Alaska Airlines touched a nerve, it seems, by partnering with a Tahitian airline last month.
Air Tahiti Nui flies a pair of Boeing 787 planes every day between its home base in Papeete, Tahiti and Paris. Currently, the planes stop in Los Angeles on the way. But starting on Oct. 4 the carrier will touch down in Seattle, offering twice-weekly nonstop service to Papeete on Wednesdays and Sundays.
The airline also flies from Papeete to Auckland, New Zealand, and to Tokyo.
As part of its Seattle launch, Air Tahiti Nui has teamed up with Alaska Airlines on its mileage plan. Right now, travelers can earn miles when they fly to Tahiti from Los Angeles.
But the big question is this: How many frequent flyer miles will it take to get a ticket from Alaska to Tahiti?
“We’re working on the redemption levels right now,” said Alex Judson, Alaska Airlines’ head of alliances and partnerships. “When that’s completed, it will be displayed on the website.”
That’s all Kirby Day needed to hear.
“I’m going to use every single mile I have left to go to Tahiti and back,” he said.
Day has worked for Princess and Holland America cruises for years and is based in Juneau. But in the mid-’80s, he lived in Tahiti.
“I lived there when I was in charge of operations for American Hawaii Cruises. We had a ship called the S. S. Libertée, based in Tahiti,” he said.
The Libertée, with a 714-passenger capacity, is relatively small by today’s standards, compared to ships that can carry more than 3,000 passengers. “When we came in 1985, it was the biggest ship ever to call in Tahiti,” said Day.
“We hosted Bob Hope’s winter special on the ship in 1985,” he said. “There was a long list of celebrities there for the live broadcast, including Jonathan Winters and John Denver.”
Day spent a year and a half in Tahiti before his job ended. But as he left, he said “I’m going back.”
In 2013, Princess moved a couple of ships to Tahiti and they chose Day to oversee the operation, based on his previous experience.
“I got to go back and visit with my kids,” he said. Many of the locals that he worked with in the 1980s still were there when he returned.
“Tahiti is the most expensive place I’ve ever been,” he cautioned. “But it’s a one-of-a-kind place … a real bucket-list trip.”
Scott Laird is a travel writer who grew up in Alaska. Although he’s now based in the Lower 48, he’s a frequent visitor to Tahiti.
“A common misconception about French Polynesia is that it’s much farther than Hawai’i,” writes Laird.
“Many people confuse it with Fiji, which is 11 hours from Los Angeles and on the other side of the international dateline. French Polynesia is the same time zone as Hawai’i, and just 8 hours from California (the flight from Seattle to Papeete is 9 hours, 30 minutes). It’s basically a flight to Hawai’i with time for a second movie. What I love about French Polynesia is that it’s like the less-trafficked version of Hawai’i (which gets more visitors each week that French Polynesia gets in a year) with a pleasant French overtone,” he writes.
Day rattles off his favorite places to visit, including Moorea, which is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Papeete.
“Bora Bora is the most developed island — and it was the first island to develop over-water bungalows,” said Day. You have to fly to get there — it’s too far for the ferry from Papeete.
“One time I flew out to Bora Bora to meet the ship. It was a 20-minute walk from my hotel to Bloody Mary’s Restaurant. At about 10 p.m., Jimmy Buffett walked in, went behind the bar and grabbed a guitar. Then he played for about two hours,” said Day. “That’s when I decided that this job doesn’t suck.”
It’s hard to narrow down the best islands to visit.
“There are 118 islands in French Polynesia across five island groups spanning an area of ocean the size of Continental Europe,” writes Laird. “It’s difficult to choose! I love the dramatic profile and sugar-sand beaches of easy-access Moorea (just a 30-minute ferry from Tahiti), the crystalline lagoon of Bora Bora, the lush and lurid mountains of Tahiti’s Papenoo Valley.”
Although I’ve never been to Tahiti, most of the experts advise getting to the other islands — whichever ones you choose. That means taking a flight from Papeete, unless you’re taking the ferry to Moorea. Your Alaska Airlines miles won’t work on Air Tahiti, the inter-island carrier with a fleet of turbo-prop carriers.
In addition to the beaches and warm water, visitors can learn about the history and culture of the islanders.
“(Tahiti’s cultural traditions) are pervasive,” writes Laird. “Unlike in Hawai’i, Polynesians comprise two-thirds of the population of French Polynesia, so there’s little cultural dilution.
“Polynesia has a long history of hospitality and not a long history of tourism, so the music and dance put on for the tourists at resorts is much the same as at local celebrations and gatherings (and the soirées put on by the resorts are also popularly attended by locals).
“A top cultural experience in Tahiti is Heiva i Tahiti every July.
“Residents come to Tahiti from all over French Polynesia for a cultural festival of Ori Tahiti (dance), music, fire walking, stone lifting, canoe and horse races. That’s the special thing about French Polynesia — it’s a smaller country that’s not tourism-saturated, so the cultural displays tourists see are often wholly organic.”
If you’re anxious to fly to Tahiti before mileage tickets are available, the flights from Los Angeles/LAX start at $860 round trip.