Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happy 40th Birthday to Me: Tahiti and Bora Bora

Sorry about the non-Brewers content here but many of you asked for pics and info on our vacation and I thought that this would be a good place for a vacation recap. Just to give you a small amount of Brewers content, I'll give you this story.

The news of Ryan Braun's failed drug test hit ESPN's bottom line when Seth and I were on vacation in San Diego (December 2011). We were in our hotel room at Torrey Pines, innocently watching ESPN and I saw it. I felt like vomiting. Seth has insisted that it ruined our vacation. (To be fair, I had a fairly bad cold but this is how Seth likes to remember it.) As we prepared for this vacation, Seth and I were grabbing dinner at a local bar. I saw Braun's name flash on the bottom line. He was now somehow linked to the Biogenesis Clinic scandal. Upon seeing that note on the bottom line, Seth turned to me and without missing a beat, said, "Ryan Braun is not ruining THIS vacation."


About a year and a half ago I informed Seth that we would be spending my 40th birthday on a tropical island. After briefly considering other tropical islands (and nearly booking a hotel that was accessible by helicopter only) we found a travel agent that specialized in the South Pacific. She helped us plan a three-night stay in Tahiti and a three-night stay in Bora Bora.

Day One: Travel Day (Part 1)
To break up our travel a bit, we decided to fly into Los Angeles the day before our flight to Tahiti. I had enough frequent flyer miles to cover our round trip tickets to LA and to spend the night in a hotel near the airport with a free airport shuttle. (One of the few perks of traveling a lot for work.) Plus, this allowed us plenty of time in the event that our flight was delayed or canceled--which turned out to not be a problem.

Day Two: Travel Day (Part 2)
It was recommended that we arrive at LAX three hours prior to our departure time for an international flight. This turned out to be at least two hours before we really needed to show up. It took us about 15 minutes to obtain our boarding passes, check our luggage, go through security and find our gate. We flew Air Tahiti Nui to Tahiti. The flight was fine--it left on time and arrived on time and every one was very courteous. It was an 8.5 hour flight so we had time to nap, read and watch a full-length movie. We were given flowers right after take-off so I was in the mood for a tropical island from the very beginning. And, unlike domestic flights, they actually feed you full meals. Our flight was full of elderly people, including the memorable couple who sat behind us. The Mrs. yelled at Mr. fairly often to remember to brush his teeth, put in eye drops, etc... Every time that the beverage cart went by, Mrs. asked for "white wine and black coffee"-- a comment that never failed to crack her up.

Tahiti is four hours behind central time so we arrived in Pape'ete (pronounced pa-pay-EH-tay), the capital of French Polynesia, at Faa'a (pronounced Fah-ah-ah) International Airport at about 7:30 p.m. local time. It appeared as if it had just rained before our arrival and it was quite steamy. We were greeted at the airport and driven to our hotel, the Intercontinental Hotel Resort Tahiti. We had a lagoon view room at the resort (as opposed to an overwater bungalow). After we dropped off our belongings in our room, we went to the Tiki Bar where I feel that I forever changed Seth's life. I introduced him to Hinano, the local beer.

The hotel presented us with a gift of a pareo (sarong) because we were also celebrating our anniversary even though it is in March. The pareo was a nice touch. For the rest of our trip, I told Seth that he needed to wear the pareo as a gift to me.
Our arrival in Tahiti. The camera lens fogged up from the humidity. 

Day 3: Pool Day and An Ill-Advised Walk
We woke up to a beautiful day and were at the pool by just after 8 a.m. We decided that we'd spend the day at the resort and relax. We spent several hours at the main pool and took advantage of the free equipment available from the hotel. Seth obtained snorkeling equipment for us that we used in the salt water lagoon aquarium. The lagoon aquarium was next to the hotel pool and was not open to the ocean. It was a nice way to be reacquainted with snorkeling in a fairly controlled environment. If I had to pinpoint the minute that I stopped thinking about work and everything back home it was probably while snorkeling. A large tropical fish swam toward me. And then another one. And then another one. I became so focused on the color and movement of each fish, I was unable to focus on anything else. By the time Seth and I decided to return the snorkels, I was in vacation mode.
View from our hotel room on our first morning in Tahiti. Moorea is in the background.
Main swimming pool.
Salt water aquarium.
Seth at the pool.

