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Trip Report A quick jaunt to WASHINGTON DC, CHICAGO, MOOREA FRENCH POLYNESIA - Oct 2013

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Hello Fodorites

This trip report is all about Moorea in French Polynesia but I'll start first with a quick summary of my time in the USA (highlights only)

*FLIGHTS: NZ to SAN FRAN to WASHINGTON DC *

Sept 25 - Depart 7.15pm NZ8 Akl to San Francisco. Arrive SFO 12.15pm (Wed 25th). Flight time 12:00 followed by :Depart 2.35pm VX90 (Virgin America) SFO to DC. Arrive 10.45pm. Flight time 5:10

AirNZ are a fabulous airline and their business class service from Auckland to San Fran is amazing. Taking Virgin from San Fran to DC is a much better option than United. The plane was clean and service friendly.

4 great days in DC with friends. Lots of fun and laughter had.

Followed by a couple of trains Amtrak B211FF Union Station to MD-BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Leaves 9.25am, takes 27 mins and then back on scungy United to fly to Chicago.
Departs Baltimore at 12.12pm, arrives Chicago at 1.13pm.

I'd recommend flying out of Baltimore rather than DC. Easy connections and much cheaper prices for me to get to Chicago from Baltimore than from DC. Well worth a 30 min train ride!

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    * CHICAGO - week one

    I spent a week at North Western University's Kellogg School of Management. A truly enriching learning experience and one I would love to repeat again soon. I cannot speak highly enough of the quality of lecturing provided.

    The first week was relatively uneventful, with the exception of a visit to the emergency department following an allergic reaction. It was a surreal experience being in the ED of foreign country and not one I would like to repeat. The quality of care was excellent and I await a particularly horrendous bill on my return. I am hoping that my travel insurance will cover it otherwise it will be a very quiet few months!

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    * CHICAGO - a few days in my old home town

    After Kellogg I reconnected with a dear friend and we enjoyed a lovely couple of days together in downtown Chicago where we had worked together 12 years ago when we were both young and wrinkle free.

    Poverty has increased dramatically since we lived there but Chicago remains a gorgeous city. The weather was a bit mixed but still warmer than NZ.

    We strolled around, had several great walks and even took part in a competitive run. Shopping was limited to a few must-have pieces which were happily supplied by NordstromRack and Neiman Marcus.

    Aside from reconnecting with my dear friend, the highlight of the visit was Chicago's Botanical Gardens. They are simply spectacular and one of my favourite places in the whole world. I saw the Autumn leaves changing and had a great walk around.

    The gardens are easily accessible with public transport. Approx 50 mins north by Metra train from Ogilvie Transport Centre to Braeside followed by about a 30 min walk. It turned out to be a 1.5 hr walk for me after I walked in the wrong direction ;) It was a glorious day for a stroll so no complaints from me.

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    Wed 9th October - TRANSIT DAY - CHICAGO to LA to PAPEETE, FRENCH POLYNESIA


    NZ9233 (operated by United) Chicago O’Hare to LA. Departs 10.48am, arrives 1.10pm. Flight time 4:22

    NZ4091 (operated by Air TahitiNui) Departs 4pm, arrives Papeete 9.30pm. Flight time 8:30.

    I'll be meeting my Mum in Papeete who will arrive direct from NZ. Words cannot express how much I am looking forward to this special time with my Mum. We will overnight in Papeete at the Tahiti Airport Motel before heading to Moorea by ferry on Thursday 10 October.

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    Thurs 10 Oct - AN UNEXPECTED SOJOURN IN OMAHA AND LOS ANGELES

    I think I jinxed my travel plans by writing about them with confidence. The plane from Chicago to LA was diverted due to engine overheating (that's airline speak for caught fire). Emergency landing in Omaha followed by, I kid you not, 3.5 hours, standing at the ticketing counter trying to get re-routed.

    I missed my connection to French Polynesia and now find myself in LA before flying at midnight tonight. It was an exhausting day.

    I'm now up early at 7am and getting ready for my tour of LA. Maybe they can help me see a side of LA that I haven't seen before. I'm hopeful about discovering a charming side.

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    Hi loveners -

    I'm enjoying your report.

