Our readers share tales of their ramblings around the world.
Who: Mark Wessels (the author) and his wife, Lelia Zenner, of Silver Spring, Md. They were joined by Mark’s twin brother, Mike Wessels, his wife, Jennifer Wessels, and their children Trish and John, all of Memphis.
Where, when, why: We traveled to Mo’orea, Tahiti, in September. My wife, brother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew and I had been to Maui, Hawaii, several times to see the humpback whales. The whales’ annual migration takes them from summer feeding in Alaska to the warm Hawaiian waters in January and February for mating and also to give birth. As great as it is to see them from the shore or from whale-watching boats and kayaks, Hawaii does not allow you to get into the water when the whales are near, a situation that was not the case in Tahiti.
Luckily, Tahiti is not a difficult trip. It’s about an eight-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Papeete on Air Tahiti or Air France. Mo’orea is a 50-square-mile island about 15 miles off the coast of Tahiti and a 30-minute ferry ride from Papeete. We departed LAX at midnight, arrived in Tahiti, drove to the ferry dock and we were on the island before noon. The weather was perfect. Highs in the 80s and lows in the 70s, with a refreshing breeze and warm ocean water temperatures . . . essentially my idea of heaven on Earth!
Highlights and high points: Mo’orea is a perfect picture postcard of a South Pacific island. There are jagged, tree-covered mountains in the center of the island and white, sandy beaches with swaying palm trees along its edges. We rented a beautiful (and reasonably priced) four-bedroom, oceanfront house on the north shore of Mo’orea. It sat on the edge of the lagoon, providing easy access for snorkeling and kayaking. There are lots of small patches of coral within the lagoon, so you can see a wide variety of tropical fish, moray eels, sting rays and reef sharks in the calm waters. It was some of the best and easiest snorkeling I have ever done. At night, the sky lights up with stars. The Milky Way was easily visible, as were the constellations of the Southern sky, which was a beautiful sight before going to bed each night.
Cultural connection or disconnect: A few weeks before we departed, my wife mentioned to a client of hers that she was going to Mo’orea. To my wife’s surprise, her friend replied: “I used to live there!” She was able to introduce us to a dear friend of hers still living there, who generously offered suggestions, recommendations and general information about the island. She also insisted on giving us a tour, where she pointed out several landmarks and vistas and told us about the Polynesian legends that accompany them. This was truly special and most definitely a highlight of our visit.
Biggest laugh or cry: Swimming with the humpback whales was a fun and memorable experience. I was expecting, or at least hoping, that Mo’orea would be a lot like Maui and we would see hundreds of humpback whales. This was not the case, as we only saw four whales during entire trip.
On our second day, we went out on a small whale-watching boat — just the six of us and two guides. After two hours of bouncing around and not seeing anything, I was ready to call it quits, but then we saw a pair of humpbacks rising to the surface. We slowly motored over as the pair dove down. One of the guides said: “I’ll get in and swim around and see if I can find them.” I looked at my wife and said, “Fat chance of that happening.” But after a few minutes the guide whistled and said, “Get in, they are over here.” We all slid in and swam over, and were rewarded with two whales resting at about 40 feet in the prettiest and purest blue water you have ever seen. It was a brief but absolutely thrilling encounter that made the whole trip worthwhile.
How unexpected: Although it is called French Polynesia, Tahiti is on the opposite side of the world from France. However, it is a very French island. Everyone speaks French (many residents speak English) and there are a lot of French expats and French restaurants. The other surprise was how many pearl shops there are on Mo’orea. Tahiti is well known for its cultured pearl production, but Mo’orea is a small island with a population of around 17,000 people, but I swear there must be 100 pearl shops on the island. And, yes, we brought some home with us. One last surprise was that Papeete is perhaps the food truck capital of the world — or at least the South Pacific. The Air France flight back to LAX leaves at 7:30 a.m. so we spent our last night in Papeete. Each night from 6 p.m. to midnight at least 40 trucks, or “les roulottes,” set up on the large square next to the harbor. Here, you can dine inexpensively on a wide variety of cuisines from around the world and be entertained by street performers.
Favorite memento or memory: Swimming with humpback whales was an unforgettable experience. I love being in, on or under the water (as long as it is warm), so swimming in balmy water near these majestic animals in their natural environment was, for us, a dream come true. This alone will certainly bring me back to Tahiti. The beauty of the lagoon at sunrise and the millions of stars in the night sky are also memories that will last a lifetime.
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