trip report: Fakarava, March 2019

Did someone say a wall of sharks? That was our draw to visit the island atoll in the middle of nowhere and what we found was my most memorable scuba diving experiences to date. Oh, the beaches weren’t too bad either.

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This is the third entry of the French Polynesia trip series covering our experiences on Fakarava (4) and getting out (5). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

click to expand
1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in via Tahiti
3 trip report: Bora Bora
4 trip report: Fakarava
      4.1 Rotoava & camping
            4.1.1 camping
            4.1.2 Rotoava town
      4.2 diving the North Pass (Passe de Garuae)
            4.2.1 day 1, dive 1 – Ohotu
            4.2.2 day 1, dive 2 – Te Ana Nui to Ali Baba Canyon
            4.2.3 day 2, dive 3 – Maiuru
            4.2.4 day 2, dive 4 – Ohotu Cave
            4.2.5 day 2, dive 5 – Te Ana Nui to Ali Baba Canyon
      4.3 diving the South Pass (Tetamanu / Tumakohua)
            4.3.1 day 3, dive 6 – lagoon to ocean drift
            4.3.2 tetamanu village & pink sand beach
            4.3.3 day 3, dive 7 – ocean to lagoon drift
      4.4 hotel night at Havaiki Fakarava
5 trip report: getting out
6 final impressions & budget
7 trip videos
      7.1 Bora Bora
      7.2 Fakarava & the North Pass (Passe de Garuae)
      7.3 Fakarava & the South Pass (Tetamanu)

Rotoava & camping

Fakarava is an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, which is the largest chain of islands in the World (wikipedia). Atolls are ring shaped islands formed by coral growing on the rim of an eroded volcano and a lagoon forms where the crater has eroded away. From the sky, an atolls looked just like a thing stretch of beach with some brush on it.

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a random Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago

When we landed on Fakarava (FAV), I could barely see any of the ground around the runway. The plane pulled up to the one building airport, where it seemed like the entire population Rotoava – the only town on the island – are hanging out in the one room building.

Ofcourse, we were on the only flight of the day onto the island and the flight only runs 5 days of the week. So, it is convenient for most of the hotels to gather here to shuttle customers into down. As you can imagine, finding your own mode of transportation can be a bit difficult here. Should you arrive without previous bookings, most of the lodging options should be here for you to talk to. There is also an information board with contact number for all the hotels and another with things to see on the island.

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camping

To save cost on the extremely expensive island, we had decided to put our tent to use and camp 3 nights at Relais Marama (website, trip advisor). They were indeed very backpacker friendly as they included airport transfer, breakfast, drinking water, wifi, bicycles, full kitchen, showers, bathroom, and laundry all for free. They are also centrally located in town, so you are only a couple minutes away from the main grocery store.

The cost for camping was still French Polynesia prices at XPF 3500 per person per night at the time of our visit (USD$199.59 equivalent for 3 night for 2 people), though it was among the lowest options. You do need your own tent/sleeping system as you are effectively payings for all those services and an area on the grass. It understandable since the island is so remote. They also have bungalows a bit more than double the price, but availability fills up quickly.

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The cheapest camping option is at Tekopa Village (website, tripadvisor) a bit further out of the way about 10km from the airport, but it becomes more expensive should you want to rent a bike every day and want airport transfer. They also have bungalow rooms for rent. We went with Relais Marama after reading a comparison by Outsidevibes the day before flying in.

Relais Marama recently changed ownership at the end of 2018, with the couple Manuiti and Geslain taking over for the Jacque. They speak French and English and were very welcoming. There was definitely a relaxing hostel feel there. On the days no flights were in, Geslain would head out with his spear gun to get some catches of the day and a barbeque would ensue. The parrot fish may look pretty, but it was tougher than expected as dinner.

