Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

This and That

As I sit at home not traveling (which means I am not working), I have time (for a change) to pour through the various humor and commentary that comes my way across the Internet. Here are some recent examples and my reactions to them, plus details of a final kick in the pants from Tahiti's Moorea Pearl Resort.


In case you missed getting this captioned photo of last week's USAirways Hudson River rescue, there it is above.

Just like the Titanic but without the band playing. I wonder if First Class passengers will get any more in compensation than the flat $5,000 offered by the airline to everybody else.


This was sent to me with a note claiming it to be the funniest complaint letter ever sent to an airline:

Hard to know if the letter’s true, but the unpleasant on-board food photos look all too familiar. The author might be sorrowfully surprised to learn that very similar slop and unrecognizable goo is often proudly served from premium class galleys on airlines worldwide.

Because I’ve seen it all many times before in real life, I did not find the letter surprising or funny. Maybe that’s a sign that I've been permanently jaded by 40 years of flying.

I commented to Joe Brancatelli that, compared to such sorry so-called "free" food as described in the letter, the buy-on-board deli sandwiches on AA that I've tried have been delicious. His pithy retort hit me hard:

"Look what we're down to: not hating the paid sandwiches."

So right, Joe.


Recently Delta sent me an email broadly outlining 2009 Medallion benefits. As a lifetime Platinum, I read through them with some curiosity. After all, I have accumulated 5,120,000 miles on Delta since the SkyMiles program was launched way back in the early eighties.

That's right: over five million miles. Some years I would easily top 200 segments on Delta.

But not any more. As I read through the email, it dawned on me that 2008 was the first year in almost 40 years that I did not fly on a single Delta segment.

Mind you, I didn't leave my old flame in a huff. For several years I tried to stay married to Delta. But gradually I slipped away from booking DL after repeated insults and abuses, canceled connections with no back-up, disastrous and incompetent service, insufferably rude employees, and absurd delays at hubs like JFK combined with a complete lack of shame or sense of responsibility to one of their most loyal customers.

I was even a Delta Flying Colonel, an honor that had to be earned by bringing business to the airline repeatedly over years. That is, until they abandoned the FC program.


If you read my multi-part story of our Tahiti trip, perhaps you will recall the many shortcomings I documented during my family's 12-day stay at the wannabe-worldclass Moorea Pearl Resort on Mo'orea. Not content with the long list of deficiencies I cataloged, the Moorea Pearl added a cherry on top by billing me twice on my American Express card after I left.

This is particularly ironic since the Pearl has a policy of printing an advance copy of the bill for patrons to review many hours prior to checkout. I found several discrepancies on my advance bill, all of which were corrected long before I signed the final bill at the front desk just before heading for the airport. The front desk staff, all of whom knew me well by checkout time, was very satisfied that the bill I penned was correct.

But not the next day's staff, apparently, as that's the date on the second charge. Amex has of course removed the dupe from my statement and has opened an inquiry with the hotel to determine why they charged me twice for $1232.

Is this any way to encourage guests to return?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 5
Getting Home

Leaving Mo'orea was a sweet and sour experience. We loved the bucolic island and its genuine island folk, but I admit having had about all I could take of the Moorea Pearl Resort.

To be fair to the Pearl, perhaps any resort in Polynesia would have grated on me (see previous post for 5,100 words of detail). On top of the high costs in general in Polynesia, resort prices are a multiple of those in the real world, and resorts tend to charge for every little thing, down to every breath of air inhaled.

Nonetheless, and thanks in part to very low bookings during the first week of January, the Pearl allowed us to stay in our room until 5:00 PM (normal check-out is 11:00 AM). I had negotiated this benefit on the day we checked in.

Very late check-out was part of a deal that included an over-water bungalow upgrade to the "Deluxe" category and full breakfasts for the entire family (on arrival there was some question about whether our original booking included just three or all four family members' breakfasts).

Spending the entire final day enjoying the sun and sea of Tahiti was a great relief to me and my family. Otherwise, we would have been forced to wait for hours at the front desk with our luggage for our late afternoon flight back to Pape'ete to connect with the big Air Tahiti Nui bird to LAX and, eventually, home. Yes, I paid for the privilege, but, still, I owe thanks to the Moorea Pearl Resort for sticking to their agreement.

The Pearl gave me a bill to review several hours before our transfer bus arrived, and I found the agreed premium for the Deluxe over-water room had not been honored. The bill was hundreds of dollars more than it should have been. However, a calm discussion with the front desk fixed things, and the final invoice I signed upon check-out was correct.

Our flight from Mo'orea's tiny airport was scheduled for 6:15 PM, which was to connect us to the Pape'ete airport in plenty of time for our 10:00 PM Air Tahiti Nui flight to Los Angeles. Though it's a short ride to the Mo'orea airport from the resort, I was pleased to see the transfer bus arrive early just before 5:00 PM.

