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Trip Coach: October 21, 2008

Alexis Kelly, editor of the Fodor's guidebook to Tahiti and Polynesia, answered your questions about earthly paradise.

By , Tuesday, Oct 21, 2008, 11:33 AM

Alexis Kelly: Hi everybody. This is Alexis Kelly, editor of Fodor's guide to Tahiti & French Polynesia. Thanks for taking the time to submit your questions. Tahiti and its sister islands of French Polynesia are magical. Overwater bungalows! Shooting the pass! Swimming with the fishes! Turquoise blue waters with exquisite pink coral! It's all amazing. I do hope I can provide the guidance that will help to make your dream of traveling there a reality.

So, let's get started.

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Ocala, Fla.: I am wondering about a more active vacation package in Polynesia, such as a bicycle tour on several islands. (I understand most islands aren't big enough for!several days of riding.) Does such an option exist, or is it mostly beachtime and shopping?

Alexis Kelly: Trips to Polynesia are actually much more active than you'd think. While there are beaches and some shopping, it's all about exploring the outdoors here—by land and by sea. No matter what island you're staying on, numerous tour operators offer 4WD tours that explore the islands. While a little bumpy, these tours (sometimes in air conditioned vehicles) will take you to places that you wouldn't otherwise find on foot or in your own car. Sometimes they even include lunch or stops in the different towns for some shopping or exploring. Most trips are a few hours.

All the usual aquatic activities—diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating, Jet Skiing—are also available, and there are also plenty of tour operators that will take surfers and body boarders to the legendary surf breaks.

If you do want to bike, most accommodations (large and small) will have bikes on hand for guests to use or, can point you in the direction of the local bike rental place; these rental places usually also rent out scooters. The outer coastal roads that ring most of the islands are fairly easy to bike around. On Moorea, factor in a full day to bike around the islands 37-mile Coastal Road. On Bora Bora, figure about 4 hours to bike the island's 20-mile Coastal Road.

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Manassas, Va.: We would like to take a trip to Tahiti and islands this time, next year. Is this a good time weather-wise and would you advise on whether to cruise the islands or pick a couple to spend time at? If staying on a couple of islands, which hotels would you recommend? If we stayed, it would be for perhaps a little looking around, but mainly, some downtime/relaxation. Thank you!

Alexis Kelly: This time of year is a great time to travel to the Society Islands (Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, etc.). This is their winter or the dry season (October-May). It's never cold, and has less humidity and rainfall and people. The water temperature of the lagoons is a fairly constant 77 degrees F (25 degrees C). Lovely, right?

Always be prepared for a mixed bag though. You could get perfectly dry days in the wet season and rainy days in the dry season. That's the beauty of the tropics.

If you want to see a few of the islands, I suggest cruising; it's really the perfect way for the first time to experience the area. Not only is it the more economical alternative to a land-based holiday—you'll visit four islands in seven days, some of which would be extremely expensive to stay at on your own—there no planes or buses to catch, which means more time to enjoy the holiday. And that sounds like exactly what you're looking for.

Most of the shore excursions are add-ons, which means you don't have to do them if you don't want to. Maybe you feel like going to the shark-feeding and motu picnic on one, but at the next stop you just want to relax and laze about. It's all up to you. You could even do your own thing in port like renting bikes or a car to explore the island. And don't worry about downtime. The islands all operate on what's fondly called "island time." So it's good to arrive with a laid back, easy going manner.

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Viera, Fla.: Hello. My fiance and I are getting married in April '09 and we want to go to Tahiti in June for our honeymoon. we have done some research on prices and it is way too expensive for our budget. We were wondering if there is any way that we can still go on the honeymoon of our dreams to Tahiti without breaking the bank? Please help! —Bride-to-Be

Alexis Kelly: First things first. Congratulations! I wish you both the best of luck and many happy days together. Now, on to the planning. Tahiti is the picture perfect place for a honeymoon, and it certainly will be a trip you will never forget. However, the time of year may be a bit tough as the end of June does get a bit sticky and the crowds do begin to swell. If you're going towards the beginning of the month, you may be okay and as weather is an unpredictable thing, so you could have no problems at all. Just keep that in mind.

