It’s funny how sometimes the places you’re most excited to visit end up being the biggest disappointments.
Raiatea sounded like my kind of island: It looked beautiful from the aerial shots I’d seen of the island and its lagoon; it had a fascinating history — it’s believed to have been the starting destination for Polynesian migrations to Hawaii and New Zealand, and James Cook and Charles Darwin had both paid it a visit; like Maupiti, it wasn’t a popular or well-known destination in French Polynesia for tourists; and given its size (it’s the second largest island after Tahiti), there would be plenty to keep me busy.
Except this is a post about how I screwed up my time in Raiatea. I screwed up royally. Every decision I made when planning my trip to the island? They were uniformly poor.
My Vision of Raiatea
When I was initially researching my South Pacific trip, I added Raiatea to the itinerary for the reasons I mentioned above. And when it came to planning out what I’d do there, I opted for something a little different.
While there are two tour companies on the island, offering full-day trips to the main sights, I decided to pass in order to have a less action-packed stay. I knew I’d be travelling quickly in French Polynesia, so I decided that Raiatea would be my rest stop.
I found some accommodation that was close to several hiking trails, and decided that was how I’d spend my time. When I saw I’d have my own private swimming pool, I was sold.
With three days on the island, I planned to spend one of those days hiking up a volcano to take photos of the lagoon, one of them sunbathing on a beach, and the other taking a day trip to nearby Tahaa island.
Sadly, I ended up doing none of those activities. In fact, I did barely anything on Raiatea. Here’s how it all went wrong:
I Didn’t Research Enough
I’ll hold my hand up and confess that I can be a lazy traveller at times. Long-term travel has taught me that things will always work out in the end, so I’m never too worried about making plans. I researched Raiatea for an afternoon before deciding to visit, but that was a limit of my reading. There’s also the fact that there just isn’t all that much information about lesser-visited islands in French Polynesia online anyway.
It wasn’t until I got to my accommodation that I realised it was almost impossible to get around the island without a car. While I can drive, I choose not to, because I’m a bad driver and don’t like putting my life at risk. I wasn’t aware that taxis would be hard to come by and that buses would be just as rare. I didn’t know that I was staying in an isolated part of the island without anything useful with a 5 kilometre radius. I didn’t even know until I arrived that the island didn’t have any beaches!
What I should have done instead: Rather than assuming that everything would be great, I should have asked the owner of my Airbnb apartment any questions I had about the island — that’s what I did in the Maldives when I couldn’t find any information online. Did I need a car to see everything? What was within walking distance? How could I get to Tahaa from the apartment?
If I’d have done so, I would have ended up staying in a much better location and had a much more enjoyable trip.
I Chose the Wrong Type of Accommodation
The Airbnb apartment I chose to stay in, Fare Nyimanu ($65/night), had nothing wrong with it. It was great in fact. The owners were sweet — they picked me up and dropped me off at the airport for free in their car, they took me to a local store to pick up some food for my stay, and they were always checking that everything was going well. The apartment was lovely, with a swimming pool overlooking Raiatea’s lagoon and easy access to hiking trails leading up the slopes of an extinct volcano.
But it was also in the middle of nowhere and I felt stranded throughout my time there. There wasn’t a single store within walking distance of the apartment, unless you thought a 10+ km round trip to buy anything was walking distance, so I ended up trying to stretch my small bag of snacks I’d bought at the beginning for my entire trip. I was too far to get to the ferry terminal to visit Tahaa. I tried to hike from the apartment, but just ended up wading through waist-high grass in circles for an hour until I walked into a beehive. I know.
In short: I was isolated, there wasn’t anywhere nearby to get food, I couldn’t find where the hike started from, and because it rained during my entire time there, I couldn’t even use the pool.
What I should have done instead: Raiatea is a large island and there’s plenty of options for accommodation. I should have stayed at a hotel in the centre of the main town, Uturoa. Had I been there, I could have gone shopping for souvenirs on rainy days, easily arranged a trip to Tahaa island, and had easy access to good food. If I were to return, I’d opt to stay at Teavapiti Lodge or Hotel Raiatea Lodge instead.
