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The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. – Isak Dinesen

She left out coconut water, but nailed the other three, so I’ll let it slide.

On a 2008 trip to French Polynesia, everyone on our day trip to a nearby motu (uninhabited island) was treated to a lesson in the Tahitian way to crack open a coconut. That’s my ex above at left, giving it a solid try over stakes propped in the sand.*

I was born, raised, and to this day live very close to water. No exaggeration, it runs through my veins via skin and lungs. Where I sit right now, water is on three sides of me: lake in front and side, and the Atlantic Ocean at my back.

Tonight’s post is like running water—what I think of, and remember, when I think of water.

Dripping water is such a welcome sight in late winter; a sign spring isn’t far away. This was shot in March 2011.

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That summer, and a family at the ocean’s edge. Everyone hitched their pant legs and skirts up to their knees and splashed around and laughed. They were really charming.

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Peony petals, sunk to the bottom of a thick crystal vase. The crystal and water changed the shape and color and blurred the edges of the petals. When I go into water, any water—from ocean to pool to bathtub—my perceptions change. Light refracts memories, edges soften around thoughts. I remember looking down at my hands and feet through the glassy salt water where I spent every single summer, and remember how reality shifted and blurred, in a half-sleepy way, the way it feels after massage or yoga. When I finally came out of the water and the sun dried the salt water on my skin, it left a sparkling shadow. It always washed off in fresh water, but the psychic imprint remained.

Does spending so much time in and around water explain my penchant for daydreaming, for going deep? For tangents…?

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The more chances water has to touch something, the softer the edges of that something become. This is lagoon sand, encircled by boulders placed there nearly 100 years ago. When ocean water comes in, it tosses and tumbles the sand against the rocks. It is delicate as baby powder, and the loveliest stuff I have ever had under my feet.

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The below was taken from the bow of a little crabbing boat I was in last summer on the Navesink River, which feeds from the nearby ocean. When the clouds went across the sun, the wind picked up, and the choppy water became a luscious deep blue-green, like an enormous, expansive, malleable semi-precious stone.

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Water that surprises: I was riding my bike into Asbury Park last summer to meet my friend Lauren for lunch, and I bumped along the boardwalk as I rode. The old boards were dark and damp after strong rains, with just enough footfall in them to create puddles, and I caught the sun yawning and opening its eyes in the reflections.

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Another surprise last winter, when I was watching my step across the icy apron of my building’s driveway, I spotted this big trapped snowflake. Fantastic surprise.

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Last April I blogged about fog.** Couldn’t help it. This is my road looking east, about three blocks to the ocean—a dreamy 360-degree universe of tiny salt- and fresh water particles hanging mid-air, brushing my cheeks and hair and clinging to everything I wore. I could not stay away from the beach that day, craving the paradoxical comfort of being enveloped by icy water, of not being able to see beyond a few feet, let alone of the horizon. It was nourishment for a very weary soul.

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Autumn leaves floating by on my lake, in 2010, and the contrast of black water on a dark afternoon against shocking color. I look at it and smell the lake water, full of rain and salt (from the ocean, again), and the intoxicating fragrance of decaying leaves. The lake is another flavor of peace.

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When I was little and playing at the beach, sometimes I would get a cut. And when I’d run up to my mom and show her, she’d always say the same thing: ‘Go stick it in the water.’ That was the rule; other kids were told the same. No Band-Aids for the minor stuff. They’d fall off in the sand and water, anyway.

There’s not a lot the ocean can’t heal.

Here it is a few summers ago, early in the morning and early in the season, a mess of sparkles and chill as the sun rises.

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Tonight, at the end of August, it was warm and pink-lit. I just rode back a few hours ago, and am typing this with my sandy feet stretched out in front of me, nourished outside and in.

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*Since I dehydrate easily and have gotten myself sick during August heat waves, I’ve taken to drinking coconut water liberally. Luckily I love it. Gatorade was my first effort in getting back electrolytes, and was sweet enough to embarrass New Coke.

