Okay, it's been a long busy summer, so our trip report this year has been a bit delayed! We went to Fakarava and Moorea for nine nights in early May. This was our first trip to Fakarava, and our 3rd and 4th trip to Moorea.
On Fakarava we stayed at Raimiti, which had been highly recommended by everyone who's stayed there, and it was cheaper than the other resorts we've been to, giving us a license to squeeze in an extra Tahiti trip this year!
After arriving at the Fakarava airport, we were pleasantly met by a driver who took us and another couple to the dock, where we were soon greeted by Eric, the proprietor of Raimiti, who arrived in a small boat with Rutu the dog, as sea-loving an animal as we've ever met!
Eric is a man of few words, and an old-man-of-the-sea demeanor, with a warmth underneath that shows in his sly smile. He drove us the 1.5 hour boat ride, which was slightly uncomfortable on a hard bench, and very windy, and neither of us quite prepared with the proper amount of sunscreen, giving Steve his first sunburn, on both forearms and knees. (Just because you're not hot doesn't mean you're not getting sunburned!) Rutu was very attentive, and just loved nuzzling up to new people.
Two ladies met us at the main hut at Raimiti, Elvina and Vi (short for Violet?), who are in charge of the food and the dining room, essentially. They were both sweet and helpful, and very patient in limited English with us non-French speakers.
Eric walked us down the palm-laden path known as the Champs-Elysees to our bungalow, which was on the ocean side. Clearly a brand new building (we were the second-ever couple to stay in this particular space), the cozy two-room interior faces the ocean with a sliding glass door and deck, about 200 yards away from the water, beyond a coral shelf that rings much of this side of the island and a dry rocky strip of apparently volcanic stone, loaded with fossils.
The mosquito netting affixed above the bed, Eric told us, was "symbolic," and he was generally right. We saw a few mosquitos over the course of our six nights there, and they left little impression. A small shelf of books and a day bed are the only furnishings besides the king-sized bed, and while we pulled the mosquito netting around us each night, neither of us thought it was truly necessary.
We had chosen the ocean side because it was reputed to be toward the wind, and we'd been scared of the lack of air conditioning. This turned out to be not much of an issue, because, as we soon discovered, we were arriving on the island during a rare wind shift that lasted our whole stay, so the wind was actually reversed from its normal pattern, and the amount and direction of the wind dictated every excursion that was planned while we were there. We never saw the lagoon as still and glassy as we see in photos, to the extent that it was actually never really a welcoming place to snorkel at all. Only two people attempted it while we were there, in fact.
On our first day, this unusual weather meant that Eric was able to take us on a snorkeling excursion to the ocean side of the island, normally impossible due to winds and high waves. The resort was occupied by about ten people including us, and we all went on the excursion. Having just arrived, we hadn't even gotten our cameras out yet, and this first excursion was quite a thrilling introduction to the island! We got out of the boat in a small inlet and walked about 200 yards to the ocean on the other side (the island is extremely narrow at this point), where the waves, to our western eyes, looked quite dramatic and deep! One by one, everyone jumped out into the water from the coral reef's edge, into choppy waves that knocked us about. Our first glimpse underwater: sharks! Several black-tipped reef sharks (the safe kind) hung around for a while, ultimately showing no interest. I'd be lying if I said that the sudden appearance in the water of Rutu the dog swimming alongside us didn't make me feel more at ease. I mean, if he can do it....
This adventure was about as much as Carrie could handle, as she's not a strong swimmer and she'd later say that the brisk movement made her a little seasick.
The snorkeling on this side was interesting, though the visibility wasn't the best we've seen (we're more used to the glassy turquoise of the lagoons of Taha'a and Moorea), but we had a lot of fun nevertheless. Getting out of the water was tricky, such that Eric and his partner Junior had to basically pull each person out, timing it so that the waves helped us up and didn't get a chance to pull us back in. Carrie skinned her knee on the coral getting out, a minor but annoying injury.
As it turned out, this whole excursion was NOT representative of the normally mellow and laid-back spirit Eric usually gives his activities! As he told us back on the boat, just "four or five times a year" is he able to take people to this particular spot!
