Return to Heaven-Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia

FRENCH POLYNESIA (TIKEHAU, RANGIROA, FAKARAVA, MOOREA)

Overview

  • When: 11 September – 27 September, 2020
  • Where (accommodations): Tikehau: Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort, Rangiroa: Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa, Fakarava: Havaiki Lodge, Moorea: Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa
  • Transportation: JetBlue from Boston to LAX. Air Tahiti Nui from LAX to Papeete, Tahiti. Air Tahiti (Lagoons Pass) for inner islands travel. Terevau Ferry from Tahiti to Moorea.
  • Sights/attractions: Tikehau: Half day Bird Island/Snorkeling tour, Bike around the island, Kayak around the resort. Rangiroa: Drift snorkeling excursion ( Tiputa Pass), Dolphin viewing (Tiputa Pass), Blue Lagoon/ snorkeling in Avatoru Pass tour (Kaimana Excursions), Massage at the resort Spa, Rent a Twizy and drive around the island. Fakarava: Pink Sand Beach/snorkeling in the South Pass tour, Pearl farm, bicycle around the island. Moorea: Rent a car and drive around the island, shopping. If in season – whale watching/snorkeling tour with Pacifik Attitude. For more on Moorea and other Society islands see the first FP trip post here.
  • Food/drinks: Tikehau– restaurant at the resort. Rangiroa: Snack Chez Lili ( lunch), Hotel Kia Ora restaurant for dinner. Fakarava: Restaurant at the Lodge. Moorea: Holy Steakhouse, Moorea Beach Cafe by Bruno Jamais.

Our first international trip during COVID-19 pandemic. First flight in nine months! However, this is NOT our first time in French Polynesia! We spent our honeymoon in the Society islands two years ago and fell in love with this country. The ‘plan’ was to come back for our 10 yr wedding anniversary.

We had to reschedule our trip to visit my family in Lithuania twice. Eventually we had to cancel it due to the two week quarantine requirements coming from USA. We looked at a short list of countries that opened their borders to tourists from America and one of them was the islands of French Polynesia! It felt like it’s meant to be. Why wait another eight years to visit the place that we loved so much? If we took anything from the 2020 lockdown it is that nothing is ever certain, nothing is guaranteed, and all plans can change in a blink of an eye.

Planning was super fast and stressful. Normally a two week international trip we schedule 6-8 months ahead. Here, we did not know if we’ll be actually allowed on the flight until 2 days prior!

All requirements to enter French Polynesia can be found here.

The key points are:

1. Everyone boarding the flight to Papeete has to present a negative COVID-19 test that was taken within 72 hrs prior to the flight. Not all tests are accepted (must be a PCR, not self test).

2. Everyone has to fill out a health form online and present a receipt (QR code) before boarding. The link to the form is here.

3. Lastly, upon arrival, everyone is given a kit and must do the self-test on the fourth day on the islands. You then hand it in to your hotel to send to the lab. And it goes without saying- masks on all flights are mandatory (though we saw some ‘under nosers’ and ‘chin maskers’ as soon as the flight took off).

As you can see, this is not your typical vacation planning. Just the nerve wracking wait for COVID-19 test results and the anticipation to receive them on time was excruciating. We actually did two separate tests in case one would take too long to receive the results. Luckily both were negative and we had the answer within 24 hours of testing. All was worth it at the end!

Since we saw Society islands on the first trip, we decided to explore Tuamotu Archipelago now. Due to the flights schedule for the inner islands (they are not daily), we had to return to Tahiti three days before our international flight home, so we decided to spend those days in Moorea– one of the Society islands that we liked so much from our honeymoon. In more detail about each island below.

