trip report: French Polynesia, March 2019: decision, planning, & getting in

In the travel enthusiast game, change happens quickly. The best deals out there tends to go away or change quickly once more and more people learn of it. With the growing popularity of the game itself, the increase number of travel websites, and how technology information today can spread, it has lead to more people able to take advantage of great deals to travel the world but also subsequently lead to the death of many of these deals as well. This evolution of the game has caused many heated arguments on travel forums and comment sections. The future direction of the travel enthusiast game isn’t the purpose of this post, but rather how we put together a trip based on several expiring deals to visit a few islands in the middle of the Pacific. Specifically to experience an over the water bungalow and to swim with the sharks.

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This is the first entry of the French Polynesia trip series covering our pre-trip planning (1) and our travel into our first destination in French Polynesia (2). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

click to expand
1 planning & research
      1.1 the decision
      1.2 planning & research
            1.2.1 housing
            1.2.2 flights
            1.2.3 activity plans
            1.2.4 miscellaneous
2 trip report: getting in via Tahiti
3 trip report: Bora Bora
      3.1 St. Regis Bora Bora Resort
      3.2 InterContinental Thalasso
      3.3 diving Bora Bora
      3.4 transit from Bora Bora to Fakarava
4 trip report: Fakarava
      4.1 camping
      4.2 diving the North Pass Fakarava
      4.3 excursion & diving the South Pass Fakarava
5. trip report: getting out
6. final impressions & budget
7. trip videos
      7.1 Bora Bora
      7.2 Fakarava & the North Pass
      7.2 Fakarava & the South Pass

the decision

Out of all the trips we’ve taken, this is the first trip I ever booked based on where we’d be staying. Specifically, these ultra luxurious pacific island resorts were the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort and InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso. Both of these places I would never have visited if not for the expiring “travel enthusiasts” deals.

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1 random March night during low season is about 1 month of a graduate student stipend.
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USD$975 for 1 night isn’t much better.

So… really an once in the life time visit since my stinginess would never pay that much to sleep anywhere.

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planning & research

housing

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full priced overwater villas at InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso can break anyone’s bank

So to whom did I sell out my soul for nights in these rooms? Well, credit cards companies of course. Let me explain…

IHG

My initial idea was inspired by Drew Macomber of Travel is Free blog, who found that a you could use a free night certificate from renewing the old Chase IHG card (USD$49 annual fee, no longer available) to book these rooms at InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso cost effectively USD$49 rather than USD$1000. During a previous trip, we used this same free night to stay at the InterContinental Hong Kong. It was then determined for me that this was the time to use them was because Chase was changing the certificate to a upper limit of 40k point equivalent (The Points Guy). We’d no longer be able to use them for the top tier IHG hotels after 2019. For this, I have 2 certificates to use.

The 3rd certificate came as a promotion as part of Kimpton joining the IHG group. They were awarding a free night unlimited certificate for a 2 night stay at an Kimpton hotels. Even though the rate for our Kimpton stay turned out to be USD$52.78 more than the cheapest option, it was worth it for another free night certificate.

With 3 certificates in hand, I kept my eyes open daily for openings at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso. At the time, I found Thalasso was opening dates up about 130 days ahead of the stay date at around midnight their time (GMT-10) and that the certificate showed more availability than just point stays. In short, I ended up booking 3 days with the certificate. To increase our chances for an upgraded lagoon view room and to possibly have breakfast covered, I also upgraded my IHG status to Ambassador Platinum with 40k points, 10k of which was credited back to me for “earning” the status.

I also was able to book another 2 nights at InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana, the IHG resort on the main island (see Travel is Free comparison), with 70k IHG points each night bring the nights accounted for to 5. I was also on the lookout for more dates at this point in the planning process to fill out the week as I hadn’t planned anything else.

