Cruising on our sailboat to beautiful, exotic places is a great adventure in itself. For the last year we’ve been in French Polynesia, and we find it more and more enchanting every day. At the same time, it’s one of the most remote places in the world, making it hard for family and friends to visit.
So this winter we took a ‘grand family and friends tour’ in Europe, the US, and the Caribbean to visit our family and as many friends as possible while our boat was waiting patiently on the hard in Apataki Carenage. We were gone for 4 months, which was a bit longer than we expected or wanted, and it was still not enough to see everyone! To our friends in Seattle, SoCal, and Hawaii – we’ll see you next tour! 🤗😘
Traveling between Tahiti, French Polynesia and the US or Europe used to be a very long and extremely expensive adventure, carbon footprint notwithstanding. It’s still a series of long flights and somewhat harder to coordinate than your average international trip, but the prices have gotten more affordable with the introduction of low-cost carriers like French Bee and competition from the US with United having just introduced flights from San Francisco this year.
It used to be that Air France and Air Tahiti Nui only ran flights between Papeete and Paris (via Los Angeles) 2-3 days a week, depending on the season. With the new French Bee and United flights, it’s gotten easier to find options, and flights leave Papeete almost every day now heading to the US or Europe. All flights stop in San Francisco or Los Angeles, and you’ll have to clear immigrations and customs with your luggage before continuing on to Paris, so make sure you get the proper visa waivers in advance if you are not a US citizen or resident (more on that below).
For us, to travel from Apataki to Oslo, we had to take a 1 hour (very wet) boat ride from the Apataki Carenage to the Apataki Airport (APK), where the once-a-week on Fridays inter-island Tahiti Air flight (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui which runs the international flights) took us to Papeete. We stayed in the modest but convenient Tahiti Airport Motel which provides no-frills, clean accommodations right across from the Papeete Airport (PPT) and embarked the French Bee BF711 flight the next morning to Paris. The 22 hour flight stops in San Francisco for refueling, and everyone has to get off, clear immigrations and customs (including picking your checked luggage, going through customs, and dropping it back onto a belt to get it back on the plane).
We arrived late and stayed for one night in a hotel in Paris Orly (book in advance, a whole bunch of passengers from our flight ✈️ could not find a room) and traveled to Paris CDG to get on the short flight to Oslo the next day. We booked all flights individually online, same with the hotels. Local travel between points done by boat, bus, UBER, taxi is usually figured out on the spot, as conditions of arrival/timing can change. From our experience, it also ends up being cheaper, as ‘advance booking’ sites for these types of services tend to charge a convenience fee and sell you the same product you can get locally. We speak French (useful in French Polynesia and France, of course) but you will usually find at least a teenager or two eager to practice their YouTube given English on you.
Pro Tip: When traveling to remote islands, it’s a good idea pack your luggage contents in plastic or use waterproof bags (I used the oh-so-classy garbage bag on the inside and outside method). Your destination airport might not have the most modern luggage handling facilities and your bag could wait on the tarmac under tropical rain (or northern European snow) for some time before being delivered. Or your final destination might include an open-air boat ride, like in the Tuamotus or Bora Bora or the BVIs. Either way, the contents might get wet and stay wet for some time if your trip is more than 24 hours, so I now pack all my clothes in solid ziploc bags and double-bag everything in garbage bags before putting them in my cute red Tommy Bahama bag. Petter, being more practical and less fashion inclined, travels with a big ol’ West Marine dry backpack.
Another Pro Tip: Inter-island flights have much lower luggage allowances, so you might have to pay extra or leave your first born at the small airport before getting on the small two-propeller planes usually flown between the smaller islands. You can call the local airline office in advance to check for space or plan to ship your larger luggage to the main hub in advance. We lucked out in Apataki when one of the 7 passengers the plane could accommodate did not show up so they could take our 2 (smallish) check-in bags with winter clothes. It wasn’t as much an issue of space, as of weight, because the tiny runway built on the coral barrier reef had just enough length for our plane to take off at full throttle. For the flight back, we opted to come into a slightly larger airport (Arutua) so we could carry more boat parts, and take an extra 2 hour boat ride back to Apataki atoll.
Reviewing the French Bee Flight BF711 between Tahiti and Paris PPT-ORY
When looking to book the flight from Tahiti to Paris, I scoured the internet for reviews and came out empty handed. I was especially curious about the difference in classes, the space on the extremely long flight, and the food quality, since we were flying French Bee, a low-cost carrier. So here are my 2 €-cents:
It’s a 22 hour flight (with a 3 hours break in SF) so we decided to ‘splurge’ for the Premium cabin, and pay an extra fee for the front row seats that promised more leg room. Overall it about doubled the price of the flight, but it was still super affordable and less than economy class on Air France or Air Tahiti Nui. We booked the flights for early-mid December, which is high season for folks flying to Paris for the Holidays, and we barely got the seats we wanted while booking during the summer-time. They only have one row of those long-legged premium seats, and they go fast for the busy times – so book early.
Our check-in experience in Tahiti was pleasant – even slightly better than the Air France flight I had taken earlier in the year. Papeete Airport (PPT) is a small, mostly open-air airport that opens and shuts down with the larger flights coming in and out. They are a small airport and tend to bunch up the flights in the mornings and evenings, so everyone sits in the same long line to check in and go through security, regardless of class of flight.