Sleeping in a tent on a hot and humid tropical island wasn’t the most enjoyable or restiful though. While we did get a nice ocean breeze at the campgrounds, the evening clouds looked like it would threaten to rain at any time during the night, so we had to keep our rainfly on. The still, hot, and humid air would made a sweaty mess at night. That’s not to mention the mosquitos that would attack every time I stepped out from the tent.

Meg thought we definitely should have did the camping first before the resorts. On our last day, we did opt for a hotel.

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Rotoava

The town center of Rotoava had a small medical center, a pharmacy, a dock, a school, a sports field, a arts and crafts store, and a grocery/gas station. Tumaona Market would be the largest and most well stocked in town. Don’t expect to find anything specific though, like dramamine or much fresh fruit or veggie since cargo ships only arrive bi-monthly. Luckily, we had the foresight to buy our groceries before we flew in and only needed to stop by for snacks and such.

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There are a couple other small stores further down in the town, along with a couple small restaurants. However it can get a bit desolate, once you leave the immediate town area.

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The word is there are plenty of nice beaches along the way, especially at beach PK9. We didn’t end up exploring PK9 since we only had the scorching hot afternoons, but see Outsidevibe for more details.

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diving the North Pass (Passe de Garuae)

The reason for our visit to this island in the middle of nowhere was for the diving. What makes diving on Fakarava so unique is that there are 2 main passes that allow the water from the lagoon to transit out to the ocean and vice versa depending on the tide. It is within these passes that fish of all size hang out to feed on the nutrients saturated waters from the lagoon ecosystem is funneled out into the ocean. Being a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve doesn’t hurt either.

The more accessible pass on Fakarava is the northern pass called Passe de Garuae, near the town of Rotoava and the airport. It is here that we spend our first two days diving. Diving the passes were dependent on the tide. Typically for the Passe de Garuae, it would be a drift dive from ocean side to lagoon side, so high tide.

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boat ride to Passe de Garuae

Our dives were with Top Dive (website, tripadvisor). Again, we enjoyed our dives on with the Fakarava branch of the company and had no complaints. The resident dive guide had an ear infection during our visit, so it seemed like they contracted other dive guides to lead us. The free Nitrox offered were nice once again for longer bottom times.  For our 2 days, they would pick us up with a truck from our campgrounds in the morning and drop us off after we were done with the morning 2 dives just after noon.  On our 2nd day, we had 3 dives, so they’d pick us up for our last dive after an hour lunch break.

Talking to others camping with us, the other dive companies maybe cheaper to book with on the ground. Also, it is more flexible to see where they are diving the following day since much of it depends on the tide, weather, and planned trips. This is especially the case if you want to dive the South Pass (more on that below).

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day 1, dive 1 – Ohotu

The tide for the first day was late morning, so the timing work out well for us to do an easier one first. Our first dive was on the ocean side at the area called Ohotu near the airport and north of the pass. There was 4 of us going on the first dive.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/21
  • depth: 79ft (24m)
  • duration: 63 min
  • Nitrox: 28% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Michel

We were dropped off on to shallow reefs to start our dive. We swam to the edge of the reef plateau where it dropped off into the blue and turned toward the pass while the keeping the reef wall to our left.

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The visibility was among the best I’d ever experienced. As to headed toward the pass, we started to see one or two grey sharks in the blue. Then more made their appearance above us.

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Other than the many grey sharks, the coolest thing we saw was three massive swordfish heading down into the blue right in front of us.

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We continued along the reef drop off until we were nearing the pass. We turned around and ascended head back on the reef plateau. Along the way, we saw a moray eel and a puffer fish. Of course, there were plenty of other small fish that don’t know the names of. I did enjoy swimming through their school formations though.

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Swimming back on the shallower reef also made it a more enjoyable safety stop.

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day 1, dive 2 – Te Ava Nui to Ali Baba

After our break, the tides had shifted and it was time for the best dive of the Northern Pass. The dive to Ali Baba was a drift dive taking advantage of the high ocean tide push water into the lagoon.