I Didn’t Take Into Account the Likelihood for Bad Weather
I was in French Polynesia at the height of the cyclone and monsoon season. Just like in Maupiti, it therefore rained an awful lot in Raiatea. In fact, it rained every single day until my final afternoon on the island. Even if I had been staying in a better location, those hikes I’d planned to take, the sunbathing I’d planned to do, the lying beside the pool, and potentially the day spent exploring Tahaa would have still likely amounted to nothing. It was too rainy to step outside.
What I should have done instead: While I was in the Cook Islands, it barely rained at all — many of the locals couldn’t stop talking about how dry the rainy season had been this year. I had naively thought it would be the same in French Polynesia.
Rather than making assumptions, I should have taken into account that it was likely to rain and made alternative plans. Rather than planning for hiking and sunbathing, I should have booked a tour of the island as soon as I’d realised my trip was likely to be rained off.
I Didn’t Stay for Long Enough
A common theme of my French Polynesia trip was not slowing down enough to enjoy my surroundings. I was so excited by the possibilities that come from being surrounded by hundreds of islands that I wanted to get to as many as possible.
By only giving myself three days to explore Raiatea, I screwed myself over when the weather gods were unkind to me. And, of course, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on the day I left the island!
What I should have done instead: I wish I’d opted to spend five days in Raiatea instead. Granted, I can’t control the weather and maybe it might have rained for five days if I’d done so, but it would have given me a bigger window for activities and I may have come away from Raiatea actually feeling like I’d seen some of it.
So, Raiatea? Things didn’t go great between us. Some of that was my fault and some of it couldn’t be helped.
So what should you do when you screw up your travel plans and nothing goes as you’d hoped?
How to Make the Best Out of a Crap Travel Situation
Practice self-care: It’s no secret that the past couple of years have been extremely tough on my mental health, and sadly, it’s a battle I’m still fighting. The one good thing to come out of my breakdown, though, is that I finally started taking time out of my day to care for myself — something I’ve never done before. I always told myself it was a waste of time.
Even if you’re not a mess like me, travel can be incredibly stressful and hard on your body, so gaining an unexpected rest day can’t be a bad thing! Use that time to be creative, to read a book, to catch up on sleep, or to edit some of your photos.
In Raiatea, I spent my time sitting on the sofa with the wide doors open, my Kindle Paperwhite in hand, devouring books that I’d have likely not got around to reading for several months if I hadn’t had this downtime. I used my beloved Headspace app to meditate in the mornings and evenings. I practiced my push ups and continued stretching in my seemingly infinite-lasting quest to do the splits, because exercise is so good for my mind.
Keep your expectations low: One of the first lessons I learned when I started travelling was to keep my expectations in check. After having spent most of my life dreaming of various cities around the world, I found that once I finally got to visit them, my sky high expectations were rarely ever met. On the other hand, the places I spontaneously visited with no prior expectations were often the ones that impressed me most.
One of the best things you can do is to keep your expectations low — that way, if things don’t go perfectly, you’re less likely to be disappointed.
Don’t beat yourself up over it: It sucks when things don’t work out, and it’s normal to feel frustrated by it. When I travel, I can’t help but equate feeling disappointed by a destination with defeat; that I failed as a traveller because I didn’t get to see the best of a place. And what if I never return and never get the chance to see all the things I missed this time around?
But if you did everything you could and couldn’t have changed anything, you have to let it go. You have to accept that not every single travel destination and experience is going to be perfect — I’m definitely proof of that! — and that’s okay.
Make the most of your next destination: Draw a line in the sand and move on to your next destination without harbouring regrets. Instead, throw yourself into appreciating and enjoying your next stop even more than you would have done before. Make the effort to take tours you’d never have considered taking, sign up for classes, hire a bicycle, try something new.
That’s exactly what I did in Huahine, the next stop on my French Polynesia journey.