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French Polynesia

Polynesia is the area of oceanic islands from Hawaii in the north, to Rapanui (Easter Is) in the east to Aotearoa-New Zealand in the south.

Polynesia (from the Greek for “many islands”) is a collection of over 1,000 islands spread over a region of the Pacific Ocean covering an area equivalent to North and South America combined. Polynesia was first populated some 3,000 years ago, when a people known as the Lapita journeyed eastward from New Guinea, arriving first in Tonga and Samoa.

Roughly 2,000 years ago, these Polynesians journeyed across thousands of miles of deep ocean to populate the Cook Islands, the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, Hawai’i, Easter Island, and finally, New Zealand.

There, in what’s known as the “Cradle of Polynesia,” a distinctly Polynesian culture developed over the course of a thousand years.

Early Polynesians probably journeyed all the way across the Pacific to South America. That’s the only ready explanation for the presence all across Polynesia of sweet potatoes, which hail from South America. Further evidence: Throughout Polynesia, the word used for sweet potato is kumara—the same word used by the Peruvian Indians in South America. © The Exploratorium, www.exploratorium.edu

French Polynesia is five separate groups of islands (the Society Islands Archipelago, Tuamotu Archipelago, Gambier Islands, Marquesas Islands and the Austral Islands). It is made up of 121 individual islands and atolls within these chains.

They sit in the South Pacific Ocean about half way between Australia and South America. Combined they stretch over 2,000 kilometres and have a total land area of 3,500 square kilometres, with a population of a bit over a quarter of a million.

The Society Islands include the major islands of Tahiti, Moʻorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora and Huahine. The archipelago is believed to have been named by Captain James Cook during his first voyage in 1769.

The Tuamotu Archipelago are a chain of just under 80 islands and atolls that constitute the largest chain of atolls in the world, extending (northwest to southeast) over an area roughly the size of Western Europe. Their combined land area is 850 square kilometres. The major islands are Anaa, Fakarava, Hao and Makemo.

The Gambier Islands are a group of islands that are remnants of a caldera with islets and a fringing reef. They are generally considered separate from Tuamotu due to different culture and language.

The Marquesas Islands are one of the most remote in the world with Mexico (about 4,800 kilometres away) the closest continental landmass.

The Austral Islands are the southernmost group of islands in French Polynesia with a population of around 7000 across almost 150 square kilometers.

Our foray into French Polynesia was to take us into the Society Islands particularly Raiatea, Tahiti and Moʻorea but missing out on Bora Bora and Huahine.

Raiatea Island

 Raiatea is the second largest of the Society Islands, after Tahiti. It is widely considered to be the birthplace of Polynesian culture. Regarded as the ‘sacred’ island and birthplace of the gods the island houses numerous archaeological treasures.

The first island in the region to be inhabited, it is also home to the most spectacular and important marae in the Polynesian Triangle.

A marae is a fenced-in complex of carved buildings and grounds that belongs to a particular iwi (tribe), hapū (sub-tribe) or whānau (family).

According to the blurb, the marae of Taputapuatea, was once the center of religious and political power in all of Polynesia, including Hawaii, New Zealand Easter Island and the Cook Islands.

The island has a regular population of under 13,000 people. Our landing saw us greeted by the typical bands, flowers and dancing displays before being let loose on a pretty small, but incredibly clean and friendly township.

There was not a lot to do in town and we had not booked a wider island tour so we wandered the streets, checked out the (exorbitantly priced) shops and generally just poked about the very pretty township.

We found our way down to a local swimming spot, not far from town, and had a fantastic dip in the ocean pool. As some of the first off the ship, we were among the first to the swimming hole and had a great half an hour before the hordes began to descend on our little hidey hole.

Sadly we (well Jill really) had a clash with (possibly) the worst type of human being that exists, the bogan Aussie mother. She and her tribe of boganettes came in and took over the entire area, moving other people’s stuff around so that her mob could have the shady area under the tree, despite others beating them to the location. And from here when Jill called her out for her rudeness she then wanted to pick a fight.

A charming display of Australians on vacation.

Papeete, Tahiti

Papeete is the small (under 30,000) capital of French Polynesia. The name Papeʻetē means “water from a basket”. It has a tropical climate with a distinct wet and dry season.

