How Not to Travel Raiatea


Raiatea view
View from my budget apartment in Raiatea

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.

Raiatea view

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.

Raiatea jungle

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.

Pool in Raiatea

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.

monkey in raiatea

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.

sunrise in Raiatea

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.

Raiatea hiking track

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.

Raiatea from the air
Raiatea from above on a sunnier day

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.

Where was the last place you visited where nothing seemed to go right?

Previous Meet Maupiti: the Bora Bora of 50 Years Ago
Next My 100 Best Travel Tips From Ten Years of Travel

36 Comments

  1. Jub
    July 12, 2016
    Reply

    Hey Lauren,

    Not cool that you didn’t get to follow through with your plans on the island but it seems like you are okay with it all. That’s awesome, I feel like that’s something you might not have been so cool with a few years ago?

    Definitely agree on the expectations. Keeping them low has always helped. People always say to me, “aren’t you excited for X, what about Y? Z is gonna be so cool!”

    But I keep the excitement levels down for this reason!

    • Lauren
      July 13, 2016
      Reply

      Oh, yeah, I’d have probably cried for days over it when I first started traveling!

  2. Alissa
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    Hey there! Nice post! Thanks for sharing your experience about the highs and lows of your time in Raiatea. At the very least, you got to take some beautiful photos!! Also, I really like your “making the best out of crap travel” list at the end – well said. It’s always important to practice self-care. And gratitude! Travel is a privilege so it’s great when, even when things don’t work out as planned, we can find things to be grateful for :) Looking forward to reading more about your time in French Polynesia!

    • Lauren
      July 13, 2016
      Reply

      That, too! There are far worse places I could have been than Raiatea in the rain :-)

  3. Rachel S. Imper
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    Lauren,

    Your last paragraph said it all. “Make the most of your next destination” and “draw a line in the sand and move on.”

    But please don’t call yourself “a mess.” Even seasoned travelers make mistakes, and sometimes, but not always, those mistakes lead to great unexpected experiences. Not this time, but sometimes, as you know.

    You are a brave, adventurous person with an open heart–not a mess at all! I read your blog before my husband and I planned our round-the-world trip, and you helped inspire our journey. Now that I’m back home longing to go again, I enjoy traveling vicariously with you until I can go myself another time.

    Even though we are several decades older than you, we enjoy reading of your adventures. And your story about giving up snorkeling is way more interesting than my husband’s excuse! :-)

    So take care. And thank you. More wonderful experiences await. We will follow along.

    • Lauren
      July 15, 2016
      Reply

      Oh, I didn’t mean to sound like I was being down on myself! It was more of a jokey comment, because, well, I can be a massive disaster when I travel :-)

      Anyway, thank you so much for the huge compliment! It means the world to me.

  4. David
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    Oh, Lauren Lauren Lauren. You’re always but a step away from disaster ??

    Sorry about your meltdowns. But cheer up, I’m going to get a copy of your book soon. Hopefully the torture you put yourself through was worth it!

    Also, thanks for the email you wrote me few years ago about my anxiety. It’s still there, but I’ve improved so much (exercise helps)! You’re an inspiration.

    • Lauren
      July 15, 2016
      Reply

      Thanks so much, David. I’m so pleased to hear yours is improving. I’m getting there, too, slowly but surely :-)

  5. Natalie
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    I’m not sure I’d be able to be as calm about missing out on that beautiful island, however I am not the seasoned traveler. Yet.

    I’m also sitting in my house with a broken AC, waiting for the repair person and thinking how inviting all those water pictures look!

    • Lauren
      July 23, 2016
      Reply

      I’m currently sat in my greenhouse of an apartment in Lisbon and thinking exactly the same! :-)

  6. Dominique
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    Oh, this story is so sad. My first thought was that in your situation I would indeed do what you did; open the doors and read some good books! :) I visited Cyprus two years ago for the first time with a friend without checking the weather reports. I thought Cyprus would be southern enough to only get heat in May. There I was with all my shorts and t-shirts and 15 degrees C in the pouring rain :P

    • Lauren
      July 23, 2016
      Reply

      Oh no! I’ve definitely done similar before, haha. It sucks how the weather can affect our travels so much!