When we got to our seats we were super happy we payed extra for the leg room. The Premium cabin is a separate space from the rest of the plane, and the seats are slightly larger and nicer (leather), but it’s still pretty tight compared to even the Premium-Economy on Air France. The 1A through 1K seats are worth the extra-extra fee in our opinion (you pay for Premium, and then another fee to select the extra leg room seat). We were able to stretch and even sleep in our seats, and the head of the cabin provides a nice cocoon of privacy. There is enough space and separation with the galley and up-front toilet (which is reserved for Premium) and there’s no extra noise or significant foot traffic in the area.
We usually pack our own food and snacks for long flights, unless it’s a fancy carrier and we fly first class, so we came prepared with our usual high quality nuts, fruit, Brie cheese, and ‘cheat snacks’ picked up from the grocery store close to the airport hotel. One of the many nice things about Tahiti is that they take good food to heart as much as the rest of France, so good healthy fresh food is easy to find even at convenience stores in the airport area. The food served on the plane ended up being pretty decent after all, and included a couple of glasses of wine (it is a French airline, after all, budget and low-cost be damned) and digestif.
The temperature on the flight was pretty comfortable and the cabin was kept on the warm side to accommodate for us delicate tropical flower 🌺 folks. The temperature in Paris was however not quite as accommodating, and we had to dig up our coats, hats, and gloves (gasp) when we landed. As a note, the flight lands in Paris Orly, which is a smaller (budget) airport, so if you continue on to other destinations in Europe make sure you account for immigration, customs, and travel time to CDG if your next flight connects there. We chose to stay the night at an airport hotel in Orly (very modern, very chic, and much cheaper than the CDG equivalents) and travel to Oslo the next morning, after a good night’s sleep and shower. It really helps with the jet lag!
The layover in San Francisco was just enough time to get off the plane, clear immigration and customs, and get back on. The flight was a bit late taking off and landing, so any extra time for the layover was eaten by that. It’s slightly annoying to have to carry your checked luggage through customs just to put it on a conveyor belt on the other side, but at least the San Francisco experience is better than the Los Angeles one: more streamlined formalities, nicer agents, shorter hallways to drag your luggage through. Again, if you are not a US citizen or resident, you’ll have to apply for a visa/travel waiver at least 72 hours (at the time of this post) in advance. More info here and here.
Time well spent
We spent the next months between Oslo, Sandefjord, Lillehammer, and Bucharest, slowly adjusting to the cold weather and visiting family and friends. Christmas in Lillehammer, Norway, was fantastic, with the family gathered around the tree and lots of good food. We compensated by going for cross-country skiing adventures, sauna breaks, and cabin-yoga (which is just normal yoga done on a fuzzy sheep skin 🇳🇴🧘♀️).
Time flew by, and before we knew it we were on our way back west, stopping in Paris to see dear friends, then in the USVI’s and BVI’s to reunite with old sailing friends, then back north across the US to say hello to our friends in Park City, Utah, another friendly stop in San Francisco and finally back to Tahiti and Apataki.
The last part was a bit of a whirlwind, but we tried to stop in each place for long enough to make it count 🙂
Sailing in the Virgin Islands (BVIs and USVIs) was an absolute treat, and reuniting with our friends after so many years of cruising around the world was awesome. We told sailing and fishing stories from the seven seas (they have the seven, we only have two…) into the night and drank lots and lots of rum. It’s fun to see how people change and at the same time stay the same after 10 years. We fell right back into routines and conversations and the time to head back to the Pacific came too soon.
Shenanigans on SV Delos
For Petter and I, it was also really nice to experience what cruising was like in the marine playground of the Caribbean, as a contrast to the Pacific. Everything is closer, easier to sail to your destination as a day sail, easier to provision, much busier, and at the same time very diverse from island to island. It was neat to see how the BVIs were so different from the USVIs, although they really are right next to each other.
We also saw many signs of destruction still remaining from Hurricanes Irma and Maria that ripped through just two years ago, heard the horror stories, and were impressed by the resilience of the islands and their people who bounced back. It’s sad to think this is happening again right now in the Bahamas. Our sailing friends have set up a relief fund fundraiser at https://svdelos.com/sailing-around-the-world-with-sv-delos/dorian/ – if you are so inclined, give it a click.
Once in San Francisco, California, we retrieved our mountain of boat parts and computer loot that our other friends so graciously accepted to collect for us (Thanks Serena and Lee!), kissed the babies and petted the dogs (and a horse), drank more rum and champagne with our amigos, hugged and kissed goodbye, and eventually got on a United flight back to Papeete. This was a nice flight as well, albeit much shorter – San Francisco to Papeete is only 7 hours. Pretty standard United experience, new plane, splurge for the extra leg-room seats, dream about first class, look forward to landing in beautiful fragrant Tahiti. Yes, the best part about these flights (as it was in Hawaii too) is when the door opens and that nice, humid air smelling like Frangipani enters the plane.
We stayed at the same airport motel in Papeete and arrived in Apataki the next day with boat parts, fresh groceries from Papeete, and way too much luggage our very polite flight attendants just ignored since the inter-island plane was half empty. It’s pretty crazy flying over a bunch of islands in an hour and a half when you know you spent three days sailing the same distance just months ago.
A reminder that you are slipping away from the conveniences of ‘civilization’ is always necessary on the return leg of those trips… The airport terminals get smaller and smaller, there is no security check to take your toothpaste away, the towns get sleepier, and the stores are always closed when you need something. So don’t forget your sunscreen, hat, snacks and water for the long trip back!