While we were returning to Raimiti in the boat, Eric slowed us suddenly down and stage-whispered dramatically, "TWO Manta rays... come to see us!" What we really saw were two huge dark shapes in the water, and Eric spent about 15 minutes slowly spinning the boat around to follow them. Each one appeared to be about the wingspan of a small car!
So we definitely got our money's worth on the first day.
Meals at Raimiti varied according to the number of guests, and we were there long enough to witness a complete turnaround, going from moderate to nearly-empty to absolutely stuffed to capacity. While they try to make sure diners are seated in couples, once the occupancy rose above about 12 or so, couples were seated together according to common language. As it happened, four Italian couples arrived within a day of each other, and they were seated all together as one long banquet table. The rest of us thought they were a tour group until they told us they'd all just met! What all this means is that the level of privacy and romance is very much determined by the number of people sharing Raimiti with you. We enjoyed the gamut, from quiet dinners alone to festive camaraderie exchanging stories with fellow travelers. We feel that that's part of the charm of the place.
On our first night, we got to the dining area about an hour before dinner to have a drink while the sun set and realized that pretty much everyone had the same idea, so we ended up doing this every night, our own little happy hour. The first night we had frozen pina coladas, which were great, perfectly prepared, and served in glasses rimmed with flavored and colored sugar and a fruit garnish! Its amazing that they have the capacity to whip up such expertly prepared blended drinks on this little island in the middle of nowhere. They also have a few wines that were reasonably priced and pretty good. We ended up getting a bottle of either the sauvignon blanc or the rose each night (we usually only drink red wine, but we always seemed to feel like lighter wines on this trip... must be the climate!).
As for the food, Elvina and Vi serve up three filling meals a day, all of which included the most delicious baguettes. Breakfast usually consisted of crepes (with your choice of various fruit preserves or syrup), fruit, and cheese. Lunches ranged from cold cuts and cheese with salad to quiche to omelettes. Dinner was always much more elaborate, consisting of a first course of soup or salad (or, on one night, a deviled crab-stuffed shell), a main course of fish, but always a different preparation (some of our favorites were parrotfish in a pink peppercorn sauce, grouper with lemon butter sauce, and calamari in a tomato sauce) with a veggie and a starch (my favorite veggie was this creamed leek dish that I still crave); and an amazing dessert (we loved the creme brulee, pot de creme, and molten chocolate cake).
When we weren't too stuffed to move, there were the excursions. Aside from our unusual boat trip to the ocean side on our first day, there were generally three other possibilities each day, once before lunch and another after lunch. We got the sense that Eric would take requests, or decide more or less on the spur of the moment (or be told by the weather conditions) which one to do.
The most exciting of these was the drift snorkel through the island's south pass. About a half hour boat ride away, everyone drops into the water and lets the current take them along some of the most beautiful coral and varied aquatic life we'd ever seen in Tahiti! Junior or another assistant, Francis, would accompany the group, while Eric would take the boat on ahead and wait for us to float on over to him. The current was fairly strong, but never alarmingly so, and the water was never very choppy, so this outing was just about perfectly suited for us mellow travelers. Fun and exciting, but never dangerous. In our time at Raimiti, we ended up doing this trip twice, and we'd have loved to do it more.
A second excursion was closer and still more relaxing. Known as the "playa", or Irafa beach, a boat dropped us off on a lagoon-side sandy strip bordered on one end by palm trees and on another by the vast ocean, as the sand tapers into a point and disappears into the vastness of the sky. Although neither of us are beach people per se, we loved this trip for its peacefulness and tranquility, the calm lapping waves, and a few lonely underwater coral bushes surrounded by colorful fish in the bright clear water. The area is big enough that it allowed each couple to break off and be alone, so much so that you can be the only people in sight. (Being from LA, the novelty of this is hard to describe. A beach where you're the only person in sight???) We ended up doing this excursion four times, and we could have gone six times, we actually turned it down twice when it started to seem too redundant.
