While it may seem strange to post a report on a trip to French Polynesia in the BVI Forum, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities and contrasts between the two destinations as we traveled, and I thought perhaps it would be interesting to share our impressions. Despite being huge fans of bareboating in the BVI and owning a villa on St. John, I’ve always wanted to see Tahiti, and our 25th anniversary provided a good excuse to take the plunge.
Itinerary: The first major difference – for us at least – was in the time required to reach Tahiti vs. the time to reach the Virgin Islands. We departed Saginaw MI at 6:00 am Tuesday, and reached Tahiti at 9:20 pm local time, or 3:30 am EDT Wednesday for a total trip duration of 21 hours, 30 minutes. In other words, a long trip. We flew on to Bora Bora the next morning, and spent the next 3 nights at Hotel Bora Bora, before flying back to Tahiti and boarding the Radisson Paul Gauguin for a 7 night cruise of Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora, Moorea, and back to Papeete, Tahiti. Edge: Virgin Islands. WAY easier to get to.
Airline Access: The two primary airlines serving Tahiti are Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. We flew Air Tahiti from LAX on an Airbus 340-300, which is essentially Airbus's version of a Boeing 747. Nice enough, but despite being an airliner whose only purpose is an eight hour flight between the US and Tahiti, the seats were so close together that when the people in front of you reclined their seats, their heads were literally in your lap. Edge: Never thought I'd hear myself say this, but any of the airlines flying into the Virgin Islands would be preferable.
Islands: French Polynesia’s islands are some of the oldest on the planet, hence their unique geography which includes the remains of the original volcanic peaks and valleys surrounded by large lagoons with outer fringing reefs and islands called “motus”. The lagoons frame each island in a ring of turquoise water and white sand that creates an almost surreal beauty. Edge: As much as it pains me to say it, in their own way I think many of the Polynesian islands are even more beautiful than the Virgin Islands.
Beaches. This was surprising. Many of the islands have few if any sandy beaches, and the sand tends to be coarser and darker in color than in the VI. Edge: No question, the Virgin Islands have many more and nicer beaches!
Snorkeling: This one’s tough. While there are many truly world-class snorkeling spots in the Virgin Islands, I’ve never seen so many beautiful coral formations and so many fish virtually every place we went into the water. Edge: for sheer numbers of reefs and fish, variety, and ease of access, have to say Polynesia.
Sailing grounds: The same trade winds, for that matter, the same latitude as the Virgin Islands, just south of the equator instead of north. The difference is the lagoons around the islands. While the lagoons are large enough to leave plenty of room to hoist the sails and enjoy a reach or two, the fringing reefs and motus break all of the swell, and your choices of anchorage are almost infinite. You can spend several days exploring the various bays and inlets of each island, and never leave the protection of the lagoon. There are no mooring balls however, and very few restaurants on shore, so you’ll be cooking at anchor instead of grabbing a ball and hitting the beach for lobster, but hey, things are tough all over. Bora Bora is only 23 miles from Raiatea, but unlike Anegada, is high enough that you clearly see your destination as you leave the lagoon at Raiatea. The Moorings, Sunsail, and I think a couple of other charter companies all have bases at Raiatea. I gotta say, we’re really tempted…
Restaurants: Way fewer and farther between than in de ilons. Edge: Virgin Islands.
Culture: A startling contrast. The prevailing attitudes and (frequently poor) service in the Virgin Islands has been discussed here in detail, and I do not wish to start another such discussion, but it has to be said that the attitude of the Polynesians we encountered – from managers to wait staff to housekeepers to landscapers to folks just hanging around on the street – was without exception friendly and welcoming. Within hours of our arrival, we learned how to say “IaOrana!” (Good Morning or Afternoon, or Evening, it’s all the same word), “Mauruuru” (Thank You), and several other Polynesian phrases because virtually everyone you met greeted you with a smile and a hello, and seemed genuinely happy to have you about. And again, I’m talking about EVERYONE, not just hotel and cruise ship employees. Hospitality and friendliness are highly valued in Polynesian culture, and it would be hard to overstate the difference it makes in how a visitor feels as they interact with the locals. I’ve never felt so welcome anywhere in the world (even as an American!). I kept thinking that it would be great for every citizen of the Virgin Islands to visit Polynesia and experience the difference for themselves. I don’t mean to be hard on Virgin Islanders because I know the reasons for the behavior are complex, but man, what a difference it made in how you felt to not be pointedly ignored or even glared at by the locals. I’ve come to love and identify with the Virgin Islands, and it’s hard to see them be so lame in comparison to other islands when it comes to how they treat their guests. ‘Nuff said I guess, you all know what I mean…
Prices: OUCH! At least half again as much as in the BVI for virtually everything. French Polynesia freely admits it’s the most expensive destination in the world. Edge: Virgin Islands, hands down.
And finally, not a comparison really, but to complete the trip report:
Hotel Accommodations: Suffice it to say Aman Resorts’ Hotel Bora Bora is unique. Considered one of the best hotels in the world, guests stay in individual huts or “far’es” (pronounced FARE-ays), either on the beach or over the water. There are only 54 units on the property (some with private pools) and the service is personal, discrete, and more reminiscent of a private club than any resort we’ve ever stayed at. Since we’ve never stayed at the finer resorts in the BVI, I can’t compare, but they’d have to work hard to beat Hotel Bora Bora
Cruise: Radisson’s Paul Gauguin is a six-star luxury ship, relatively small with a maximum passenger capacity of 320. There were 308 on this particular trip, and it felt more like 50. On several of our shore excursions there were only six people, and the most was one tour with 16 along. As with the hotel, understated and elegant, with none of the usual corn-ball cruise ship hype designed to impress the easily impressed. I generally hate cruises (floating crowds from which there is no escape), but I’d do this one again in a heartbeat. If your interested in more details, check out www.rssc.com