We departed the Moorea Pearl Resort at 5:00 PM on the dot and arrived at the airport at 5:10 PM. During this brief ten minutes, our French driver regaled us with stories of his sailboat adventures across the Atlantic to the Panama Canal and thence across the South Pacific to Tahiti. He now lives on his sailboat, which is moored just offshore a Polynesian pal's digs. Unlike some of his countrymen we met, he loved the island and had no plans to return to France soon.

It was a cheery, upbeat send-off for us, and I took his ebullience as a good sign for the long trip home ahead.

The friendly Air Tahiti folks who checked us in at Mo'orea's miniscule airport had us on their list, and we checked our bags as required (the tiny airplanes that fly inter-island have very limited carryon space in the cabin). As I grapsed the four boarding passes offered me, I asked the agent if the 6:15 PM flight was on time.

"Well, yes, it is," she said, "but YOU'RE on the 5:15 PM flight."

It was just 5:13 PM as she told me this, and I saw the plane landing outside her window.

"I don't understand," I said.

"You got here early, and we run flights to Pape'ete every hour, so I put you all on this one instead." She smiled. "You don't mind, do you?"

No, I didn't! And I told her so. But I was reeling at the thought that we had left the hotel on the transfer bus at 5:00 PM and were catching a 5:15 PM flight with no problem. Oh, if only my flights at home could be so convenient.

We stood by the open door (no security) waiting to board, and in no time we were fighting the stray cats and wandering mongrel dogs to get out to our plane, a Twin Otter 300. It held a mere 19 passengers. The Twin Otter cockpit is permanently open (there is no door), and my kids enjoyed watching the two-man flight crew handle the controls. A sign next to the cockpit warned passengers that flash photography is forbidden because it might temporarily blind a pilot.

Due to heavy baggage, our 5:15 PM departure didn't actually leave the gate until 5:25 PM. At 5:29 PM the wheels left the tarmac.

Four minutes and forty-five seconds later the wheels touched down on the runway at Pape'ete airport (my son and I both timed it). Once again I marveled that, at less than five minutes in the air, this eleven-mile crossing must be among the shortest commercial flights on earth.

By 5:42 PM we were out of the airplane and walking toward the small domestic terminal, and at 5:45 PM we had our luggage. We were in Pape'ete exactly 45 minutes after leaving the resort on Mo'orea. Even my kids were impressed (ages ten and five).

Two intriguing facts to add about this flight segment experience:

First, there was no security screening of any kind either at the Mo'orea airport or arriving at the Pape'ete airport, not of us or of our luggage. In contrast, when we'd flown the other way two weeks earlier, going to Mo'orea, we and our luggage had been thoroughly x-rayed and screened at the Pape'ete airport.

I'm not complaining, mind you. It was like a dream to be thrown back in time to the era in the United States when one just walked out to the airplane without any security hassle and delay. That was before a series of plane hijackings by Cubans which triggered the first security checkpoints at airports. I remember how easy and carefree it was to fly up until then.

Second, the chaotic Pape'ete domestic terminal we had flown out of two weeks before was not the same terminal we arrived at when returning for our international flight home. The dinky terminal where the inter-island Twin Otter parked and deposited us was in fact at the opposite end of the airport.

The international terminal is in the middle between the two domestic terminal buildings. Yet we flew over and back on the same airline: Air Tahiti, the sister company to Air Tahiti Nui which handles domestic flights between islands in Polynesia.

I have no idea why the airline serves two unconnected domestic terminals, nor have I any clue as to why the larger domestic terminal churns with confused activity while the small one we came into on our return is quiet and easy to deal with. I chalked it up to the charming quirks sometimes encountered in places not in a frenzy to improve efficiency and productivity, which madness is our constant companion in the U S of A.

After dragging our bags to the international terminal (only about 100 yards) we entered a snaking rope line for Air Tahiti Nui's economy cabin check-in. My wife fetched us all some delicious deli sandwiches from the busy-side domestic terminal while we waited for the counters to open. A long queue soon formed behind us (we were first in line), and Air Tahiti Nui, to their credit, opened check-in for their 10:00 PM LAX departure before 7:00 PM.

We were greeted by a very friendly and competent Air Tahiti Nui agent who was able to vastly improve our seat assignments from the rear coach cabin to the forward one just behind Business Class. We were given 14AB and 15AB, port side window-aisle seats very close to the front of economy. I was vastly relieved to know that our flight back to America would be tolerable.

Security screening followed the passport control checkpoint, and Tahitian personnel were thorough and polite. (So thorough, in fact, that there was no subsequent security screening at LAX on arrival. I've become accustomed to having to run the TSA gauntlet after arriving from international destinations.)

We killed time in the relatively small international boarding gate area with the kids for close to two hours, but somehow it went fast. I wandered around and noticed an Air Tahiti Nui lounge upstairs which I took to be reserved for First and Business customers.

Boarding commenced after 9:15 PM, and we had to haul our bags up the boarding stairs since Pape'ete airport has no jetways. I'm not sure how problematic the outside boarding might be during a tropical downpour; luckily, it was a clear night. Once on board, the cabin staff made sure everyone found their seats, but coach is coach, and not even a glass of water was offered during the 45 minutes before departure.