  7. Michelle
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    As I’m sitting here at work in cold, wet Auckland, I was so glad to see by the end of your post that you spent the time devouring books while sitting on the sofa. Cos that’s exactly what I want to be doing right now. On a tropical island. :-)

    • Lauren
      July 15, 2016
      Reply

      :-)

  8. Allison
    July 13, 2016
    Reply

    I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate your openness on the issues of anxiety, travel, expectations, and disappointments. I’m in Barcelona now – a city I’ve wanted to visit for years – and I haven’t been able to shake my anxiety and enjoy the city the way I always meant to. When I did finally steel up my nerves to go see La Sagrada Familia (my main reason for visiting) — they were entirely sold out of tickets for the day.

    So your last tip is especially resonant with me: accept the losses and move on. Barcelona and me just didn’t jive this time… maybe we’re like two ships crossing in the night. But hopefully my next leg of the trip (Basque Country) will be more positive. And if not – there’s always the next one :)

  9. Kira
    July 14, 2016
    Reply

    Hey Lauren

    Thanks for the last post and especially the last paragraph – it is true! I am currently in Oaxaca snd Thought i was continuing my journey on to San Cristobal then Xela in Guatemala by bus – but teacher protests )@( which have not happened Since 2006) are blocking all roads in direktion i was supposed to go!! So my only option is to go back to Mexico City and fly from there!!! It is really frustrating when unexpected not so nice and quite expensive changes like this happen – but I tell myself as you write to move on to next destination ! Still have 4 weeks left of an awesome adventure so in the end a bump in the Road. Esp Since it os completely out Of my control – like the weather:) Best Of luck on your continued travels!

    • Lauren
      July 29, 2016
      Reply

      That’s the right attitude to have, Kira! And who knows, you might have an incredible time back in Mexico City, or on your journey there, that will make you grateful for the change in plans. But yeah, still frustrating when your plans fall through!

  10. Stacey
    July 14, 2016
    Reply

    hi Lauren,
    I really enjoyed your post. I haven’t travelled much in the last few years and have been making some travel mistakes – like thinking about who to take travel advice from.
    My family chose a resort in Mexico based on the advise of a close relative. It turns out we have very different preferences. She has young kids and doesn’t mind crowds. I have older teens and prefer to have our own space. Needless to say we ended up at a “family” resort teeming with small children and irritated adults.
    We did manage to make the best of it and even awoke to a monkey on our balcony one morning (which was pretty cool). Right after that I fell down the stairs due to the heavy rain. I’m sure you can relate. :S

    • Lauren
      July 15, 2016
      Reply

      Ack, that would be a travel nightmare for me as well! And I can definitely relate to you falling down the stairs — it’s happened more times than I can count on my travels! :-)

  11. Tom
    July 16, 2016
    Reply

    Raiatea is the second largest of the Society Islands, next to Tahiti. Flight time is about 45 minutes from Papeete, or just a few minutes from the neighboring islands of Huahine or Bora Bora.

    • Lauren
      July 16, 2016
      Reply

      Yep, I said that in the post!

  12. Shelby
    July 17, 2016
    Reply

    I love the part about keeping your expectations low. I always find that when I do not expect anything from a place I totally fall in love, but the places I hype up the most in my mind end up disappointing me. Your French Polynesia posts really make me want to try and make it here on my RTW trip coming up (now that I know that it can be done on a budget)!

    • Lauren
      July 20, 2016
      Reply

      Exactly! It’s funny how that always seems to be the case :-) You should definitely head to French Polynesia if you can make it happen — it’s paradise!

  13. The Untourists
    July 20, 2016
    Reply

    Excellent tips on dealing with a bad situation. We too have been in bad travel experin des and try to make the most of it. Your tips will surely help.

    • Lauren
      July 20, 2016
      Reply

      Glad to hear you found them useful! :-)

  14. Brooklyn @JustBeingBrooklyn
    July 23, 2016
    Reply

    Awe sorry about your trip! Even though it didn’t go as expected, at least there were some positives you found!
    I understand though, Auckland and I are not friends, and I fear we never will be!
    It unfortunately happens.

    • Lauren
      July 23, 2016
      Reply

      I’m not suuuuper surprised by your feelings on Auckland! There are so many better places in New Zealand to see! :-)

  15. Mai Nomura
    August 1, 2016
    Reply

    It looks like the weather didn’t cooperate this time, and teased you until you left. But I like the tips you had given on some possible unfavorable situations. Hope to read more blogs from you!

