Moon Handbooks: Tahiti
When the weather turns colder, we notherners dream of warm locations. Beaches, warmth, exploring the world without a huge down parka on. This is the time to pick up guidebooks to the South Pacific, and start to plan our travels. It isn't that we don't love snow - it's that snow for 5 months can get a little bit long.
Enjoying the ocean waters - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
So, back to warmth and an island locale. I've been dreaming of Tahiti, and who better to teach us about Tahiti than Moon Handbook author David Stanley? David is the author of Moon Handbooks South Pacific, Moon Fiji, and Moon Tahiti, published by Avalon Travel of Berkeley, California. Over the years he has visited 179 of the 193 United Nations member countries. He currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada. You can find more of his travels at http://www.southpacific.org.
David's got the inside scoop on the South Pacific - and it shows in his book, Moon Handbooks: Tahiti. This is truly one gem of a guidebook - not content to list popular attractions and throw in a map, David has BEEN to all of these places, and gives excellent recommendations, as well as a complete cultural context. Moon Handbooks: Tahiti covers all of Tahiti and French Polynesia (did you know there was a difference?! Read on!). He explores it all - from the activities and recommendations for each island to the culture, history, environment, arts, people, government, and more. David includes a comprehensive essentials section, which includes transportation, visas, accommodations, food, conduct and customs, travel tips, health and safety, a phrasebook, suggested reading (I LOVE a book that includes a reading list), and a quick guide to the islands.
What I did NOT expect from a guidebook was the comprehensive coverage of each island/island group - did you know that there are over 118 islands in French Polynesia? Did you know that it isn't all about lying on a beach, which seems passe when you consider scuba diving, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, fishing, interacting with dolphins, or jeep safaris? The history of French colonialism is influential, but so is the millenia of traditional culture. This book is filled with suggestions, a plethora of photos so you can see what you'll be doing (furnished safari tent on Huahine? Yes!), and hard-earned firsthand experience, succinctly shared.
Kayaking near waterfalls- Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
This is definitely a guidebook to purchase, pore over, highlight, and inspire dreams. It's that good.
We caught up with David and asked him about the book, travel writing, experiencing a place like a local, top three things to know before planning a journey to Tahiti, and more. Here's what he had to say...
WE: Please tell us about your book, Moon Tahiti...
DS: In 1989 the French Polynesia chapter from Moon Handbooks South Pacific was expanded and repackaged as Tahiti-Polynesia Handbook. In 1999 and 2003 Easter Island and the Cook Islands were included in the fourth and fifth editions, but in 2007 Air New Zealand canceled their longstanding air service from Papeete to Rarotonga. So with the rationale for combining French Polynesia and the Cook Islands in one book gone, the sixth and seventh editions of Moon Tahiti published in 2007 and 2011 focused on the five archipelagoes of French Polynesia alone.
Moon Tahiti is aimed at the independent budget traveler intending to visit more than one island. The accommodations listings cover the entire spectrum with exact prices quoted. Whenever possible, there’s full information on public transportation by land and sea, plus details of the air services most visitors use. The extensive background chapters on French Polynesia’s history, culture, environment, and economy make the book worthwhile even to those on all inclusive package tours. Everything in the book is frank and independent with nothing designed to repay the hospitality of travel industry providers.
Snorkeling with manta ray - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: What led you to travel writing?
DS: When I researched the first edition of South Pacific Handbook in 1978 there were no practical guidebooks available on the region. At that time, I was spending my winters working in the Caribbean as a destination representative for a Toronto tour operator. During the Caribbean summers when the tours weren’t running I’d go on long backpacking trips through Asia and South America. On one of those trips, I used a slim guidebook titled “Indonesia, A Traveler’s Notes” by Bill Dalton. Back home, I wrote Bill a long letter correcting and updating his book. Bill responded cordially so I told him I was planning to tour the South Pacific the following year and suggested he add a section on that region in the back of his new edition. Dalton replied that his Indonesia Handbook had already grown out of proportion and that a separate guidebook was in order. He offered to co-author the book with me if I took care of all of the field research. The first edition of South Pacific Handbook appeared in June 1979 and it did well enough to allow me to quit my job with the tour operator and devote myself exclusively to guidebook writing. I researched and wrote the next seven editions of South Pacific single-handed until the publisher and I decided to discontinue the book in 2004. Sales were falling steadily due to competition from the Internet while the research costs increased. I decided to focus all of my efforts on Moon Tahiti and Moon Fiji, which is where I am now.
Man fishing in the Tuamotu Atolls - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: What inspires your writing? Do you ever get to know a location too well?
DS: I’m inspired and impelled by a love and fascination with the places I write about. I don’t think anyone should ever write a guide to a place they do not like. I once saw a guide to Romania by a young American who obviously hated the country and it was a disaster. When you burn out on an area you should stop writing about it. I did three editions of Eastern Europe on a Shoestring for Lonely Planet and gave it up in 1995 when the hordes of Western European tourists flooding into the region finally got to me.