Air Tahiti Nui redeemed itself in my eyes in a number of ways that night compared to our experience traveling south to Polynesia. It had begun with the efficient and professional check-in. Then we boarded quickly, buttoned up, and departed on time even with a very full airplane. Beverage and meal service was slow (over an hour after takeoff), but we had water and snacks with us for the kids.

Cabin staff was much like the outbound crew we'd encountered two weeks before: patient, friendly in a cool way, helpful when asked, sometimes forgetful of requests, a bit standoffish at times. But, as I said above, coach is coach. I probably expected too much on our first flight. Compared to, say, Air France, the crew excelled. Measured against my own non-relative standards, there was much room for improvement. Overall, I was content, however, and my family was happy.

We arrived Los Angeles on time and parked at a real gate at the Tom Bradley terminal this time. This allowed us to walk off the plane directly into the bowels of the building without the long intervening bus ride from a distant stand. Within 30 minutes of leaving the aircraft we had made it through passport control and U. S. Customs with our luggage. I walked us over to Terminal 4 next door for our American Airlines flights home.

And into bedlam. Apparently bad weather in the northern half of the States had caused mass cancellations from coast to coast. In addition to people arriving for scheduled Saturday flights home after the holidays (this was January 3rd), weary folks who were the victims of cancelled flights the day before stood in long lines to check in, hopefully, for some flight to somewhere.

Even the elite lines were swelling with people, and AA staff seemed thin to deal with all this. Our flight was at 12:15 PM, which gave us a three hour window, so I didn't mind waiting.

Good thing, as there was no other choice to get boarding passes. I had tried and failed to check in from Mo'orea. AA had cross-referenced our domestic itinerary with the international one (Air Tahiti Nui being a sort of AA partner), and would not allow me to check in for the domestic flights on an international itinerary.

The self-service check-in machines at LAX all had longer lines to reach them than the elite real-person check-in counters. We opted to wait for a real person; this consumed 47 minutes. Boarding passes in hand, I feared another interminable wait at security, but we were steered through the elite line and had nobody in front of us.

Last time I visited the LAX Admirals Club I don't recall it being so big. Maybe I just wasn't curious enough to wander around it all. We spent the intervening hours before boarding time in the Club, long enough for me to shower and change and for the kids to eat a light breakfast/lunch from the bar.

Our itinerary homebound to Raleigh was first a connection through Miami, which might seem an odd way to get to Raleigh. Miami has a great number of good connections via AA these days, however, and our flight was an international 777. Once again we had window and aisle seats, and the relatively new airplane had a better in-seat video system than the ones on Air Tahiti Nui. My kids were thankfully entertained for the four-plus hour flight.

I rarely fly coach on AA, so this was a good learning experience for me. I found it, well, almost enjoyable. We left on time, thanks to an efficient boarding regimen and despite being a much over-booked flight utilizing a large aircraft.

In-flight service was quick and universally cheerful, and beverages came around twice. I bought a very good in-flight sandwich off the cart which was frankly better than some of the first class meals I've been served in the past few years on American. Despite being tired from all the miles we had already flown since leaving the Moorea Pearl Resort the previous afternoon, I found the experience to be not merely tolerable but pleasant.

We arrived Miami dead on schedule. We had a small adventure letting my son, age ten, read the terminal map and lead us to our outbound flight's gate. He navigated perfectly through the vast and confusing AA terminal arms of MIA, and we even had time to stop for a Coke at an Admirals Club (over-crowded despite the late hour).

Our MIA/RDU flight boarded and left on time but somehow lost a few minutes en route. We still arrived close to schedule and covered the very long distance through the new Raleigh/Durham Airport terminal to the taxi stand in 20 minutes.

By midnight we were unlocking our front door, exactly 26 hours after leaving the Moorea Pearl Resort.

My wife and I had the same thought as we entered our house: if only our flights to Tahiti two weeks earlier on American and Air Tahiti Nui had worked so well!

Everyone knows it's a crap shoot when you set out for the airport, and sometimes you get lucky. This time we did. While half the country's airports were buried in ice, snow, and howling cold over the holidays, we'd been getting sunburned on Mo'orea. Unprecedented foul weather continued to pound the nation's air system just as we stepped back on U.S. soil, but we connected through southern-tier Los Angeles and Miami to get home and missed the misery. Like I said: lucky!


My business is management consulting, and our industry has collapsed since October. Like scores of colleagues, I am not working and don't know when I will be working again. Instead of flying every week, I am thus not traveling at all. I cannot predict when consulting will pick up again and take me back to the airport.

Since this blog is primarily driven by my firsthand business travel experiences, readers should therefore not be surprised in the coming weeks if my posts are less frequent and shorter than in the past. Nonetheless I will continue to write.

Godspeed to all who ARE flying this and every week!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 4
The Planet’s Priciest Paradise

Our first night in Tahiti was at the Pape’ete Intercontinental Resort by the airport in Fa’aa. We’d arrived so late from Los Angeles that we could not fly directly to Mo’orea, our real destination, until the next day.

