- French Polynesia is huge more than 1000 miles from Gambier Islands in the SE to Bora Bora in the NW. It is big enough for there to be significant differences from one area to another.
- There is enormous variety, both of landforms and settlement here. The variety of landforms can attributed to the fact that FP has examples of all of the stages of atoll formation according to the theory developed by Charles Darwin (yes, he did study things other than evolution). According to his theory, which is generally accepted, you need two conditions to exist. The first is a volcanic eruption sufficiently powerful to reach the surface. This is not a trivial requirement since the water is typically something like 13,000’ feet deep. We passed one volcanic cone on the way to Tahiti from the Gambiers which was a perfect cone about 1400’ above the water, but almost 15,000’ high in total – sort of like Mt. Fuji set on the sea bed. Volcanic islands are not very good to visit by boat because they lack protected anchorages – Easter and Pitcairn being good examples.
The next stage in the process is the growth of coral in the shallower water along the edge of the volcanic mountain – which requires water shallow enough for the sun to penetrate and warm enough for coral. The result is the gradual creation of an outlying reef with a lagoon in between the reef and mountain. If there are navigable passes through the reef you have an ideal situation with a protected waterway behind the reef and many possibilities for anchoring. Tahiti and the other Society Islands of western FP are magnificent examples of this. The Gambier Islands and Moorea are slight variations on this stage since what is above water are edges of a huge volcanic crater rather than the entire volcano. In the Gambiers, the islands you see are parts of the entire crater. In Moorea you see only the southern edge of the crater (see photos)
As time passes, small islands called motus can develop along the reef. Motus will rarely be more than a couple of feet above sea level but do provide an alternative place to live (or to anchor behind).
Given enough time though, the volcano will erode away or subside below sea level leaving only the reef, the motus, and the lagoon. Again a navigable pass is needed before these islands, called atolls, are much use to cruisers. The Tuamotus are atolls, ranging in size from less than one mile to more than 70 miles across. The lagoons of atolls are often jammed with coral heads that come close to the surface meaning that navigation can be tricky..
Settlement patterns also vary greatly. Tahiti is very, very busy with quite serious traffic issues while Mangareva is so sleepy you have to keep checking your pulse to see if you are still alive. The only traffic issues were when half a dozen pickups and scooters would converge on the boulangerie to pick up hot baguettes at 5 pm. Moorea and most other large islands are somewhere in between.
This is the main (and almost only) street in Rikitea, the only town in the Gambiers with a permanent population. This might be rush hour or perhaps not ... it was very hard to tell
- Great beauty – The photos of Moorea show this wonderfully. We never got tired of looking at the crag in the middle of the island. It looked different depending on the light and the weather.
- Weather – I now know the name of the kind of storm that knocked us down coming here. It is a maramu (like the model of Amel sailboat) or possibly a super maramu. We also had one of these pass over us at anchor in Moorea. It seems to start with an occluded front spinning north from one of the nasty lows in the Roaring 40s. This is accompanied by one of the very big highs that exist between the southern lows. These highs, often above 1035 mb extend quite far north (to 20°S or even a bit further north). The result is a very steep pressure gradient. The worst part of the system are the winds from the south but you can get winds from other directions as well. For someone from the continental part of the northern hemisphere it is a revelation to find that high pressure cells can generate very nasty winds – where we are from, highs bring settled weather and little wind.
- This is such an expensive place in which to live. Other than baguettes, some cheeses, and solar panels we found no bargains here at all. The poverty rate is very high and it is easy to understand why. We walked down a back street in Moorea and found a large number of people living in shacks made of corrugated iron. At the same time the Porsche and BMW dealers seem healthy in Tahiti where there were people living on the street. You sense considerable resentment among poorer people and wonder how this might play out in the years to come.
- Currency – The unit of currency here is the French Polynesian France (CFP) which is worth a bit more than one cent. The result is that you quickly get used to large numbers of francs for everything. Since the exchange rate is about 85 francs to the dollar and most people find it hard to divide by 85 in their heads, you tend to divide by 100 and then add a bit more than 10% to the result –e.g. the banana split costs 950 francs, divide by 100 is 9.50 and add a dollar – it costs about $10.50 – and June decided she did not really want it after all.