TIKEHAU

Tikehau is a coral atoll located northeast of Tahiti, less than an hour flight away from Papeete. The only inner island carrier is Air Tahiti, so you have to abide by their schedule. For us this meant waiting 7 hours at the airport after international flights, but that’s was the best option apart from overnighting in Tahiti. Travel tip: consider purchasing an Island Pass. For exploring Society islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora) we used Bora Bora pass. For this trip, we wanted to see Tuamotu Archipelago, so Lagoons Pass was perfect option. It allows you to travel from Tahiti to Tikehau, Rangiroa and Fakarava with a final return to Tahiti for a set price. Buying individual flights the price nearly doubles. The key is to align the days in each island, because flights from some of them are only once or twice a week. The previous trip I was able to get all flights on Air Tahiti website, however this time I called them instead. With Covid-19 the flight schedule has been reduced and it was very hard to find the days that we wanted to spend in each island, so talking to an agent was super helpful. Based on the available flights we scheduled 4 nights in Tikehau, 5 nights in Rangiroa, 2 nights in Fakarava and last 3 nights in Moorea.

ACCOMMODATIONS

Tuamotus are small islands, so you will not find as many options as in the bigger Society islands. We chose Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort and would definitely stay there again. We were picked up from the airport and after a short drive were on a boat going to the hotel. Finally we get to shower and take the masks off!

The place is beautiful and the staff is extremely pleasant and helpful. We got a Beach Bungalow (number 23, with the best sunset view!). What a perfect way to start our trip!

For the meals we booked the half board plan- breakfast and three course dinner included. Since there are no other restaurants on site, that is really your best bet. We got a few lunches at the hotel (poisson cru– raw tuna prepared with coconut milk is a must!), and one of the excursions also had lunch included.

My take on the meals- breakfast was superb- plenty of options in the buffet, plus you can ask for a fresh eggs/omelette. Croissants coming straight out of the oven were to die for. Possibly best croissants on the islands. Dinners were great, but the menu could have had more choices. By the fourth night we were a bit bored and were ready for more variety.

ACTIVITIES

RELAX AND ENJOY THE RESORT

After all, it has been a long travel and a long year. We deserve some R&R! Sleeping-in failed – 6 hour time difference woke us up around 6am EVERY morning. It was actually very useful, since breakfast was served only until 8am. Every morning I would do a quick workout on our deck overlooking the ocean, then we would enjoy breakfast and plan our the day. Hotel has a beautiful pool, plenty of chairs with a shade and places to lounge around.

Make sure to save some time to savor it and spend time to unwind. By the way- wifi is only available in the pool/restaurant area, so when you are back in your bungalow, you REALLY feel unplugged and off the grid.

KAYAK/SNORKEL AROUND THE BUNGALOWS

We brought our own snorkeling masks, but all other equipment was free of charge to use from the hotel. They had fins as well as kayaks, so we spent a few hours paddling around, exploring surroundings and just taking in the views of that beautiful crystal clear water.

To the left of the bungalows there is a little motu– reef islet formed by the coral and sand. Essentially a tiny island. They are all over French Polynesia. We kayaked there, walked around, took some pictures and swam- pure relaxation.

ISLAND ADVENTURE BY BOAT

Hotel organizes several different tours, so just check with the front desk about availability and your preference. We chose a 9am to 3pm excursion, which included a stop at the Bird Island and a snorkel/local lunch at a motu. On the Bird Island we got off the boat (make sure to bring water shoes, it’s VERY rough and rocky shore) and walked across the island observing several species of birds.

We saw babies and some pretty big birds. The sounds of them chirping was also a new experience- loud and uninterrupted by humans.

Our second stop was a beautiful motu with the white sand beach and a dreamy, leaning into the water palm tree (perfect for photos, not very easy to climb though).

We spent a few hours relaxing, snorkeling (a few black tip sharks came by, they are not dangerous at all) and having a local, freshly made lunch- poisson cru, coconut bread, grilled chicken and fish and of fruit for dessert.

As a fun activity the guide also taught us how to make purses and trays out of the palm trees. Well, I would not be able to repeat the process, but it was amusing to try and I actually used the bag for the next few days to carry small things around!

After we returned back (not part of the tour), the hotel manager who came with us on a trip offered to show anyone that’s interested how to collect some fresh seafood right near the resort.

It was low tide, so a few of us went together (again, need good water shoes, do not go barefoot) and pulled these pink shells from the rocks. Afterwards, we cracked them with a hammer, put some lime juice and ate them right on the spot. Does not get any fresher than that! We saw other ocean creatures as well, which we wouldn’t have normally found ourselves if we just stayed around our bungalow. It was excellent day! Some people also did a manta ray tour- we did not get to do it, but since we heard good things, maybe next time!