The Intercontinental Pape’ete was an unpleasant introduction to French Polynesia, characterized by very poor attitudes and a snooty French front desk staff (non-Polynesian). The hotel took 45 minutes to get us checked-in the night of our late arrival after the long plane ride, an interminable wait.

Then they assigned us room 291 with a so-called “panoramic view” room. Hotel hype translation: From our window we could see the immediate grounds and a bunch of palm trees—the beach and Mo’orea were obscured by the foliage.

The next morning the hotel charged 1600 Pacific Francs (CFP) for a bus with no A/C to downtown Pape’ete ($19.50) one way for the four of us, a 12-minute ride in good traffic. We grabbed a cab back for about the same price.

When I asked the concierge why their expensive bus was 20 minutes late and still not there, he became very defensive and loud, and huffed obtusely to me in front of other guests also waiting, as only the French can do, that “Traffic is bad today, so what do you EXPECT?”

Unabashed, I looked him straight in the eye and said, “How was I supposed to know that? You never told us that the bus would be late, did you? You live here; we don’t, and this is our first day in Pape’ete. It’s your JOB to know and to keep your guests who are paying your salary informed, yet you FAILED utterly.”

He stalked away in a purple rage. It was a satisfying moment for me.

Truth be told, he caught me at a bad moment. I was already testy because the front desk clerk, another unpleasant French person, had not long before refused my request for a one hour extension (to 12 noon) of our check-out (we were not due to be picked up until 12:15 PM to go to the airport for our flight to Mo’orea). Seizing the opportunity to deny us the small courtesy I asked for, and without hesitating or consulting her computer screen, she said in a scornful tone, “NON! We have OTHER guests arriving.”

I saw at once that her retort was a calculated insult on several levels. And I knew she was lying, too, because the same concierge who embarrassed himself about the late shuttle bus had earlier that morning mentioned that bookings were way off, leaving the hotel less than half full this week before Christmas. So I decided to give the front desk woman another chance.

In my friendliest and humblest tone, I suggested to her that my request was reasonable, that our car didn’t come for us until just past midday, and I literally begged her to reconsider. Alas, she spit out venomously, “TOO BAD for you! NON! You can leave your luggage with the bellman if you like and wait in the lobby.” And she turned her back on me and walked away.

A top graduate, no doubt, of the L’ecole de Hospitalitie Francaise. And if I misspelled it, well, all the better.

It wouldn’t be the last time that I ran afoul of ill-natured Parisian transplants to Polynesia—or I took them all to be from Paris, anyway, judging from their recurrent rudeness. I often ran into folks from France working in Polynesia who seemed aggrieved to have been marooned so far from culture.

Contrarily, and without exception, every real Tahitian I met everywhere was genuinely friendly and helpful, including the wonderful housekeeping staff (all Polynesians) at the Intercontinental.

First impressions can be hard to shake, and the insufferable front desk clerk and concierge put me off Tahiti and the Intercontinental right away. I was glad to find later that day that the Pearl Resort staff on Mo’orea had an entirely opposite attitude and demeanor.

Though my data points are few, I was subsequently told by several Mo’orea locals that what I experienced was typical of the attitudes around Pape’ete. What a pity in a global recession, as word will get around. I hope that my story helps people to book away from the Intercontinental Pape’ete. I certainly won’t go back.

Our short visit of a few morning hours in downtown Pape’ete did nothing to endear us to the burg or make us yearn to return. We had earlier thought that since Mo’orea is just a half hour by fast catamaran ferry away, we might spend a day in Pape’ete again.

However, charm is not an adjective most lucid folks would use to describe the over-crowded, traffic-snarled, filthy little port city, and we had enough of it that one morning. Frankly, having been there now, I don’t understand the recommendations most guidebooks make for Pape’ete.

Back at the Intercontinental, our ride came promptly at 12:15 PM, and we were whisked back to the nearby airport for our 1:30 PM departure to tiny Mo’orea airport. I was concerned that we had only a bit more than an hour to check in and get through security, and my anxiety rose dramatically when we entered the domestic side of the airport. It was typical third world chaos, reminiscent of many an airport in small countries, with lines of people at every counter.

I was wrong, though, to be worried. Somehow the lines all moved briskly, and we checked our luggage (limited carryon allowed on small inter-island aircraft), had it x-rayed, got ourselves through the security portal, and to the right gate well before boarding commenced at 1:15 PM. The prop plane, a well-kept De Havilland Dash-8, was not full, and we were buttoned up and ready to go on schedule.

Mo’orea is, I believe, just 11 miles from the island of Tahiti, which must rank as one of the world’s shortest commercial flights. It’s certainly the only scheduled commercial flight I’ve ever experienced that began final approach procedures to land literally just as the gear was pulled up after takeoff.

The landing announcements were made while we were still in climb-out. The gear was back down less than five minutes after takeoff, and we were soon after hitting the tarmac on Mo’orea. In no time the door was open, and we were walking into the tiny terminal building. Our luggage was available within one minute after entering the building.

If only all U.S. flights were so painless and efficient!