**Fog blogged? Flogged? No, that would hurt.

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Helpful tip to nighttime travellers to Bora Bora: Be smarter than we were and bring a pocket Mag flashlight, because the porters schlep all of the 80 some-odd suitcases from the ferry on bunch of metal dollies, then unceremoniously dump them onto the dock and walk away. Without light you’ll be climbing blind with everyone else through the heap as if looking for your kid among a group of refugees; and even though yours is wearing an orange ribbon, so are 17 others, so good luck with that.

Kind of a dubious start to the last leg of the vacation, but unlike Taha’a, where we’d just left, the weather the next day was warmer and the sky sunny. Good omen—and, turned out, an accurate one.

Bougainvillea, Bora Bora

Bougainvillea in the morning light.

I had begun this voyage feeling pretty ragged, physically and mentally, the result of years of sickness (and sick of being sick). Bora Bora was the point underneath the pushpin of this whole nutty idea I had to span half the planet. I wanted to absorb that elusive je ne sais quoi, that whatever it was I needed, body and soul, from the blue water I had heard about. I started stitching my wounds back on Mo’orea, in the ray water, and I finished here. I wasn’t 100% healed, but I felt as though what needed attending, what needed dressing, had been. It’s been said that sometimes healing comes from unexpected people, places and things. This felt like a beneficent conspiracy between my psyche (overwhelmed, exhausted, but apparently still intuitive) and these islands. Why this blue, why these islands? Who knows? More to the point, who cares? It worked.

These pictures come pretty close to doing the color of the water justice, and I’m grateful, because I really wanted you to see what I saw. It’s a profound, otherworldly blue. I live on the NJ coast, just 3.5 blocks to the ocean. But the Atlantic is like McEnroe—he’s fantastic, but in the front of your mind is always, always the knowledge that he could flatten you at any second.

In contrast, the coral reefs that surround French Polynesia prevent anything more than low tide-sized waves. They lap against the white sand all day long, like a friendly Shih-Tzu, drawing you in. When you do, when you stand out in the middle of the water, you don’t have to fight it. It accommodates you, this astonishingly clear aquamarine color rippling around your waist. You can look straight down to the ocean floor at your feet, at shells, and at any errant, vibrantly colored fish.

Click on this shot…lean toward your space heater (what I’m doing right now as I type this) and get your feet wet with me.

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Below is a good shot of the stripey water. It announces the water’s depth: the darker, the deeper.

Hammock, Novotel Bora Bora

At the Novotel Bora Bora Hotel, looking out to sea over one of those groovy infinity pools.

We visited these islands in the austral winter, in late May-early June. ‘Windswept’ is the best way to describe Bora Bora’s Neverland-like dreaminess, and this image illustrates it well.

Windy day, Bora Bora

Some self-important travellers call this island ‘Bora Boring’. I’ll grant that you do more or less have to be a water/watersport person, or a content-to-lie-on-the-beach person, or a deep-pocketed person who can afford the 4×4 tours that take you into the heart of the island to see maraes and World War II cannons. Nightlife is zipola. There’s not much of a town to speak of. We spent most of the travel kitty on the motu picnic back on Mo’orea, so doing anything pricey here was out of the question.

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Excuse me, but why isn’t US currency so awesome looking?

But I say more or less because we really were happy just to wander. Each morning we walked along the only traversable road, the one that encircles the island, about a mile away from the hotel. For breakfast we ate wonderful croissants, slices of fresh baguette and local fruit and drank mango juice. Once, on our way back to the hotel, we took the beach instead of the road and looked for shells. Another day we took a walk into town and bought a little sack of vanilla beans and a couple of necklaces from a lady under an awning. Turns out the island attitude as well as the water had soaked into us, and that attitude’s name is RELAX.

Local color, Bora Bora

Local color.

When I remember Bora Bora, I think of vignettes, little freeze frames that reveal the unique flavor of the place.

