A Relaxing Anniversary in French Polynesia

Posted January 28th, 2015 by Mel Reger

By Travel Beyond owner Craig Beal

borabora

I have never met a person with a passport that does not dream of an over-the-water-bungalow (OWB) trip.  The OWB is depicted in those iconic travel photos of a romantic hotel room built on a platform over turquois blue water usually on the Society Islands, Fiji, or the Maldives (or the Grand Floridian in Orlando)!  Last month, Kay and I celebrated our 20th anniversary at the Four Seasons on Bora Bora in an OWB.  I finally redeemed myself for having my credit card declined at Disney World in 1994 on my honeymoon (for exceeding my $600 limit).  Even at the age of 23, I had a back-up plan; we went back to our hotel and sat through a time share presentation to get a free ticket to Sea World instead.

The Islands

Getting to the Society Islands is easy from anywhere in the USA.  It is three hours further than Hawaii.  There are daily overnight flights on Air Tahiti Nui and several flights per week on Air France both departing from Los Angeles.  The main airport is Papeete (PPT) on the island of Tahiti and from there you usually take a plane to the other Society Islands including Moorea, Taha’a and Bora Bora, or a 20 minute private plane to The Brando, a luxury resort on Tetiaroa Island.  The flight from Papeete to Bora Bora (BOB) is 45 minutes.  The port side of the plane offers views of all the islands and there are no assigned seats so board early!  The BOB airport is located on an island, meaning each of the eight OWB properties have their own boat to pick-up guests.  The boat ride to the Four Seasons is 15 minutes.

OWB properties are usually not built over the open ocean but instead over lagoons.  Bora Bora’s main island is the peak of an ancient volcano with a ring of land around the island that was the rim of the volcano.  The western side of the rim is breached and shallow water filled much of the caldera. Six of the eight OWB properties are on the east side of the island. Four of the six are on   Motu Pitiaau (an island created on the former east side rim) and two on the Bora Bora main island.  Two more are on their own islands on the east side of Bora Bora.  All the OWB properties are actually anchored into the ground on the caldera.

plungepool

The Four Seasons, St. Regis, Le Meridian, and Intercontinental Thalasso are on the Motu Pitiaau east side rim in a line north to south with a few hundred yards between each resort.  I visited the St. Regis and I rented a WaveRunner and drove around the island to see the other six OWB properties from the water. The Intercontinental Le Moana and Sofitel are on the main island but the OWB rooms are over the east side lagoon and face the aforementioned four properties.  The Hilton and Bora Bora Pearl are on their own islands on the west side of Bora Bora.  They are all fantastic!

Each property is unique and different.  Some of the differences in price are due to the brand strength and the material quality of the room itself along with the amenities and other hotel services.  The Four Seasons and St. Regis are generally the most expensive.  The Pearl and the Hilton are the only properties from which you cannot see another OWB resort – a plus for privacy.  The Hilton faces due south so it is the only place where you see open-ocean.  The two properties on the island are often the least expensive.  In my opinion there is not a significant difference in the view or water experience at the properties.

I was not prepared to be so relaxed.  The release of stress on arrival was actually exhausting and mildly intoxicating in its effect on my mind.  We spent 12 of the first 18 hours sleeping and the next two days sleeping more, paddle boarding, snorkeling, exercising, swimming, relaxing and eating fine foods.  We watched the sunset over the island and enjoyed walks.  We spent plenty of time on our private deck enjoying what felt like the perfect temperature (for those wondering, the OWB decks are not completely private, meaning you will be within plain sight of someone on the land or water).  Every 30 minutes or so I would go in our private plunge pool or simply dive off our deck into the ocean to wash off the lightest beads of sweat.  I had a new playlist and Southern Cross was our song of the trip as we spent an evening laying on the deck watching the stars and listening to music with a fine bottle of Bordeaux from the duty free shop a PPT and another bottle from a friend that surprised us with a gift on our trip.

Society Cruise

After three days at the Four Seasons, we finished our trip with a seven day cruise around the Society Islands on the Paul Gauguin luxury adventure ship.  I have been interested in this cruise since I joined the industry as the ship used to be owned by Carlson Companies in Minneapolis and was heavily marketed around our home office.  From Bora Bora we flew back to Papeete (PPT) in the afternoon and took a cab ten minutes to the pier and boarded the ship.  The seven day Society Island cruise is the Paul Gauguin’s bread-and-butter itinerary.

borabora

The ship is a floating luxury resort with a full service water marina that opens out of an aft bay door when the ship is at anchor.  The ship generally repositions itself at night so you wake up each morning anchored at a new and exotic tropical Society Island.  The cabins are similar in quality to a Silversea cabin but generally 1/3 smaller with the area savings from the living room portion.  We had a balcony that we used to store our snorkel gear which each guests checks-out upon embarkations and keeps for the duration of the cruise.