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We would be dropped into the blue and descend to the lip of the pass. Then we would drift to canyon Ali Baba where fish hide from the strong currents.

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Meg took the dive off because she was feeling a little iffy, perhaps due to a bad night sleep in our hot tent the night before. She would have company as one of the other divers only paid for 1 dive. It would only be another guy, myself, and our guide.

dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/21
  • depth: 82 ft (25m)
  • duration: 47 min
  • Nitrox: 29% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Michel

We were initially dropped off too far into the blue to start, so we had to return to the boat and do a mulligan. We did a better job the second try even though my dive computer beeped at me for almost going too deep nitrox. Diving in the blue without a reference can be you lose track of depth easy.

Once we found the ledge at the pass, then the show began.

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The current was coming in from the blue and the ocean into the pass, so our guide had us land on a patch of sand and watch as the sharks patrolled the pass.

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After hanging out for a few minutes, we swam into the current to actually go horizontal along the pass. It was a lot of grey sharks and would stand as a record for the number of sharks I’d see on a dive… for a days or so.

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After 10 minutes or so burning through our gas, we turned with the current into the pass and we started to fly. Good buoyancy control is important here since we were pushed very swiftly into the pass and you don’t want to be bouncing off the corals. It was a good workout as well since we were still kicking against the current a little to stay together.

As we headed speedily toward the Ali Baba canyon, we started to see white tip reef sharks among many other fish staying in formation against the current.

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We set down on a ridge over Ali Baba to watch the active grey sharks play around among the the many different fish.

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Since we burn off a lot of our air in the early portions of our hike, our stay this time at Ali Baba would be short one. We would continue into the lagoon for our safety stop and pickup.

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day 2, dive 3 – Maiuru

On our second day, we had request 3 dives since we had the 24 dive package. It would only be Meg and I so we pretty much has a private tour all by ourselves. Our guide for the day was Christof.

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Christof, our dive guide for the day

We would have 2 dives in the morning when the tide was relatively even. Our afternoon dive would be the drift dive through the pass to Ali Baba. The first dive of the day was on the western portion of the Northern Pass. We would drop at the reef and swim toward the pass keeping the reef on on our right this time before turning around.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/22
  • depth: 98 ft
  • duration: 48 min
  • Nitrox: 29% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Christof

This was generally a low event dive as we saw plenty of the same as dive 1. A remora (or suckerfish) followed Megshark for the first portion of the dive.

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There was also a big school of fish generally hanging out above us as we continued on our dive.

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A couple of grey sharks kept trying to join them when we started our return.

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But mostly is was a chill start and a mediocre dive to start the day.

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day 2, dive 4 – Ohuto Cave

Our second dive of the day, would be in the pass itself toward the eastern side. It wouldn’t be high tide yet so the current would be more mild. We would checkout an overhang reef structure in the pass.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/22
  • depth: 83 ft
  • duration: 54 min
  • Nitrox: 29% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Christof

We were dropped off oceanside, but the currents were indeed calm. The fish and shark movement patterns were much random without a consistent force at the pass. We started by heading parallel with the coral edge at the pass toward the west.

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Christof then took us to a higher depth off above the reef where we watching the sharks from above. He also might have done this to locate landmarks or to find the resident large group of sharks.

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A few minutes later, he found them.

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Yep, another day, another legion of sharks as far as I can see.

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Continuing on, Christof turned us toward the pass and we swam a good distance over the reef. Along the way, we found a napoleon wrasse chilling.

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The conclusion of the dive took us to a coral garden with some formations. This give the dive it’s name, the cave.

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After that, it was safety stop time before being picked up lagoon side.

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day 2, dive 5 – Te Ava Nui to Ali Baba II

After lunch back at the camp, we were picked up for our last dive of the day and at the North Pass. With the high tide in full swing, it was a return to the drift dive to Ali Baba. This time with Meg.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/22
  • depth: 103 ft
  • duration: 48 min
  • Nitrox: 29% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Christof

Unlike our first time diving Te Ava Nui (dive 2), the current was even stronger as we were closer to peak high tide. We were also dropped more directly into the pass. So, we were off flying right away.