Marriott

As we got closer to our travel dates, I was content with our 5 night on the resort island of Bora Bora and had made the decision to spend the rest of our time on another island with better diving options (see below). Then the next big change came to travel enthusiast world as Marriott bought Starwood. During the merger of the two point systems, there was a brief period that that all the top tier hotels in the system was priced at 60k Marriott points per night (Frequent Miler). So I ended up saving my IHG points and switched over 2 nights I used points to the St. Regis Bora Bora Resort instead.

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sunset after a rainstorm from our deck in the St. Regis Bora Bora

future options

With both of the booking avenues I used no longer valid way to for Bora Bora resorts, being on the lookout for other uncapped free night such as the Hilton weekend night mentioned by Travel is Free are your best bets.

Otherwise, standard reward redemptions are still an option. For the Intercontinental, having the new Chase IHG card can get you your 4th award night free if you can find the availability (see details on Frequent Miler).

On the flyertalk forum, a way to save money on stays at InterContinental properties is to use the buy one get a free weekend night free certificate that comes with upgrading to Ambassador status. The Ambassador status is recommended anyways to try to get a room upgrade. In the end the stay is still very expensive, but more palatable than full price.

other bookings?

That’s all the pre-trip housing we booked ahead of time as our typically habit is to just book housing as we travel. These resort bookings are by far the exception to our typical travel.

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flights

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simple compared to what we are use to

U.S.A. to Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia

In late 2018, budget airline French Bee (see report by The Points Guy) started flying to main French Polynesia airport of Pape’ete on Tahiti (PPT). In the same time frame, United started to fly a new route as well (The Points Guy). This has lead to increased competition and rather affordable fairs of USD$500 roundtrip from the west coast (Airfare Spot; The flight Deal) to even sub USD$500 from the east coast (The Flight Deal).

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I tracked the Tahiti flight for a while

That last deal above hurt a bit since it was the week before our trip, which was booked at a much higher cost in July of 2018 (see unexpected dip in the chart above). I booked early because prices were steady around USD$1200, so finding availability on United for 70k miles roundtrip per person seemed like a good value (for details of how to search for award flights to PPT, see Upgraded Points or Front Row Access for some out of the box ideas from outside the U.S.).

acquiring the United points

I actually didn’t have the 140k United miles at the time and my decision to book so early was also another byproduct of Starwood SPG and Marriott combining their reward programs. First, I had a healthy stash of SPG points (54k) from credit card signups and spending. Second, the old Marriott Travel Packages were going to be devalued after July 2018 (see detail from the Frequent Miler). The best value happened to be redeeming 90k SPG points (which converted to 270k Marriott points) for 132k United miles and a 7 night certificate. This would bring my United miles balance up to the 140k needed to purchase 2 roundtrip tickets.

To makeup for the 36k SPG points I still needed, I purchased them at a 35% discount through the last SPG promotion ever for USD$819 or 2.275 cents per point (Frequent Miler). The valuation of points and miles I used based on Frequent Milers reasonable redemption value was USD$1270.4 and there was a USD$126.42 fee, making the total valuation of our flights from Washington D.C. to PPT USD$2215.82 total for 2 people. That doesn’t include the 7 day certificate, which my parents were able to use at a much later trip worth around USD$1000.

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Our simple flight path on United.

post hoc reflection of what I should have done

So I thought I was pretty clever at the time of booking until the drop in price made me regret it. From a post hoc analysis standpoint, I should have tried to cancel my United flights to get my United miles back citing an earlier schedule change and then re-booking the super low fare with cash. I’m not sure if that would have worked since I had already called to fix our United itinerary after the schedule change, but it would have been worth trying.

inter-island flights with Air Tahiti

Getting to Tahiti is only half the battle with getting to the destination of Bora Bora. From PPT, we would need interisland flights as well through Air Tahiti (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui). There was no miles or points way around this either other than using bank points for travel redemption through their own portals.