    I hope the ER took good care of you.

    Sounds like you had an awful day...Omaha? I'll be interested to hear if you find a charming side in LA. I'm thinking not.

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    Hi Melnq8 - always good to know someone's out-there :)

    Whew! I think given a choice, a day in Omaha, Nebraska would beat a day in LA. I've tried really hard to like LA but the love just doesn't come.

    I spent the day on a Starline Grand Tour. Not so happy when the 7.30am pick up arrived at 7.10am. We spent 2 hours picking up other passengers before starting the actual tour at 9.45am.

    Being frank, the tour was a bit boring at times but I think that's because I prefer independent travel rather than tours. It was quite a large tour (I'd guess 70 punters) and after a while the low speed getting people on and off the bus got a tiny bit annoying. That, and waiting for late people who never seemed to be able to meet at the tour stops required rendezvous on time.

    I did get a good look at Hollywood and heard many Oscars/Academy tales and somehow seem to have purchased a mexican hand painted pot (what's a holiday without a awkward piece of breakable hand luggage?)

    The tour finished at 3.15 and then we had another 2 hours of drop offs. I felt like I had my hand in my pocket all the time with everyone expecting a tip. The driver and guide of the tour, pick up guy and drop off guy all making it clear they expected 20%. This on top of the $75 tour price, made for an expensive outing.

    That said, I think that if you find yourself unexpectedly in a city following an Airline issue, booking yourself on a tour is the perfect solution. Someone else has done the thinking and all you need to do is turn up. And it's a darn sight better than hanging out at the Airport / Airport hotel all day.

    5.30pm now. Almost time to repack, charge the tech and find out whether I really do have a ticket to French Polynesia tonight on Air France, or not... could be interesting. Wish me luck.

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    FRIDAY 11 OCTOBER: LA-PAPEETE-MO’OREA

    The Air France flight (AF76) from Los Angeles to Papeete, French Polynesia was smooth and uneventful. Don’t ask me what was served for dinner because I fell asleep before the plane even took off ☺, a first for me!

    I think I managed about 4.5 hours sleep which was fantastic. The plane was clean and there was enough leg room. I really wished the Frenchman beside me wore deodorant as it was pretty wiffy throughout. He was a large man and kept raising the armrest that divided our seats and even had the audacity to put his leg under the seat in front of me! Pretty unpleasant really. I’m glad I managed to get a little sleep as I think if I’d had to put up with him for the whole flight that we would have come to blows.

    The 11.45pm departure landed on time at 6am and it was lovely to be greeted by a wave of heat when leaving the aircraft. The welcome got even better with the sounds of Polynesian music playing. I was greeted by Air Tahiti Nui for the transfer to Moorea’s ferry terminal. They were very helpful and I would be happy to use them again. I was booked on a 8.10 Aremiti ferry to Mo’orea and with my early arrival, they switched me onto the earlier 6.40am ferry. Given my late arrival in French Polynesia, I was very grateful for this.

    Mum got a big surprise when I was let into the overwater bungalow at 7.30am, having been fast asleep.

    We have great things to say about the Sofitel Resort in French Polynesia and the excellent package that our NZ travel agent, Our Pacific, arranged for us. The resort was superb with a high standard of care, excellent meals, and an absolutely lovely outlook. The snorkeling off the bungalows was lots of fun. Having now experienced the joy that comes from staying in the overwater bungalow and watching the fish all the time, it will be hard to return to a garden room!

    We made our way to the breakfast and sat there enjoying looking out over the lagoon and contemplated the day ahead. It soon emerged that I had nothing to worry about with Mum spending a night alone at the resort. She had made friends with many of the staff who greeted her as an old friend or Aunty when she arrived at the breakfast table ☺

    We picked up our rental car late morning. It was arranged directly with Avis via email. We had a 4 day hire of a manual air-conditioned car for about 33k francs. The car was a fiat panda and went very well on the flat (a touch under powered on the hills but there aren’t many of those).