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I was breathing heavily trying to stick together during this first part of the dive. As we neared Ali Baba Canyon, the current slowed a bit and we were able to drop in. The Canyon protected us, along with the many fish, from the strong currents.

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Once we were settled on the bottom of the canyon, we were able to see much of the fish

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and sharks swim right over us.

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Since we were pushed to Ali Baba so fast, we had plenty of time to chill in the coral canyon. Christof spent the time looking for shark tooth on the bottom. He found a couple for Meg. Once we were ready to head out, all we had to do was pop up and we were carried deep into the lagoon for our safety stop and pickup.

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diving the South Pass

The South Pass of Fakarava is call Tumakohua or Tetamanu. It is a smaller pass and about a 1.5 to 2 hour boat ride to reach from the Rotoava. There is a small village at the South Pass, but not much beyond a church, dock, a few houses, and dive shops.

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For us with Top Dive, they needed to have 4 people to run an excursion out there. The excursion was extra at XPF 12500 per person (USD$237.61 equivalent for 2 people during our visit). It would include the long ride to the south pass, lunch, and plenty of beach time.

We were lucky on our last day that another couple decided to head out there on our last possible day for diving. It was low season when we went, so perhaps that plays into the lower availability of trips to the South Pass.

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Top Dive shop at the south pass

Based on inconsistent nature of getting down there, it might be a better idea to play it by ear and ask around all the dive shops to see if they have one scheduled the day before. That way you give yourself the highest probability of being on a trip to the South Pass.

day 3, dive 6 – lagoon to ocean

Our first dive was during low tide, so the current was going from the lagoon to the ocean. Once we had arrived at the South Pass, Top Dive’s boat there met us and we hopped over. They had all our gear ready in the boat and we’d dive right away. We would be dropped in the lagoon and drift out to the ocean.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/23
  • depth: – ft
  • duration: – min
  • Nitrox: 32% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Manuel

We dropped near the reef marker just before the pass on the lagoon side. We were on the west side of the pass to start with the reef on our right. Initially there were a couple of grey sharks circling around, but not too much activity.

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The current wasn’t too strong as we continued into the pass. There were plenty of coral here and another group of divers were on the bottom taking pictures. After a few minutes passing the other group, we came to a large pod of very active grey sharks in the middle of the pass.

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It seemed like a frenzy where they were just all around us and they didn’t seem to mind getting up close and personal. Another day, another new high for the number of sharks.

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We still had plenty of air left after we were on the ocean side reef, so we ascend a little and spend our time there. This was when we encountered several eagle rays.

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While following them, a napoleon wrasse durped its way across our path.

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We continued to follow the rays around until we headed up for our safety stop and take out oceanside.

lunch & pink sand beach

After our first dive, we had plenty of surface time since we had to wait for the switch to high tide. So it was beach time at the small village/dock at the pass.

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While there, plenty of small fish and a couple of White Tipped Reef Sharks would swim by in the perfectly clear water.

Our excursion guide grilled us some fish and chicken for lunch.

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After lunch, there was still plenty of time before our second dive on the day. So our guide took us over to a pink sand beach.

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The beach was made of pulverized shells.

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Walking around the island, we also found a nesting bird.

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Before we knew it, it was time to head back underwater for our last dive of the trip.

day 3, dive 7 – ocean to lagoon

Our last dive of the trip is the dive Fakarava is known for, the wall of sharks. Specifically, it’s the drift dive at the South Pass from the ocean to lagoon during high tide.

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dive log stats

  • date: 2019/3/23
  • depth: – ft
  • duration: – min
  • Nitrox: 32% Oxygen
  • dive guide: Manuel

We were dropped off on the reef where we pretty much picked up on our earlier day on the day.