I don’t think you can get to know a location too well unless you prefer to research your books incognito (as I do) and too many local tourism operators get to know you. Then it all becomes a show and hotel or restaurant owners begin to waste your time. Unlike travel writers on the freebie trail, I prefer to arrive unexpected and uninvited, to experience things as my readers will. Knowing a location well allows me to save time and focus on what is really new. It helps me see things in perspective. It’s hard to get jaded or bored in the South Pacific.
Hiva Oa - Photo courtesy of Jonathan Reap at Tahiti Tourisme
WE: How can travelers truly get inside a place (like Tahiti) and experience life like locals?
DS: One of the golden rules of travel is the more you spend, the less you experience. To travel like a local, one should always try to use the cheapest form of public transportation. If your time is limited, do the big hops by air and travel locally by boat, bus, or train. If you really want to go local, make as few advance reservations as possible and arrange everything as you go. It’s always easy to spot popular local restaurants anywhere in the world by observing who is eating there. Small family-operated pensions are available almost everywhere in French Polynesia, offering local experiences at reasonable prices. I control my budget by never using my credit card and paying for everything in cash. That really brings you down to earth fast.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Reap at Tahiti Tourisme
WE: What are the top three things travelers should know before planning a journey to Tahiti?
DS: Frankly, you need to be aware that French Polynesia is the most expensive destination in the South Pacific. Thus it pays to plan ahead and know where the bargains lie. You can easily wing it and get by on a budget in Fiji or Samoa, but not on Tahiti. Bring a little more cash than you expect you’ll need and don’t change money too often as bank commissions are extremely high here. Another lifesaving thing to know is that Moorea provides essentially the same experience as Bora Bora for about half the price. And finally, anyone planning a wideranging trip should be aware that Air Tahiti has some deeply discounted air passes which must be purchased before arrival in French Polynesia.
Inter-island ferry to Moorea - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: What is your favorite island (and why)?
DS: I don’t need to think about that. Moorea. It’s easily accessible from downtown Papeete by highspeed catamaran ferries which connect with buses running right around the island. There are glorious beaches on all sides with great snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing. Ample accommodations are available in every price category, from beachside campsites to a five-star Inter-Continental resort. At least a dozen atmospheric French restaurants are scattered around the Moorea and many of the resorts present lavish Polynesian dance shows several nights a week. Daily boats go out in search of schools of spinner dolphins and there’s humpback whale watching from August to November. You can swim with stingrays and black-tip reef sharks any day. And four or five full service dive shops are at your disposal.
Belvedere lookout point, Moorea - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: How has Tahiti changed over the years? What can travelers do to help give back, while they are there?
DS: In the three decades since my first visit, the number of resorts has mushroomed. This has led to water shortages, erosion, coral reef degradation, and general overcrowding. The effects are most strongly felt on Bora Bora and Moorea seems to be going the same way. The golf course which opened on Moorea in 2008 was initially opposed by local residents who forced its relocation from the fragile Opunohu Valley to the northeast corner of the island. It’s not easy for tourists to cancel the carbon emissions generated by their vacations but they may be able compensate a little by patronizing small local businesses as much as possible. A lot more of their money will remain in the local economy if they stay in small locally-run pensions and hotels rather than international resorts. At the dinner table it’s usually possible to order locally-harvested seafood and have locally-brewed beer. Taking public buses on Tahiti and Moorea supports facilities used by the local population in ways renting a car never will.
Breakfast by Canoe - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
DS: The Internet has changed the way people research and book their trips. This has had a big impact on both travel agents and guidebook writers and publishers. It used to be that guidebooks like mine were virtually the only source of independent travel information and almost everyone bought them. Now people try to write their own guides using free information copied from the Internet. What those folks may not realize is that almost everything on the Internet is either paid advertising or the work of enthusiastic amateurs. Other travelers can be great sources of information on specific subjects but they usually won’t be familiar with the full range of travel options available. Thus the hotels and restaurants they recommend may not be the best choices for everyone. Their criticisms may also be misplaced.
Obviously I’m beating my own drum by saying that independent guidebooks are still essential for travelers who want to get the most out of their trips but there you are. Unfortunately the Internet is undercutting book sales and reducing the resources authors and publishers have at their disposal to create new editions. Currently, established authors and publishers can still fall back on the wealth of background information accumulated before the Internet came along. But where do we go from here? If publishers like Lonely Planet, Avalon Travel (Moon Handbooks), Rough Guides, and the like cannot make money on their guides to the more remote corners of the globe, those titles may end up getting dropped from their lists. There will always by a good selection of guidebooks to London and Paris, but what about Samoa and Vanuatu? Will the online travel forums really fill the gap? I wonder…
Sea turtle in lagoon - Photo courtesy of Tahiti Tourisme
WE: Thanks so very much, David. You've not only inspired me to travel to Tahiti, but all over the South Pacific, thanks to your incredible book and site. We highly recommend Moon Handbooks: Tahiti to our Wandering Educators!
All photos courtesy and copyright as noted.
Note: We received a review copy of Moon Handbooks: Tahiti from the author. Thank you!