While the destination's remote location does makes it a very expensive place, there are ways to save money. As I said to reader from Manassas, Va., cruising is the most economical way to experience this area. You'll cover more ground and there's nothing like gliding across the calm blue waters, watching the islands come into view, and exploring the different lagoons and beaches. By land you might only be able to afford to see one island in 7 days, by sea you could see four different ones. Another plus? You won't have to worry about transportation, crowds, or really anything.

If you don't want to cruise, consider staying in a pension or guesthouse, rather than a resort. Pensions and guesthouses are usually family-run and offer cheaper rates that include the half-board option (breakfast and dinner) or the option to self-cater (buy and prepare your own food in the on-site, communal kitchen). Some are quite charming and provide beautifully located, private accommodations. However, with inexpensive rates can come basic facilities (like no warm water), close proximity to other guests, shared bathrooms, etc. Not ideal for your romantic trip as newlyweds, but you will be together and could meet some really interesting people.

Renting a villa is also an option and one that would give you your own space. There are a few villas for rent on Bora Bora (with a view of the lagoon) that sleep two and range in price from $1899 to $2560 a week. On the high-end, it's about $350 per night, which is on the expensive side, but with your own kitchen you can self-cater, sleep in, and make your own rules.

Also, try dining at the roulottes instead of a pricey restaurant. These mobile food vans sell chicken, crepes, steak, and the traditional poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk). They usually open around 6 p.m., and you can pull up a stool to eat or do take away. Some vans will even allow you to bring your own alcohol; just make sure you ask first.

You could also consider going to an island other than Tahiti.

• Moorea has the greatest range of budget accommodations (camping, self-catering, pensions, small hotels) and there are numerous restaurants nearby that allow you to dine according to your budget.

• Huahine has great villa-car-boat rental deals and there are reasonably priced restaurants and roulottes in Fare.

• There are no resorts on Maupiti, 25 miles west of Bora Bora, which eliminates the expensive option and most of its accommodations include the half-board (breakfast and dinner) option. There are very few excursions, but those that do exist will be cheaper than on other islands. This lack of options and lack of people might be exactly what you're looking for.

And check out Airtahiti.com. They are always offering amazing packages. If you can find a cheap flight from Orlando to New York's JFK, you might be able to make it work.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Help. I would like to visit Australia and Tahiti, and limit my trip to 15 days. I would like to keep the price below $2,500. Is that possible? What time of year is it most affordable to travel to this area?

Alexis Kelly: I hate to break it to you, but I don't think it's possible to keep this type of trip under $2,500. The airfare alone could cost that much. I did see recently that Qantas was offering an economy ticket from NY's JFK to Sydney for about $1000 roundtrip. They were also offering special deals with American Airlines for connecting flights from other US cities to get to NYC, but none of the cities were Atlanta. So this means you still have to get to NYC, and then get to Tahiti once you're in Sydney. And then you have to stay somewhere, eat something, and maybe even leave your room to see some sights. It all adds up!

For this type of trip, I would figure around $3,500 for flight and accommodation, but again that does not include food. See what a travel agent, Air Tahiti Nui, or maybe even Qantas can come up with.

Air Tahiti Nui offers stopover packages from LA to Sydney, with the option to stay in Tahiti for 2-4 nights (a longer stay is an additional cost), but I would suggest calling them directly (or checking out their web site) to see what they have to offer.

I know calling a travel agent seems so archaic, but they do know of great packages and can do all of the research and leg work for you. They may even be aware of deals before they are published.

As for the most affordable time to travel, anytime between October and May will give you great weather and a good price. July and August are the most expensive and worst weather times.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: We vacationed in Tahiti in 1983, and it was truly our "dream" vacation. I'd love to go back, but we don't see airfare deals from Hawaii. It appears that all of the specials are on Air Tahiti Nui out of Los Angeles. Any suggestions for economy airfare?