Our entry to Papeete, Tahiti was less than stellar as we arrived on a wet and rainy Sunday. As is usual on a Sunday throughout the highly religious Polynesian region, everything is shut and very little is going on. This meant that in no way did we see the best of Tahiti and more particularly Papeete.

But what we did find, was yet another incredibly clean township, beautifully maintained and filled with a friendly and welcoming population. As almost everything was shut, there was very little to amuse ourselves with other than to wander through the immaculate parks and gardens that were on offer in the township and more specifically along the shoreline.

An amazing thing that we discovered was an area between the shoreline and the Marina (only a few meters wide). Here the Tahitians had been submerging artificial reefs in the already developed areas to try and encourage the sea life and coral back into the areas that they once likely inhabited.

While the town was closed, Tahiti did treat us to one of the best sunsets that we have had for quite some time.

Moorea Island

Moorea is one of the most scenically striking islands in French Polynesia. and was our last stop in French Polynesia. Located only ten nautical miles from Tahiti, it is easily accessible and a favorite destination for couples, families and locals.

We had a snorkelling tour organised which saw us off the ship and on a smaller boat for a snorkelling adventure. The first thing was to head back to the boat to watch the show put on by the local Spinner dolphins. So we saw several small groups of dolphins leaping from the water and doing various types of acrobatics along the way. This was also the way our Maldives day went so the early signs were that this might be a good day out on the water.

Next stop was to a small area that had a ton of sting rays and black tip reef sharks. And there were plenty there to see and they were not shy with the humans.

As usual, I was one of the first out of the boat and while trying to climb down the stairs an overly inquisitive stingray of about a meter diameter decided that I was his friend and tried to mount my leg while I tried to enter the water. My knowledge of stingrays is limited, but I do know that one of them killed Steve Irwin.

And here I am on a set of stairs, wondering if it is going to move so I can jump in the water without landing on it and pissing it off. Long story short, it didn’t move, I shoved it aside and jumped in the vicinity of clear water (and did not get barbed). From here on we were set upon by stingrays (likely looking for food) and had the Black Tip Reef sharks swimming much closer than I had imagined that they would.

The next stop was to a pretty flogged out coral garden that was more trampled than garden. But the water was clean and there were a few small parrot fish bobbing about. But sadly not a shadow on the Australian offerings. A bit later on we got to see (but sadly not swim with) some turtles as the boat bobbed along close to shore.

French Polynesia was nice. It was very pretty, well maintained and beautifully clean. Added to this it was obscenely expensive with some fairly limited cuisine options (at top dollar). The waters are clean and the people have a great attitude towards littering with none to be seen. And importantly, they really seem to care about the oceans and the state and health of the waters.

It was nice to see (on a cruise ship transiting) and we would happily come back, but it is unlikely to ever feature as somewhere that we would aim to come to again. It is a long way from anywhere, with not much on offer and while it was great to see, we would not pick this as a destination island, preferring many others long before this.

Palau Perhentian

As part of our ongoing monster commute, we headed out of Kuantan and hopped another bus to some random little spot called Jerteh. Happy to report that the bus standard went up considerably back to the standard that we first had. The organisation at the bus terminal however was atrocious.

There are about 6 gates, servicing 12 bays. However all but one of them are closed. So you end up with about 70 people (and their luggage jamming up the only access point listening intently to the guy yelling out which ones can board (in Malay). Even if you happen to catch the call you then have to try and fight your wat through to get to the platform.

Jerteh is a dot on a map around 15 km away from where we were spending the night (Kuala Besut) and we had no idea what transport arrangements were available to get us the last 15km. This was of some concern to me as the idea of walking that far in extreme heat was very unappealing.

As it turned out it was very simple, there was a waiting taxi, who charged a fair price, and dropped us straight to the door. The only real challenge was the absolute shitbox that we drove in. This has not been mentioned yet, but many of the cars in Malaysia are rubbish and should be taken off the road or put out of their misery. The Malaysian local builds are the Proton and the Perodua, and having ridden in many versions of both, they are trash.

The roads themselves are excellent and (for the most part) are of a better standard than we enjoy in Australia. But the cars are crap.