The cost of a round trip flight is around USD$415 to Bora Bora (BOB) from PPT. Frequent Miler found prices booked from a French Polynesia IP was about 18% cheaper. Since flights are typically available pretty close to last minute, this would be a way to save money should you have a few days in Tahiti or can VPN into a French Polynesia IP.

By the time we booked our inter island flight, we had decided to visit the Fakarava atoll (FAV) for extensive diving. It was then cheaper for us to purchased the Bora Bora-Tuamotu Pass (Air Tahiti). If we had more time, we could have visited several more islands as part of the pass for free.

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Island hopping, though we only had enough time for 2 islands

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activity planning

When it comes to resorts, there are plenty of activities available to guests from snorkeling to paddle boarding to kayaking to just hanging out on the beach. However, beach isn’t really our thing and I thought we’d have plenty of time to enjoy the other amenities at the resort. So started to look at Scuba Diving options since we were in the middle of the Pacific.

scuba diving

During my initial search of diving at Bora Bora, I was directed to look up the island of Fakarava or other islands in the Tuamotu archipelago instead by a frequent visitor of French Polynesia on the flyertalk forums. Fakarava, I found, was known for its wall of sharks and that was all Meg needed to decide our second destination on the trip.

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yep, there are a few of these guys around

From afar, it is alway difficult to know the quality of diving companies. The largest of diving companies, Top Dive, operated out of most of the islands including Fakarava and out of InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso. They also had a discounted dive Inter Island packages with early payment, though it’s still not cheap. We ended up with a 24 dive package for USD1745.52 and only ended up using only 21. We decided to go with them since it was convenient to book it all ahead of time and not think about it. A benefit of diving with Top Dive was that they offered free Nitrox. Overall, we were happy with our experience with Top Dive.

However in the future, I may book the dives as we go. Talking to another traveler for a quick cost comparison to local diving companies, it may be cheaper to book your diving on the ground with local companies. The other aspect is greater flexibility in terms of dive sites, I’ll discuss that further later in the trip report.

snorkeling

If you are not scuba certified and like seeing things underwater, you probably should get certified. However, there are snorkeling tours offered on Bora Bora. Some of their practices to use bait to draw in the wild life is questionable from my perspective. Though, I can’t say we didn’t benefit as one of our dive sites was literally under the snorkeling boat as they feed the wildlife. More on that later in our dive reports.

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hiking

Since we were mostly based on the islands around the parameter of Bora Bora, we didn’t have much of a chance or conviction to explore the ex-volcanic mountain in the center for hikes. We had to take advantage of the living it up on the resort after all.

There are a couple options, though information is limited and there seem to be a big push for hiring a guide. Mt. Pahia out of the town of Vaitape is said to be a challenging scramble than hike with 4 rope assisted parts. Death Valley Adventures wrote a detailed report on Mt. Pahia along with reports on the Cave of Mount Otemanu, Popotei Ridge, and hikes on several other French Polynesia islands. This Alltrails’ user map lists a few other hikes to viewpoints and peaks. There is a climbing report on Mount Otemanu (Summit Post), but no confirmed climbs. Lastly for the less intensive walk, there seems to be a culture walk called the Valley of Kings.

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Mt. Otemanu is the highest point seen here from the east side. Mt. Pahia is to the right.

Fakarava is a bit of a different story since it is just a stretch of sandbar that makes up the atoll.

other activities

Being a big tourist center, there are plenty of guided tours and activities to help you spend your money on Bora Bora.  Again, Fakarava is more limited having only a small town on a flat stretch of sand with no mountains.

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miscellaneous

food

While at the resorts, especially the St. Regis, you are pretty much cut off from the outside world so the food options were not cheap on the resort. No worries through since we’re used to carrying our food in for our trips. While there are no stoves in the hotels, there are plenty you can make with the hot water kettle that came with the rooms. Plus, we picked up plenty of fresh fruit and veggies to carry in with our cooler bag at grocery stores and markets.

