After a very, very long year with hardly any travel since mid-March (aside from a quick getaway to Antigua over the July 4th holiday), Dan and I spontaneously booked a real live getaway to French Polynesia just as it reopened to the World in mid-July! There were a lot of unknowns due to COVID, but everything ended up working out splendidly. However, literally until we boarded our Air Tahiti Nui flight, we were not certain our getaway to French Polynesia would happen… I’ve detailed our trip for those visiting, or dreaming of visiting, French Polynesia!
Mount Otemanu in beautiful Bora Bora, French Polynesia. August 2020.
French Polynesia is a large group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, including the famous islands of Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea, and its really, really FAR from our residence on the East Coast of the US – like other side of the world far! French Polynesia is Polynesian (duh) but also a collectivity of France. As such, the two are closely tied and French Polynesian culture struck me as a mix between Polynesian and French. We have always intended to visit French Polynesia, but never expected to visit in in 2020, especially during the global COVID pandemic. But, French Polynesia reopened to Americans and the timing just happened to be perfect.
COVID TESTING REQUIREMENTS + ENTRY RESTRICTIONS
Due to COVID unknowns, we planned our getaway to French Polynesia pretty quickly and decided to visit the heavy hitters: Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Mo’orea. After securing our hotel and intra-island transportation, we moved on to French Polynesia’s COVID-entry requirements, which was an ever changing saga… When we initially booked our flight the requirement, at least on Air Tahiti Nui’s website, was simply a “negative COVID test” within 72 hours of flying. However, that requirement changed almost constantly during the two weeks leading up to our flight (first a test within 72 hours, then 3 days, then RAPID tests were accepted, then they were not, then *some* were)…it was a wild ride. In any case, Air Tahiti Nui posts the current requirements on their website. We even called and emailed Air Tahiti Nui questions about the COVID test requirements and a representative promptly responded and answered our questions. In fact, I’m pretty sure was of their changes was based specifically on our questions. Check very closely about two weeks prior to your flight to get your testing in order. For us, however, the end requirement was a negative RT-PCR molecular test (no RAPID test) within 3 days of departure.
OBTAINING A NEGATIVE COVID RT-PCR MOLECULAR TEST IN NYC
Coming from the New York area at the exact time cases were blowing up in the Southern United States, obtaining a test with a quick turn around was extremely difficult. We ended up paying a hefty premium (as in $500 per person) to LEAA in NYC, a concierge doctor service, to have the required tests with a guaranteed turnaround time of 72 hours. In short, we booked it same day via a call to LEAA, a doctor came to our house during a hurricane to test us, and we received our results back in about 9 hours via email. While very, very pricey, LEAA was professional and got the job done on very short notice. For those planning a trip, I found the Facebook group French Polynesia Travel and Appreciation to be helpful in locating places around the world to obtain a timely COVID test, as well as up to date information on the current COVID situation in French Polynesia.
FOURTEEN HOURS OF FLYING DURING COVID
Our flight from New York to Tahiti took nearly 24 hours over the route JFK-LAX-PPT on American Airlines and Air Tahiti Nui. We checked in to American Airlines in JFK’s Terminal 8, which was a ghost town, at about 3 PM on a Friday afternoon. The American Airlines employee did ask to see our negative COVID test and confirmation that we had completed Tahiti’s health form (available online), but nothing more. She also confirmed that our bags would be checked all the way through to PPT. The TSA wait time was literally less than 1 minute (I wish I had taken a picture) and there was exactly 1 store selling to go wine – the Cibo Express. Otherwise a McDonalds, 1 Hudson News, and a couple delis were open serving food. Eat before you arrive at JFK, at least Terminal 8.
We boarded on time and there were 60 (!) empty seats on the plane. The flight attendants socially distanced parties and were diligent about proper mask wearing during flight. No alcohol was served, but non-alcohol beverage service was offered twice and American Airlines provided a snack box to economy flyers, which included cheese, crackers, cookies, nuts, and dried fruit. An unexpected surprised after my previous American Airlines experience this Summer.