    We decided to head off for a drive around the bays and had lunch at Mo’orea’s Tropical Garden. On a Friday they make a traditional French Polynesian lunch which is fabulous. We had a bit of an adventure getting there, it’s up a very very steep hill. We had clearly eaten too much at breakfast and it didn’t quite make it up. It literally gave up when it only had about 1 foot uphill to go. I think if I had floored it, it probably would have made but we were so busy laughing that that wasn’t an option ;). So we reversed down the driveway to about halfway and parked the car in a small layby area. We were preparing ourselves for the hike up when one of the Tropical Fruit Garden staff came up on their 4x4 ATV so Mum rode up in style. I arrived panting in the sun. Very glamorous.

    We were there by 12.25pm and managed to get the last portions of the French Polynesian lunch. The price was around 1500 francs per person and we had a plate containing mahi mahi with vanilla bean sauce, a chicken and spinach casserole, poisson cru, banana, rice, taro etc. It was delicious. It was accompanied by fresh juice and some delicious sorbet. It is worth a visit to the Tropical Fruit Garden for the view over the Bay alone. Just spectacular. We loved it and had a really nice time there. Everyone was very friendly.

    After some more sightseeing we stopped by our old friends at Island Fashions / Ron Hall’s pearl shop. I had purchased a couple of pearls here about 7 years ago which have retained their lustre and also appraised very well. There were many beautiful pearls here although not the exceptionally large colour range on our last visit. We were thrilled to come out with a nice pair of pearl earrings which we will enjoy sharing. The team at Ron Hall’s pearls / Island Fashion are still lovely and I always appreciate the friendly help without the hard sell. Ron’s son was particularly helpful, as always.

    Dinner at Sofitel’s K restaurant was lovely. As is to be expected, overpriced. Prices in French Polynesia are pricey. Whilst French Polynesia can be done on a shoestring budget (I know, Lovener2 and I did it seven years ago bringing our suitcase of food with us and staying at Pensions), my recommendation is view the high prices as a ticket price for the viewing the gorgeous underwater life and wonderful scenery. I pay $20 to see a 1.5 hour movie about nothing at home in NZ, so I shouldn’t be too bothered if my main course costs $20 more than at home. I think taking any other attitude towards the prices will only be stressful. If you have budgeted for the holiday, ignore the prices and think of them as PT (Paradise Tax ;)

    We shared a delicious meal of a some large scallops and ½ lobster. The funniest moment came when the rather up-himself sommelier got his knickers in a knot. His first issue was when I politely hoped that he might fetch my Mother a non alcoholic drink as well ‘tzat iz not myz jobz’. Fair point but could have been handled more politely. Our next interchange came at desert time. I had made my selections but wanted a glass of desert wine to match. I discretely and politely signaled him over, only to have him launch into his second spiel which went something like this: ‘Eye iz a so-mah-lee-ayr, dozn’t ju knowz what zis iz? Eyez du naught take zee foooood orrrrderrrrrz’ followed by a virtual tutt tutt. I replied I that I was hoping he knew how to match the wine to the food because I had made my food choice and was hoping he might recommend a desert wine to accompany it. Maybe he was having a rough day or maybe he was an arrogant twat. I’m leaning towards arrogant twat. I must stress that the rest of the staff at the Sofitel were extremely courteous, well-trained and eager to help in anyway.

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    SATURDAY 12 OCTOBER (Happy Birthday Bro) – MO’OREA: SWIMMING & BELEVEDERE VISIT

    On Saturday we had a lovely lazy morning and Mum enjoyed her first swim of the new millennium. We saw lots of tropical fish and sea cucumbers. We came to love the overwater bungalow and had a lovely time taking dips off the deck. Just divine.

    Later we headed off with our newly found Australian friends to the Belvedere lookout and archeological marae. It was a great clear day and we had a tremendous view from the top. We later dropped our friends off at Ron’s pearl shop where they fell in love with a gorgeous necklace. It was an incredible multi-colour necklace with some creams, greens, purple and almost blue pearls. Rather lovely.

    After a little nana nap we headed off to Mahogany restaurant. We loved it. It was a busy Saturday night and the place was humming. We both decided on the steak which was cooked to perfect and full of flavour. It was accompanied by potato fondant (delicious, possibly the best I’ve ever had) and green beans. Mine came with pepper sauce and Mum seemed rather attached to her red wine sauce, judging by how liberally it was applied (and then reapplied). Very reasonably priced, approx. ½ the price of the Sofitel prices. We left with contented tummies and knowing it wouldn’t be long before we returned.

