|WAKING UP IN PARADISE|
|October 05, 2002 12:00 am|
I opened the curtain just an inch in our room at the Sofitel Maeva Beach.
"Oh my (fill in the blank)."
My first glimpse of Tahiti in the daylight left me speechless. The green of the coconut palms and grass nearly burned the retinas of my eyes.
The sky above the mountains, while not crystal blue, was filled with a light so pure it could have been left from the dawn of the world.
Just then, my early-rising wife came back from her morning walk. It was written on her face: she had seen paradise.
"Have you seen it yet?" she asked.
"Just now," I said, pointing to the curtain I was peeking through.
"No, this," she said, opening the curtain on the other side of the room.
There, beyond the swaying palms, across the electric blue Sea of the Moon, were the jagged peaks of our final destination: Moorea, said by some to be the legendary Bali Hai of "South Pacific."
My knees felt weak. Compared with Moorea, Tahiti is no more beautiful than, say, Maui, which is not exactly chopped liver itself.
I threw on some shorts, sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and we had breakfast in the same open air, thatched roof restaurant where we had had dinner.
Theoretically, diners can order breakfast off a menu in French Polynesia, but I never saw it done.
Everybody goes for the breakfast buffet, which is always pretty impressive. It also costs about $17 each, but it's all part of the package deal, so no one thinks about it.
Besides the usual eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, and hot and cold cereals, breakfast always offered French rolls, croissants, crepes, and little chocolate-filled rolls that I rarely passed up.
Rotui fruit juices, both Tahitian pineapple and passionfruit/apple, were always on tap.
Juicers were available for those who wished to squeeze their own fresh orange or pamplemousse (huge green grapefruit) juice.
The only things hard to find were drinkable water, of course, and cooked eggs.
The French idea of scrambled eggs is what we would call soup. The uncooked eggs may also have sat out in the tropical heat for some time before being "cooked," and are, as I was to learn, best avoided.
After a short wade in the 80-degree lagoon, it was time to check out and catch our boat to Moorea.
Checkout was my first introduction to the French Polynesian "desk Nazi."
Now, no one could accuse the freedom-loving French and Tahitian peoples of being actual Nazis, but they have more than their share of petty dictators.
Virtually anyone behind a counter or a desk assumes they have the power of life and death over you.
We had paid for an all inclusive package, including drinks, but the "desk Nazi" said packages never include drinks.
We ended up paying $16 for two cans of Sprite and two bottles of water, which should have been free since the hotel had no running water when we checked in.
I also had to pay about $5 for a phone call to the Air Tahiti Nui office, about a block away, to find out why we hadn't gotten our promised business-class upgrade.
They said that was something their Los Angeles marketing director had promised, not them.
We were worried we might miss our boat, but our van driver arrived at the lobby only 20 minutes late, which is pretty good by island standards.
The ride was like those movie scenes of taxis in Paris or Rome.
Every bumper touched the vehicle in front, yet others would pull out from side streets and somehow fit between.
It was hard to tell if Papeete had a center. It just sort of sprawled across the northwest side of Tahiti.
It looked a bit trashy, but we had only to raise our eyes to the mountains above to see paradise once more.
After a slight delay at the ferry ticket counter, where another desk Nazi eyed our vouchers suspiciously, we were on the 450-seat catamaran Aremiti III.
A similar catamaran that had been out of service since July 1999 because of engine problems was still awaiting repair.
The fact that it provided half of the boat transportation to Moorea was not enough to get it fixed quickly. Tahitians don't worry about such things.
We also saw two huge cruise ships sitting forlornly at the dock waiting for new owners.
Princess Cruise Lines recently bought them and will put them to use once more in the South Pacific.
Our boat was a marvel. I'm prone to seasickness, so I went up top to be in the fresh air, but the boat went so fast it nearly blew me off.
I needn't have worried. The prescription patch I bought before leaving Brookings worked perfectly.
The nine-mile crossing was actually so smooth I could have gotten by on plain old Dramamine.
I'd read that Moorea looks so much like everyone's idea of a South Pacific paradise that Disney could have built it.
As our ferry drew closer, it did seem like Moorea was just too beautiful to be real.
After docking, we joined the other passengers in a mad scramble to retrieve our luggage out of big metal bins. Luckily, we packed light.
We were soon in a van headed to the Sofitel Ia Ora, a couple of miles up the coast.
The beach was pretty well covered with trash for all of those two miles. Not litter, mind you, but a 3-foot deep municipal garbage dump.
The hotel beach was well-groomed, however. We didn't even see any cigarette butts, which was surprising in a country where smoking is all but mandatory.
About 10 of us were invited to sit in an open air, thatched roof lobby, while several employees tried to figure out how to check us in.
We were greeted with pineapple juice and entertained by Charles, the largest Polynesian we could have imagined.
We had to surrender most of our vouchers, and after several mix-ups, were assigned our overwater bungalow.
Aside from the staggering beauty of French Polynesia, our bungalow was the only part of our trip that exceeded our expectations.
Built of exotic woods and finely-woven pandanus matting with a real thatched roof, the bungalow sat on sturdy metal pilings.
The overwater deck had stairs leading to other landings. One had an outdoor shower.
The bungalow also had a marble indoor shower with plenty of water and water pressure. No ridiculous low-flow showerheads for the French. Viva La France.
The final landing had a ladder going directly into the luminescent blue lagoon and some of the finest snorkeling in French Polynesia.
Tahitians, who can be obstinately frustrating when they feel like it, can also surprise you with unexpected acts of kindness.
They gave us one of the best bungalows, way out on the walkway from shore, with the best view of Tahiti we could have asked for.
Then, they nearly took it all away.
Some simple questions about seating for the dinner show soon revealed that the desk Nazi did not believe any meals, or even our fifth night in the bungalow, were part of our package.
Most of our vouchers had been lost, and without proof, we were to get nothing.
Such was the final decision of the lowliest worker at the counter, and it was not to be challenged.
One arbitrary decision had left us nearly homeless, after paying $5,000 and traveling 5,000 miles to get there. And we weren't expected to question it.
Being what the Tahitians consider an "overbearing" American, I created what could have turned into an international incident when I began to question the lineage of all Frenchmen in a rather loud voice.
Charles, Tahiti's answer to sumo wrestlers, came my way. I figured I was about to die.
Fortunately Charles, with a heart and mind as big as his body, was in charge.
"How can I help you, my friends?" he asked, and he meant it.
He got on the computer, found our package deal, and, after some stern words with the reluctant desk Nazis, sent them to find our vouchers.
"Don't worry," he said, "You will get everything."
After finding the vouchers, he made sure we had the best seat at the dance show, and sent us to the activities desk to sign up for our motu picnic and snorkeling expedition.
That carried no weight with the desk Nazi at the activities desk, however, so Charles had to come over and throw his considerable weight around again.
We herby nominate Charles, the savior of our vacation, the best Polynesian who ever lived, and request that his salary be immediately doubled.
Next episode: The best day of our lives.