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Travel and You

It's Best to Plan Before Taking Off for Paradise

November 23, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Misconceptions about destinations continue to plague travelers who sometimes don't pay enough attention to what items they should or should not take with them, and what to expect and not expect during their travels.

Enjoying the "paradises" of the world, which includes coping with both culture shock and expense shock, can be greatly enhanced by information and preparation.

A good case in point is Tahiti/French Polynesia, which is likely to receive a lot more promotion with the recent addition of non-stop service from Los Angeles to Tahiti by Air France. Other carriers, including Continental, are also slated to serve this market (which is already served by UTA, Air New Zealand and Qantas).

Here are some pointers on Tahiti/French Polynesia from local tour guides, hotel personnel and tour operators. Many of their tips apply to other destinations as well.

More Than 100 Islands

"People come to French Polynesia and think we only have a few islands," said Henry Rittmeister, an old island hand. "They don't realize that there are over 100 islands and that we cover an area larger than Europe."

American travelers should also keep in mind, Rittmeister said, that Tahiti is not Hawaii. "There is a greater native population here, and it is very much a foreign country. Though many people speak English, French and Tahitian are the languages. Many Americans are also not aware that people here live modern lives. It's not primitive."

Distances from the United States represent another misconception, according to Didier Martinot, managing director of the Hotel Sofitel Marara Bora Bora. "Some Americans think Bora Bora is 15 or more hours from Los Angeles, though it's less than eight hours to Papeete and just about an hour on to Bora Bora."

It may take you another hour to get to your hotel from the airport in Bora Bora.

Islands have their own personalities, which includes topography. For example, Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora are mountainous, while Rangiroa is an atoll with a much flatter terrain.

Lured by attractively priced packages, travelers may not fully realize the extent of incidental costs. Due to high import taxes, the islands are expensive. "Prices are higher than most American travelers realize," Rittmeister said.

"We recommend that people budget about $50 a day for meals," said Lynn Ennis, head of Santa Barbara-based Ami Tours.

Add liberally to this sum for any drinks. Beer can cost $4 and a shot of Scotch as much as $8.50 at some hotel bars.

Some of the packages offer the option of meal plans, perhaps breakfast and dinner. However, at some properties you may feel somewhat like a captive at the hotel (though in a beautiful setting) at mealtime. One item to check out is if there is a village or shopping complex nearby where you can eat (and don't expect any fast-food outlets) or buy food.

You also have to determine if the distance is walkable for you and if the hotel provides transportation, free or otherwise, to these areas. There isn't much public transportation available, if any, except in Tahiti. Rental cars tend to be on the expensive side. "Figure $50-$55 per day for renting a car," Ennis said.

As for meal plans, Robin Temaiana of Costa Mesa-based Islands in the Sun suggested: "Buy a meal plan after arrival when you may have a better idea of your situation."

One couple I met on Moorea had brought a supply of soup packets, prunes and canned tuna to avoid having to eat every meal at the hotel restaurant.

Another point to consider is whether your room will have a refrigerator unit. "Go for the lowest category in the better hotels instead of the highest category in a lesser property," Temaiana advised. "If you get upgraded, which can happen for a variety of reasons, you have the possibility of a better room."

With the French influence, meals can be an event. "This is not a fast-food society," said Franz Ettlinger, food and beverage director at the Moorea Lagoon Hotel. "Americans should be prepared to try some Tahitian dishes. Many visitors have no idea of what Tahitian food is like. It's good but rich in calories, and you don't have to be a gourmet to enjoy it."

Another misconception travelers may have concerns the amount of sightseeing and activities available. The islands, for many visitors, tend to be places more to simply be than to do. "Many people expect to find more activities than there are, both at and outside their hotels," Rittmeister said. "And they don't realize to what extent they may be spending most or all of their time at the hotels."

Temaiana said: "You don't come here for food or service, but for the beauty, serenity and the sheer magic of the islands."

Hotel Activities

It's important to determine what sort of activities are available at your hotel, which of them are free, and what the costs are for those that aren't gratis that you think you might be interested in. At some properties snorkeling, windsurfing and outrigger canoes might be gratis. Scuba-diving equipment and deep-sea fishing boats are another story.

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