    • Lauren
      August 3, 2016
      Reply

      I have plenty of new posts coming up soon! :-)

  16. Rohini
    August 8, 2016
    Reply

    Hi lauren

    I enjoy reading your blogs. Love the style of narration . Though there are many self procclaimed story teller travel bloggers, you stand out with the real story telling . You are unique and fun . Keep writing ☺

  17. June
    June 20, 2018
    Reply

    hey ! I was born there, at Uturoa. My parents lived there for almost 10 years and not in the main village, they didn’t have running water ( hello going to the toilet at night when it’s at 100m of the house in the garden ), depended on a portable generator and basically lived in a somehow tamed jungle. I’m really thankful you made this post, because people need to learn about this, to not be disappointed, travelling there definitely means doing research. It is beautiful obviously but i feel like people have this really made up idea of French Polynesia, they only see postcards, and think they’ll find beautiful white beaches everywhere. The reality is that if you come during austral summer, it will probably rain buckets ( more like swimming pools tbh) for weeks. Most of the big islands don’t have many beaches, and even less white sand ! In Tahiti one of the attraction is that there’s a black sand beach, it’s really pretty but far from usual foreigners expectations. If you want the whole “tropical paradise island” feel you either need to take a daytrip on a motu ( tiny tiny islands, and i mean it they are TINY) or go to the Tuamotu (or be in a really luxurious hotel). To go hike you really really need a guide, no joke, even if you’re experienced, because the trails are just paths known by the guides in the forest ( we’re talking tropical forest, on a mountain most of the time ) it’s hard and dangerous if you’re alone. You will need a car if you want to do things and see what’s interesting. The classic way here is to go around the island, there is generally only one ring road, and you need a day to do this. People do it all the time when they have a day off, just grab a pack of beers (preferably Hinanos lol) and drive around. Things are definitely not at walking distance most of the time and you really shouldn’t count on public transports. Also it’s a different routine, you wake up early ( like 5 or 6am) and the day ends early too, so shops close around 4pm ( besides big supermarkets) and saturday and sunday most things are closed ! I hope you can go back and actually enjoy your stay, definitely the weather is better during austral winter if you can come at that time. I think you handled this really well actually, and i love the way you build this article, and reflected on how it could have been better ! Thank you for your work !

    • Molly
      January 6, 2020
      Reply

      Hi!

      I’m visiting Tahiti on a sailing trip with friends and we are stopping a few times around Raiatea. Most of us live in Hawaii and we are very active. Any hikes you can recommend or anything not super touristy to do? We aren’t the lounging and shopping type, we like to get out and see/do things!

  18. Aldo Solares
    August 22, 2018
    Reply

    thank you for this post! i usually book my trips and i figure things out when i get there…i’ve always had a memorable experience….so far! I’ve never been out to this part of the world. I will be sure to follow your advice….thank you for sharing! Also, you can always visit again! Cheers!

    • Lauren
      September 15, 2018
      Reply

      Thanks for reading! :-)

  19. Kirk Messick
    September 24, 2018
    Reply

    Iaorana Lauren:
    I am a Californian who happened upon Raiatea in 2008 while on a Moorings Yacht Charter. My wife and I fell in love with it, bought a piece of land and built our dream home on a mountain overlooking the lagoon and Teavapiti. Our next door neighbors are Nicolas, Titaua and their twins, Nyima and Arimanu. Recognize the names?
    Anyway, I was very impressed with your objective review of Raiatea.
    I’m sorry you didn’t have a great experience. You hit every point perfectly. It’s not Bora, it’s not Moorea…..it’s Raiatea. It is truly the beating heart of Polynesia and worthy of more time and exploration. I’ve traveled my entire live to over 70’countries including many island nations. I chose Raiatea as my 2nd home for very specific reasons…..awe inspiring beauty, cleanliness, safety but most of all, the people. Tourism hasn’t yet spoiled Raiatea and with any luck it will never in my lifetime. Thank you again for your accurate and sincere report. I hope you will come back one day and spend more time with us. I promise we will have then road fixed next time?

    Happy Travels

    Kirk

  20. Russ
    March 11, 2019
    Reply

    Thanks for the great articles on the “bora bora pass” islands. We really enjoyed the guidance. I think renting a car in Raiatea is a must: narrow/winding roads, fast cars, very few pullouts. It’s also one of the cheapest place to rent a car (we did for about $56 per day). Unfortunately, we could not book them online. We had ask our host to call and reserve one for us. The road on the south side (including the mountain bypass) was beautiful. The ruins (the taputapuatea marae) were nice.
    Supermarket LS PROXI in Uturoa takes credit cards and after 1pm, the cooked food (some of it very tasty) is half price. Gas stations also take credit cards.
    We did not find very clean water close to the island, so we had to kayak to the reef.

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