For the past few days, we’ve been bombing about Tahiti in a tiny rental car. If you are a regular reader, you know we do this from time to time and explore all the nooks and crannies of places we stay. We try to get the smallest car possible for two reasons. The small cars are much easier to park and maneuver on the narrow roads. And, they are cheap. Well, nothing is cheap in Tahiti (more on this later). Because they are popular with locals as well as tourists, the small cars tend to sell out quickly. We must book ahead if we want the best deal.
I reserve the car on-line and pre-pay the rental period for the best price. Lately, it is raining a lot and I fear the rain will be problematic for our wacky island excursions during the rental period. It’s rainy season here, meaning it’s summer. Temperatures are a little warmer, a little more humid, and rainy. Our plan is to shop when it’s raining and sight-see when it isn’t. Mother Nature has a different plan for us. We don’t mind the rain because it means the flowers bloom like crazy. I know I’ve said this before, flowers are everywhere!
Tahitians don’t seem to mind getting wet, unlike Grenadians. When in Grenada, we noticed the locals ran for cover at the first drop of rain. During Carnival, an entire parade was delayed since the participants were under the eaves of buildings avoiding a passing shower. Tahitians tend to stay the course and just get wet.
Once we were walking along the waterfront here in Pape’ete and a dark cloud decided to dump a massive amount of water on us. Luckily we had our umbrellas. Mine is a large golf umbrella. All of a sudden we picked up umbrella hitch-hikers. A few young ladies joined us under the umbrellas as we walked along. They were all giggling. We didn’t mind sharing. But, for the most part, we see people out walking and never bother about the rain.
During our times with a rental car, we have two agendas. First, shop for heavy stuff that is difficult to carry back to the boat or take on a bus. Second, have some fun, drive the back roads and explore. After we picked up the car, we went shopping. Our first stop was Tahiti’s giant Carrefour. It is located inland a little bit and is the size of a US supercenter. This is, by far, the best store on the island for food. They have the most selection, more items than other Carrefour stores near us, and lots of stock. It’s most definitely worth the extra time to get there.
With a full cart, we complete the checkout process. I always cringe when the cashier hits the total button. Things here are expensive. We saw a pint of strawberries “on sale” for 1,750 xpf (US$17.70 or 14.60 €). Needless to say, we didn’t buy any. We are very cautious when we see items marked as “promo”. This usually means: check the expiration date. Our buggy of groceries was 39,500 xpf (almost US$400 or 330€). Ouch! Now you know why I cringe before the button is hit. However, the items in the cart are several months of heavy items. This will save us having to carry them on our regular trips to the store by foot.
Unfortunately for us, things have become more expensive due to the falling value of the US Dollar. In the past year, the US Dollar has lost about 10% of its value to the Euro. The French Polynesian Franc (XPF) is based on the Euro. So, while the Europeans visiting here have not noticed any difference in prices, we see a gradual increase month over month. A 10% fluctuation in currency value is a pretty big deal. I have yet to read anything making sense as to why this is going on. I just hope it stops soon.
Cream Puff needs a few small things. Unlike us and the foregoing of strawberries, the Puffster, as Cindy always says, being the diva she is, gets whatever she needs when she needs it. A quick stop at the marina on the other side of the island at a great little chandlery hits us with another US$500. Ouch!
Okay, enough shopping! Let’s eat lunch. After the sticker shock of Cream Puff’s list we feel the need save money. But where to go? McDonald’s is all that remains in our price range. We haven’t eaten out in a while since Covid raised its ugly head again. We’ve avoided dine-in restaurants. The cases are going down quickly now and people are getting vaccinated. But, we are still cautious. McDonald’s doesn’t strike us as being a Covid safe zone. But, we both have a hankering for a Big Mac. We haven’t eaten at Mickey D’s since October. So, we decide to drive to a McDonald’s on the other side of the island we know will have few people and no kids. It’s about a 30-minute ride and we both comment about the beautiful Tahiti scenery. We tend to forget this while we stay in town on the boat.