The third excursion we did only once, and it involved a short walk from the dining hut back to the ocean side where the bungalows were. Wind permitting, Eric allows some snorkeling on this side of the island right at the resort, but this is was another unusual trip, apparently made possible only by the unlikely wind shifts. Snorkeling here was just as difficult at entry and exit as we'd experienced on our first day; it's just plain tough to climb up onto a slippery coral cliff whether the waves are helping you or not! The water was calmer than on our first day, and the snorkeling was again fascinating, with dazzling arrays of color growing all over the coral reef. Eric told us that one reason he doesn't always do this excursion is that the sounds of people splashing can sometimes draw curiosity from bigger animals that live nearby! He kept our time in the water relatively short for that reason.
If there's one complaint we have about our time at Raimiti, and it's a small one, it's the current system they use for airport departures and arrivals. While it's great to have Eric do the ferry service himself, while he's away the only excursion option available was Irafa Beach. We loved Irafa, but we've heard that there are other possibilities that we never got to see, and we know that some visitors felt that the beach gets too dull after a while. Whether this system is a result of Junior or Francis being unable or unwilling to take passengers anywhere else, or if there's another reason, we don't know. And it's a minor point for us, but we know it's something that others complained about while we were there.
Similarly, the occupancy level contributes to the Eric shuttle issue (we were there while the resort had 19 guests, which led to him being gone for whole days at a time) and affects the complexity of the meals you get, which annoys some more than others. And I doubt the resort can sustain any more than the 19 guests at a time, the dining room simply isn't big enough.
Our only other minor complaint was the rat who visited our bungalow every night. Having been warned about possessing food in the bungalow, we always kept a few snacks in the plastic container provided by Elvina, so we're not sure if that just wasn't good enough, or if nothing can really deter little furry friends. We got some sandals chewed on, a backpack, several successive bars of soap, and the leather binding of Carrie's Kindle. No big loss, but some people might not like that at all! Eric said that rats live in abundance on the island and love to climb the palm trees to eat fresh coconut. To that end, nearly every palm tree on the resort has aluminum bands around the trunk to keep them from climbing up. That and the canisters of rat traps and poison we saw under other bungalows (NOT under ours, though) probably explain why the rats aren't more of a problem. Nobody we spoke to ever saw a rat.
One aspect that deserves a special note is the high quality of service and attention to detail by the staff. Elvina, Vi and the others do a wonderful job of making sure everyone has everything they need, and they always went well out of their way to make sure we were happy, well fed, and comfortable. On our last day, they made us baguette sandwiches wrapped in plastic bags with napkins, knowing that we weren't going to be able to have lunch due to the timing of our flight. I simply can't imagine a larger (and far more expensive) resort doing anything like that. That's the kind of attention one gets from one's mother. Like I said, attention to detail.
We have heard about Raimiti from its fans that it is a place of great tranquility and peace, and we definitely got plenty of that, particularly at Irafa Beach, but also generally in our bungalow on the ocean side, where the new bungalows are relatively far apart and do not face each other, so even when the resort was at total capacity, the afternoons were nice and quiet. One could choose to go out on an excursion, or stick around and relax, looking out at the ocean, from your bed or your front porch.
Not a bad set of choices.
We reluctantly left Fakarava behind. We were one of very few couples not personally sent off by Eric, who had flown to Papeete on business. Junior and Rutu took us back along the hour and a half trip, which was much choppier and wetter than our arrival. Rutu loves to stand astride the bow of the boat, his paws right on the edge of the deck, so close that we winced whenever a big wave hit us. He MUST have fallen in at some point, if this is his habit! We were met at the dock by a young woman driver and her baby, who took us to the airport and saw us off. We ate our sandwiches while waiting for our flight, and bid adieu to Fakarava.
At Moorea we spent the three nights at the Pearl, where Carrie has now been four times and Steve has been three. Perhaps it's the juxtaposition with Raimiti's incredible service and homey-ness, but the Pearl's relative cold and corporate nature just didn't charm us this time. Even though the computers showed us as repeat customers, to the staff at the Pearl this appears to mean, "Great, now you can cut corners, let your hair down, and forget about those two!" It didn't help that the first thing the manager said to us when we arrived was that we weren't going to get a courtesy late checkout time on our last day (which we'd gotten from the Pearl every single time we'd been there before!). So no matter what time our flight leaves, we were going to have to find somewhere to hang around for six hours. She recommended the bar. For six hours?