Each island and each day is a new opportunity to explore (or not).  Most mornings and afternoons offer snorkeling excursions, SCUBA diving, hiking or more relaxed bus touring around the various islands.  Guests that want to stay onboard can kayak, windsurf, or paddle board off the back of the ship from the “marina”.  Those that want to do nothing can do that, too!  Our cruise went to Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora (again), and Moorea.  The cruise line also offers trips to other island chains of French Polynesia and even a Fiji cruise once per year.  Our favorite shore excursion was the stingray ballet on Bora Bora.

The cruise is all-inclusive and the food was marginally better than the Four Seasons.  The seven included house reds were from California and Bordeaux and all were fine!  After our time on Bora Bora we were ready to be around people again and we made many new friends.  It really is a small world as we ran into a couple that we met on a sunset cruise at Victoria Falls in 2011.  The guests were 60% American with the rest mostly from Europe and a few South Americans.

It is hard to compare the Paul Gauguin to any other travel experience, but if you have traveled the world, think of it like one of the newer Lindblad National Geographic Galapagos ships operating in Hawaii.  Their low season 2015 prices start at $5,045 for a porthole cabin including coach class air from Los Angeles.  The most popular time to go is June-August with strong shoulders in April, May, September, and October.  November is supposed to usher in the rainy season and we had one short shower on our last afternoon.  The Frenchman that owns the ship also owns the Intercontinental hotels throughout the Society Islands so there are some special offers on pre/post extensions to their various OWB properties.   The ship would be ideal for families with kids age 5-18 that can swim.  If you extend a trip with kids I recommend the Intercontinental OWB property on Moorea as they have a swim with dolphin activity and sea turtle program.

stregis

Posted in Tahiti, Travel Planning | 1 Comment »


Exploring Brazil’s East Coast

Posted January 28th, 2015 by Mel Reger

Written by Travel Beyond consultant Bob Gaston

bob

I recently came back from a trip to Brazil, the land of ‘Order of Progress’.

My first stop was in Salvador, which was a very large city. It reminded me a lot of home, with similar big box stores. The hotel, however was very interesting. I stayed at the Hotel Convento do Carmo located in the Pousadas de Portugal, a chain of luxury, traditional and historical hotels. It was an old convent that had been repurposed into a hotel. The building itself was very impressive, similar to the Monastery in Cusco. I was very taken by the colonial area surrounding the hotel. I enjoyed a drum school practicing in the main square which I found to be extremely impressive.

From Salvador, I boarded the National Geographic Explorer Cruise Ship where I would spend the next sixteen nights venturing Brazil. The ship had a limited number of passengers leaving the client to staff ratio one to one making the experience better than I anticipated. All of the cruise staff was friendly and helpful, they greeted everyone when passing in the corridors and used your first name if they were aware of it. I especially appreciated the dining staff. The chef was a Swedish woman who did a wonderful job prepping all of the meals. The ship also had excellent naturalist staff on board. There were experts in photography, bird watching, South American history and politics, music, oceanography and much more. The cruise was featuring programs on music and bird watching, I chose to participate in the music program which was really well done and very interesting. They had local musicians from each port area play on the ship. Brazilians are really into music, and they were all great performers.

bob

Highlights:

Ilhéus, Brazil
We visited a cacao plantation. Cacao is the tree that produces seeds. These seeds are used to create delicious chocolate. These plantations are quite common in Central and South America. I really enjoyed the nature walk that took place throughout the plantation and all the knowledge our guide had to share regarding the cacao plants. That evening, we had a performance by Sertao, a musician group from the NE area of Brazil, a fabulous end to the evening.

bob

Ilhas Abrolhos, Brazil
Here we saw the whale migration. There were Humpback whales surrounding the ship. The whales follow almost the same path through the Atlantic every year. In the summer month, they migrate to the north for cooler waters so they can feed. They migrate back to the south during the winter months to mate in more tropical waters. When migrating, they stay close to the shore, making them a huge attraction for tourists. I saw a graph of past migrations and they were all very close. We did not see whales on any other day of the voyage because we were not in the path the whales use.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This is the city I spent my birthday, known as the Carnival capital of the world. Very cool and very chaotic city but it was a lot of fun. Every year, this community hosts the largest carnival that brings over 10,000,000 people in from all parts of the world to enjoy one of the most interesting artistic events in the world. I was fortunate enough to visit the place where they build the carnival floats.

bob

Posted in Brazil, Consultant Blogs, Latin America, Lindblad Expeditions, Travel Planning | No Comments »


After 7 Years: Callie’s Much-Anticipated First Safari

Posted January 28th, 2015 by Mel Reger

Written by Travel Beyond Travel Manager Callie Robinson

callie

October 8, 2014 was the day I’d been waiting on for seven years – the day I would finally visit South Africa! After working at Travel Beyond as a seasonal employee throughout my high school and college years, I became a full-time Travel Manager in January 2014 and was honored with my first educational trip to South Africa and Botswana for two and a half weeks.