We were right. McDonald’s is almost empty. It’s 12:30. This has to be the lowest volume McDonald’s restaurant on the planet. There are a total of 8 people eating there, including us. The drive-through seems steady but no concerns with social distancing in the dining areas. We sit outside on the covered veranda and enjoy the rain shower. I’m going to make a point here I’ll come back to later: Our meal was US$30 (25€) for the small combo meals. Do you know how hard it is for two people to spend this much money at a McDonalds’ anywhere else in the world?
Back at the boat, I recall the days of driving into the garage and easily carrying groceries into the kitchen. This recollection comes as we are unloading the day’s purchases and carting them to the boat. There is no easy way of doing this. Dock carts help but it still takes four trips to the boat. Yes, I do miss driving into a garage attached to the kitchen. Those were the days!
A decision is made: our next day with the car is going to be nothing but fun. We load some snorkel gear into the car and head to a bay on the far southeast end. This is literally the end of the road on this side of the island and features a beautiful black sand beach. When we get there, we find the wind is up, the cove is choppy, and the water is cloudy. Another decision is made: this is certainly not ideal conditions for a swim. The plan is scrubbed. We are flexible. We roam about the beach for a little while and decide to go to a restaurant we’ve already enjoyed on previous excursions. It is frequented by locals and off the tourist path in the small village of Vaira’o.
There is a great spot on the east side of Tahiti, the side the locals refer to as the sunrise side. It is a blowhole. We’ve been here a couple of times and the blowhole was so-so because the sea was calm. We decide to stop today since the surf’s up. Wow! The blowhole is at full volume today. Good grief it is really loud.
We arrive at Tavania and see we are at the end of the lunch rush. There is one clean table. It was like they were expecting us. Like most small restaurants on islands, this is a couple’s business. He cooks and she does everything else. Once we’re seated, we realize we forgot to look at the specials board. This restaurant doesn’t have menus. They cook what the local fishermen catch. If you arrive too late, the best selections are gone.
When we are asked what we’d like to eat our response is, “please pick for us.” Some people might think this is very brave. After all, what happens if the dish comes out and it’s not something tasty. I tend to look at this same scenario as what happens if the dish comes out and it’s something I love but don’t know exists or how to order. Our confidence level is high since everything we’ve eaten at the restaurant is delicious. The confirmation, “You want me to pick two plates for you?” A big smile and off she goes.
We are served two dishes. Both are raw tuna. Those who know me know I detest sushi. However, there is an exception. I love sashimi style or citrus cooked tuna. One of the dishes was thinly sliced tuna soaked in lime juice. The lime juice “cooks” the fish and it just melts in the mouth. The other dish was a traditional Tahitian dish; tuna in coconut milk with onions and tomatoes. The same methodology applies with the milk as the lime juice. We had sides of fresh locally grown vegetables, rice, and fresh-baked bread. All I can say is, wow! We’re two happy people.
The food portions at Tavania are quite large. US$38 was the total bill and we couldn’t finish all the food. Now, I am going to remind you of the McDonald’s check. For only US$8 more, we ate like a king and queen. In addition, we are supporting a family-owned business. I can check off tuna in coconut milk now. It was on my list of things to try while in French Polynesia. I have a feeling; I might have just been served the gold standard from which all others will be compared.
Still on the subject of food. When we have boat items shipped to us over US$200 in value, we use a customs agent to avoid paying the import duty tax. Cream Puff is considered a “yacht in transit” and therefore parts ordered for the diva are going to depart the islands when we eventually sail away. So technically, they are not imported. We have gotten to know James at the custom brokerage office quite well. One day, I walked over (they are very close to us) to pay a bill and pick up a package. It was larger than I expected and James offered to drive me back to the marina. An offer I happily jumped on. But first, he needs to make a couple of stops. I go along for the ride.