I think of a little boy, about five years old, getting into his mom’s car. All he was wearing was a grin—not even shoes—and he was what my own mom would call brown as a berry. Going around starkers in public is something I will obviously never experience, but with my fair complexion, neither will I know the freedom of never having to wear sunblock. Every day of my life I wear it, and always will. I envied him.

I think of a stray dog we saw on the street one day, standing in a deep puddle, looking into it and wagging furiously. There must have been a fish or a crab in the water, and he was totally entertained, just walking back and forth with his muddy paws, trying to anticipate where whatever it was would go next. It was adorable. And I think of another stray dog on the beach, barking and wagging at a woman. Turns out she was throwing a small coconut into the water and he was retrieving it, over and over.

I think of the local guys zipping around on mopeds, doing stunts that would have driven Evel Knievel to take up stamp collecting. First they’d peel out down the road, then they’d do wheelies, and then they’d stand on their seats at the same time. One guy after another. No helmets. Laughing. I kept wondering if I was destined to remember Bora Bora as the island where I saw a man die right in front of me. Thankfully it never happened. Never, either, did I see cops or law enforcement of any kind. The attitude on Bora Bora is not just RELAX but also laissez faire.*

And I think of the food. Some of it is meh (like pizza crust, predictably frozen), but pizza toppings were always good. The Mai Tai Polynesia Hotel had a pie covered with ham and hot, fresh chunks of sweet local pineapple. For dessert we had their delicious banana tatin with a dip of vanilla ice cream.**

Baguettes in grocery store, Bora Bora

Baguettes for the taking in the local supermarche.

One place we frequented for dinner had lousy service (Michael likened it to our 1998 Orlando, FL visit to a Waffle House, which shared its philosophy: ‘Committed to getting you the hell out of here as quickly as possible’) but we kept going to La Bounty because their chocolate cake was outrageous. Dense, creamy, flourless, topped with hot fudge and chopped almonds and pistachios. And it was warm. And it came with a little pitcher full of creme anglaise, because if you’re eating this cake anyway, why just dip your toes in when you could be swimming in happiness?

I sound like I’m exaggerating. I’m not. The island was settled by the FRENCH.

One place we went to was a certified home run—food, service, atmosphere—and that place was Bloody Mary’s.

A board outside showcased all of the famous people who have eaten there. And this guy was right outside the door. At night he gets spotlighted in green.

Tiki, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Bloody Mary’s has sand for a floor and lacquered wooden tables and stools. They also have an incredible cheeseburger, appropriately named ‘The Jimmy Buffett’, and equally incredible local coconut ice cream.

Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Wooden stool, Bloody Mary's, Bora Bora

Cool close-up.

We had the place to ourselves for the most part until an inevitable feral cat wandered in, as laissez faire as management. He was quiet, but effectively communicated his opinion on the best place for cheeseburgers.

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Pigs. Share.

As enjoyable as the food at Bloody Mary’s was, the bathrooms were even better. The one for les femmes was outfitted with a sink made of pebbles that went right up the wall. No taps. When you pulled a chain from the ceiling, after a beat, water trickled down in a wide stream from the top pebbles into a basin in the center. This thing KILLED me.

Pour les hommes: Well…I’m told the urinal featured a phallic flush pull-chain.

Hanging at home on my wall I have a vintage printer’s rack in which I display rocks from famous and unforgettable places all over the world. From this trip I have a rock from the water beneath our bungalow on Mo’orea, a lava stone from a marae on Raiatea, and a cement-like rock from the garden in the bathroom at Bloody Mary’s. Sentimental sap, me.

Leaving Bora Bora

*Something I forgot to tell you that further proves this point: In our room at the Club Bali Ha’i on Mo’orea, on the wall was a framed letter which in very polite language stated something along the lines of, ‘We realize there may be uneven stepping stones on some of the paths here, or there may be some overhanging branches over others, or that your room walls and floors may have exposed pipes, etc. Please take into consideration that what is construed as dangerous where you are from (most visitors to Tahiti are Americans, Australians or Japanese), it is not necessarily construed as dangerous to islanders. Please try to relax and have a good time.’