Cape Town

I arrived late at night in Cape Town and woke up to the most serene vineyard and mountain-view outside my room in Franschhoek at La Residence; I was feeling like a queen. The next three days were spent exploring the Winelands and Cape Town. From the delicious food and wine to the picturesque landscapes, I was falling in love with this buzzing city more and more each day. Everywhere you looked there were people from destinations all over the world and multiple generations; I knew this was a perfect city because it has something to offer for everyone!

Kruger National Park

I then flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg to meet up with Rose Loggi, one of Travel Beyond’s Africa consultants. Rose has been to Africa dozens of times, and this was her fourth time to South Africa. I was honored to travel with her and learn so much from a highly experienced traveler and safari consultant. After an overnight in Johannesburg, we boarded a light aircraft flight to get us to Kruger National Park where we would embark on safari. Roughly an hour and a half later, we arrived to a champagne welcome at the airstrip from our guide and tracker from our first safari lodge, Tintswalo Safari Lodge! After settling in, I could hardly wait another second to see the wildlife in their natural habitat for the first time. Our first afternoon game drive was a great success as we saw four of the Big Five, had a delightful sundowner location overlooking a watering hole at sunset, and our guide showed us how to smoke elephant dung and explained that witch doctors in South Africa recommend to do this for sinus relief. Quite the first safari experience!

callie

Kapama Game Reserve

The next stops on the trip included eight overnight visits to a different camp each day in the Kapama Game Reserve, Timbavati Reserve, Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sands. I was a little hesitant to be staying at a tented camp on my first trip. I have done a decent amount of camping growing up, but the thought that leopards and hyena could be walking around my tent at night and bugs I had never seen before could be crawling around worried me a little. After my stay at Tanda Tula, my worries were completely erased because of the wonderful staff, beautiful camp layout and location, and my game drive experience (and hardly any bugs in October!). Plus, I was so tired from being on the move each day and learning so many new things, I had zero trouble falling asleep at night. Our first afternoon game drive at the lodge was a dream; we saw the Big Five in one game drive! This does not happen too often and it was a thrilling experience! This is also where I fell even more in love with elephants. I could just sit and watch them for hours; they are so mesmerizing to me.

Mashatu Game Reserve

After our safari in South Africa, we took a flight from Johannesburg to Polokwane and then transferred over the border to Botswana. The sun was beaming its rays on us for the 45-minute drive to Mashatu Main Camp from the border. I was so happy to feel the heat of Botswana after some chilly mornings and evenings in South Africa! On our way into camp, our guide told us that the President of Botswana had just arrived at the camp as well to hear the results of the election that were being decided that night (he won his second term, by the way). How cool! After a wonderful two-day stay at Mashatu with beautiful weather and great sightings, we were able to end our last evening safari with one of the most enchanting sunsets I had ever seen. And, of course, we had some gin & tonic to celebrate!

I cannot wait until I return to these beautiful countries and explore even more of Africa! The Okavango Delta, Victoria Falls, and various parts of Kenya are what I hope are my next African destinations. There’s so much more to share but so hard to say the right words – it’s a must-see for yourself! I would highly recommend an African safari is placed at the top of your travel bucket list!

callie

A few things I learned on this trip being a first time safari-goer

-          You really need to pack for all sorts of weather. Being that is was October I figured it would be 70’s all day every day. Morning and evenings drop to 50’s and when you’re riding in a moving, open vehicle it’s quite chilly (even for a Minnesotan).

-          If you see a multi-purpose, unique gift at the curio shop that won’t break in your suitcase, snatch it right away! Each lodge offers different interesting items.

-          Don’t be afraid to ask what you believe may be silly questions on safari! Because it was my first time, I had so many thoughts going through my head. The guides love questions and they often prompt more thoughts you didn’t think to ask!

-          Keep a journal and try to write in it as often as possible. Being back for almost 3 months now, I still try to remember fun facts to share with family and friends but the information isn’t as fresh.

 

Posted in Africa, Botswana, Consultant Blogs, South Africa | No Comments »