Here we are, in French Polynesia. As most travellers, we are equipped with travel guides. We seek a balanced view, so we carry two guides: one is in English, the Lonely Planet guide, and the other one is the famous Petit Futé guide, in French. Now, here´s the problem with these guides. They are too positive. They always give two thumbs up…for everything. An example: We are in Rangiroa, a coral island in the Tuomotu Archipelago. We are staying at the Ki Ora Village and this is what Petit Futé has to say about it: “The location is magnificent…you will be enchanted by its white sands…its luxury is uncomparable to anything you have ever seen.” Lonely Planet does not want to be outstaged. They counter by saying “If you are in search of luxury look no further than the Ki Ora Hotel.” Now this is what I think those guides should say… The Kia Ora is an understaffed, poorly designed, overpriced hotel in a nice location. At 600 euros per night their overwater bungalows are a dissapointment to say the least. Their furniture seems to come straight out of a Miami Beach motel foreclosure. In the United States you would not pay over $100 per night for a similar room.

And this is not just the case with this hotel and the islands in general…

The Intercontinental Hotel in Bora Bora gets amazing reviews from both guides and it´s pathetic. Surprisingly, the Intercontinental Hotel in Moorea, which is a bit more elegant and much more private and roomier, gets similar, not better reviews. Travel guides seem unable to distinguish good and bad. The best hotel so far has been the Bora Bora Hotel Amman Resort which at $950 per night delivers the only nicely decorated room we saw in our whole stay in French Polynesia, combined with outstanding service and food. There are however skeletons in the Bora Bora Hotel closet that should be disclosed. The entrance to the hotel is suprisingly blocked by squatters demanding pay off by the hotel. And it does seem that they have some rights to some hotel land because there they are..without hinderance from the police. And you, proud hotel guest, have to now use a service entrance to access your overwater bungalow.

Also the island of Bora Bora as a whole is overbuilt. It is the kind of place that must have been amazing 30 years ago and now it´s still great, but there´s sloppy construction everywhere and garbage on some beaches. It´s not ruined but it´s not well kept either. If you are looking for the true unspoiled French Polynesia (at least what I thought Bora Bora was) you find it in Tikehau, a coral reef type island with only 400 inhabitants. There the Pearl Beach resort gives you decent accomodation for around U$600; somewhat poor service but where it truly delivers is in the Robinson Crusoe experience. You get a whole island for you and 70 other people and no cars. There´s also amazing fish stocks around there to watch including frequent ray sightings.

This in short is what I want: I want the DEMANDING Traveller Guide when I travel. I want my tourist guides to be tough, as tough as Michelin is when giving stars away. I want my travel reviewers to have a limited number of positive adjectives and to use them with rigour. I want to know the truth.

What is my conclusion of French Polynesia as a whole? It is an extremely expensive destination, not only for what it costs to get there but what it costs once you are there. If you want the over water bungalow experience be prepared to spend around $1000 per day per couple. An incredible amount for a type of accomodation that is special but it ain´t THAT special. Service is slow and hotels are generally understaffed, with the exception of the Bora Bora Amman Hotel. Another is the Tahiti Polynesia, which never feels crowded. I guess the prices keep visitor numbers down. Regarding the kind of tourism, French Polynesia must be the honeymoon capital of the world. In some hotels out of 40 tables there were only 3 who were not occupied by handholding couples. What makes French Polynesia special is beautiful nature coupled by smart and good looking locals, combined with a type of tourism that is unique: tourists in love.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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traveling guide on March 8, 2008  · 

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