When I met Aaron, I told him that I was never getting married. After essentially being a complete failure (in my mind) in the realm of relationships for the majority of my life, I had decided that there was simply no way that marriage was a good idea for me, or anybody else. Aaron is literally the best person on earth, and he never pushed me or pressured me into changing my mind. As our relationship developed, and as soon I stopped being completely ridiculous, I started to entertain the idea that being married to Aaron might not be such a bad thing afterall. After many pre-marital counselling sessions (note: extremely condensed version of the story... I'm doing you all a favor, just trust me), we both agreed that we were committed and ready to jump in - so, with the same thought and care that we were giving to our relationship, we designed the most amazing wedding rings in the history of the world. My friend Stephanie helped us design them - we actually bought all of the raw diamonds on ebay!
The next task was planning a wedding, which we absolutely did not want to do. Who wants to be bothered with stress and drama? Ever since I watched the movie "South Pacific" as a kid, I had entertained a dream of visiting French Polynesia ... and so, we started hatching a plan to fly there for our wedding. I randomly started searching on the internet for travel deals, and I stumbled across a lovely human being named Alison Adam, who works for Tahiti Travel Mate (firstname.lastname@example.org). She was amazingly awesome to work with, and she was able to get us some great deals on the hotel. She asked us what our interests/preferences were, and she helped us build a trip that suited our budget and needs. She has been to the Tahitian islands about a billion times (ok, maybe I'm exaggerating), so she is incredibly knowledgable. She gave us our options for a wedding ceremony in Tahiti, and organized all of the arrangements with the hotel in Moorea. For our 11 day trip, we decided to visit the islands of Moorea, Bora Bora and Huahine - Alison thought that these islands would be a good introduction to French Polynesia. Prior to our departure, we received a detailed itinerary in the mail - literally all we had to do was show up in Tahiti - everything else was already arranged! And so, on Halloween of 2015, we hopped on a plane from Seattle to LAX ... and from LAX to Tahiti!
If you want the super-budget-friendly version of French Polynesia, then do not follow any of my advice. We did a semi-budget friendly trip - which means that we stayed in extremely nice hotels (it was our wedding, for crying out loud!), but we didn't go out to eat for every meal, or consume copious amounts of alcohol. Our breakfast was included in the cost of the stay, and there were lots of healthy options - we had fruit and an omelet every morning. We packed our own lunches (meal replacement protein bars)/snacks, which worked out perfectly since we were on the go every single day. We had budgeted to go out to dinner every night on our trip - that being said, the least expensive meal that we consumed was still $60. What does $60 buy you for dinner in Moorea? Two small personal-sized pizzas and a salad. Yup, that's it. French Polynesia is not for the faint of wallet, unless you want to spend your entire trip eating french baguettes, which are highly plentiful in every store, most likely because they are the only thing on the island that anybody can afford to eat.
Unless there is something completely wrong with you, you've always dreamed of staying in "one of those huts over the ocean". The overwater bungalow fever in French Polynesia is alive and well - and for good reason, the overwater bungalows are amazing. However, since we were visiting 3 islands on this vacation - one way to save some money was to stay in a Garden Bungalow. The Garden Bungalows at the Hilton were extremely nice - they are massive hotel rooms with a huge bathroom and your own private pool on the porch. Plus, once you're asleep, you can't tell that you aren't over the water anyways. This garden bungalow was just absolutely beautiful and perfect!
On our first day in Moorea, we basically attempted (unsuccessfully) to recover from jet lag. We got acquainted with the hotel, I ate too much raw coconut (self-correcting habit, trust me), and we ate our first dinner that night at the crepe restaurant on site. This restaurant is really neat, because it is actually located over the water in the middle of the overwater bungalow dock, and they light up the water at night so that sharks come into the area! So, we basically spent our entire dinner watching sharks swim by - the food was delicious and the experience was unique. We also got our first dose of going-out-to-eat-sticker-shock. Do not expect to spend any less than $100 for dinner, no matter where you go. We never drank more than one glass of wine each, and our dinner bill was still around $100 per night (except for the night when we bought the pizza).
