I realize that I haven't yet written anything about New Zealand. I will get to that soon, but there is a lot that I want to say about that awesome country and set of experiences. We've just arrived in Quito, Ecuador, after our last stop in the Pacific - in French Polynesia. We spent almost our entire time there (7/8 days) on the beautiful island of Mo'orea. I think I can get my thoughts about this place out in one article, so I'm doing that first.
I've always been fascinated by the South Pacific islands, and I have no idea why. It could be having seen South Pacific as a child - though that was never one of my favorite musicals, and I think I only saw it once. It could be from learning about Paul Gaugin's scandalous withdrawal from Euro art circles to "paint ladies in Tahiti" - according to a monologue from one of my favorite Dick Van Dyke show episodes. Whatever the reason, I've long been fascinated by the idea that there are these vast archipelagos in the Pacific, original populated by Melanesians or Polynesians, and later colonized by whichever European naval power got there first. The combination of French culture and tropical weather has always held allure, so French Polynesia was high on my list.
Laura was not as drawn to the islands, seeing them as expensive to visit. It was only through subtle and diligent work on our travel arrangements that I was able to show that by staying in French Polynesia for 7 days, we would both cut 7 hours off of our travel to Ecuador, and save over a hundred thousand Mileage Plus miles which we are using to cross the Pacific. This won her over.
Much to our delight, our close friend Karla (a BFF of Laura's since high school, and one of our bridesmaids) was able to arrange to fly from Seattle to meet us for the week. Everyone in our family loves Karla and since we are all desperate to interact with other people after travelling together for 3 months, this was a win-win-win-win for the four of us.
We had been moving around a lot during our time in New Zealand, and we all wanted to stay put somewhere, so we decided to find a great house on the island of Mo'Orea and basically stay there the whole time.
We debated between a great surf oriented spot on the south west coast, but decided to stay up north where there is a little more infrastructure, and where we found a beautiful 4 bedroom place right on the water.
Though I knew that Mo'orea was much less populated than the island of Tahiti (which most Americans think is the entire country), I was surprised by just how laid back it is. We found three gas stations, 4 supermarkets, 2 pharmacies, 0 electronics stores, and only one bar with any kind of nightlife on the entire island, which we circumnavigated on rental scooters. That suited us just fine.
Days were filled with snorkeling and kayaking directly from OUR beach. The pre-shower dip in the morning, and the happy hour snorkel became treasured routines. Our place, Poerani, is inside of a barrier reef, as is much of the island. Our particular beach was super shallow out a couple hundred feet, then had a significant drop off. This made for great surf-free snorkeling, "hot tub like" temperatures in the nearby water, and even close encounters with moray eels and stingrays, both of which came right up to our steps to check out the sandy bottom.
A big highlight was our visit to Belvedere, which is a saddle in the middle of the island featuring views of the two major inlets and several of the strangely sharp volcanic mountains which jut out of the island, making Mo-orea incredibly exotic, and keeping most of the island wild, as these slopes make the mountains unattainable except for technical climbers. Laura, Karla and I managed to find a sunbreak during an otherwise rainy day to scooter up to the view and then do some hiking to archeological sites nearby.
We did dive, and found the visibility to be very nice, though the coral had a lot of both bleaching and die-off due to sustained high water temperatures last summer. It is sad and frustrating to see the obvious impact of climate destruction on these fragile ecosystems. We only dove for one day, as we are saving our diving pennies for the Galapagos Islands. On those dives, we saw several turtles and the largest lemon shark I've ever seen (about 3 meters).
It is fascinating to be in such a sparsely populated and sleepy place, yet be able to purchase pretty much any French delicacies in the local grocery store. French Polynesia is very expensive, but fresh Tuna and even New Zealand beef and lamb were less expensive than in the USA. I loved seeing Camembert, pate, fresh baguettes, pain au chocolat, and lots of other Franco-yummies juxtaposed with roadside bananas, pineapples, and avocados. We were easily able to put together great fresh meals at our place, and went out only for a few meals.
Naomi and Keegan were very clear that they have been missing having a "home". Even staying at Peorani for 6 nights was a lot longer than we have been doing. Indeed this is the longest that we had planned on staying in one place so far in the trip.
The Villa at Poerani featured spectacular design, and functioned very well for us. We loved the outdoor, beachfront, but covered and lit, outdoor dining room, complete with polynesian statues. We loved the spacious, open living room with conversation pit couch. We loved the neighboring dog (we named "Rocco") who came to spend an afternoon with us. The only drawback of the place was the lack of AC in the common areas and the upstairs bedrooms, but this was mitigated by both weather and the design of the place which made for lots of airflow. Naomi had to sleep in a mosquito net, as she seems unusually attractive to these pests, but the rest of us did so just for the experience.
We loved a featured dish of French Polyniesia - Poisson Cru, which is a tuna ceviche made with coconut milk, lime and salt. We learned how to make it on a boat tour day which also included delicious barbecued tuna, a stop to pet stingrays, see reef sharks close up and get bit by triggerfish protecting their nest.
We were pleased to see that, at least on Sundays, the boat tour was not limited to tourists. We were on a small boat while the two huge parties of locals were on two much bigger boats, following the same itinerary. It was great to see everyone joining in with the band singing and dancing. Throughout our time on Mo'orea, we saw lots of community interaction, healthy families, and a significant lack of effort and interest in making the island cater more to tourists.
Between nights out sampling the expensive cocktails at the high end resorts (Manava and Sofitel) and nights in playing cards, inventing cocktails or just catching up on life, we had a great, restful time on this majestic island which marries French and Polynesian languages and culture.
We will miss Karla, and the Pacific. Vayamos en Ecuador!