(Our return flight almost two weeks later was even shorter and more efficient; details next week.)

Our transfer bus to the Moorea Pearl Resort was waiting for us, and in ten minutes we had arrived, finally, at our destination. We were politely and professionally greeted by Nita Morgan, who whisked us through the check-in procedures and showed us our room.

Nita has lived on Mo’orea for 30 years, I later discovered, and the Pearl is lucky to have her. She helped us time and again with niggling problems during our stay at the Pearl. (Note: Nita has been transferred to the brand-new Pearl property on Tahiti effective January 2.)

Our first six nights at the Moorea Pearl Resort were enjoyed in Deluxe Beachfront Bungalow 307 (over $800/night rack rate—I think we paid less, but I am not sure because the bundled price makes it impossible to know). It was very comfortable, and we had no problems in the bungalow itself while there, but the interior design suffered from poor lighting at night. Plenty of sunlight streamed in during daylight hours. The Polynesian housekeeping staff served our room with fresh towels and flowers twice a day. And they were always polite, efficient, and full of smiles.

Beyond the bungalow, we enjoyed the resort’s features and amenities, but noticed a few issues:

At the bar:

While using the free (but very slow) wifi at the bar (the only place one could connect), I witnessed one of the wait staff bring back a tray full of empty cocktail glasses from the pool area. Each glass had the typical array of tropical fruit slices hanging from over-sized tooth picks, all uneaten.

I watched agog as she removed the pineapple wedges from each drink and washed them under the bar sink faucet, then carefully replaced the “cleaned” wedges back into the fruit holder next to the blender for the next round of Pina Coladas.

We didn’t order any fruity drinks after that.

On the plus side, the wifi WAS gratis, and assistant manager Serge Pont kindly provided me with an adapter to plug in my Lenovo T61 laptop at the bar. The Intercontinental back in Pape’ete charged something like $20 for a half hour to connect to the Internet, so the intermittent wifi outages at the Pearl were hard to complain of.

At breakfast:

The breakfast buffet, which we discovered cost almost $30, was packaged into our rate, “saving” us about $120 a day. It was a decent spread of hot and cold items, including cooked-to-order omelets.

However, for the hefty price, and considering the Pearl markets itself as a tippy-top resort, the restaurant demonstrated a surprising inconsistency for the morning meal. It had no boxed cereal on Monday, the excuse given they couldn’t replenish them on Sunday (should have ordered more to stock up for the weekend?). They ran out of pineapple one day and cantaloupe the next. I mean, come on! Running out of fresh fruit in Tahiti? At a five-star property?

The restaurant suffered from a chronic spoon shortage every day—we were always robbing spoons from other table set-ups. No cheese was on hand several days. They were, incredibly, out of bread one day.

Except for the sporadic shortages, the identical breakfast buffet items were offered every day without the slightest variation, and we had very inconsistent service (some days warm and friendly staff, other days brusque and remote).

At the pool:

The “infinity” pool with a gorgeous large tree on one edge made a good first impression.

But we fast found that poolside towels ran out every day. We were told it was due to employee theft plus an “extremely slow washing machine.” These are, of course, ridiculous reasons to be heard at any resort, let alone when guests are paying $800-1000 per day.

It was bad enough to find worn-out, ripped pool chair covers, but worse to discover a chronic shortage of those crummy covers.

My wife and I marveled that so many niggling things could go wrong—and every day! Why did the Pearl’s reputation not falter in the transparent Internet age when anyone (like me) can critique a property?

Then one morning I was chatting with Serge Pont, the assistant GM, and he happened to mention that our 12 day stay at the Moorea Pearl Resort was unusual. It seems the average stay at the Pearl—and other Polynesian resorts—is just three and a half days. People, he said, like to jump around when in Tahiti to get a taste of several islands.

Perhaps, I thought, that the very short resort stays mitigate most complaints regarding problems such as I cataloged above. Guests move on to the next place so fast that they quickly forget any slight unhappiness suffered during their brief respite at any one property.

Deluxe Over-water Bungalow 409 (over $900/night rack rate), which we moved to for our final five nights, was also great, but it came with these defects: a wet, soiled, smelly mattress; cracked phone in toilet; a stuck wash basin faucet; and a badly ripped bed sheet. A phone call to Nita Morgan soon remedied the problems, but all the bungalows suffer from poor lighting at night. (Bungalows at the Pearl, on land or over the water, are virtually identical; the only differences are location and price.)

All over-water bungalows had slimy, slippery ladders from the swim platform down to the reef. I know; I snorkeled up to each one and inspected them up close to see if they were like ours. Having grown up near the ocean, this did not surprise me, but when you’re paying almost a grand a night, couldn’t they at least make an effort to clean the ladders so no one slips off onto the reef below?

A nice over-water bungalow feature is the outside shower on the lower swim deck, which oddly has far better water pressure than the pitifully inadequate inside shower.