On day two, we rented a car (costs about $85-$100 for 24 hours) and circumnavigated the island, which was really fun. If you don't know how to drive a manual transmission, you are going to be disappointed in Tahiti - so brush up on those clutch skills! Luckily, my tiny Honda Fit is a stick shift, so it was extremely fun for me to drive a miniature Fiat around on some of the crazy roads in Moorea. We used the Lonely Planet Tahiti Book and the Moon Tahiti book as well - plus a lot of google searches to figure out fun places to visit. We headed up to a spot called "Belvedere", which is a famous lookout area and hiking spot. I actually wanted to attempt a traverse from Belvedere over to another part of the island, but the trails were SO ridiculously slick since it had been raining - the mud was literally like walking on ice. So, we stopped at an archaeological site on the way to Belvedere, and then hiked around as best we could.
On our second night in Moorea, we ate dinner at Snack Coco d'Isle, which loosely translated means, Snack on the Island. Ok, just kidding - I have no clue what it means. What I do know, is that the food was fresh and delicious. This was a low-key restaurant with a sand floor, and the food presented in a creative way - mine actually came out displayed on an elaborate tree!
The "off season" in Tahiti officially begins on November 1st, so we actually were able to secure better pricing on our hotel this way. The "off season" basically means that it is a little more rainy, but still very warm, during November - March. It did rain everyday while we were in Moorea, but it honestly didn't seem to matter - we were either exploring or snorkeling, and FOR CRYING OUT LOUD WE WERE IN TAHITI, so it probably could have poured the entire trip and it wouldn't have mattered. The only day that it seemed to matter was on day 3, which was the day of our planned wedding ceremony. We woke up on the day of the wedding and had our breakfast and went snorkeling, where I was attacked and bit by several fish. Note to self: do not swim near the blue and yellow fish with the puffy lips, because they are protecting their eggs, and they take this job extremely seriously. After snorkeling, we went to the spa and had a couples massage, which I thought would be extremely awkward - not because of the partial nudity, but because ... uhhh... what am I supposed to do? Is it supposed to be a bonding experience with my soon-to-be-husband? Am I supposed to talk to him or hold his hand while he is getting slathered with oil by another woman? It just didn't seem very romantic to me. I thought it would be somewhat awkward, but it actually ended up being really nice. I went into a coma during the massage, so there probably could have been 40 people in the room and I wouldn't have noticed.
The thing about a destination wedding, where you invite nobody else, is that there is 100% zero stress. After the massage, we went back to the hotel room and got dressed for the ceremony. For the record - I was pretty darn proud that I bought my dress for $24 online, and Aaron paid five times that amount for his dress shirt and slacks. Once we were ready, we sat around the hotel room waiting for awhile, until a knock at the door summoned me - my golf cart ride to the ceremony site had arrived! I was whisked via golf cart to the beach, where I got my first look at the setup - two flower adorned chairs and palm fronds and flowers covering the sand - it was so beautiful! The ladies at the hotel planned everything, so all I had to do was show up. I took off my flip-flops, and they placed a flower wreath on my head, and escorted me to the top of the stairs to wait for Aaron's arrival.
Meanwhile, Aaron was being escorted from our room by a Tahitian Warrior, who loaded him into an outrigger canoe and paddled up along the overwater bungalows. According to Aaron, the warrior offered him a last minute escape to the neighboring island of Bora Bora, but I'm pretty glad that Aaron decided to stick with the original plan. When we could see the canoe coming into shore, the coconut bikini princess and a singer and a ukulele player led me down onto the beach to meet Aaron. I tried hard to choke back tears - to say that this felt like a dream is a bit of an understatement - it was quite possibly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. With the delicate sounds of the ukulele strumming in the background, Aaron stepped onto the beach and we joined hands.
