Gaugin and Matisse, “Bounty” author James Norman Hall, or actor/recluse Marlon Brando.
So Tahiti has become a collective noun for the 118 isles of French Polynesia and such is her reputation as a bucket-list destination that she is also widely perceived as aspirational, but out of reach cost-wise.
Evidence of her charm, more than 300 buyers applied through micenet AUSTRALIA to attend this famil hosted by Tahiti Tourisme, Lisa Bacon of Carlson Rezidor and Lisa Dosanjh of Air Tahiti Nui. Aboard were Amala Haidar -Upstream Print Solutions, Daphne Kavassilas – The Direct Edge, Cade Bond – Flight Centre Groups Melbourne, Rob Frank – Verve Creative Australia, Sue Cavanagh – Novartis Pharmaceuticals Australia, Sue McGinness – Incentive Action, Vivienne Hechenberger – Concentives, Wendy Dean – Vita Group, Carolyn Allen – Voyager Travel, and Penny Nilsson – Nordex.
Strangely, we arrived well before we left, flying out Sunday morning to Auckland where Air Tahiti Nui hubs, across the dateline, arriving at 10pm Saturday night to a song and dance welcome (maeva) by a troupe of Polynesian performers. It hits you, the unmistakable smell of the tropics and we got lei’d not once, but twice, in two minutes with Tahitian gardenia (tiare). Then we’re invited to dance, awkwardly, publicly, in Papeete’s Fa’a’ā International Airport. We say thank you (mauru’ uru), trying to pronounce every syllable.
We’re in paradise… on a 13km coach-ride to Carlson’s Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti, where our host, DOSM Jeannine Bishop, welcomed us with more leis and cocktails overlooking a moonlit bay.
In the morning, stepping out of my 73 sqm suite onto my 13 sqm balcony, it is immediately obvious what a great position Radisson has with acres of tropical gardens framing a few hundred metres of black sand beach and the clear blue Matavai Bay where whales and dolphins may be seen at play.
The four-star Radisson has 109 rooms, all with waterfront views: seven standard waterfront rooms, 22 deluxe, 28 with spas, 35 suites plus 17 self-service apartments. All have broadband internet (currently free) but tablet users wanting WiFi need to be in public areas. Its largest formal meeting space is the Endeavour Ballroom which takes 400 (theatre), 600 (cocktail), 250 (classroom) and 350 (banquet) – it is also divisible. Other rooms suit 30 to 120 (theatre) and there’s plenty of breakout options including garden areas and pool deck. Day conferencing is 40 XPF PP and room rates start from under 10000 XPF, so budget a typical four day event at Radisson (min. 20) to cost under AUD 800 pp net. During November to March Air Tahiti Nui fares from Australia are down to AUD 999 plus tax.
Forgetting the money for a minute, a Polynesian trio and the smell of tiara quickly lulls you back to paradise… well, to breakfast al fresco. Overhead the thatched roof of Hiti Mahana (rising sun) restaurant, next to an infinity pool with sloping beach entry, is all only metres from waves crashing loudly on black sand.
Radisson offers a wide range of activities – from Tahitian dance lessons onsite to a half-day 4WD safari withTeiva Tiaipoi of Tahiti Discovery…he’s bare chested, inked with Tahitian tattoos, a pair of wild boar tusks around his neck and a disarming smile. We drive the coast road, stop to look at some surfers, then turn inland. The sea is Tahiti’s major focus, so it is interesting to be taken into the heart of this volcanic island along steep green mountain valleys with waterfalls and crystal clear streams.
We’re in Papenoo valley, much of it Teiva’s traditional family land. He’s eighth generation Tahitian, and laments that they had to dam Papenoo River to generate electricity. He stops at various trees and points out some bush remedies – rub a waxy hibiscus petal on your goggles to stop them fogging up underwater – noted!
Dinner is a local treat – a visit to Les Roulottes, which is Tahiti’s version of the pop-up restaurant. Many locals are enjoying the balmy night downtown and the bubbles of conversation are French, Tahitian and English as we try hard to spend 1500 French Pacific Francs (XPF) – that’s AUD 15 each: three of us share Poisson Cru, the local raw fish salad with coconut and lime juice, and have enough left to each order crepes. Magnifique: in both taste and as an inexpensive local experience. No alcohol is allowed so after dinner we cross the road to Les 3 Brasseurs, a brewery pub where a 330 ml beer costs 500 XPF, (local bottled beer, Hinano or Tabu is up to 600 XPF for a half-litre), mocktails are 750 XPF and cocktails 950 XPF. Café Crème – what you get if you ask for latte – costs 380 XPF. Next day we take the fast 45 metre ferry to sister island Moorea, 30 minutes away. The catamaran arrives at Papeete’s busy port and disgorges cars and commuters who choose to live the quiet life on Moorea, but work in bustling Papeete. We board and Moorea soon looms on the horizon, its outline said to resemble a vahine (woman) lying on her back. It is 80 km round this island and we’re told you can self-drive, stop at the many little villages en route and find very good restaurants serving fresh local produce.
Our day is another example of a unique but affordable activity – a full day lagoon excursion with yet another bare-chested Tahitian bloke – the girls are happy and I’m beginning to think bare is the new black! He anchors in a beautiful blue lagoon and jumps in. Immediately two large grey stingrays appear. Soon our team jumps in. Girls being cuddled by the rays are quite excited. Later we motor to a small atoll (motu). Here Moorea Mahana Tours has installed daytime facilities and we enjoy fresh Poisson Cru, a mixed grill, salads and local fruit under pleasant shade. Including transfers this activity costs 6250 XPF per person.
Tonight we experience Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort and check-in (with lei) to overwater bungalows, complete with king-sized canopy bed, glass floor with fish visible below, a shower that opens to the outdoors, a coffee pod machine, large balcony and swim ladder – incentive written all over it. Of Sofitel Moorea’s 114 bungalows, 39 are overwater, 52 garden, 12 superior lagoon view and 11 luxury bungalows front a beautiful white sand beach. All are air-conditioned with overhead fans and offer WiFi internet access (charged).
Dinner courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme is at Sofitel’s Restaurant K. You are encouraged to go barefoot on the sandy floor. Hotel GM, Olivier de Ronseray and international sales manager, Lisa Coakley host our gourmet experience. While this five-star property is incentive-focused, there are options for those who would like to hold a meeting – K seats up to 80 (theatre). The resort offers activities aplenty.
Next day we return to Papeete and another water experience, this time it is a rigid inflatable boat on a whale watch, with hopes we might swim alongside the massive mammals. We enjoy a couple of hours watching two different sets of whales. The weather’s not good for swimming with them but we get good photos.
A quick trip downtown to Papeete’s Marche (market) finds flowers and fresh produce, black pearls and souvenirs such as the local vanilla. We enjoy a final dinner poolside at Radisson – another feast for all senses as we are farewelled with Tahitian song, dance, drums…and another lei.