A northern New Jersey woman with her hubby and two kids (who now call Dallas home) bitterly complained to my wife and me after arriving one afternoon to the Moorea Pearl Resort fresh from the Four Seasons Bora Bora. In her boombox voice for all pool denizens to hear, she called the Pearl a “dump” and gave the assistant manager, Serge Pont, a laundry list of grievances which started with the dirty poolside tiles (which I had not noticed until she pointed them out) and included most of my own observations. The following morning at breakfast she told me proudly that she had “set Serge right!”

Apparently not; nothing improved on my own growing list of small grievances. After the average three and a half days she and her brood were gone, and I am sure her complaints were relegated to the circular file by Serge.

Even the nice New Zealand family we befriended, who had also enjoyed Four Seasons resorts in such places as Egypt (Sharm El Sheikh), commented on the things the Pearl wasn’t doing right.

For our part, we enjoyed it, but thought it over-priced even by Tahitian standards. Too many déclassé issues like ones listed above.

One big positive, in my opinion, is the small size of the Pearl: It is intimate, with max accommodation at under 200, and thus never feels over-crowded.

My ambivalence for the Moorea Pearl Resort tipped decidedly to the negative side when I discovered that we were not merely invited, but COMPELLED, to pay for the the resort’s outrageously expensive New Year’s Eve party whether we actually attended or not. Our new Kiwi friends clued us in to it, their travel agent having warned them.

Our agent had not, and when I found the charge was to be something over $300 per adult (half price for kids), I immediately emailed our agent in Toronto to see if we had prepaid for it without knowing. I wasn’t thrilled to be forced to spend almost $1,000 for a ridiculously high-priced dinner we didn't really want.

My agent's reply came on the last day of the year, and indeed we had prepaid for it, though we weren’t aware of either the compulsory payment or the steep price. It was bundled into the total quote—another reason I don’t like “one price” vacations put together by travel agencies like ours. I didn’t know whether to feel relief that I wouldn’t have to pony up another nine C-notes or to be outraged that we had not been told about it but had paid for it anyway.

The $300 per person New Year's Eve event itself deserves its own blog post, but I’ll try to sum it up as brief as I can:

The Polynesian dancing and show was superior to similar well-executed events I’ve seen in Hawai’i, but we paid for entertainment we would not have chosen to attend.

The seafood buffet featured an extravaganza of maritime cuisine flown in from all parts of the world: oysters on the half shell; whole lobsters (two varieties); several types and sizes and styles of prawns and jumbo shrimp; Alaskan king crab legs and claws; and more—all served in both cold and hot variations.

Other protein choices included lamb, New Zealand venison, roast beef, and decent foie gras on toast, which were delicious.

The seafood, though, had been, of necessity, frozen and then thawed. Thus both the texture and the flavor of each exotic delicacy suffered badly. The presentation appearance on the fancy tables held far more promise than was delivered satisfaction on the palate.

The start of the grand fete was an open bar by the pool. Too bad they served only the cheapest, raw Tahitian rum (I’ve had North Carolina moonshine that was smoother) and no call brands of other liquors, plus extremely mediocre red and white wines. I chose instead a Hinano, the local Tahitian beer, which is quite good.

But it’s still just beer, and the occasion deserved better. I was disappointed in the cocktail and wine offering considering the price, the event, and the location.

Ditto for the two Chilean wines (one bottle per couple, choice of red or white) served with the meal. Champagne? I asked. One glass per person to be poured just before midnight, and no more, I was told. We selected the Chardonnay on the theory that a bad white wine is almost always better than a bad red one.

We waited patiently in a very long line to be seated for dinner, during which time a French couple broke the queue unapologetically (draped in what appeared to be their finest Parisian polyester for the elegant evening).

When our turn finally came, the maître d'hôtel, who by this 11th day of our visit knew us well, informed me that our table for seven (we were dining with our new friends, the New Zealand family) had been commandeered by a French family of five.

Had they been accidentally seated by your staff? I asked.

No, they just sat down there, apparently ignoring the line altogether, the French maître d' informed me.

Well, bloody move the interlopers then! I said through clenched teeth. Why would I have to even say this to you at such an affair?

But the Frenchman had no stomach for turning out a fellow countryman and his genetic misfires in favor of, well, an Américain! Though he sidled over to the table and made some feeble gesticulations for show (knowing I was watching), the rude family haughtily and firmly kept derrieres bottomed upon our seats and claimed the table for France.

The would-be maître d' was brusquely dismissed, and I half-expected the land-grabbing inhabitants of our table to raise the Tricolor in celebration of their great victory over des Estats Unis.


Bad enough to be victims of this unconscionable slight and unprofessional behavior by the Moorea Pearl Resort, but the dolt of a maître d' then threw salt in our wounds by making us wait another 20 minutes while he fretted over what to do.

Meanwhile, the Pearl staff continued to seat virtually everyone but us, and the multitudes rushed upon the tables of $300 seafood with gusto. Large plates brimming with oysters, lobsters, prawn, and crab paraded by us en route to be consumed.

Hungry and furious, we waited for our table.

Eventually the incompetent ass who called himself the maître d' came upon the novel idea of setting up another table for seven, and, evincing no irony whatsoever, seated us within spitting distance of our original table and its toady family of miscreants.