BICYCLE AROUND THE VILLAGE

Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort is on it’s own little motu. In order to get to the main village we had to take the boat (same way as we came from the airport). It’s not cheap (around 60 USD pp), but we wanted to see more than just resort grounds, so decided to spend a few hours peddling around by bike.

Hotel provided the bikes free of charge and we drove around with another couple from the resort. It was actually VERY fun. Resort even equipped us with the helmets, not to protect from the cars (there aren’t many on the one island road), but from the falling coconuts! We did not end up wearing them and luckily did not get hit, but saw many coconuts on the ground, so there is a risk I suppose 🙂 !

It took us about two hours to circle the island, we swam in a local beach and had lunch at one of the little shacks. There is really not much to do, so don’t plan a full day there. Good little workout and seeing a local life was enjoyable though.

Four nights and three full days in Tikehau flew by like a dream. The last day coincided with our 3 year wedding anniversary, so hotel went out of their way to make it special.

We got to sit at a table separated from the rest (in the cool chairs like a king and queen 🙂 ) and they even made us a heart shaped cake! Combined with another incredible sunset it was a beautiful way to end our first island adventure.

RANGIROA

ACCOMMODATIONS

Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa is still in my dreams, long after we returned back from this trip. I cannot say enough about how much we loved this place.

From the incredible Beach Bungalow with the private pool, to the exquisite dinners we had every night, to the service- everything was impeccable.

For this stay breakfast was included and dinners were a la cart. We started with foie gras (yes, we had SAME appetizer every night, it was THAT amazing).

For the main courses we tried several fish dishes, lamb, duck, of course creme brulee for dessert- everything was top notch.

ACTIVITIES

DO AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE

Not even kidding. Just like we did in Tikehau (or any nice resort), make sure to have time to actually enjoy it. It is very easy to fill the days with activities and excursions, but when you are in a luxury resort such as Kia Ora, it would be a waste to not take full advantage of it’s amenities.

For me that included light workouts on the deck in the morning, reading, getting sun, having a mimosa or two, and then dipping in the private pool to cool off. Sean mainly napped and was truly lazy 🙂 .

EXPLORE THE SHORELINE

No need to go far- grab your snorkel and jump into the clear blue water (not the pool this time 🙂 ). There is plenty of coral and various fish right in front of the bungalow.

Another fun activity – paddling around in a traditional Polynesian outrigger canoe. There were a few available right near the main pier, so we took it for a spin before sunset. It was relaxing for me, while Sean reported a good workout!

ZOOM AROUND THE ISLAND IN A TWIZY

Hotel has bikes as well as two people little Twizy cars for rent, so we grabbed one for a couple of hours to explore the island.

It’s essentially one main road, you can’t get lost and it’s nice to see more than just resort grounds.

We even stopped at a local restaurant Snack Chez Lili for a delightful lunch!

DRIFT SNORKEL IN TIPUTA PASS

This short excursion can be set up with the front desk at the hotel. It’s dependent on wind/waves/current, so it might not be available daily. Definitely a fun way to see the beautiful coral while drifting with the current at the ocean pass. The boat drops you off with the guide and you essentially float taking in the underwater world.

Once the guide determines it’s time, everyone gets in a boat, which takes you against the current. Then you jump back in the water and do it again. There is some swimming involved and if the waves are big it can be a bit scary, but we felt safe the whole time.

Towards the end of the drift we ended up in something they called the “Aquarium”-naturally calm area of water with a dense amount of fish. The whole excursion took only around two hours, perfect to break up the day of lounging and eating 🙂 .

BLUE LAGOON/AVATORU PASS EXCURSION

Definitely a MUST while in Rangiroa! Organized by Kaimana Excursions, though we booked it through the hotel, this was a full day adventure. We were picked up at the hotel dock at 9am and did not get back until 5pm. Long, tiring, but super fun day! To get to the Blue Lagoon takes around 1 hour on a fast boat. It was a group of ten or so people and two crew members. I am not sure if it’s always like that, but our ride was WILD. The boat was going up and down the waves like a rollercoaster and we got completely soaked from the splashing water.