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Once we were down, we peaked over the edge of the reef and found the first pod of sharks. Our guide said there are typically 3 spread out through the pass.

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Shortly after, we saw the wall of sharks. For me, a fan of science fiction, it reminded me of star fighters in a formation ahead of a large battle. It was exhilarating view and the gopro and my amateur photo processing skills does not do it justice.

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The same strong current pushed us quickly onwards. During our float, another napoleon wrasse durped directly towards us and then right between us.

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After a stretch where we were pushed along the coral wall, we saw spots in the distance before the shear number of sharks of the second pod of shark wall became visible. Our guide, Manuel, had us combat the current and cross the shark formation onto the opposite reef wall.

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We found ourselves a hand hold once there and stayed for a good duration of time marveling at the sight. With the current no coming in from the ocean through the pass, all the sharks were pointed against the current unlike earlier.

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Our diving companion pointed to a large fish during our time hunkered down. I think it was a large jackfish of sorts, but most jackfish I know are rounder.

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Once we let go, we continued of swift drift through the pass. We saw the last small pod of sharks as the reef started to come up and meet us.

Our last portion of the dive was over an area of shallow reef in front of the village and dive shop. We used this shallow area for our safety stop while speeding over the pretty reef.

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hotel/resort night at Havaiki Fakarava

Rather than spending our last night in a hot and stuffy tent, we opted for a hotel night to end our trip. On our way out to the South Pass, our excursion boat had stopped by the hotel to pick up the couple that joined us. So we took our opportunity to drop off our luggage. It was a long day in the sun by the time we returned to the resort.

We stayed a night at the cheapest room at Havaiki Fakarava (tripadvisor), which was more than our entire stay at the campgrounds. The cheapest room was basic, had very fast internet, and a the powerful ceiling fan. The rooms with AC were about a hundred dollars more and the fan was plenty good for us. They had a nice beach area with the typical water sport equipment you can borrow. We were glad to just take it easy after 3 days of diving. I napped after a nice and cold shower.
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Included in the price was a three course dinner and full breakfast, so that made the cost more palatable.


Overall, we were glad to be out of the tent and hotel provided us with a very restiful time.return to the index

getting out

Our long way back started out with some troubling news before we even left for the airport. Our United flight from Tahiti (PPT) to San Francisco (SFO) was going to be problematic since the inbound flight being delayed. After calling United, it seemed like there was nothing we could do but wait since there was only one United flight per day. Hopefully we would be no overnight delays since Meg had a class to teach the day we were scheduled to get back.

The hotel shuttle took us back to FAV with plenty of time and the check in was very quick since everyone was on the same flight out.

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Our plane took off toward the east and circled around so we got a nice look at the narrow Fakarava atoll from above.

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The ride back to Tahiti was uneventful and I got a nice view of Papeteet and the airport on our way in from the left side of the plane.

Our original schedule had us there for a 6 hour layover so we had a couple hour to kill landside. There were plenty of stores at PPT, so we walked around shopping for souvenirs. When it was time for check in, the United counter informed us of the long delay and gave us vouchers for sandwiches. We also had food and drinks at the Air Tahiti Nui lounge (review from OMAAT) once airside through our Priority Pass with our credit card (details at Dr of Credit).

We didn’t get out until roughly 3am, after about a 4.5 hour delay. I don’t remember much of that flight as I was out pretty much the entire way. We were re-booked for a direct flight the same day once we landed, meaning Meg would make her class after all. She would just be tired on a short sleep as we wouldn’t land back in D.C. until 1am that night.

The rest of our trip would be uneventful as we grabbed a luner or something equivalent from Yankee Pier (tripadvisor) with our Priority Pass credit (details at Dr of Credit). Then we passed out the rest of the way on our flight back across the continental US.

Even though French Polynesia is part of France, the European Union flight delay regulations was cited by United to not cover islands outside of the continental EU. So they gave us USD$100 flight voucher each (USD$200 total) for the delay afterwards when I inquired after the trip.

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