We visit the agricultural department where James needs some paperwork for another customer. Along the way, we find we had a mutual appreciation for a good hamburger. James speaks English very well. As we pass Urban Café, I point it out to James and say, “Best hamburger on Taihti.” He laughs and says, “I’ll show you where to get the best hamburger on Tahiti”. He says he’s never eaten at the Urban Café and we make a pact. I’ll try his place and he’ll try mine. Then, we’ll compare notes.
James points out a house, “This is where the best hamburger on Tahiti is.” I thought perhaps this might be his grandmama’s house and he was kidding me. We’ve found the locals love to joke about. I could visualize us knocking on the front door and a sweet gray-haired Tahitian lady wearing an apron looks at us bewilderingly. But, James isn’t kidding, “When the gate is open, they are open”. I make a mental note of the location since I don’t have the phone with me; before the hospital, down from the school, near a pharmacy, past Hyper U grocery, etc.
It is not uncommon in many of the countries we visit for people to open a small food-truck in their garden. We tried a couple of BBQ places in Panama that were extensions of the homeowner’s garage and a fancy BBQ pit. If there’s smoke they’re open. However, this place James was recommending didn’t even have a sign. There is no way we’d have ever found this place on our own.
When James drops me and the package off back at the Puffster, I quickly got on Google Maps and mark the location. Low and behold it comes up when I zoom in: La Roulotte Balihai (according to Google translate – The Balihai Gypsy Caravan). It has 3 five-star reviews. Meaning, three other people besides James ate there. In all seriousness, the locals do not waste time on reviews. If it’s good, they tell their friends. If it’s bad, they tell their friends. It is amazing how many great, and I mean great, restaurants here do not have an ounce of social media presence. Nothing! Not even Facebook. Another example of this is the restaurant I mentioned earlier, Tavania. As I said, they don’t even have menus. You look at the chalkboard or they’ll tell you what they have.
I’m pleased to say La Roulotte Balihai has menus. Lucky for us the gate is open. We park on the sidewalk (something that seems acceptable here) and walk up the driveway. A sign says “This Way” in multiple languages. We quickly find the food truck and the three tables under a rather worn canopy. Before I tell you about the burgers and whose was better, mine or James’s, I am going to go off on a tangent, again
When we meet people here at businesses, we get one of two reactions. They are eager to speak English and are more than patient as we try French. Or, we get a deer in headlights look. Blood drains from their face as the eyes get huge. You know the look. The look of, “Oh shit, these people are speaking in some foreign tongue”. I feel really bad for the people who worry about not being able to communicate. Our little bit of French is usually enough to get off to a good start. It isn’t long before the game of charades begins and we mime out what it is we need. Then, the laughing begins. At the end of the transaction, there is a big sigh of relief on both sides. A fist-bump usually follows. As we venture further off the tourist path, the number of English speaking people thins.
Now back to La Roulotte Balihai. Not only does the young lady have menus but she also has one in English. This is amazing! This means at some point another English speaking tourist actually found this place. James has apparently told others. She shows us the menu and I already can tell by the look on her face, she is worried about taking our order. I do my best to order in French while pointing to items on the menu and this seems well appreciated. When the time comes to order drinks, she just opens the refrigerator door wide enough so we can see what’s inside. Perfect!
Her lunch rush is us and three men having burgers and milkshakes at a neighboring table. The phone rings a couple of times and to-go orders are made and picked up. Now that I think about it, I bet her profit margin is way better than the slow McDonald’s on the other side of the island. And, her commute to work isn’t bad at all.
The verdict: I still like Urban café’s burger over La Roulotte Balihai. But, it is very hard to compare the two. La Roulotte Balihai offers exceptional value and is about one-quarter the price of Uban’s burger. Our total bill was 2,150 xfp (US$21.80 or 18€). This includes more fries than is possible for a single human to eat, complete with a homemade dipping sauce. I must now write to James and let him know the burger was excellent! The bun is ultra-fresh and hand cut before being toasted. Onions are cooked, a nice added touch. The dressings are fresh. I add bacon and cheese to mine. And, let’s face it. Eating in a garden is better than any dining room. When in the neighborhood again, we are definitely going to see if the gate is open.