The 52 Places Traveler
The 52 Places Traveler visits the definition of paradise in French Polynesia — and then makes his way to his final stop: Alberta in the dead of winter.
The divemaster rattled a shaker to get my attention and I spun around, wondering if something was wrong. Out of the deep blue a set of shadows quickly became a pod of bottlenose dolphins performing corkscrews and back flips as they approached, emphasizing how at ease they were compared to us, with our air tanks, weight belts and fins. And then, when they were within an arm’s reach, they took turns rolling over for belly rubs.
The dolphins of the Tiputa Pass, a fast-moving channel in the Rangiroa atoll of French Polynesia, have, over the last two decades, become so accustomed to scuba divers that not only do they tolerate them, but they actively seek them out for interaction. On a weeklong trip around just a handful of the 118 islands of French Polynesia, a wild dolphin belly rub was just one of many moments that made me believe I had found the Platonic ideal of paradise — a place where the sun shone hot but evenings were cooled by the ocean breeze, and where you could wade knee-deep in water and see your toes.
It’s a very different place than, for example, Calgary, Canada, where I landed about a week after visiting Tahiti and its neighbors.
While this year has been about finding many paradises, it has also been about whiplash-like transitions. From the hot streets of Tunis to the windy steppes of Siberia; from the orderly, granite buildings of Aberdeen, Scotland, to the raucous alleyways of Salvador, Brazil; and, yes, from the turquoise seas of French Polynesia to the wintery sprawl of Canada’s fourth-largest city.
The biggest challenge in traveling to French Polynesia is picking where to go. The islands, separated into five archipelagos, are spread over a 1,200-mile stretch of the Pacific Ocean. The “Islands of Tahiti,” as French Polynesia is often short-handed, usually bring to mind the Society Islands, an archipelago which includes Tahiti itself as well as Bora Bora, an island that’s become so associated with honeymooning couples canoodling in overwater bungalows that I knew it was immediately off this solo traveler’s list.
I chose to start on Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Islands, stay on Moorea for a few nights and end my trip on Tahiti to try and cover as much ground in as little time as possible, while getting a taste for the different experiences these remote islands can offer. The Islands of Tahiti were on the 52 Places list largely because of their new accessibility — more flights, cheaper accommodation options — so I wanted to put that to the test too, flying in from New Zealand and out to Los Angeles.
Rangiroa, it turned out, was a hard place to leave, not for lack of flights. I started each morning on the deck of the family’s house I was staying at, an open-air bungalow facing a lagoon. After coffee, I’d swim in the glass-still lagoon. Then I’d dive in the Tiputa Pass, where visibility sometimes exceeded 70 feet. Turtles, sharks, dolphins and a kaleidoscope of fish followed the currents as they shifted throughout the day, in and out of the lagoon.
One morning I joined a day trip to the Blue Lagoon, not to be confused with Iceland’s immensely popular geothermal spring of the same name. Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon is more than an hour’s boat ride away from the main island, across the lagoon to an isolated cluster of sandbars and tiny specks of land called motus. At stops along the way, we put on snorkeling masks, jumped in and drifted with the current over dense coral reefs. Once we got to our destination, we walked between the motus, small blacktip reef sharks swirling around our ankles in hundred-strong schools. Under towering palms, we ate raw fish tossed in coconut milk and shared tallboys of Hinano beer.
Visiting the motus around the Blue Lagoon, I found myself disoriented. Circles of blue, different shades but all of them vibrant and glowing in the sun, extended in every direction. Palm trees served as the only landmarks until they all began to look the same. But the locals I was with seemed to know every grain of sand and every rock perfectly shaped for splitting open a young coconut.
“It’s too loud here,” our guide Gigi, a barrel-chested man with long curly hair, said. “When we like to get away from Rangiroa, we go way further out by boat — for two weeks at a time.”
If you go:
There’s no way around it: Tahiti and its neighbors are expensive. Even a casual lunch for one at a beachside “snack” can easily run you the equivalent of $40 and those prices — a result of the islands’ isolation but also an intentional targeting of high-end tourists — extend to everything, including hotels. Be ready for either a major splurge on a luxury overwater bungalow (I stayed in one on Moorea), or a minor one at an Airbnb or “pension,” (small, family-run accommodations like the one I stayed in on Rangiroa), which have the added benefit of letting you get to know local people.
For island hopping, you’ll be relying on Air Tahiti (a domestic airline not to be confused with the international Air Tahiti Nui). Note that because the planes are small, baggage weight restrictions are strict. One tip: if you’re a certified scuba diver, show your card to get an extra 11 pound allowance.
If Rangiroa was all about the water — the island is just seven and a half miles long and 300 feet wide — Moorea, my next stop, was about the land. Even staying in the overwater bungalows of a four-star resort (with five-star prices), I found myself drawn to the tree-covered mountains that rose rapidly from the sea. As a shroud of clouds descended over the horizon, I walked out of the resort, crossed the street and rented a motorbike.
A single main road wraps around Moorea like a bracelet. Over the course of an afternoon I drove the entire way around, taking detours up to viewpoints over the misty valley below and at roadside “snacks,” makeshift restaurants where I had some of the best meals on the islands. Throughout, I caught glimpses of daily life away from where the tourists roast under the afternoon sun: teenagers with fighting roosters tucked under their arms; families packing into grand churches that stood out of the lush jungle.