The ceremony was performed by the priest in Tahitian, and a woman was there to translate what he was saying into English. As per Tahitian custom, we said our vows (they helped us say them!), and we placed our hands on a leaf, and then a coconut was broken and the water was poured over them in a blessing called a "vaihaari". Next, we were wrapped in a pareo together for a final blessing, and then, a kiss! After the ceremony, which took about 15 minutes, the dancers performed for us while the ukulele player and the other members of the group sang a beautiful love song. I have to say, it was pretty much the coolest wedding ever.
Some of you may be curious - was the wedding in Moorea "legally binding"? The answer is no. While we consider it our actual wedding (um, hello, we did take vows with coconut water), it was not "legally" recognized in the United States. It is possible to have a legally binding ceremony in French Polynesia, however, it costs about $1600 extra and requires an entire day spent going back and forth to a court house - and also having all necessary paperwork (i.e. birth certificate, etc...) translated into French. Our small Tahitian ceremony cost us about $600 total, and we paid an extra $300 to have a photographer. The ceremony was stunningly beautiful, and so special and absolutely perfect for us. I would do it again in a heartbeat! When we came home from Tahiti, we had a very small ceremony for our immediate family (11 people, including us) where we took our "legally binding" vows and submitted all of the paperwork to the state.
After our wedding ceremony, we returned to the room where we were greeted by a delicious cake and some champagne. After finishing off the bubbly, we headed to a tiny restaurant called Rudy's for dinner. Rudy's has a shuttle that will come to the hotel to pick you up - so nice! We had heard rave reviews of the parrotfish entree at Rudy's, so that is what I ordered, and it was ABSOLUTELY, positively scrumptious - my only advice is this: DO NOT google "parrotfish" prior to eating one, because they are such pretty fish that you will feel like a terrible person for devouring it so ravenously. But, the parrotfish was incredibly delicious, and the dinner was a perfect, low-key way to celebrate our day.
In true Anastasia fashion, I had to kick it up a notch on Day 4 - no more of this "relaxing on the beaches of French Polynesia" nonsense. It was time to get down to business. To my delight, I discovered that the "trailhead" for Mt. Rotui was located directly across from our hotel. I use the word "trailhead" very loosely - because, basically, we asked the girl who lived at the house if we could walk through their property to access the trail, which starts at a tree that has a sign on it that says "Rotui". When you think of French Polynesia, most people think of pristine beaches - they do not think of climbing a mountain, and rightly so, because anybody who decides to spend their French Polynesian vacation climbing an insanely steep mountain in 80 degrees weather is an absolute nutcase. But, of course, I could not resist the temptation, and so we found ourselves ascending stupidly steep slopes, almost immediately.
I learned a few extremely important things on this climb:
- do not underestimate a mountain because it happens to be located on an island renowned for relaxation
- mud in Tahiti is basically ice
- do not try to avoid nano-particles in your sunscreen while climbing a mountain in Tahiti. Just buy the darn 70 SPF Neutrogena brand stuff and slather yourself in it, because you will likely die from a sunburn sooner than nano-particles if you attempt to use "natural" sunscreen in 90% humidity
- BRING PANTS. DO NOT HIKE IN SHORTS, unless you want thousand and thousands of miniscule cuts all over your legs that are so painful that they cause the skin on your thighs to swell
- Why do you do this to yourself? Why couldn't you have just stayed at the beach and had another couples massage?
- Mt. Rotui is probably better to climb in the dry season
- A severe shorts-line sunburn looks absolutely ridiculous while wearing a bikini
- I would expect absolutely nothing less of us ....it is no surprise to me that our first full day of marriage consisted of a death-defying hike
- We are as crazy as I had previously believed we were.
- To have a husband who is willing to climb insanely ridiculous mountain with me is something I do not, and will never, take for granted.