In fact the notion of spitting in their direction crossed my mind as we sat down.

We didn’t have time to fret, however, and we dashed off en masse to the serving tables, lest the pricey ocean comestibles disappear as quickly as the poolside towels in the mornings.

We were the last to be served, and dinner plates were hard to find. I had to scavenge mine from a cart behind one of the tables. Again, I thought: How is this worth $300? How can this place call itself a world-class resort?

Our fears of diminishing feast foods were warranted: We gobbled first portions and managed to grab second helpings of favored items just as the kitchen staff began to clear out the main courses to be replaced by the pedestrian desserts (ice creams, puddings, a few chocolates).

As I was desperately heaping a few more Alaskan crab claws upon my plate, Alain Druet, the Pearl Resort’s General Manager (Directeur Général), came up with his own plate for seconds. By now we knew each other, and he asked me if I was enjoying the evening. Alain have a start when I answered, no, not particularly, and then gave him a rundown of his staff’s multiple transgressions up to the moment. He allowed that “That’s not right!” and wandered off scowling and muttering.

Nothing came of my chance encounter with Alain, however, not even an apology from anyone at the Pearl, that night or later.

As the New Year’s Eve festivities progressed, we were again ignored when the party hats, balloons, masks, and party horns were distributed among tables. I had to walk to the desk and bluntly complain to get the party favors for us, as the staff claimed they had run out. Turned out they had plenty left in a large box which they were hoarding (God knows why—they were just cheap party favors).

They gave me the favors I demanded resentfully and never apologized for shorting our table. We couldn’t help but notice that our nearby original table, still occupied by the toady French folk, had been amply supplied from the beginning.

Our surmise was that if you weren’t French at this gig, you were probably going to be ignored. We drank enough of the Chilean swill to finally laugh ourselves silly at the grand slam of insults and mediocrity the Moorea Pearl resort had managed to deliver—one of the most ridiculous experiences of our lives—for which we jointly forked over about $1,700. Simply absurd!

When the Champagne was finally meted out (one glass per adult), the kids had run off to play somewhere, and we managed to extract some small revenge by convincing the pourers that the other three glasses on the table must be filled for absent adult guests. This was small comfort, however, and by the time the night was over I was mighty glad that we had just one more night to endure at the Pearl.

Before leaving this discussion about the Moorea Pearl resort, I must give credit where it is due to some very fine staff who were genuinely and consistently friendly and helpful during our entire stay:

Giles, the de facto concierge, who officially manages the Activities Desk, wrote his surname for me but I cannot translate it (please forgive me, Giles). He is a delightful, knowledgeable, and indispensable resource who made up for many of the deficiencies and discourtesies we endured. Thank you, Giles.

Nita Morgan, already mentioned above, is another invaluable resource and genuine long-time Pearl employee. She was our primary go-to staff member for any front desk-related issue, and she resolved every one quickly and efficiently. Nita has been transferred to the new Pearl resort opening in March, 2009, near Pape’ete on the island of Tahiti. The Moorea Pearl Resort will sorely miss her competence and grace.

Gilbert, who hails from the Marquesas Islands (also part of French Polynesia but some distance away from the Society Islands of which Mo’orea is one), works the pool desk practically every day with good cheer and an unending willingness to help. Gilbert proved himself resourceful time and again when we needed something, and he shared with us some great stories about his home islands.


I’ve just realized that I have so far avoided the title topic: Expense! The sweet and sour of it all: our planet’s priciest paradise. From the very first day, I felt tapped out in Tahiti even though Mo’orea is magnificent!

Here are some examples of the cost of living and fun on Mo’orea:

$244 for a 4-hour morning tour (2 adults, 2 kids) with Mo’orea Tours (this is the resort price, though I snagged a discount by booking direct at the airport) – this included a 4WD open pickup truck tour of Magic Mountain, the Belvedere lookout, the juice factory, a few old temple sites, both bays (Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay), etc. This is a “must-do” even if expensive.

$122 for a modest dinner at the cheaper of the two resort restaurant (included no starters or desserts, two adult entrees, two kid meals, no cocktails, one beer, and no wine).

$6 for bag of Dorito’s at a local supermarket in the nearby town of Maharepa.

$22 for a Pina Colada at the Pearl bar (we didn’t order one after seeing them re-use the pineapple slices left over from other drinks).

$30 for a 4 oz. bottle of sunscreen in Pape’ete.

$300 for New Year’s Eve bash per person – compulsory, as explained above!

$178 to rent a jet-ski for one hour.

$152 for kids to swim with dolphins for half hour; twice that for adults

$100 per day for a rent-a-wreck at Albert Rent A Car (no A/C, manual windows, locks, steering, manual transmission, defective windshield wipers & wonky lights).

Laundry (per washing machine load) left with the nice owner of the Maharepa Laverie, including pressing and folding = $19. Doing it at the Pearl resort would have been much more (e.g., one shirt laundered and pressed = $8.50; underwear = $3.65; pair shorts = $8.50; tee-shirt = $5.00).