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    SUNDAY 13 OCTOBER: UNDERWATER ADVENTURES AT MO’OREA

    Not knowing what to expect, we booked ourselves a trip on the underwater glass-bottom boat. After a quick battle of wills with my water-shy Mum (it’s not a real holiday without one standoff ;), we boarded the great little boat. I was worried it might be a bit average and would be an enormous stuffy boat crammed with other tourists. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a small boat powered by an outboard (driven by a Softel staff member) which had an underwater cabin which sat below the surface. It was just like you were snorkeling but you were perfectly dry.

    It was so much fun. We were taken a long way offshore to see the edge of the Lagoon, saw a deep shelf and a lot of reef life. We saw big fish and little fish and tiny fish in all the colours of the rainbow. I couldn’t resist getting into the water for a snorkel too. The water was warm like bath water. We had a very happy afternoon. The 1hr hire cost about 11k francs but became very economical after we stayed out for several hours on such a glorious day. It was perfectly flat and the water incredibly clear. Quite exceptional really.

    We had a late shared lunch at the Sofitel café (portion sizes are very good and can easily be shared at lunch time after the enormous breakfast we seemed to consume each morning ;)

    I spent the remainder of the afternoon enjoying the sun lounger while Mum napped in the shade. I pretended to read but spent most of the time looking out across the lagoon. It is such a pretty outlook.

    At dinner time, the delights of Mahogany restaurant called again and we returned with our laugh-a-minute Australian friends. It was a great evening and another delicious meal. We shared some prawn springrolls to start and then each tried different dishes. The lobster and slipper lobster (like a Morton Bay bug/papillon), curry prawns, scallops and mahi mahi were all loved by the table. We finished off with crème brulee and icecream profiteroles. A lovely delicious and reasonably priced dinner. Yummo!

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    MONDAY 14 OCTOBER- What a day, the humpbacks were calling.

    I confess to being relieved to see the perfectly flat water when I awoke early on Sunday morning. I’m not sure if this was relief for me and the queasiness I seem to be experiencing in open waters these days or for the realization that getting Mum on the boat was at least going to be a possibility. I had mentally been prepared for having to say goodbye to the non-refundable excursion (8,000 francs each) should the seas have been rough.

    We scoffed a quick brekkie and headed off at 7.15am as we needed to be at Mo’orea Fun Dive by 8am on the western side of Mo’orea near the Hibiscus Hotel. There was a lot of school traffic and it would have been better to allow a little more time for fluffing around at the destination.

    At my insistence, I asked Sofitel to book us on a non-Michael Poole Dolphin & Whale Watching expedition. I had been on Michael Poole’s tour seven years ago and did not enjoy it one bit. I know Dr Poole is very knowledgeable and has his fans but we there were times when we wondered how his head actually fitted under the boat’s sun canopy.

    Sofitel booked us with Jerome’s team at Mo’orea Fun Dive and they were absolutely amazing. We were looked after by Cederick and ‘Anno who were fun, caring and passionate (did I also mention gorgeous?) They took great care helping Mum on and off the boat and making sure that she had everything she needed.

    The excursion started with a snorkel off the reef. After that we headed to the western end of the island where we saw a male humpback whale. You could hear him calling a female. It was just amazing. Many got in the water at this point, I was determined to see it from above the water this time. Words cannot describe my elation at seeing a whale spurt up the water foundation and watching how quickly it could swim. Truly spectacular.

    We then headed off to a spot usually used for scuba diving where there were black tipped and grey sharks. They were small and swam gracefully around the boat. It was fantastic. It was at this point that Cederick worked his charm over my Mother and she was coaxed into the water wearing a lifejacket. He swam her around in the open water whilst she used the snorkel mask to marvel at the sharks. She laughed and laughed and had a wonderful time. She wouldn’t come into the water with me but didn’t seem to hesitate with the lovely Cederick offered to tow her around ;) It was really funny and great to watch.