We got to our dodgy little homestay in Kuala Besut (which was ok but super simple) and headed out to find dinner. Unlike the Mersing dramas, it was a very easy and pleasant experience. Having found a nice little restaurant by the water we had a nice meal, well-priced, but with no option to have a beer. So we headed towards our Malaysian default, fresh lime juice.

The next morning we were up, on a ferry and on our way to Palau Perhentian. Another 60m walk from the jetty to our accommodation and another 3 days of beach and snorkelling to look forward to. We grabbed some lunch while waiting for our room to be ready, dropped off our bags and headed out for a snorkel. And within metres of where we were was coral and fish aplenty.

That night we did not do our research properly and thought (wrongly) that there was no beer to be had nearby and that the closest place was the next beach over. The only access to this was to hike a jungle track over a mountain to get to the next beach. We did this, amid much swearing, the emphasis here is more jungle than track. At one point Jill slid down the hill on one of her more fleshy parts while my dodgy football knee hated every second of this. Anyway, we got to the next beach, found the restaurant, had a very poor and overpriced meal (with some beers) and negotiated a boatman to drive us back rather than brave the track at night. The price was double during the evening than the daytime. So we paid our $3.40 and sat calmly in a boat back home.

The next day we mentioned it to our hotel and was told that where we were staying was the only one that didn’t sell beer and that the 3 others happily did so. The jungle track was never seen again. After breakfast we were picked up by our boat at 10am and were off. The trip took us to Coral point, Shark point and Turtle point. No prizes for guessing what we got to see at each.

There is no way that this place could not deliver. Even I got to see and swim with two huge turtles (about a metre in diameter). This time they were not one of Jill’s mythical beasts. This came along with some 3-4 foot black tip reef sharks. The usual fish and coral, a bloody good day.

Importantly we stopped at a restaurant on the way back to have one of the best meals that we have had on the entire trip. Beachbox is a boutique hotel/restaurant that does a single-item menu for each sitting. If you want it you order it, if not, go someplace else. And be sure to book, because everyone wants it, it is that good. But we ended up eating here twice and they were both spectacularly good. Our first foray was a lamb pie and the second (2 days later) was the fish. Absolutely the best restaurant on the island.

The next day we were going to have the day off but instead jumped on the Rawa tour which took in a ton of more snorkelling, to different locations and ended up seeing (surprisingly) coral, fish, baby sharks and the same turtle as the day before. We knew it was the same turtle as it had clearly had an adverse run-in with a propeller. The sharks this time were tiny (50-70cm ) and the contrast with the sand made them a bit tough to get a good picture of.

The one thing that Jill has been doing is identifying and making notes on great places to come back to. And the Maldives, Tioman and here in Perhentian have all made that list. While our commute to get here was unruly, it doesn’t need to be, and with an easy commute these places represent good value and a nice way to amuse yourselves for a week or two.

Mersing and Tioman

Mersing is a transit town for those people that are heading to Tioman Island. As a transit town, it is very popular as everyone must funnel through here. We figured that if we were coming that we should spend a day or two and look around.

To be fair, it was in the middle of Ramadan so virtually everything was closed. Perhaps, under normal circumstances, it might be worth visiting. But for us that was not the case. In reality, the place we stayed was fantastic, with great internet and an owner that couldn’t help enough. He even brought us free meals (as everything was closed for Ramadan), on two separate occasions, and would not let us pay.

On arrival (around dinner time) we settled in, found out where the restaurants were, and headed out for a walk.  Headed to the restaurants to find that they were closed, and that none, within a reasonable vicinity, were/or would be opening that day or for the next few. So we found where the shops were and aimed for them (about 2-3km away) in extreme heat. We wandered our way to the shops. On the way we came across the dying remnants of street stalls and I managed to purchase the last thing that was available for sale – a roti john.

Now, a roti john is a local dish, unique to the Malay Peninsula, that consists of a long bread roll that is used to soak up an omelette,which is then topped with onion and smothered in a particularly local tomato sauce and mayonnaise mix.

We then found the shops and picked our way through the supermarket landing on some bread, jam, eggs and butter before heading home.

I settled down to my roti john only to find it entirely unappealing, both visually and otherwise. Being the last item available for sale it may well have been sitting there all day before I came along. And it looked and tasted as though that may have been possible. In fact, upon opening of the parcel it looked as if it may have even come pre-chewed and pre-digested.