We arrived at LAX about 2.5 hours before our Air Tahiti Nui flight to PPT. Since our bags were checked all the way through, we simply followed signs to TBIT (LAX’s international terminal) and did not re-clear security or anything of that sort. TBIT was much busier than JFK’s Terminal 8 and many places were open, even late on a Friday night. We made our way to our gate immediately on arrival, as we needed to provide our negative COVID test and our completed health form to Air Tahiti Nui airline staff (and yes, you still absolutely need to provide this information to Air Tahiti Nui even through we presented it at JFK). Unfortunately, no one was at the Air Tahiti Nui desk… So, we had a tasty glass of wine at Vino Volo and returned around 30 minutes later…to a line of people trying to do the same thing! We eventually successfully presented our negative test results and health forms and were told to return later for a temperature check prior to boarding. Despite never calling us, we made it back just in time for a temperature check and boarding. If you know Dan, you know he was not pleased with our tardiness…
En route to Tahiti, the Air Tahiti Nui flight was almost normal. Air Tahiti Nui offered beverage service – with booze (!) – throughout the flight and two full meals: dinner and breakfast. Flight attendants were diligent about requiring masks and the flight was not crowded. Dan and I had a row of three to ourselves. Air Tahiti Nui also provided all flyers a bag with two face masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes when we boarded. We arrived on time as expected, with the exception of a last minute aborted landing due to wind – wild!
On arrival in PPT, an official took our temperature, scanned our health form (there’s a bar code on it), and provided us with our self-testing kits, which all tourists are required to take on the fourth day in COVID. The kits were clearly dated with the date to be taken and were connected to the bar code on our health form. Aside from that, we simply proceeded through Immigration and picked up our bags. Even the duty-free store was open. And just like that, we were officially on our getaway to French Polynesia during COVID!!
ONCE IN FRENCH POLYNESIA DURING COVID – OUR ITINERARY
On the ground in French Polynesia, we were very pleasantly surprised at how normal things operated. Getting a taxi to our hotel was simply and again, almost normal (except for the masks and constant use of hand sanitizer).
Our trip started with a night in Tahiti at the Intercontinental (now the only Intercontinental in French Polynesia = ( ), which is only 4 kilometres from the airport. The Intercontinental did not seem totally full, but it was quite busy. Aside from restaurants and shops keeping shorter hours, everything operated as normal at the Intercontinental. We spent the day enjoying the Intercontinental’s two pools, having dinner at the hotel’s swanky over-water restaurant, Le Lotus, and listening to live music at The Tiki Bar, the only nightlife going on at the Intercontinental. People kept their distance and wore masks, and we had a blast!
Our second day in Tahiti began with a Polynesian breakfast buffet with real Polynesian dancers! And yes, buffets are alive and well in French Polynesia!! However, at each buffet we visited, everyone was provided their own tongs to pick up food, or food was served directly to you by staff, so you didn’t touch anything. The number of people visiting the buffet was also limited and hand sanitizer was distributed liberally.
The Polynesian dancers were absolutely amazing, and it was perfect that they danced from 8:30 – 9:30 in the morning, as we had a flight to catch later in the day. And if you aren’t an early person, neither am I. But, many tourists wake up early in French Polynesia due to the time change, so mornings are kind of ideal. The Polynesian breakfast dance show was the best way to start our French Polynesian getaway!
After breakfast, we flew 55 minutes on Air Tahiti, French Polynesia’s domestic airline, to the famous island of Bora Bora! The flight was almost full, but masks were required (though not provided this time). The Papeete to Bora Bora flight is awesome if the skies are clear. Be sure to board early to sit on the left for super cool views en route.
Arrival at Bora Bora’s tiny airport on its gorgeous blue water was perfect and really made us feel that we were on a remote getaway, even during COVID. After a quick 20 minute boat ride to our hotel, the Conrad, we spent the next two nights and three days exploring our resort, with a brief detour to ride jet skis around the island. Hotel restaurants were open, including the breakfast buffet, as was the pool and activities, such as kayaking and bicycling. And in that kayaking video, we kayaked all around the outside perimeter of the OWBs (i.e. Over Water Bungalows).
After Bora Bora, we returned to Tahiti and spent another 2 nights at the Intercontinental. This time, we were upgraded to an OWB(!), enjoyed the lagoon, and spent a morning touring around Papeete (you do not need a guide for this), including visiting the Papeete’s market, seeing some street art, and eating our best meal in French Polynesia at L’Oh A La Bouche!! For those planning a trip, Papeete is largely open; the market is keeping normal hours, restaurants have normal hours, including those with indoor seating, and people are gathering (at least as of August 2020). Masks are still required and hand sanitizer is never far away, but Papeete seemed a bit less cautious than the resorts we visited.