First fruity drink of the vacation.
After a lunch that included my first fruity drink of the vacation, neither of us wanted to go back to the pool. Given my pasty white skin, I needed a break from the sun. Seth looked at a map and said we should go for a walk. I think that we both thought that we'd walk to a place that would be sort of touristy. Instead, I think we made an incorrect turn. We ended up walking back past the airport. After witnessing a hand-to-hand transaction, as well as a number of unleashed mangy dogs, we thought it best to head back to the hotel. By the time we returned, I was a hot, sweaty mess. And sunburned. It would become a trend.

After our "nature" hike through the mean streets of Faa'a, we rested for a bit in our nicely air conditioned room. As our Lonely Plant "Tahiti and French Polynesia" guide stated, "February is one of the hottest months" and "[In February] it's hot and it might be raining." That evening, we hung out in the Tiki bar and then decided to try the buffet at the Tiare restaurant at the hotel. Perhaps it was the time change or the heat, or maybe it was because we'd spent several hours in the Tiki bar drinking rum punch and Hinanos, but the food was underwhelming. We ended up leaving before the dinner show started. Island life is slower because it has to be. It is just too difficult to do too much in the heat and humidity. I was ready for bed and I think that I slept better than I had in months.

Day 4: Waterfalls and Swim-Up Bar
This was my favorite day that we spent in Tahiti. Over breakfast, we decided to try to go on some sort of excursion, so we spoke with the concierge at the hotel. Seth handed her a few brochures, she pointed to one, Seth said yes, and then she got on the phone. She made some arrangements in French. (While nearly everyone that we encountered spoke English, most people's first language was French.) She hung up and then said, "come to lobby at 9 with suit, towel and cream. It get hot and you'll go swimming." After a bit of deliberation, Seth and I determined that cream is sunblock.

After coating our bodies with cream and bug spray, we met our guide in the lobby for our 4x4 safari experience (with Marama Safari). He informed us it would be only us on our tour so we belted ourselves into the bench seats in the back of the truck and we started our tour. Our first stop was Mahina and the northern most point of the Island. After a while, we exited the comfort of the paved road for a much more rugged path into the Papenoo Valley. Rather than spend a lot of time trying to explain what we saw, just check out these pictures. I did pretty well until our trip out of Valley and to the hotel. I did my best to take deep breaths and not puke. I am prone to car sickness.
One of the trees on the northern point that when aligned with another tree showed sailors due north.

Me and Seth at Mahina. 

These pictures don't do this justice. Just stunningly beautiful. 

Getting ready to go swimming.

These don't grow on the rocks. It fell off the tree. This was my attempt at artsy photography.

Visiting a marae, a Tahitian sacred place of worship.

Not sure if you can see this but there are a number of small children hanging off this jeep. The driver looked to be 14 and was drinking a beer. I appreciated the lax tort laws in French Polynesia.

We finished our day at the swim up bar at our hotel. I spent a significant amount of time hanging on the edge of the infinity pool starting off into the ocean and watching some crabs move around on the rocks below us. Big exhale.
Infinity pool. 

Swim-up bar and infinity pool.

More pool.

Trophy husband.

I'm going to mention dinner here for the singular purpose of saying that it was weird. The hotel had a number of projector screens up where it showed a number of shorter movies. One appeared to be about homophobia and a soccer team but none were in English and there were no subtitles so throughout dinner Seth would make up his own narrative about what was happening in the movies.

Day 5: To Bora Bora
We left Tahiti in the morning and caught a flight to Bora Bora. We made one other stop and it took us just over an hour so we arrived in Bora Bora at around 12:30 pm. (Bora Bora is about 140 miles from Pape'ete.) We were met at the Motu Mute airport by a representative from our hotel who helped us arrange to have our luggage put on the boat that would take us to our hotel. I thought Tahiti was beautiful so I was not completely prepared for Bora Bora. It was simply breathtaking. Again, I won't write a lot here but will simply post pictures of the boat ride to our hotel, which is on Matia Point.
View from the air plane.