And then there was Tahiti. Though the word “Tahiti” is used as a catchall term for the archipelago, Tahiti proper is hardly visited except as a stopover to other more conventionally picturesque islands. I spent a day driving the perimeter of that island, too, stopping to watch kids surf along black-sand beaches with the confidence of adult pros. But I felt most drawn to the capital, Papeete. Bustling and not conventionally beautiful, full of people and stories and locals-only secrets to discover with just a little more time, it’s the kind of place I’ve learned to love most of all this year.
More than oil and ice
Calgary as the last stop of my yearlong trip had, by the final stretch of my journey, taken on the qualities of an inside joke. Friends in the know messaged me on Instagram, reminding me that the hot sun and turquoise water wouldn’t last: “Get ready for your fall from grace: winter in Calgary,” they said. Like a goose with an inverted compass, I traveled north — far north — as the winter solstice approached.
I was greeted by the Chinook, a warm, dry wind that hits the city off the nearby Rockies, bringing scattered moments of solace to long, brutal winters. For close to a week, temperatures hovered around a relatively balmy 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
When it comes to tourism, Calgary is rarely treated as anything more than a transit point to the ski resorts and wilderness trails of Banff National Park. But besides a brief visit to Canmore, a charming town at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, an hour from Calgary, I focused on the city proper.
Calgary is an oil and gas town; the “I love pipelines” bumper stickers on hulking pick-up trucks are a constant reminder of that. The slump in oil prices has hit Calgary hard though it can be difficult to tell. Downtown still sparkles, but many of the innovative skyscrapers are struggling with high vacancy rates.
Meanwhile, laid-off oil workers have turned hobbies into new professions: There are more than 50 microbreweries in the city, the majority of which opened in the last five years. There’s something for everyone, from the casual party atmosphere of Cold Garden, where beer drinkers and their dogs mingle in a space that looks like a hoarder’s dream, to the 80s-throwback vibe of Eighty-Eight, a tribute to the Calgary Winter Olympics, to the more staid Establishment Brewing, which specializes in refined, less crowd-pleasing sours.
The downturn has hit the city’s food scene hard too, but there are still surprises to be had, like at the tiny Bar Von Der Fels, where innovative plates like mouthwatering chunks of crab over a bed of Hasselback potatoes are churned out of a kitchen so small it wouldn’t be out of place in a Manhattan apartment. Dishes are accompanied by an extensive wine list and one of the two owners will come to your table with multiple bottles to taste before you settle on your glass.
If you go:
Especially if you’re visiting in the winter months, you can get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to accommodations. I went for the Hotel Arts Kensington, a subtly luxurious option in the very neighborhoody Kensington area that feels part of the sprawling city, but also easily walkable.
For beer lovers, the Inglewood neighborhood should be your first stop. But don’t overlook the “Barley Belt,” just to the southwest, where a cluster of breweries are turning a formerly industrial zone into a major destination.
And then there’s the reason Calgary was on the 52 Places list at all. Can a library change the face of a neighborhood? An entire city? That seems to be the challenge taken up by the Calgary Central Library, a stunning building at the gateway to the city’s developing East Village neighborhood. A collaboration between the global architectural powerhouse Snohetta and the Canadian firm Dialog, the building is a stunning oval of snowflake-shaped windows and arching wood, welcoming pedestrians from multiple directions. It blends into the existing urban environment seamlessly; the light rail transit line that runs through it remained open throughout the four-year construction.
But it is most remarkable inside. Curving wood inspired by the shape of the clouds during Chinooks serves as its skeleton and a sloping walkway separates the floors, which get progressively quieter as you ascend. Murals pay tribute to the local indigenous population and programming includes lessons in indigenous languages and history that, I was told, fill up so fast even library employees can’t register in time. When I walked through on a Friday afternoon, the library was packed. The children’s section, part educational hub and part playground, was filled with families. Even the “Teen Zone” was bustling, baffling to me when I thought back to the far less productive ways I chose to spend my Friday afternoons as a teenager.
One library employee described the space as “Calgary’s living room.” Considering library subscriptions have shot up by about 70,000 since the building opened a little over a year ago, it struck me as more than just a good tagline.
The first of many times I encountered the gleaming jewel box of the library was on a long walk — a habit I adopted as an introduction to each new place I visited this year. I started in the Kensington neighborhood, a charming cluster of cottage-like homes, cozy pubs and independent shops that abuts the Bow River. I made my way through Prince’s Island Park, a quiet oasis smack in the middle of the city, and into Downtown Calgary, where I looked up at twisting skyscrapers that spoke to more lucrative years. I walked past the library and the undulating Studio Bell building, home to a comprehensive museum of Canadian music, and into the East Village, a neighborhood in the early days of a major growth spurt. I ended in Inglewood, where I sampled three side-by-side breweries and shopped for records.
I wanted to send messages to all the people who assumed ending my 52 Places journey in Calgary would be a “fall from grace.” It was a place I quickly realized I knew nothing about, which through a little open-mindedness revealed layers upon layers of surprise, beauty and complexity. I can’t think of a more representative end to the year.