Our next move was an early 45 minute morning ferry from Tahiti to Mo’orea, where we spent our last four nights in the Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort and Spa. I have a lot to say about the Hilton Mo’orea Lagoon Resort and Spa, and its not great. But, I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that the Hilton Mo’orea has amazingly beautiful OWBs but the front desk is next to impossible. I felt like they were actively working against me, lol. And based on talking to other people, I unfortunately do not think COVID is the issue…
Despite the front desk’s difficulties, we spent four lovely days in Mo’orea doing a food tour, swimming with sharks and sting rays, buying Tahitian pearls, and climbing the Three Coconuts Trail hike! On Mo’orea, people still wore masks and used hand sanitizer, but like Papeete, it seemed lax. We still kept our distance, but we did make couple friends with a couple that had taken their self-test in Tahiti the same day as us!
FLYING BACK TO NYC
We flew back to the US via a late Monday night flight. To my lovely surprise, the Air Tahiti Nui lounge, which is also a Priority Pass lounge, was open and serving snacks and wine! It was so, so nice to visit an airport lounge again, even if the experience was slightly different.
On arrival at LAX, there was, not surprisingly, no real COVID questions asked – just if we had been to South Korea, China, Italy, or Iran (which seems totally outdated now). We answered no and breezed through. Dan even did a Global Entry interview when we landed. Upon collecting and re-checking our luggage, we even had time to visit the American Airlines lounge before flying back to NYC, on yet another largely empty flight. We did need to complete a New York State health form and provide it to New York state officials on landing, but we did not have to quarantine since we only transited through a California airport.
All in all, our trip was fantastic and if you feel healthy and comfortable traveling during COVID, I would highly recommend it. I’ve summarized some of the positive and negative aspects of taking a getaway to French Polynesia during COVID. Positive:
- French Polynesia is an easy place to social distance, especially since hotels are not yet up to full capacity.
- Almost everything is outdoors, so no worry about indoor dining, etc. if you aren’t comfortable with that.
- Most things were open. Ensuring we got everything in we wanted to just took a bit of extra planning.
- Locals, at least the ones we encountered, were thrilled to have tourists back. Tourism is a large part of French Polynesia’s economy.
- COVID is taken seriously. Hand sanitizer is everywhere and masks are easy to find (although we brought our own, 27 to be exact LOL).
- Certain hotels and restaurants are having sales to bring in traffic.
Some things I noticed that are different from normal times that could impact your getaway to French Polynesia during COVID, “cons” so to speak:
- Some hotel restaurants are closed or keep few hours. In fact, at each hotel we visited, at least one restaurant was closed during our visit. Don’t worry, you won’t starve.
- Hotel gift and pearl shops are either closed are keep very few hours. Of our three hotels, one gift shop was totally closed, one was open for four hours a day, and the third was open only on weekends for a couple hours.
- Some tour companies have not re-opened, and those that have are probably not running a full schedule. That being said, tours are still booking up; book in advance.
- Masks are required in public. No getting around this.
- Certain amenities are temporarily not being offered at hotels, such as laundry and early check-in our check-out.
- Nightlife shuts down very early, and hotel “bars” have turned into a gathering of tables not to be shared by strangers.
- And on that note, most alcohol and coffee bars in hotels are not operating.
- The self-imposed COVID test four days in (although in reality not bad at all).
STEAL OUR TRIP
Air Tahiti Nui: Even if you are flying United or French Bee, the most up to date entry requirements in French and English.
Air Tahiti: Intra-Tahiti flights. Booking works better in Safari than Chrome.
Intercontinental Tahiti: PK7, Fa’a’ā 98702, French Polynesia. Sp close to the airport, but feels a world away.
Conrad Bora Bora: Beautiful hotel. Most everything open. Creatively adapted to COVID times.
Hilton Moorea Lagoon and Spa: Beautiful OWB. Worst front desk I have ever experienced. Mediocre hotel. Go for the gorgeous OWB and activities off premises.
ON A BUDGET
I’m going to be writing more about visit French Polynesia on a budget but, in short, French Polynesia is expensive. To save money, bring alcohol and snacks from home and stick to Tahiti and Mo’orea to avoid pricey intra-country flights. Also, check out some of the more local lodging options. There are plenty, particularly in Mo’orea, right on the beach that simply don’t have a Western hotel chain name attached.