Tip: Do not wear any hats that can fly away, have light clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and go with a sense of adventure. Some people felt a bit sea sick, we were ok. We had to hold on to the side of the boat and the crew even put a rope in the middle to keep us more secure. It’s definitely not the most comfortable ride, but it may have been just the stormy weather on the particular day that intensified the waves. Once we got there, we saw that it was really worth the bumpy ride.

After a short rain shower the sun came out and we saw the REAL Blue lagoon. Quite magical.

We had a fresh local lunch made right there on the motu, just like in Tikehau there was hat/purse making class, some of the leftover food went to a few blacktip sharks and birds and we did a little snorkeling in a close by coral garden.

To break up the hour boat ride back, we did one more stop – this time at the Avatoru Pass for another drift snorkeling. I think we liked this pass even more than Tiputa – the coral was beautiful and the water had better visibility.

WATCH THE DOLPHINS

This free activity is organized by the hotel around 5pm daily. The shuttle takes you from the lobby to the Tiputa Pass and as soon as we sat on the shore we saw dolphins playing in the waves. I am not sure if they only come around this time of day (close to sunset), but that’s when we went to see them.

If you do the drift snorkeling, there is a good chance you will see the dolphins there as well. Seems like that’s where they like to hangout.

LOCAL WINE TASTING

I arranged a wine tasting tour through the hotel, but if I had done my research I could have saved probably about three times the cost. Previously there used to be an excursion that takes you to the actual vineyard- Domaine Vin de Tahiti, located on a motu, only accessible by boat.

Now it was just a video of the process and a brief visit of the cellar, followed by the wine and rum tasting outside. It’s a short taxi ride from the hotel, so we really could have gone there on our own. Either way it was fun and informative- this may be the only vineyard in the world that is located on the atol. The soil is mainly coral, giving the grapes specific flavor.

Today the vineyard of Rangiroa produces only white wines (Blanc de corail , Clos du Récif and Blanc moelleux) and rosé wine (rosé Nacarat). You can’t buy this wine in the USA, so it was a nice ‘souvenir’ to bring home.

INDULGE IN A COUPLES MASSAGE

We got lucky that the spa at the hotel was open and they had availability for a couples massage.

Even COVID-19 times we felt safe- masseuses wore masks the whole time, we wore ours when laying on the back and they did excellent job taking all the knots out from our stress ridden bodies 🙂 .

Pretty busy, but also very relaxing five nights in Rangiroa. I have to admit we were sad to leave this resort and have a feeling we’ll come back in the future.

FAKARAVA

Our third and last Tuamotus Archipelago island on this trip! Based on the flights, it’s the most difficult to get to as well. We were only able to spend two nights here due to the limited flight schedule, but we really loved it and made the most of the short visit. It felt the most authentic and most ‘island life’ like.

By the way- to get the the best views from the plane when coming from Rangiroa to Fakarava, sit on the right side. For all other flights it seems like the best views were while sitting on the left hand side.

ACCOMMODATIONS

In Fakarava there are no big brand luxury hotels. The island wants to keep its authenticity, so most of the accommodations are pensions– local smaller scale hotels and guest houses. We chose Havaiki Lodge and were lucky they had availability on such a short notice.

When we arrived we knew we are getting a Garden bungalow, which was nice, but had no AC. After checking with the front desk we found out that there is a Beach bungalow (with AC) available, so we moved without hesitation.

The place is simple, but we had everything we needed. Havaiki Lodge location allows to enjoy incredible unobstructed sunsets. Bonus- two nurse sharks that swim around the pier- big, but harmless!

Breakfast and three course dinner was part of the package and was very convenient for a short stay. We did not particularly loved their breakfast – there was no hot meal option, just some pastries, cereal, fruit.

We enjoyed the two dinners that we had there though. Everything was very tasty and the menu changed daily.

ACTIVITIES

PINK SAND BEACH/SOUTH PASS SNORKELING

We really had just one full day on this island and heard that it’s a diver’s paradise, so there was no chance we will spend our time anywhere else but water. Hotel confirmed that there is an available all day excursion by boat to the Pink Sand Beach and snorkeling at the South Pass.

