Whatever anybody tells you, the most awesome psychological hurdle to doing a cruise around Tahiti and her islands is the actual journey to get there in the first place. From anywhere on mainland Europe, you’re looking at a journey time of around thirty hours in all, and perhaps even longer. And, when you finally do arrive in Tahiti you’ll find yourself a full, eleven hours behind UK standard time.
My route involved flying from Paris to Tahiti, via Los Angeles on the scheduled services of Air Tahiti Nui. As there are no departure airports in the UK that ATN flies from, you first have to make your way to Paris CDG International Airport, and then take it from there.
And, with yours truly hailing from near Newcastle, England, that meant once more submitting myself to the tender mercies of Air France for the short flight to Paris. Still, it was less than two hours’ flying time. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, just about everything, as it turned out. After all, it was Air France…..
Around sixteen hours before I was due to fly, Air France contacted me to tell me that my flight to Paris had been cancelled. There was not another flight from Newcastle to Paris that day that allowed me to connect with my onward flight to Tahiti at CDG. My blood pressure went through the roof like a 747 cleared for take off.
After some much heated debate, and a vicious flurry of angry tweets and messages on social media from yours truly, the protocol droids at Air France relented. What followed was a mad, post midnight, two hundred mile taxi dash (which they paid for in advance) from my home to Edinburgh airport.
Now that flight from Edinburgh worked just fine, depositing me into Paris CDG’s Terminal 2E more or less exactly on time and, most obviously, hugely relieved. Here, despite the fact that Air France and Air Tahiti Nui have a code share arrangement, I still had to retrieve my bags and make another mad, cardiac inducing dash to Terminal 2A, where I would check in yet again.
The Air Tahiti Nui check in was relatively easy, once achieved through the mad bedlam that is Paris CDG. Some well meant advice; if you’re going to make this trip, then fly to Paris the day before, and save yourself a great deal of needless hassle.
Air Tahiti Nui flies big, four engine A340 jets on the twenty-two hour long haul out to Tahiti. The stretch from Paris to Los Angeles occupies a full twelve hours. Once in California, you need to undergo a full, potentially bewildering customs and immigration procedure, for which you must take all of your hand luggage with you. No exceptions.
Once that is done, you get back onto the same plane (and into the same seat) for the final, eight hour leg out to Tahiti. By now, the plane has been completely cleaned, reprovisioned, and furnished with a new crew. Once all that has been achieved, then it’s off you go again.
Now, the seats on Air Tahiti Nui’s flights are configured in a 2-4-2 arrangement in economy. The actual cabin is light and airy, with almost everything in shades of soft, light blue. Some find the seats hard and uncomfortable, but I was quite fine with them to be honest. Disclaimer: I’m 5′ 6″, and found the leg room to be quite good, also. The fine white national flower of Tahiti- the Tiare- given to each passenger before take off is a truly nice, authentic touch.
Each seat had a comfort kit that contained socks, an eye mask and some rudimentary headphones. On each seat back was a small, nine inch screen with an entertainment system that was pretty limited on options compared to those on, say, Emirates or even Delta. Certainly, for such a long, potentially bone numbing journey, they could do with being massively updated. Perhaps this might happen when the airline takes delivery of the first of it’s new, Boeing 787 Dreamliners next year.
The saving grace on Air Tahiti Nui was, once again, the generally outstanding food and service. When was the last time that you were served an eminently palatable fish dinner in economy class? Desserts were tasty, too. And drinks, in the form of fine wines or 200 ml splits of sparkling wine, were available all flight. In addition, you could ‘raid’ the galleys any time for such treats as sandwiches, ice cream, or more drinks.
All things considered, the long journey to the west was not too bad, and surely about as good as anyone could realistically expect it to be in economy. Having done the self same trip a few years ago (and even on the same plane, as it happens; the evocatively named Moorea) I knew how to break the journey down with occasional power naps followed by drinks, some snacking, and the odd feature film. Among those was The Last Jedi, which left me more than a little perplexed, and Dunkirk, which I found to be pretty raw, gripping, no holds barred stuff.
We lifted off from Paris, and set course for somewhere just south of Iceland. I followed along on our on-screen route map as we flew over the Atlantic, and then on across the ice fields of Greenland and Nova Scotia. Then it was on to somewhere just south of Chicago, before we soared above the Prairies before beginning a gradual descent to our first landfall at Los Angeles.
LA was muggy and overcast; quite surprisingly so for the middle of June, for sure. Not all of our passengers made it through the entire, tortuous landfall side very quickly, and as a result we were a full hour late in taking off for the final, eight hour haul out to Tahiti.
Back on board the flight after the madness of customs and immigration, we lofted into a mist shrouded, searing, caramel tinted twilight. Soaring above Manhattan Beach we turned south west, and headed out over the vast expanse of the North and South Pacific.
Darkness, plus the mildly disturbing lack of mid ocean topography gnawed at me as I munched gamely away at some surprisingly tasty orange crepes, before kicking back with a bottle or two of sparkling wine. The darkened cabin was rent only by the cries of a pair of babies sequestered in bassinettes on the bulkhead row, just forward and to the left of me. Both had cried more or less on and off since we left Paris. And, while I genuinely felt for both the kids and their parents, my reservoir of goodwill was running on more or less empty by the time we finally came in to land.
When the door yawned open on the runway at Tahiti’s Faa’a International Airport, the late evening heat came pouring in like molten lava. It was 2330 at night, and we were a full hour late because of our delayed departure from Los Angeles.
But this was still Tahiti achieved, and anything less than a lei flower garland greeting on the tarmac would have been a real disappointment. There was even a live band, playing sensuous. local stuff as we trooped, tired but dutiful, toward passport control and a hopefully emotional reunion with the luggage I had last seen in Paris, some twenty-three hours ago now.
Now Faa’s International Airport is something that looks exactly- and I mean exactly- like something from a sixties episode of Thunderbirds. It’s all curved staircases and clusters of big, tubular neon lights that are suspended in clumps from the ceiling. But it is very easy to navigate- petite as it is-and my luggage was mercifully quick to arrive.
So, too, was my driver. He was already smiling a greeting as my luggage and I emerged into the steamy embrace of a first Tahitian midnight. He gave me a much appreciated bottle of water, before ushering me into the blissful, air conditioned calm of a limo that purred along darkened, palm studded roads until a familiar landmark entrance loomed up out of the night, almost right ahead of us.
It was just ten minutes since I had left the airport, and here I was back at Tahiti’s swish, apparently deserted Inter-Continental Hotel. Check in was fast, friendly, and as warm as the evening air.
Within an hour, I was one of a small handful of people. clustered around a nest of tables sprinkled across the floor of the open air lobby bar, nursing a cold beer as I gazed out over the darkened ocean to where the mighty, fondly remembered mountains of Moorea crouched under a canopy of shimmering, impassive starlight. At once both tired and exhilarated, it was the perfect end to a very long, long day.
Newcastle. Edinburgh. Paris. LA. Just dots on a map now. Like markers on a route map, laid out under all of those stars. God, that first beer was so, so good.
Tahiti. So fondly remembered. So fervently desired. And so seemingly, impossibly far, far, away, had been achieved once again. And, with my blood pressure no longer pounding the ceiling, I began to truly relax.
Already, Polynesia had begun to work it’s subtle, seductive magic on me once again.