**French Polynesia does way better with restaurant desserts than the US. They not only taste better, but they’re a better value. A basic US restaurant will want $7 or more for their desserts, and in my experience, more often than not, it’s a sugary, chemical-laden, very recently boxed and frozen little sliver of something onto which is piled cheap ice cream and pretend whipped cream. Your gracious restaurant hosts are betting you will be too impressed/distracted by this quaking, amorphous blob to notice that they’re stiffing you and giggling about it in the kitchen. On these islands, for all we knew they might have served us some frozen desserts. But even if they were, they were bloody good quality, and for the equivalent of $7 or so you got a lot for your money.

By the way, if you are very reasonably wondering why I haven’t posted any pictures of the food we ate on this trip, it’s because we took the trip when I was not yet a food writer. Being a lifelong writer and a lifelong, rabid foodie, though, I took copious notes about WHAT we ate. Thank goodness.

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January’s been typecast as cold, gloomy and bleak as a dungeon. Well, it earns every adjective. Time for an imagination vacation.

In 2008, after several years of being almost totally debilitated from stress, images of Bora Bora kept popping into my head. To put an even finer point on it, I was dreaming of the color I imagined the water to be—turquoise blue, impossibly beautiful. This color became a nearly all-encompassing obsession; I didn’t just need to see it, I needed to rub it into my skin like lotion, I needed to let its essence sink into and saturate my very bones. Lucky for me, at the time I was married to Michael, a guy who was game for anything. We figured we were exhausted already—me from being sick and him from taking care of me—and in need a change of scenery, so why not travel halfway across the world?

We packed two small rolling suitcases, a backpack full of food for the trip out, and a camera. Then we walked to the train station a couple of blocks away in our little beach town and ended up in an archipelago in the South Seas. Six and change hours from Newark Airport to LAX, then nearly 8.5 hours to Papeete, in Tahiti. From there, we would puddle jump to Mo’orea, then to Raiatea and Taha’a, then end on Bora Bora. We decided to see the other islands when we learned they offered black pearl farms, vanilla plantations, jungles and astonishing beauty. If we were going to take the trip, we wanted to see it all. Two weeks, five islands, and nearly 48 hours of that time crossing a continent and the huge bucket of water called the Pacific.

Why would anyone do this, especially in the shape I was in at the time? I can’t explain it better than this: I was desperately hungry for that blue. I still don’t really know why. I knew the whole idea sounded crazy. (Our arrival at the airport in Papeete did a lot to confirm this: We were greeted at 5a by two mildly hysterical guys playing tiny guitars.) But we did it anyway.

Very happy to report that I did find my blue; and as is so often the case, I found a lot more on the way. You know me well enough to know where I’m going with this, right? (Vague hint: Boy howdy, did I eat well.)

First…Mo’orea.

View of Moorea from plane

View from the window of the six-seat plane, a ten-minute flight from Tahiti.

The thing about culture shock is sometimes it’s a good thing. Both Tahitian men and women go about their daily lives with a little flower like the one below tucked behind one ear. No one thinks of it as a female thing. No one questions the men’s sexual orientation. It occurred to me on the first day in French Polynesia that any meaning people assign to flowers, or colors, or clothes, or anything else is subjective and arbitrary. And it also occurred to me that when offered the chance to cast off the assignations we happen to have been taught, it’s quite liberating.

Tahitian gardenia, Raiatea

Tahitian gardenia–delicate, fragrant, and tasty, too. Stay tuned.

The natives there move slowly, laugh heartily, and don’t seem to worry about anything. They also have a charming way of speaking. They don’t just say ‘Iaorana’ (ya-RAH-na, with a little roll on that r) as a hello or ‘Mauruuru’ (ma-RU-ru, same little r roll) as a thank-you. They singsong it: ‘Iao-RA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…mau-RU-ruuuuuuuuuuuuuu.’  It takes a long time for them to finish talking but it’s a lot of fun to listen to. And it forces you to slow down.