There were enough of us to fill two boats and off we went! A little over an hour ride was smooth and pleasant- no waves like in Rangiroa. First we stopped at a little island with a beautiful sand bar and a nice beach. Once everyone got their photos in, we moved to the South Pass.

The water was crystal clear, but the guide determined that the current is not optimal for the drift snorkeling at the moment, so we went to the Pink Sand Beach with the plan to return for snorkeling in a few hours.

This spot was absolutely gorgeous. A little motu, pink sand, leaning palm trees- it’s what dreams are made of (at least in my mind).

Fresh lunch and local beer was provided before heading back to snorkel. It really was one of the the most relaxing afternoons that we’ll never forget.

We arrived back to South Pass and did a few drift snorkeling runs.

Absolutely incredible experience- amazing coral, tons of fish and sharks- I can see why divers rave about Fakarava!

SHOP FOR PEARLS

Since Havaiki Lodge has its own Pearl farm, this is definitely a GREAT place to buy pearls. We did not realize how good the prices are here until we arrived to Moorea and went to the pearl shops. Grade A earrings that I got at Fakarava cost me 84 Euros. In Moorea the same would have been 600!

Ask about the demonstration of the work at the farm- they had one in the morning of our departure, so we checked it out. If you’ve never been to a pearl farm, it’s definitely interesting to see the process. I do not recommend doing the lottery though. For around 35 Euros you can pick an oyster, they will open it for you and the pearl inside is yours. Of course there is a chance you might get some incredible pearl, but we had four oysters and got some far from perfect pearls…For the same amount we could have gotten a nice set of earrings/necklace or a bracelet at their store.

BICYCLE THE ISLAND

As in the previous Tuamotus, we had to sightsee the land at least a little bit. Hotel has bikes free for use, so we took them for a short drive.

Not much to see, but there is a nice church that was actually open and we did a little shopping at a local women owned boutique. We’ve heard there is a market on the weekends that is worth visiting, but that unfortunately did not coincide with our flight schedule. Fakarava, thank you for a lovely time!

MOOREA

This heart shaped island is one of the Society islands located 7 min flight or 30 min ferry ride from Tahiti. We fell in love with it on our honeymoon and for more info about activities you can find this my previous post.

Our flight from Fakarava to Tahiti was 3 days before our international flight home, so instead of staying in Papeete, we decided to go back to Moorea. This time we took a 30 min Terevau Ferry- it coincided with a sunset, so it almost felt like a mini sunset cruise! On the ferry we also started talking to a girl from France, who also came from Fakarava. We had so much in common that ended up hanging out in Moorea together for the next few days!

ACCOMMODATIONS

Before I go into the accommodations and the issues we had, I have to preface that Moorea is definitely hurting from COVID-19 and the lack of tourism. What was a thriving island two years ago is definitely not the same now. We saw Intercontinental Hotel bungalows boarded up and hotel shut down. It’s in prime location and yet clearly it did not make it, so expectations should be lowered.

Previously in Moorea we stayed at a super nice AirBnb. This time we decided to try the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa. We emailed with the hotel prior to the trip and set up the shared transportation from the ferry as well as confirmed that breakfast is included in our stay.

After the flight, ferry and the taxi ride we were exhausted and just wanted to go to our bungalow. The check in at 7pm was not as smooth as expected. First, the arranged transfer charged us double and demanded cash pay rather than it being charged to the room as agreed with hotel. Then the check in person claimed we don’t have breakfast included, despite him being the one on all emails prior, which confirmed the opposite. Then he assigned us a Garden bungalow as far as away from the water as possible, so when we looked at the map we asked to change- hotel is DEFINITELY not at full capacity. Front desk said he can move us closer to the water, at the same level bungalow with the pool, but for additional 50 USD a night! We agreed, though it did not seem reasonable.

When we finally got to the bungalow, we saw housekeeping coming out of it and placing a sticker on the door- Hilton uses that to claim that room is clean and inspected.

