Papeete: Marche, Royal Princess, and the Roulettes

The day began early as we had hoped to visit the Marche Municipal (The City Market), a massive, two story building that covered nearly two city blocks that made any farmers market at home look like a roadside stand.  Hundreds of vendors, some with little more than folding tables, to entire “shops”, built entirely into the building come together in a massive connected unit to form the Marche each day.  On this day, however, it being a Sunday, the marche comes to life at the early hour of 4am.

Given that Sunday is family day and most folks head off to weekend mass on Sunday morning, the building and all of the sidewalks and feeder streets leading up to the area are full of fruit and vegetable vendors.  Everything you could possibly imagine on a Tahitian table for that week, including limes, pineapples, bananas, eggplant, carrots, melons, papayas, tomatoes, and many items that we had never even seen, let alone heard of before were presented by vendor after vendor in endless rows of “shops.”  There is no haggling in Tahiti — the price you see is the price you pay and yet, strangely, most all of the prices were similar or flat out the same amongst a cash only crush of people with bags, families, and carts in tow as folks made their way from one familiar and liked shop owner to the next, amongst the hundreds available from which to choose.

What was described above, was merely the streets leading up to the main event, for once you arrive at the Marche building itself, the main event begins to unfold.  It seems that if you are a vendor inside of the building, you have obviously a permanent space, but beyond that, the lines of customers seem to know no end.  Inside the building, we transform from the many fruit and vegetable vendors on the side streets outside to full service fish markets, with the morning’s fresh case displayed on ice ready for packing, sales, and take away.  All sorts of colors, shapes, and sizes of fish made for a rainbow of reds, browns, blues, and greens, along with the defacto grays of the fish options.  In addition, meat vendors are hacking away at various sizes, cuts, and types of meat with large cleavers on beautiful round cutting boards 8 inches high.  Patisseries are churning out baguettes with lightning speed and children are shouting to their parents in Tahitian and occasionally French for the treat of a chocolate muffin or croissant.  Sugar Cane vendors are making fresh cane juice and coconut milk sits in one liter bottles, ready for quick purchase.  The buying is fast and furious, and you do not want to be a road block to a family member that has their list of items to quickly find, purchase, and head for home to share the day with their family.

Watching the scene unfold (we didn’t actually arrive until about 7am or so) it also became quickly apparent that this was not only the market of purchasing the day/week’s staples, but also a massive social gathering where family and friends spot one another from across the street, share greetings, and catch up about the world and what is happening in it.

It was a wonderful experience to see and share with the people of Papeete.

We spent almost an hour walking through the endless rows of offerings, wound our way through several alleyways, entries and exits of the actual marche, and finally reached the west end of the marche and made our way towards the Catholic Cathedral, a beautiful yellow church, built in 1875, and as we approached the carefully manicured lawn in front of the main entry, several members of the clergy were outside welcoming parishioners as mass was about to begin.  Alter boys mulled about awaiting the start of the day’s mass and the priest and deacons were shaking hands with many as they made their way into the building.  As we walked around the the side, beautiful hymns were being sung and set the stage for a beautiful day as we wondered through Papeete.

It became clear very quickly that Papeete on Sunday is meant for three things, and three things only — the early Marche, mass, and enjoying the rest of the day with family.  As we continued to walk about the streets of downtown, everything was closed and there was no intention of raising any gates, or unlocking any buildings again until the start of the new workweek on Monday.  It was with this sense of quiet and calm, that we just began walking around, following brightly colored red signs pointing out local landmarks without much consideration of where they were or how long it would take to reach them.  The sun was out, it was a gorgeous blue sky morning, and beyond a few corner stores selling baguettes like hotcakes, the only activity was the occasional stray dog walking around or a car here or there late to breakfast or mass.

We wound our way through a residential neighborhood, not knowing what street we were on, or how far we truly were from our hotel and ship (it actually was less than a mile or so) and we came upon a beautiful open air church.  All that was in place was a huge roof that rose several stories in the air to cover the congregation on benches and white plastic chairs, and from this place, surrounded by palm trees and grass, the hymns inside echoed through the neighborhood, and we just watched from a low stone wall that surrounded the parking lot.  It described the people of these islands well — connected by far more than just bond, blood, and family — culture, community, and a sense of togetherness, both in the marche as well in seeing the churches today and the activities throughout the evening, set the stage for the coming days of the trip that the people of these islands have something truly special, and that we are quite fortunate to be able to share it.

After a lazy return to our hotel, we began to pack and prepare for check out.  We settled our bill and took a taxi to the port, where we joined a not too large line of people and awaited the start of check-in.  In just under 45 minutes we were on board and into our new home for the next 12 days, room 4025, an ocean-view cabin on the Royal Princess.

We got into our room, unpacked a few bags, and explored the ship a bit.  The Royal is one of the Princess line’s small ship vessels, designed to see and experience ports that the big ships simply can’t navigate or reach.  We are on a trip with just about 900 passengers and though the ship has a few less of the major features of the big vessels, it has smaller venues of all the key areas and will serve us just fine.  After a quick meeting with the Maitre D’ to discuss Natalie’s food allergy and completion of the muster drill, we headed back out to Papeete for a short sunset walk along the waterfront before open seating dinner at 7:30pm.

In the area near the cruise ship docks there is a central waterfront park called the Variete.  Here, even on a mellow Sunday, a cool magic trick happens right about 6pm every night.  Dozens of small minivans arrive along with plastic tables, chairs, sandwich board menus, and the entire park transforms into a makeshift food court.  From Chinese to Pizza, Veal on the BBQ to Crepes, the Roulettes is born for a few hours each night.  We walked around admiring the different varieties of food and offerings as families walked down to the waterfront together to have dinner made by the Roulettes.  Its way better than fast food and much less expensive.  Example:  A value meal at McDonalds is around 1000 Tahitian Francs (about 12 bucks, no joke).  At the Roulettes, you can get a huge porterhouse sized steak, cooked to order with a heaping pile of french fries for about the same price. Or a family sized bowl of chow mien or a large pizza, or 4 crepes filled with Nutella.

After seeing the spectacle that is Les Roulettes, we walked along the waterfront for about an hour as the sun was setting.  Papeete has recently built a beautiful waterfront park with wooden walkways, playgrounds, and green spaces for people to just relax and take in the view.  With Moorea in the distance, we let the sun set on our first day in Tahiti and returned to the ship to enjoy our first meal on-board.

At dinner, without a mention of who we were or Natalie’s allergy, the head waiter found her, introduced himself and proceeded to make himself fully available to Natalie’s every need.  It seems that the waiter that assisted us earlier had remembered us, and mentioned to Alfonso, our headwaiter her special dietary needs and the rest was history.  We were immediately aware that this was a smaller ship and the service was going to be top notch.

It was open seating dinner so we enjoyed it with 6 other guests from the U.K, New Zealand, and Hawaii.  It was a great start to the cruise and once complete, we headed back to the front of the ship to the Cabaret lounge to see the evening show — a local dance troupe from Papeete.

The local dance troupe was a huge team of over 20 people that represented a band, a singer, and both male and female dancers.  We were treated to over an hour of storytelling of Tahitian history with song and dance, and these folks were exceptional.  They set a very high bar that will be tough to keep up for the duration of the cruise.

It has been a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day, but we have an early morning in Moorea, so off to bed!

Tomorrow — Moorea!

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