Our first grocery stop was on Tahiti at the local market in Pape’ete since the transport to the St. Regis on Bora Bora was directly from the airport. Once we were at the InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso, we were able to take the free ferry into their other resort, Le Moana, on the main Bora Bora island. There are a couple of grocery stores a few minutes walk from that location. I’ve read trip reports where full rotisserie chickens were brought back.

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The closest grocery store to Le Moana, closed on Sundays though. We had another 10 minute walk to the next one.

Before I left for Fakarava, we stopped at the main grocery store at largest town, Vaitape, on the main island of Bora Bora and did our grocery shopping there. Fakarava has only a small town of Rotoava and one of a few half cargo half cruise ships (Marine Traffic: COBIA III, Saint-Xavier Maris Stella, Aranui 5) come by may be weekly at best, so we would have better options before we headed there as fresh veggies and fruits may be lacking. In Fakarava, there is a gas station with supplies and a few small stores with basic goods.

communication

Being on remote islands, cell phone service can be a bit spotty. However, while we were on the resorts, we were able to use the wifi and that goes the same for camping on Fakarava. Otherwise, I do remember having service near the towns on the islands. Again for reference, I have Google Fi (referral link)

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getting in via Tahiti

We had an early flight out of Washington D.C. Dulles (IAD) at 8:40am in the morning. This allowed us to get a free breakfast at Chef Geoff’s (tripadvisor) with our Priority Pass through our credit card (details at Dr of Credit). We enjoyed their breakfast and even had left overs for later. In the US, remember to tip your servers equivalent to your order even when your bill is covered by the priority pass. Our cross country flight on a Boeing 737 from IAD to to San Francisco (SFO) was uneventful.

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Arriving at SFO, we had a 2.5 hour layover, so we went to look for lunch. Priority Pass has 2 restaurants in the United terminal 3 and the Yankee Pier (tripadvisor) was on the way between our gates. It was a nice change of pace with some nice seafood options, we were able to get clams, a poke bowl, and fish tacos.

Our next flight was on a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and it was slightly delayed leaving SFO. We arrived at Pape’et airport (PPT) on Tahiti late in the evening and were through customs and immigration in about half a hour.

It was late enough though that all the public transportation had stopped. So we had to take a shared taxi into Pape’et citi proper for a high USD$20 fee. We stayed the night in a double room at the Mahana Lodge Hostel & Backpacker (hotels.com) and went to bed early since we were on a timezone 5 hours ahead and had an early start on the day.

After breakfast at our lodging early next morning, we walked around the municipal market (tripadvisor) next just a few blocks away from our hotel to buy groceries for the next few days. We would heading to the St. Regis Bora Bora next and it is on its own isolated resort island without cheap access to food. There are restaurants and food services in the resort, but it was way higher than what we’d wanted to pay. We were traveling pretty light on this trip with only a carry on backpack each, so we had the ability to bring our Mountainsmith Cooler Cube (Sierra.com – nonaffiliate link) to carry and check our groceries during our island hopping flights. The last thing we bought were some sashimi lunch packages from the market to eat at the airport.

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Would you eat street raw fish?

The local bus to the airport were much cheaper than the USD$20 taxi we took on the way in. Check in with the inter-island Air Tahiti was very smooth and they had their own domestic boarding area with a small restaurant. When it was time to board the plan, it was just a free for all. It turns out that the planes are open seating, so everyone rushes for the gate when it opens.

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Air Tahiti flies a fleet of propeller planes, ATR-72 & 42.

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The flight we were on would make a stop on Raiatea (RFP), the only island in the area with 2 seperate volcanic mountain islands within its atoll. If we had more time, we would have been able to explore these islands without any additional flight cost since we purchased the Bora Bora-Tuamotu Pass (Air Tahiti).

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About half the plane got off here leaving plenty of window seats heading into Bora Bora (BOB). The local that sat next to me on the first leg recommend that I sit to the left side of the plane to get a good view of the island on landing.

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a different kind of middle of nowhere on this trip

 

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