We stayed at Club Bali Ha’i, near Cook’s Bay. Our bungalow had the coolest 2×2 foot window in the floor so you could see fish swimming underneath. It even had a light so you could watch at night! But the camera didn’t get the full effect. Bummer.

No TV, or clock, or phone in the rooms. If you needed something from the desk, you walked there. But you had to do it before something like 10 at night because Georgina at the front desk went home.

This was the view from our deck, late one afternoon.

Late afternoon, Moorea

The little hotel restaurant, the Blue Pineapple, served fruit platters made with local bananas, pineapple, papaya and watermelon along with wonderful grilled tuna (what they call ‘lagoon fish’). But one evening we took a half mile walk along the road that encircles the island and found a little roadside place that served pizza so good that we went back every day. Yeah, I know, the idea of any pizza, let alone good pizza, in French Polynesia is a nutty idea. And let me further impress upon you that it was a shack, just a counter—no bigger than the french fry deals on the NJ boardwalk. But what a shack.

The place was called Allo Pizza, the French-speaking kid who worked there was maybe 19, they had no real refrigeration and by all rights we should have died from ingesting some evil microscopic, Pacific Island, singsonging, flower-wearing organism, but their pizza was so incredible that it nearly made me weep. I should have taken a picture—forgive me—but I’ll tell you my favorite was Le Marseillaise, topped with fresh tuna, chopped capers, tomato sauce, garlic, herbes de Provence, Parmesan and anchovy.

Incidentally, when I say fresh tuna, I don’t just mean it was local. I mean the Allo Pizza shack was across the narrow street from the beach, where fishermen would hang their catch from a makeshift rack and wait. Over the course of the day, people would drive by, choose one of their enormous fish, pay and drive off. The Allo kid did this too. The distance was about the same as you going out your front door and down the driveway. Fresh tuna. Fresh fresh.

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Waiting for a buyer.

One night we tried Allo’s homemade chocolate mousse. Who would eat chocolate mousse served on a dusty road from a pizza shack on a sandy dot in the middle of the Pacific? Us. They don’t call it French Polynesia for nothing. It was perfect.

Cats have a rep for sleeping most of the day no matter where they live. But on these islands they go for the gold. The kitty below, who hung around our deck, is not dead. He is doing what he was born to do: beg for leftover bits of anchovy from my pizza, and summarily pass out for the rest of the day.

Cat, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One of the selling points of Mo’orea was their swimming-with-sharks expeditions. (This is a part of the crazy that I didn’t tell you earlier. We read that you go out for the day on a small boat and jump out–as into the water—to see reef sharks and other fish. The sharks have no history of attacking anyone. Of course no one ever asked a shark to sign an affadavit swearing he had never attacked anyone, but we took the people offering the trip at their word and signed up. The organizers have such confidence that no one will die at the viselike jaws of a shark that they don’t even call it a swimming-with-sharks expedition. They call it a ‘motu picnic’, a motu being an uninhabited island, and one on which we’d eat when we were through.)

The itinerary read, ‘it includes visit of our 2 bays, fish, shark & ray feeding, snorkelling, barbecue on one of our nicest islet of Moorea…rice & pasta salad, fish, chicken, fruits, bread, rhum maitai, beer, juice, water and a coconut show with a lot of time for snorkelling and relaxing!’ So apparently no one dies. Look at all the food you get when you’re done hyperventilating!

Actually, for some reason I was not worried at all. I was stoked, beyond excited. Saw the first dorsal fin and yelled ‘shark!’, cueing Bruno, grinning host, to open his cooler full of lagoon fish and start hacking off pieces to throw to the hungries. He threw it at a distance, while we were to jump, snorkels and cameras at the ready, maybe 10 feet away.