Alexis Kelly: I hate to sound so repetitive, but Air Tahiti Nui really does have the most competitive packages. But alas, as you said, they only fly out of LA (or NYC in the high season). Hawaiian Airlines has great service and they do fly between Honolulu and Pape'ete, but may be a little more pricey, while United and America are probably the most competitive price wise for flights between Honolulu and Pape'ete.

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Honolulu, Hawaii: We are planning a trip to Bora Bora and staying at the Bora Bora Nui resort and spa. We are looking for suggestions for dive charters companies to dive 4 days in a row. Also, are there any must-see things on Tahiti as we will have 1.5 days there layover in and out of Bora Bora. Thanks.

Alexis Kelly: Perfect choice! Bora Bora Nui has some incredible snorkeling right off its bungalows and the resort's location on Motu Toopua puts you fairly close to the Manta Pass and Eagle Channel dive sites. I would suggest contacting either Bora Diving Center or Nemo World (you can research both at boradiving.com). Both are located in Matira and are PADI certified. I believe they can pick you up at your resort too. I would also try contacting your hotel to see who they recommend. They may offer packages or deals and sometimes resorts have their own dive centers on the property.

As for Tahiti sightseeing, you'll be flying in and out of Pape'ete, which is the largest town in French Polynesia. And while it's not a metropolis on the scale of New York, it is a bustling city center. The plus? All of the must-see sites are located along Boulevard Pomare, the town's main road, which stretches for about 2 miles along the waterfront. You can have a lovely, leisurely stroll and take just about everything in. Make sure you check out the beautiful, buttercup-yellow Notre Dame Cathedral and Marche de Pape'ete, the town's public market. The market is a great place to pick up souvenirs like vanilla and woven hats and baskets.

Place Tarahoi, which is now home to French Polynesia's territorial government, was once the home of Tahiti's 19th-century royal family. The buildings and gardens are lovely.

I'd also stop by the Robert Wan Pearl Museum. You can see all sorts of pearl encrusted items, do a little pearl shopping, and take a guided tour—free guided tours are offered for two or more people with five days notice.

Make sure you grab a bite to eat at one of the 30 roulettes (mobile food trucks) that open up around 6 pm nightly at Place Vaiete, which is pretty much the heart of the city. The food is great and inexpensive, and its a great place to people watch.

If you want to do something more active and get out of the "city," most tour operators offer half day options that explore the inner island or coastal road. You could sign up for a half-day 4wd tour that will take you into the island past waterfalls and lakes; you might even get to see the blue-eyes eels in Vaihiria Lake! Or, for the less adventurous, there's circle-island tour that will take you around the big island in an air-conditioned minibus. There's also horse-back riding, hiking...the list goes on and on.

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New York, N.Y.: We are arriving in Papeete late in the evening. What's the best way to get to our hotel (Sofitel Maeva), which does not provide transfer service? Also, do the taxis accept US dollars?

Alexis Kelly: Lucky for you there's a L'Truck stop across the street from the Sofitel Maeva. Taking L'Truck is a bit of an adventure, as the passenger seats are long benches that face each other in the open-sided back, but they are cheap and a great way to get around. You'll want to take the red and white buses that travel the west side of the island. You can catch them behind the market in Rue du Marechal Foch. They run Monday through Friday 6 a.m.-midnight. Unfortunately, there's limited service on Saturday and none on Sunday. The fare should be about 200 CFP for a one-way trip at night.

If this doesn't work with your schedule, taxis are available. You can catch taxis at the airport, at stands near Pape'ete's Centre Vaima, or just flag them down along the road. However, they are a very expensive way to get around. It will cost around 3,000 CFP (or about US$30) to go only a few miles.

And yes, unfortunately you will have to exchange your US$ for francs or CFP. There is an ATM at the airport, and that will give you the best exchange rate.

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Alexis Kelly: Unfortunately, that's all the time we have today. Thanks so much for all of the great questions. I hope your trips to the South Pacific are wonderful. Don't forget to pick up Fodor's Tahiti & French Polynesia, 1st edition; it goes on sale October 21.