The kicker of our Mt. Rotui climb is that we didn't actually make it to the summit of Mt. Rotui. As we neared the final summit ridge, a rainstorm started to blow in and the summit was completely socked in with a cloud. Since the "trail" (if you could call it that) was so insanely slick already, we knew that rain would only make it worse. Some of the locals had told us that a few people had died falling off the trail while climbing Rotui, and I can believe it. At one point, Aaron actually slipped and probably would have gone flying, had he not been holding onto a branch. His legs were literally dangling into nothingness while he struggled and fumbled to relocate the trail with his feet. There were a few times, where we were both essentially clawing our way up a 4 inch wide nearly vertical "trail" of slick mud. On the way back down, we mistakenly got off course, and I ended up sliding down a steep slope - only to "save" myself by grabbing onto a bush that was completely covered in massive thorns. Hours after we had started our climb, we limped back to the hotel - completely exhausted, sunburned, covered in scrapes and bruises, smeared with dirt and pulling thorns out of our hands - we were a sight to see, especially compared to our beautiful wedding the previous day. The hotel staff was incredibly impressed with our tenacity, and stated that it was actually quite rare (go figure!) for guests at the hotel to attempt to climb Mt. Rotui. Yah, I can see why. Still, I'm glad we did it - the views of the resort and the bay, and the insane precariousness of the Rotui ridge was so spectacular, and it made me appreciate the natural beauty of Tahiti so much more.
After our hike, we ordered the infamous $60 personal pizza and salad from Allo Pizza. They deliver directly to the hotel, which was really nice, since both of us could barely walk. Even with the hefty price tag, the pizza was delicious and worth every penny, but honestly, after spending an entire day being smacked in the legs by blood-sucking twigs, of course pizza tastes delicious. It's pizza.
Overall, we absolutely loved Moorea. We could have spent so much more time there exploring, and I would love to have the chance to go back and climb Mt. Rotui again while wearing hiking pants during the drier season. I would also love to explore some of the hiking trails that crisscross the interior of the island. Most people don't go to French Polynesia to hike, but I was certainly not disappointed by the incredibly rugged and beautiful mountainous terrain! The Hilton Moorea was also wonderful - the staff was extremely personable and helpful, and they could not have done a better job coordinating and making our wedding ceremony so beautiful and special.
The sad thing about leaving Moorea was that we loved it so much and we didn't feel like we were ready to go - the great thing about leaving Moorea is that it meant we were on our way to our second destination - Bora Bora! Next time on the blog, I'll be sharing our adventures in Bora Bora. If you think that Mt. Rotui was epic, well ... let's just say that hiking trails in French Polynesia are not easy to follow.
I want to finish this post with one short, final story. This past March, Aaron and I went to Florida to visit my grandparents. While we were there, we spent a few days driving around Florida and we went to the the Everglades and the Florida Keys. We were eating dinner at a restaurant in Key West, when I looked over at Aaron and it suddenly hit me - "We're married!!", I exclaimed. I don't know why the thought hit me at that very moment - maybe it was the wine talking - but, very suddenly, I was overwhelmed (in a good, corny way) by the thought that Aaron was my husband. We started talking about our ceremony in Moorea, and I asked Aaron if it had made him emotional at all - he looked at me told me that he had gotten choked up when he arrived at the beach in the canoe and saw me waiting there. Tears started to stream down my face as I stammered, "But...but... you never told me that!" For months, I had believed that he had been completely stoic at our wedding (and, in fact, I had not mentioned the fact that I was choking back tears when I was standing at the top of the stairway watching his canoe paddle ashore). He started to laugh, I started to cry, and then I think, while stuffing our faces with key lime pie so as not to attract too much attention from other restaurant guests, we both sat there at our table, crying and laughing together ... for no reason other than we were the only two people on earth who knew the love that was promised on that coconut leaf.
Until next time, keep adventuring!