They suggest jumping in as soon as possible ‘before you lose your nerve,’ they said (or if you didn’t leave logic back at the hotel). Michael ducked underwater, came back up and I asked him what it was like. He said, ‘Absolutely f***ing amazing!’

It was.

Reef sharks, Moorea

Zillions of kinds of colored fish, maybe a dozen sharks—it was like being inside an aquarium. I was never afraid. Don’t know why. Sometimes a shark would swim my way, face first, and come within maybe five feet of me. Then it was a little unnerving, but that’s all. They always turned around to eat the cut-up fish.

By the way, that set of legs and fins in the photo belongs to a kid who actually swam among the frenzy, shooting the video which you could buy later. Mhm.

Next we sailed to a shallower area and jumped out to wait for the rays. Before we left we were assured that the type we’d meet were not the type that killed naturalist Steve Irwin, that these did not have stingers. (Similarly, it’s not as if they had a list of rays that had registered to stop by, but we believed them. And they were right.)

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He looks menacing, but they were very friendly—too friendly sometimes, like a yellow lab that’s just rolled in something gross and can’t wait to tell you all about it. You fed them bits of fish from your fist, but you had to be sure to tuck your thumb inside your fist or they’d try to slurp up your thumb. Enormous, some of them, several feet across.

Here I am in ray water, only about four feet deep, and clear as glass. In the travel journal I wrote, ‘It was a huge feeling of blueness.’

I found it.

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This is the view right over my head of the sky and a Pacific tern enjoying his day….

Pacific tern, Moorea

…and the view from the beautiful motu where we had our picnic.

Motu, Moorea

Here are the guys who were asked to try to crack open a coconut Polynesian style. Not too successful, but they had a good time. (Eventually Bruno got the coconuts open, shredded some of it, tossed it in the air and yelled, ‘Tahitian snow!’)

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Bali Ha’i, shot from the boat on the way back…the real deal.

Bali Ha'i, Moorea

One day we drove the circumference of the island, marvelling at the spectacular mountain peaks, turquoise and cobalt striped water, and palm trees grouped as densely as forests…

Coconut palms, Moorea

…and eating. Les Antipodes (Restaurant Creperie) served savory and sweet crepes. ‘La Chicken’ was outstanding, chicken in a white wine/bechamel sauce, as was a crepe with hot pineapple and caramel. Polynesian + French influences coming together, and it was inspired.

Carameline’s, a little bakery you’d miss if you sneezed, served banana and pineapple pastries with a buttery, buttery, tender crumb.

We passed a lot of the enlongated mailbox-looking units below and asked a passerby what they were. Can you imagine?….They’re baguette boxes. Baguette eating is such a way of life on these islands now, a ritual picked up from the French newcomers, that many have it delivered daily the way we have mail, and the way we used to have milk, delivered.

Baguette box, Haapiti, Moorea

One afternoon we hiked in the jungle at the center of Mo’orea and saw moss-covered rocks, marae (places of ancient worship), sinewy tree trunks…and chickens. I’ve noticed wild chickens love the tropics. We trekked deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle before turning around. Here I got nervous. This wasn’t a Monmouth County, NJ park near a major highway; it was about as remote a place as you can possibly get. And the deeper you went, the darker it got. Before we left I took this shot of a leaf in a shaft of sunlight.

Leaf in sunlight, Marae site, Moorea

On our way back, we stopped at the Lycée Agricole (Farming School) where the students there make the most delicious things from what they grow, using nothing artificial. Went delirious over their homemade pineapple/soursop (cherimoya) juice and very kicky citron sorbet. Another day we went back and had (below) three scoops of the most exquisite ice cream I have ever tasted: vanilla, gardenia (yes) and banana…all from local fruits and flowers.

I’ll talk more about vanilla when I post about Raiatea and Taha’a, but in my journal I called the banana (there it is on top) ‘an avalanche of banana!’ And the gardenia is hard to describe—lovely, floral (of course), and very strange, but in a good way. What can I say. Gardenia ice cream.