Our transportation to our hotel. Yes, the water is really that color.

Mount Otemanu.

Once we arrived at our hotel, the Intercontinental Bora Bora Le Moana Resort, we were greeted by one of the hotel employees that checked us in and then showed us to our overwater bungalow. While there was nothing wrong with the service that we received in Tahiti (very comparable to what you would receive in the US; some super friendly people; some who clearly would rather be somewhere else), the service in Bora Bora was outstanding. All the hotel workers greet you with Ia Orana (pronounced yo-rah-nah), which means hello in Tahitian. Every one. Every time. They make it a point to learn your name and greet you accordingly. For the trip I was Mrs. Anderson. And that was OK with me even though I didn't take Seth's last name and don't recall ever being called Mrs. Anderson prior to our trip. In addition, you are thanked with the Tahitian mauruuru (pronounced mah-roo-roo) every time you ask for something. Order food. Mauruuru. Rent some bikes. Mauruuru. Order a Hinano. Mauruuru. Order more Hinano. Mauruuru. Although we were treated very well, the service is generally slower than what we get in the U.S. As I mentioned previously, things move a little slower in FP so we just kicked back and had another Hinano.

We spent the afternoon swimming off our bungalow and hanging out on the deck. Prior to dinner we went to the hotel bar for a cocktail before dinner. We met the bartender, Francene, at this time. We spent a number of hours with Francene over the next few days and it was nice to get to know her and hear about her life. She was kind and funny and gave us plenty of advice on things to do. When she learned that it was my birthday, she quickly brought me a fruity drink. Our first day in Bora Bora was my 40th birthday and I could not have asked for a better birthday. At dinner, the wait staff brought me a lovely birthday cake with a candle. It was quite amusing to watch the staff light the candle and then discover that no one knew how to sing Happy Birthday in English. After much panic, they brought the cake over and sang to me in French. Joyeux Anniversaire to me!

Walkway to our bungalow.
Our bungalow.

Our bathroom. Very nice and very modern.

Our room on Bora Bora. 

Day 6: Lagoonarium
We took two excursions on our first full day in Bora Bora. The first excursion was to Vaitape, the island's main settlement, to go shopping. The shops ranged from those with typical touristy picture frames, shot glasses and t-shirts to high end pearl shops. As we checked out some of the goods at an open air market in town, Lady Gaga was blasted over the radio. Hmmm... overpriced souvenirs and Lady Gaga. It felt just like the US. I ended up purchasing a dress with some hand painted flowers on it.

View from Vaitape.

Do we look like tourists?

I feel like a tourist, drinking my Coca-Cola Lite. It's supposed to be the equivalent of Diet Coke but it tastes like Diet Pepsi, which completely defeats the purpose. 

After lunch we went on our Lagoonarium excursion. We were picked up at our hotel by a truck and then taken to a boat that we took to the Lagoonarium. The Lagoonarium is a family run business. We were picked up by Bob, who drove both the boat and the truck. At one point, our boat ran out of gas. Bob seemed to say a lot in French that I didn't understand. I began to look toward shore and wondered whether I could swim that distance. Bob seemed to be joking around, however, and produced a gas can after fretting for a few minutes. When he walked by me on the boat, he smacked me on the arm, smiled and said, "no problem, Americano."

At the Lagoonarium, we met the other guide, Joseph. Joseph made fun of my extremely pale skin (which would later become sunburned when the sun block washed off of my back while snorkeling). Joseph took us to the fish "pens" and discussed what we would find in each. One had turtles, one had sting rays (stingers removed), one sharks, one tropical fish, and the last had a mix of fish, sharks and rays. The shark pen included a five-foot long nurse shark. Joseph would assist you in grabbing onto the shark and going for a ride if you were so inclined. One of my lasting memories of the Lagoonarium will be Joseph, with his bleached blond hair, swimming along with the shark with a Japanese tourist being dragged along by Joseph. When I was standing in the water near shore, a ray came by and ran into my legs and knocked me on my butt. Following our snorkeling, Joseph and Bob put on a show by placing a pareo on each of the women and demonstrating a different way to tie and wear it. On the boat ride back, Joseph and another family member broke into song with a drum set and a Tahitian ukulele. Very fun day.