    Our next stop was further around the west of Mo’orea where we discovered another male, a 16m humpack plus a mother swimming with her 6m calf who was still white/light blue in colour. Words cannot describe how beautiful they were. I sat in the boat with my mouth wide open in astonishment. Just remarkable.

    I jumped in the water and swam with the large male about 3m below me. He was huge and had a white belly. He moved quickly and I got to watch him do a deep dive almost at 90 degrees. It was amazing to watch. Super. I watched him swim some more and then headed back to the boat. Despite his enormous girth and length, he moved so gracefully.

    The excursion couldn’t get any better but then it did ;)

    We stopped off to see the Manta Ray and grey sharks. In the crystal clear lagoon you can stand at waist height and pat the Manta Rays. Yes, pat the Manta rays. Now, coming from Australasia, if someone says stingray, you immediately think of Steve Irwin and his fate. I wasn’t keen on going in the water so sat and watched for a while. I’m not sure what variety of rays these were exactly but they did not have any barbs. I watched them seek out people for a cuddle. Yes, they’d swim right up to people and then flap their wings on them. It was lovely.

    We were encouraged in the water and were glad that we accepted the offer. It was a spectacular experience. We just loved it and giggled away like little girls as the Manta rays came and flapped their wings on our chests and bellies. I haven’t seen Mum laugh so much in years. I’m not sure I’ve laughed that much in years. An unforgettable moment and a memory I will treasure forever.

    Alas the excursion had to come to an end at some point so we said goodbye to Jerome’s team and headed off for lunch. Even if we had not seen the humpbacks, it would still have been a great excursion at fair value.

    For lunch we stopped off at Snack Mahana which was just great. We shared some steak and poisson cru whilst seated near the water’s edge. We fed bread to the fish below and had a really lovely time.

    We slowly meandered back to the Sofitel stopping to see our old friend Miri at her tifaefae studio on route. Miri's work is gorgeous and it is a worthwhile stop to see her uniquely prepared applique kits and wall hangings.

    It was time for another swim and bite to eat at the Sofitel. Another wonderful wonderful day.

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    TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER - NEXT STOP: PAPEETE

    Another lovely sunrise in Mo'orea this morning and the water kept beckoning. We had a lovely swim - it's hard to understand but the water was even more clear today, it was like we were looking through air at the fishies rather than through water,

    We ordered breakfast roomservice. I'm not sure if this was a mistake but we seemed to only be charged about $20 for the privilege of having the breakfast delivered and no additional charges for the food. A table was brought out onto our decking area, the white tablecloth laid etc. Just beautiful. We sat enjoying the view and nibbling on French pastries feeling content on so many levels.

    I'm a firm believer that packing takes exactly the amount of time that you have available. If you have 3 weeks, it will take 3 weeks and if you have 30 mins, it will take 30 mins. So we took 30 mins ;) and spent the rest of the time swimming :)

    Our transfer arrived for our 11.30am pick up and promptly delivered us to the ferry terminal for the 12.15pm sailing on the catamaran Teaverau (sp?). It was a roller coaster style trip in the swell and I was thankful that it was an up & down swell rather than the boat moving side to side otherwise I would have lost that lovely breakfast...

    On arrival at Papeete we were delivered to Le Meridien. This is a nice resort with wonderful beds and great meals. We enjoyed a lunch beside the beach which was tranquil. Their overwater bungalows are looking pretty tired from the outside and did not appear to have any steps down to the water. I'd do a bit more research before committing to the expense of staying in one here.

    We caught a taxi into Papeete which took about 30 mins and cost 3k francs. Mum experienced a bit if sticker shock in Papeete with the prices of everything and I think the township was very different to what she had imagined (definitely not a bigger version of Mo'orea!). The books she had read about the market gave her a different impression of what it was like - although I note that we weren't there early on a Sunday morning which is its prime time.

    We wandered the streets and checked out the roulottes setting up for business before heading back to Le Meridien in preparation for our way too early flight the next morning.

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    Hi loveners,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your trip report! How special to have had this experience with your Mum. Moorea is on my 'must see' list and your description makes me want to book today. Loved all the details about the excursions! Sorry about your visit to the ER, though. Thanks so much for posting!

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