Ice cream, Lycee Agricole, Moorea

Back at Club Bali Ha’i they kept us entertained. At 5:30 almost every night one of the owners, Jay, a thin, wiry, extremely friendly guy, came out for the very casual Happy Hour. Originally from from Long Island, he and his partner Muk Mc Cullum—‘The Bali Ha’i Boys’—came here in the 1950s with plans to become vanilla plantation owners. They became hoteliers instead, inventing the over-the-water bungalows and having a really, really good time. He drank two little bottles of tequila and told us about the early days, when he and Muk spent much of their time here ‘H & H’ (hammered and happy). At 77, I asked if he had any regrets. He said, ‘Regrets? Yeah, I have a few. I regret that I didn’t come out here a decade sooner.’

On Monday nights, if no one shows up to the crab races in the lobby by 6, one of the employees walks around the grounds with an empty crab bucket and bangs on it and yells, ‘Crab race-eeeees! Crab race-eeeees!’

Crab races, Club Bali Ha'i, Moorea

It’s raucous and silly but really fun, even though we lost every race—300 francs, about $4. The crab bucket guy goes and finds crabs for the races, which is easy because on Mo’orea they are everywhere, the way squirrels are for us—on the beach, yes, but on the grass, along the sides of the roads, everywhere. He writes numbers on their backs in chalk and people place their bets. If we spent too much time hemming and hawing, he’d call out ‘hava-TEEEEEE! hava-TEEEEEE!’ (‘hurry up!’).

I learned the way to pick up a crab and not get pinched: You put your fingers on their backs between their pincers and their back claws. They can’t turn their pincers around, so you’re set. (Full disclosure: the guy asked me to pick one up but I refused. What a chicken. I’ll swim with sharks but I won’t bloody pick up a crab? That’s it. I’m going back to do it. 🙂 )

I saw these hibiscus on a windy evening, and had to chase them to shoot them. They were really beautiful.

Fallen hibiscus, Moorea

Puddle jumper to Raiatea and Taha’a next week.

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1) Neck pillows rock.

It was a red-eye flight across the Pacific, 8 hours and 20 minutes. Are you old enough to remember when coach seats let you tilt back? Well, it lives only in your sweet little memory, kids. Most of coach these days lets you tilt a couple of inches—no more. Using the pillow gives your head an almost-decent place to rest, letting you get some sleep.

2) So does sticking to carry-on luggage.

Especially on a trip like this. I opted to break up the flying to avoid sitting on one airplane for 14 hours, but that also meant travelling for a longer overall time. The trip from the train, to a shuttle, to an airport, to a plane, to another airport, to another plane, to a ferry, to a shuttle bus would have flattened me  were it not for the ease of taking nothing but one small LL Bean rolling suitcase and a bag of food. So you wash your t shirts each night—no biggie. You’ll grin like a village idiot when you walk past the bleary-eyed throngs of people at the luggage carousel. And you won’t have to pay to check anything.

3) The easygoing lifestyle on the islands permeates everything.

In two of my hotel rooms, I had no phone, no clock, and no 24/7 front desk. Remember hakuna matata (‘no worries’) from The Lion King? You’re about to live it. This is good–you are there to relax, after all. Ask questions politely, get your answers, then try to chill. The first couple of days are the hardest. Then you’ll get so used to it you’ll even feel a little smug.

4) Smoke gets in your eyes.

And (with apologies to The Platters) in your lungs. Polynesians like to burn things. Coconuts, tires, their dinner in a dug-out pit in their yards–lots of things. I had a couple of nights on Moorea that were relentlessly smoky. If you’re sensitive, have asthma or another respiratory problem, you have a few options: splurge for an over-the-water bungalow, where the constant breeze will keep the smoke away; splurge for a fancy hotel, which tends to be a ‘bubble’, away from the surrounding community; or if you’re a layperson like me, just check that your hotel room is well-sealed. Thatched bungalows aren’t. When driving, watch for billowing smoke up ahead and roll up your windows till you’re past it.

