French Polynesia- Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and the rest- is almost heartbreaking in its deep, rich sense of peace and beauty. And a major reason for all of those factors is in its sheer, splendid sense of isolation. Those beautiful little islands sit way out in the Pacific, like a string of emeralds flung at random across a sparkling blue carpet.
And that isolation is also its greatest problem as far as European tourism goes. For our American friends, the journey is a minimum of eight hours’ flying time from Los Angeles. From Australia and New Zealand, Tahiti is a not too bone numbing five hour haul. Oh, but from Europe…..
All told, we are talking about a mind boggling journey of around twenty four hours. And that is a huge part of the reason why I put off going for so long; the notion of being stuck in economy for most of that time was more than I could contemplate.
Yet, when push came to shove, the journey out and back turned out to be much better than I expected.
I flew to Paris via Heathrow the night before my long haul(s), and stayed at a passable airport hotel that offered pretty much what it said in the online description, which was fine. I slept well enough, and that was all I was expecting.
Next day found me checking in at Charles De Gaulle for my Air Tahiti Nui flight. First, there would be the twelve hour leg out to Los Angeles, where we would debark for a charm free, two hour customs and immigration session. That done, we would get back on the same plane (which by that time had been completely cleaned, and re-crewed with fresh staff) and begin the final, eight hour slog out to Papeete.
Air Tahiti Nui flies big, beautiful A340 aircraft on it’s flagship route. The economy cabin is decked out in shades of pale blue, with seats arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, and a seat recline of thirty one inches. This was fine for my five foot six inch frame but- as ever- those taller should be aware of the pitch. The airline also offers business and first class cabins, but I never got to sample those.
The food was extraordinarily good; equal to business class on some flights I’ve flown. A menu was presented beforehand, and a first drinks run made once the plane was airborne. There was plenty to eat, and the meal came with a good choice of wines. While I did not take any of the spirits on offer, I noticed that these- again complimentary- were free poured from full sized bottles, as opposed to the plastic miniatures so prevalent on many of today’s legacy carriers.
Air Tahiti Nui also offered small, 200 ml bottles of sparkling wine throughout the flight that were so welcome. Once the main meal had been served and a second drinks run offered, the charming and very attentive service staff then set up carts in the crossways on a help yourself basis. Among the offerings were sandwiches, ice cream, and an open bar.
Each seat back had an on demand video system, though the selection, while passable, was nothing like as extensive as offered on transatlantic carriers. It was, however, completely changed during our layover in Los Angeles. As I had packed a couple of new books to read, the in flight entertainment was never going to be a deal breaker.
The seats were quite comfortable and, to my utter amazement, I got a good few hours’ sleep crossing the Atlantic. And, while customs in LA was at best a charm lite experience, it did at least allow for a welcome stretch of the legs. This transit area is more than a bit grim, and totally bereft of any shopping, except for a rudimentary snack bar.
The shorter, eight hour haul out to Papeete also passed before I really had time to take it in. Again, a combination of good food, wine, reading and fitful snoozing wafted me across the Pacific and, to my pleasant discovery, towards a late night landing in a fabulously sultry Tahiti.
After my marvellous cruise on the Paul Gauguin, the same journey began again, save in reverse. I would apply the same general comments as above to that return journey. But I’d also note the following points, too.
The inclusion of ‘little things’ like printed menus and the constant availability of galley snacks made a big difference when all came to all. Sometimes, the smallest detail can elevate the mundane experience to something far more pleasant and bearable.
I managed to grab an aisle seat on my flights out and back, on one of the twin seats. So there was not so much disturbance from people constantly wanting to be in and out of the seat next to me. Result; more relaxed and happy me.
For passengers from Europe, French Polynesia is a full eleven hours behind GMT. Try and get a good night’s rest on arrival. The odds are that your body clock will be shot to bits for the first day or so after you arrive.
It is only fair to mention that check in for your return flight at Papeete’s 1960’s hangover of an airport looks like a bit of a train wreck. The lines are long and, as there are sometimes two big flights leaving at the same time, the whole check in process seems interminable. Also- for those that have mobility issues- be aware that both boarding and de-planing in Tahiti is carried out via steps brought up to the plane on the tarmac. There are no air bridges here, and little in the way of shopping and restaurant facilities. That said, the decor is pure 1960’s; the interior of the airport here could well have been Gerry Anderson’s inspiration for Tracey Island, home base of his famous Thunderbirds.
My forebodings about making such a long journey were completely wrong; a product of my own over active imagination. If offered the same trip in a few weeks, I would go at the drop of a hat. The islands of French Polynesia really are worth the journey. Having done it once, my suspicion is that you will want to return.
And, of course, if money is no object, you can really splash out, and go business class, or even first. Lovely.