The money here is also very large. The photo shows the largest FP bill – 10,000 francs or something over $110 compared in size to a US bill. It is too big for a standard North American wallet for sure. The silver coin (actually made of aluminum) is 50 francs – get a few of those in your pocket and you walk with a list.
- The economy is in very bad shape in FP. The two significant foreign exchange earners are tourism and cultured pearl production, both of which are dependent on a healthy world economy since no one really ‘needs’ a pearl necklace or a costly holiday in a distant spot. And holidays here can be very costly indeed. The specialty here are the resorts with individual bungalows over the water. Very nice, but very expensive with prices starting at about 80,000 francs a night, not including meals. This works out to almost US$1000/night and there are some that are much pricier – one on Taha’a is listed in Lonely Planet as starting at 104,000 francs (about $1200/night). With meals, the cost could be well over $1500 a night for a couple and FP’s traditional markets – Western Europe, US, and Japan all have bad economies.
Even if tourism and pearl farming were healthy one wonders how much FP would depend on subsidies from France. I suspect that there are more than a few folks in Paris who would love it if FP did go ahead with full independence (there is quite a bit support for the idea).
Pearls before they reach the world market. These were being sold by a man in Mangareva who buys them from the pearl growers and sells them to foreign buyers. He had a bucket full of pearls in the kitchen he uses to prepare food for the air flights that come to Managareva three times in every two weeks. The pearls vary enormously in quality, shape, colour and size - and price. His pearls ranged from about $10 to one large (17 mm), golden one at close to $2000. There are lots of poor quality pearls to be had very cheaply (a bottle of rum for a cup full). These ones will never be sold commercially. If they do not meet minimum quality standards they are ground to powder.
Pearls are a luxury good to be sure. The pendant in the front here was 225,000 francs or about $2600. In Japan or France it would be much more. A necklace of large pearls could be more than $10,000
Sorry for the poor quality of the picture, megayachts tied up at the marina in Tahiti. To give you a sense of scale, the 'small' sailboat furthest to the right is 118' long. The problem for Tahiti's economy is that there are not enough rich tourists - in yachts or coming in by plane to support the tourism infrastructure.
- Moorea is the first place we have visited where not everyone is friendly. We have run into people who ranged from unhelpful to, in one case, holding in a lot of anger. Don’t know the source of this (economic problems?) but it came as a shock after visiting so many places and finding so many friendly, helpful people.
- Polynesian people seem to fall into two categories – enormous or not. Most men and women over 30 are very big (not necessarily tall). In Mangareva where I visited the clinic every second day, there were many people who were much overweight and had troubles walking and even amputations (related to diabetes?). What is starting to happen with younger people though is a desire to keep their weight under control. The result is that there are lot of men and women who are remarkably fit and healthy looking and attractive – pretty much what you see in movies about the south seas. Whether these folks will put on 60 pounds when they turn 30 I don’t know, but I suspect not.
- You see beautiful flowers growing everywhere and they are used to replace jewellery and even hats in everyday use. It is not unusual to see half a dozen women on the bus going to work with a flower stuck behind their ear. Some older women wear a sort of wreath of flowers on their head like a hat.
- Pronouncing Polynesia words is easy, as long as you are good with vowels. I was given the advice that you need to pronounce every vowel separately so, for example, the airport in Tahiti, Faa’a, sounds sort of like you are singing a Christmas carol but have a mild speech impediment. The marina we stayed at was in a suburb called Punaauia, which is tricky enough to say when sober. When we were looking for the new hospital in Papeete, the man who gave us directions was not sure if it is was in Taone or Taaone – and finally decided it was the latter. We never learned if there also was a place called Taone.
- They have very interesting motorboats here. They range from around 18’ to 24’ with a good-sized outboard. The interesting feature is that the driver sits at the very front of the boat, where the boat is only 3’ or so wide. They steer using a vertical tiller from this position. I surmise that this design became popular because it gives the operator the best possible view of the water and the coral heads that are so common inside the lagoons.