Compare that to the thoughtful-just-doesn't-describe-it courtesy sandwiches we got at Raimiti, which costs less than half of the price of this resort....
We love renting a car and driving around Moorea (in fact, we ended up doing it twice, the second time just to have something to do when the Pearl kicked us out for six hours). It's a beautiful island, filled with idiosyncratic touches and out-of-the-way restaurants, with an unmatched scenic beauty. We took lots of great pictures, and ate a lot of ice cream at Carmeline's just down the street from the Pearl. We even got to stop and and visit with Eva Perle, whose little boutique right across from Carmeline's is the absolute best place to buy jewelry. Her personal service and genuine artistic intent make her an ideal designer and vendor.
For dinners, we revisited some of our favorite places from our previous trips. Our favorite by far for service and food is Rudy's. We love the food (we shared the parrotfish stuffed with crab and the filet) and the personal attention from the owner. We also went back to Te Honu Iti, which was delicious as always, and unbelievably not crowded this time, and to Aito, which we love for the atmosphere more than the food. For lunch, we ate at Blue Pineapple twice (we love the burgers and the view) and at the Pearl bar area once. We wished we had more time on Moorea as there are many more things to do and many more restaurants we wanted to try.
As usual, we enjoyed some really great snorkeling outside our bungalow at the Pearl. They've spent some money seeding new coral gardens in their lagoon, which has started to pay off, with thousands of varied and beautiful fish, the best population we'd ever seen there. A couple of unusual visitors to our bungalow in Moorea this time. Carrie saw an octopus, and grabbed a couple of hasty photos! Neither of us can remember anyone mentioning octopuses in Tahiti before, but there it was! Another unusual friend there was a green sea turtle, about 3 feet long, who swam right past our bungalow, skimming the surface like a submarine before disappearing...
Sadly, the turtle and the octopus shared space with a boat that was moored in front of our bungalow the entire three nights, a commercial steel and orange-painted monstrosity emblazoned with its logo (we will not name it here), beckoning tourists like a billboard. Such advertising is not what we expect when we pay these prices at a resort (especially a full one, as apparently the Pearl was filled to capacity our whole time there). Don't they have enough money at this point?
We took the opportunity to check out another resort on Moorea, the Sofitel, which was also quite nice. Maybe next time we'll try something a little different. We will miss the White House (our favorite souvenir shop) and Carmeline's, though, if they're not walking distance away!
And finally (sorry this review has gotten to be a novel!), we thought we should give a thankful shout-out to Barbie, who frequents this board and who lent us her cell phone for our trip! Carrie's work requires her to be in cell phone contact even on vacation nowadays, and we were lucky we didn't have to rent one. Although we did have a bit of an adventure buying a card to activate it! The only place you can buy such a card in Tahiti is at the post offices, which keep, well, post office hours. Our flight from Papeete to Fakarava had been delayed by 15 minutes, which turned out to be the exact time the post office opened! So there we were standing in line to board the flight, and Carrie rushed over from the post office, activated the phone, and standing there nearly on the tarmac, checked her messages at work... and discovered that Steve's grandfather had just passed away! We both felt terrible (though he was 96, not a bad time to go, really!), and decided in that moment to continue on to Fakarava, where the cell phone kept us connected with Steve's family during a difficult time. She never needed it for work, but we were SO glad we had it! We really owe Barbie a debt of thanks and gratitude for that.
We'd posted our photos on SmugMug and posted the link previously here before, but here it is again, if you're curious:
We would both very highly recommend Raimiti for anyone interested. The lack of electricity in the rooms was never an issue, and the temperatures during our time there (perhaps aided by the unusual weather we experienced) meant that we never missed air conditioning! It's also really nice to visit a place that has such a small ecological footprint!
As for Moorea, we love the island, and at this point can only say we "like" the Pearl. We might just never return to that particular resort, which might just be okay.
We'll definitely return to Tahiti someday, though as of this moment, Italy beckons us in 2010, perhaps Spain in 2011, and who knows what beyond that! Thanks for sticking with us through our long-winded travel report!
Steve and Carrie