Best bargain on Mo’orea BY FAR (we did it twice!):

Hiro’s Tours – Pay a mere $61 per adult + $30 per kid for a 6-hour boat ride in the vast lagoon of Mo’orea, blacktip reef shark feeding (you get in the water with the sharks—exciting!), swimming with giant rays, a glorious motu picnic, and afternoon snorkeling.

Hiro & Bruno at Hiro’s Tours offer the best bargain on the entire island, but you must book direct with Hiro (78 70 10) for 5000F person cash price to beat the 7000F ($85) resort activity desk price.

For a family of four, booking direct with Hiro and paying cash saved us $73.

Not only that, but the motu picnic was outstanding and worth the price by itself. A motu is an atoll (an islet) out in the lagoon just off the main island, all privately owned. Hiro’s tour boat stops on one for a delicious lunch of fresh barbecued tuna steaks, barbecued free-range chicken (there’s no other kind of chicken on Mo’orea!), fried rice, buttered noodles, and all the Hinano beer and Hiro’s special Mai-Tais you can down in one afternoon. Plenty of time is left over for snorkeling in the beautiful world-class coral gardens of the motu bay.

To top it off, Hiro is a real character! Just 42, He has four kids ranging in age from 24 down to 18 months. His dad was an American, so Hiro has a foot in both worlds, Tahiti and the USA. He was educated in California, and he’s a natural leader with boundless energy and a magnetic personality. You can’t help but like the guy.

And Hiro is a sincere and kind soul. He took a liking to our family from the first day we met him. On our final day there, he saw us walking and stopped his car by the road (there’s only one main road on Mo’orea) to invite us to come on a third shark feed/ray swim/motu picnic for free! We had time to do it, but I couldn’t talk the kids into going again.

The only thing that gave me pause was the name of the Hiro Tours boat: Liki Tiki.

Medical detour

My wife stubbed a little toe on a coconut tree outside our bungalow and broke it, which caused an interesting little adventure: French doctor = $122 for 5 minutes; free ambulance ride to hospital; Mo’orea rural hospital visit = $26; 10-minute taxi ride back to resort with Denise (well-known local taxi driver) in her van = $32.

Total cash outlay: $180. Total time lost: an afternoon. Prescribed treatment: just bandage the broken toe to the adjacent one for a few weeks. Duh! We could have saved a lot of time and money had we known that. Lesson learned.

Sundry other observations regarding Mo’orea:

Exchange rate at bank for USD = 82 Francs (down from 100 not long ago) compared to 74-78F at most hotels.

Here’s a useful tip when exchanging money I discovered by accident: Banks charge different fixed service fees. The Bank of Polynesia charges only 484F for any amount exchanged, while the Bank of Tahiti charges more than 1250F per transaction, a savings of about $10 if you go to Bank of Polynesia.

From the Moorea Pearl Resort, both banks are within easy walking distance, with branches in nearby Maharepa.

If you stay at the Pearl, Maharepa also boasts a Laverie, a well-stocked supermarket, several decent merchandise stores with Hawaiian-style shirts, and even a pet store (called Top Dog).

Literally thousands of chickens run wild everywhere on Mo'orea, competing with large land crabs, scrawny cats, and nervous, odd-looking dogs for scraps of food and garbage.

Every Polynesian we met was warm and friendly. Despite some bad apples, most French people were, too.

Just 16,700 people call Mo’orea home (full-time residents), living on an island 34 miles around.

Everybody knows everybody, and they all live in remarkable harmony most of the time. The police force on Mo’orea numbers just 14, I was told.

The barrier reef enclosing the lagoon averages 80 feet wide and 42 miles in circumference.

Mo’orea is gloriously undeveloped and hasn’t lost its charm. With luck, it never will. We drove around the island, which doesn’t take long (34 miles). There are miles and miles of beachfront accessible to anyone, and miles more with local homes and businesses instead of resorts and hotels.

In fact only four world-class resorts have been built on Mo’orea (Pearl, Sheraton, Sofitel, and Intercontinental), and recent local government regulations won’t let any more over-water bungalows be added, as it kills the coral.

There is also a local prohibition on any building higher than a coconut tree.

The local government has forbidden any more development of Opunohu Bay (which means Stonefish Belly Bay in Polynesian) to preserve it as a place of beauty forever.

I was impressed that they’d turn down the income associated with more resort development to keep the island's natural beauty and the charm that goes with it. Despite the high prices, it’s part of what made me want to come back.

I was told that the 2000 El Nino killed off most of the reefs on Bora-Bora (a smaller island, but over-built with 18 world-class resorts) because the Bora-Bora barrier reef lacks sufficient drainage to the ocean (only one inlet). The interior lagoon reefs over-heated.

Lots of dead coral forests are evident on Mo’orea, too, but much is thriving, thanks to multiple channels through the barrier reef to let the sea in and naturally cool the coral beds during the hot El Nino events.

Enough scribbling for this week. Next week’s final Tahiti Trip blog post will document our journey home and include some final thoughts on Tahiti and, especially, Mo’orea.