Our transportation that briefly ran out of gas.

Private beach where lagoonarium is located.

The lagoonarium. Note the "pens". 

Some spontaneous music.

One of our guides, Bob, after the pareo tying show. Yep, that's a thong with loin cloth that he is wearing.

On the ride back from the lagoonarium. We didn't do a very good job of getting photos of both of us. This is one of the few. I wish we would have gotten one of us when we were dressed up for dinner. Oh well, next time.

The hotel had a Tahitian dance show at dinner that night. After spending some time with Francene at the bar, Seth was kind enough to volunteer me for the audience participation portion of the show. Fortunately, he'd forgotten the camera in the bungalow. Since there's no way to prove this isn't true, I'll simply say that I am an awesome dancer and they asked me to be a permanent member of the dance show.

Sunset ...

Sunrise ...
(While I was taking the below photos, there was a couple at the end of the dock also taking photos. He was in a t-shirt and shorts, she was in a wedding dress and had one orange balloon and one red balloon in her hands. No further comment.)

One of the many sting rays we saw by our bungalow.

Have I mentioned how amazing the sky looked?

Mount Otemanu and Mount Pahia.

Day 7: Electric Bikes Rule!
In the morning we went to the concierge to rent bikes. The only bikes they had available were electric bikes. I was skeptical but they turned out to be awesome. You pedal like a regular bike so it feels like you're exercising but with each turn of the pedal, there is a burst of power. After a few minutes on this bike, I began to wonder if I could use one in my next triathlon. We took the bikes to the pearl shop, Arc En Ciel Bora-Bora, where I purchased a necklace and Seth a tie clip. We went to this shop on a recommendation from Francene. The customer service was outstanding and I really love my strand of pearls. Later we stopped at Bloody Mary's for lunch. In case you were concerned, Jimmy Buffet is everywhere. Seth and I had the cheese burger in paradise for lunch. We were having a fun time until Seth was attacked by mosquitoes so we had to get out of there as quickly as possible. When we were leaving the staff mentioned that they had bug spray so if you ever find yourself at Bloody Mary's be sure to ask for the bug spray.

The amount of time that I spent watching the sea urchins is somewhat embarrassing.

Glass top table with coral below.

Later in the afternoon, we obtained snorkel equipment and a kayak from the hotel and went snorkeling by a coral reef about a quarter mile from our bungalow. There were places to anchor the kayak near the reef. I couldn't get the snorkel to fit exactly right. I think if we go back, I might invest in my own gear. At one point, my mask started to leak and then I kicked the coral, which hurt. Fortunately, I only got a few nicks on my toe. The fish in the area were beautiful and I'm glad that we were able to do this.

That evening, we traveled by boat to the other Intercontinel hotel on Bora Bora, Thalasso, for dinner. The restaurant opened into the lagoon and it was a very beautiful setting. On our boat ride back to our hotel, we could see the milky way.

Day 8: Heading Home
Our flight back to Tahiti was scheduled to leave at about 7 pm so we spent our last day on Bora Bora at our hotel. I went swimming one last time in both the hotel pool and ocean. Because we had to checkout at 11 am, the hotel made a "transition room" available to us so that we could shower after swimming. Francene saw us waiting in the hotel lounge and brought us Hinanos, our last of the trip.

The public beach that was just on the other side of our hotel.


Waiting out a short downpour on our last day on Bora Bora.

One final look at Mount Otemanu before starting our journey home.

From Bora Bora, we flew back to Tahiti. Our flight from Tahiti to LAX left at about 11 pm local time and I had no problem sleeping most of the way to LA. Seth said he slept only about half of the flight. When we got back to LA, we were able to catch an earlier flight back to Minnesota, so we only had a few hours to wait at LAX. The only issue with our travel happened back in Minnesota where Delta lost some of the luggage for about 45 minutes. It took nearly 24 hours, but we were home.

Overall, it was an amazing vacation. We can't wait to go back and explore new islands--there's so much more that we want to see. We did a lot of the touristy things and I'd love to explore some of the "off-the-beaten-path" sites.