From Mersing our friendly inn keeper drove us to the pier so that we could make our ferry across to Palau Tioman. Two hours later we arrived on the island to find that our room was about 60m from the pier, facing straight out onto the ocean. It was simple and basic, with a balcony.

In doing her research, Jill found that Tioman was a duty free island and if we went for a (short) walk we could buy some well-priced alcohol (something we had rarely seen since leaving Vietnam). So we set off, in 32 degree temperatures, on a day that felt like 38, in full sun. The short walk was more like 5 km and I had melted and sweated through every item of clothing that I was wearing. It is an island, I tried to dip into the water but the only spot that I could access (along the walk) had sharp rocks and I could not get in.

The path was narrow and was regularly traversed by motorbikes, meaning you had to mount the railings to let them pass – or be run over. Their version of a speed bump was a strip of nautical rope laid and pinned across the path. So we kept walking, eventually we made it to the shop, only to find that nothing was that cheap and that anything that we bought we would have to schlepp all the way home.  We grabbed a few beers and headed back.

The next morning we hopped on a tour and headed out to do the round island trip. This involved stops at deep bay, Asah waterfall, Tomok island, Renggis island and Soyak island. Importantly, we got to swim with black tip reef sharks (about 4-5 feet long) and the usual assortment of reef fish. According to Jill she swam with a turtle for about 25 minutes. This was at Soyak Island where the guide told us to do a lap. Being nothing but obedient, I started swimming and snorkelling to do the lap and totally missed the turtle. Jill, who was behind me, saw the turtle and abandoned any thoughts of doing a lap.

This has become a pattern whenever Jill and I snorkel together. We snorkel along and see the usual fare of parrot fish, angel fish etc and when we separate she returns asking whether I has seen the unicorn, the griffon or anything else she can dream up. It seems that all of these magical creatures turn up when I am nowhere around. My response is usually that I missed it and then she raves about how good it was. In the mean time I saw coral and little fishies.

The main issue that we had here on Tioman was that it was the last few days of Ramadan and that almost all of the restaurants were closed and those that stayed open were packed and only had a limited supply of food and an abridged menu. That said, we did not go hungry and were able to have some really lovely meals. The highlight of these was Jill’s foray into what was called a “Shell Out”. Pretty similar to the Philippine “Boodle Fight” but in individual portions. The “Shell Out” was a mass of different seafood (with your choice of sauce mild-spicy) piled in the centre of your table, served with rice.

Backing the snorkelling up day on day we were off on the Coral Island trip. This involved Malang Rock, Tulai Island, Salang Village, Soyak Island (again) and Monkey Bay.  Usual story, lots of fish and coral to see and a bunch of underwater shots. Once again others in the group saw the turtle and I missed out (again).

Given that visibility is not always the best for photographing the fish we see I thought I would grab some better photos off the internet of the fish that we regularly see. These include (clockwise from top left) the angelfish, banner fish, barracudas, parrot fish, sweetlip, rabbitfish and the ubiquitous parrotfish.

Leaving Tioman started what was to be a monster transit that took us the better part of 3 days to get to our final destination. The timing and linkage between transport services and our low trust in timetables and scheduling meant that we spent a lot of time transiting. The ferry from Tioman to Mersing was easy and comfortable. The bus station was about a 2km walk but we had 6 hours to kill while we waited for our bus, so we decided to walk it. It was another hot day and we sweated considerably. A few days earlier (when we arrived) we saw that there was a food court at the bus station so figured that food would not be an issue.

Have I mentioned the end of Ramadan yet…well this kicked in in earnest. Virtually everything was shut. The exception was 2 little take away shops selling chips and drinks, any other option involved doing the 2km walk back to near the dock. Having lugged our bags one way we did not relish the idea of doing it two more times. So we sat, read books, did crosswords, listened to music and waited. Finally (6 hrs later), the time came and our bus came to get us.

Having given a rap on how good the Malaysian buses were, we were met with one that shot that idea down in flames. Clearly, not all companies are equal, and we had an almost 4hr crappy ride that saw us delivered in Kuantan at around 9 pm. Given the time, we stopped for the night (taxi from the bus station to a hotel) and steeled ourselves for the next leg.