5) Stray animals are everywhere.

All of the animals I came across were friendly and tame. But when driving, keep a lookout for dogs, who are as hakuna matata as the locals, and either wander with abandon into your path or don’t move from where they and their pals are sprawled in the street. Cats commonly walk through the open airports, into restaurants (yup) and into your room if you leave the door open. You’ll often see geckos (okay, not exactly stray animals) in your room. Some are tiny and extremely cute. They are shy but very quick. Keep suitcases closed to ward off stowaways.

6) Beware of online travel info that implies you can do anything in Polynesia without an expensive guided tour.

I have always rented a car in my travels and mistakenly thought it would serve me 100% of the time on the Polynesian islands. On Moorea, it did, for the most part. The marae (stone temple) hike and the view on Belvedere were memorable and accessible by car. But the hidden waterfalls I had read about are not only dry in May, but the road up was atrocious. Same goes for the vanilla and pineapple plantations. Raiatea boasts the tiare apetahi, a flower that grows nowhere else on earth, and the online tourism sites welcome visitors to go see it. But when I got to the island, I learned it requires an 8-hour, crack-of-dawn, guided hike up a steep, rocky mountain. And that’s when it’s actually in bloom. Bora Bora has WWII cannons, but they are only accessible by paying for a tour to get you there.

I splurged on a Moorea shark/ray tour and a Taha’a vanilla tour. If you can afford a lot of tours, or if you’re perfectly happy beach-bumming each day, you’ll be fine. I needed more to do, and felt hamstrung a few times b/c the interior of the islands are pretty much impenetrable without a tour.

7) Along the same lines, water activities are king.

The islands have a little shopping, some nice beaches and a lot of great food, but their real ace-in-the-hole is the water—sailing, snorkeling, motu excursions, and diving. With a few exceptions, the surf offers far more possibilities for fun than the turf.

8) The cheaper rental cars are stick shift.

Juuuust a heads up.

9) Mosquitoes and no-see-ums.

I didn’t encounter many of ‘ums. The Internet gives varying reports of critters on Polynesia that would put Dracula out of business, but I never had a problem. The trip was in late May and early June ’08, the beginning of the dry season, so that might have been a factor, plus home for me is the beach/lake, so I’m used to swatting the odd bug. The only time I found them troublesome was after hiking the interior of Moorea, which was as jungle-like as the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Some travelers might be more sensitive. If you’re one of them, pack bug spray.

10) Travel guides aren’t always on target.

The Frommer’s 2008 guide recommended the “ice cold coconut milk” at a store in downtown Raiatea and listed the hours of operation. It took me two tries to get into the place because the Frommer’s hours were inaccurate, and then I was disappointed when I saw coconut milk wasn’t even on the menu. It’s minor, but this type of things happened a lot while travelling through the islands.

11) The weather was more fickle than Liz Taylor (God rest her soul).

I know, Polynesia is paradise. But sometimes it rains in paradise. Pack lightweight, roll-up-able raincoats. It can also be very windy. Bora Bora was sunny, but the wind never let up, so the beach was chilly at times.

12) There are no sidewalks.

None of the islands I visited–Moorea, Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora—have sidewalks, and some streets are very narrow. Watch out for locals speeding by on scooters. They even do wheelies and stand up on those things. No joke. Admittedly fun to watch…but from a distance 🙂

13) Learn a little français before you go.

The locals speak both French and Polynesian, and most speak at least some English. Having said that, it helps to have some French in your back pocket, especially the days of the week (for understanding weather reports and days of operation) and other basics. Remember, the more remote the island, the less likely locals will know much English. And here, what the heck–some Polynesian: “Hello” is Iaorana (yo-RAH-na, with a little roll on the ‘r’, as in ‘senorita’) and “thank you” is Mauruuru (ma-ROO-roo, and roll the ‘r’ again).

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