We got in, turned on the lights and AC and that’s when I noticed little ant looking bugs on the couch, then the floor AND the bed. They were everywhere and it was no chance we are spending a night in this room. This is our tenth accommodation in French Polynesia and we never had any issues with bugs.

It took almost another hour for them to give us another bungalow and by now we were considering leaving this hotel all together. Luckily the new one was clean (we frantically flipped the cushions and pillows looking for bugs), but we placed a complaint to the management first thing in the morning. This is not what the service you’d expect from a place that relies on tourists.

Luckily things improved once the morning came. We got the money back from the overcharged transport, enjoyed a buffet breakfast and I did my workout by the pool admiring mountain view.

When the manager’s assistant came in and heard our story, we were offered the upgrade to the Overwater Bungalow facing the sunrise.

Despite being tired of moving around, we agreed to switch and were very happy with this change. Last two nights in French Polynesia will remain as a wonderful end of the trip in paradise.

ACTIVITIES

To fully enjoy Moorea you need a car. Just like on our first trip we rented it from Avis. The place where you get the car is near the ferry terminal, but Avis will pick you up either from the airport or even your hotel. After you return the car they also drop you off either at the airport or ferry, depending on how you are leaving Moorea.

AFTERNOON AT THE COCO BEACH

Since we’ve circled the island, hiked and did all other activities two years ago already, we just wanted to return to the place we loved the most in Moorea- Coco Beach. To get there you have to call and set up a boat pick up at a pier close to the former Intercontinental Hotel. On our last trip this place felt secluded, however now it’s not so much of a hidden gem. It’s more of a well known gem based on the amount of people that were there already.

It is still incredibly beautiful, food was still amazing and the ice cream served in the coconut was still as delightful as we remembered.

SHOP/EAT OUTSIDE OF HOTEL

Being last few days on the islands, we wanted to do some shopping before going home. Moorea has plenty of boutiques, pearl and souvenir shops. You have to look for good deals though. We went into the Sab Pearls and the prices were so exorbitant that we wanted to laugh at their face. Just across the street though, Moorea Treasure had great deals and I got a unique ring made from the pearls I picked out for a very reasonable cost. Since we did not have time to wait, the lady that made the ring, delivered it to the hotel that same evening!

Another boutique I must call out- unique souvenirs and great quality bathing suits called Lendroit.

I have to talk about the restaurants, since we got great recommendations from our new friend Sohela. We had one dinner at the creperie in Hilton and it was hugely overpriced. Since we had a car, next two nights we made sure to make reservations outside of the hotel. One of the places was Holy Steak House.

Located a bit on the hill, offering nice views it also had exceptional dinner. Whatever you order, make sure to get their creme brulee for dessert. Served in a coconut it’s an absolute treat!

On our last night we booked a table at the Moorea Beach Cafe by Bruno Jamais. If you can, go there for sunset. Beautiful view and huge portions of food. We could not finish it, so we saved half for our next day lunch.

Talking about lunch- we only had it at the Coco Beach and at the Hotel Les Tipaniers restaurant. Very fresh and with a great view as well!

WHALE WATCHING EXCURSION

Unplanned and unexpected, this was the BEST last day of the trip. Humpback whales migrate from Antarctica to rest and mate in French Polynesia and August to October are the best chances of seeing them around Moorea. What a pleasant surprise! We were super lucky to be able to go on the Pacifik Attitude morning tour on literally the day of our international flight back.

They assured us that we will be back in time to catch the last ferry to Tahiti, so off we went! And WHAT A DAY! Not only did we see the whales from the boat- we were able to snorkel right next to them!

The guide assured us that we won’t be going in the water if he determines that it’s not safe, so we had complete trust that he knows what’s he’s talking about. It was a bit scary for me to swim with the big waves, but once we saw the whales, the fear evaporated. It was simply magical.

Mom, calf and another whale floating meters away from us- we felt pure joy and gratitude.

Moorea although has changed since our last trip, still holds a very special place in our hearts.

CONCLUSION

A trip back to our favorite country was by far the best surprise of 2020. Despite of all the issues this year has brought, we will forever treasure memories of these two weeks in paradise. We are very well aware of how fortunate we are to have been able to experience it and therefore eternally grateful for this opportunity.

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