Huahine, nicknamed the “Garden of Eden,” is located 110 miles northwest of Tahiti and is just a short plane ride away on Air Tahiti, Tahiti’s inter-island carrier. Actually consisting of two islands joined by a bridge, the magic of Huahine can be felt instantly upon arrival, and the proud locals do their best to make all visitors feel welcome. (The main town is Maeva – which means welcome in Tahitian!) A 20-mile road winds through the island, passing through small villages and climbing high into the hills for spectacular views of the white-sand beaches and brilliant turquoise lagoons. Restored Tahitian marae (temples) and centuries-old stone fish traps reflect the island’s ancient culture and proud descendants who still reside in this magnificent paradise. Huahine is an agricultural island, rich with watermelons and cantaloupes. Vanilla, coffee and taro plantations are plentiful, as are groves of breadfruit, mango, banana, papaya and flowers. International surfing champions seek the world-class waves at Avamoa Pass, and the world’s largest outrigger canoe race, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a, begins here each October. Huahine is sparsely populated, and visitors will fall in love with the remote, unspoiled scenery and relaxed pace of this island.
Raiatea and Taha’a, about 120 miles northwest of Tahiti, are two islands that are encircled by the same barrier reef.
Raiatea, called “The Sacred Island,” may be the most revered island in all the South Pacific. Historically, kings from the neighboring islands would gather at Marae Taputapuatea for important ceremonies and negotiations. Re-enactments of these ceremonies on the restored marae help visitors discover the Tahitian culture. Raiatea has the only navigable river in the islands, the Fa’aroa, and popular excursions include exploring its cool, green waters in an outrigger canoe.
Yachting and sailing enthusiasts gather in Raiatea, Tahiti’s nautical base and home to such charter companies as the Moorings and Stardust Marine. Experienced sailors and novices alike (captains can be provided) can experience world-class sailing in the Leeward Islands. The Pacific breezes and calm lagoons provide ideal conditions year-round for sailing and deep-sea fishing. On the slopes of Mt. Temehani, visitors can discover the Tiare Apetahi, a rare flower that is found only on this particular mountain in Raiatea. Botanists have unsuccessfully tried to grow it elsewhere. Legend says that there was once a lovely Tahitian girl who fell in love with the son of a Tahitian king. She died of a broken heart, because she could never marry him. The five delicate petals of the flower represent her hand. Those who climb the mountain early in the morning will see the Tiare Apetahi open at dawn, with a slight crackling sound – the sound of her heart breaking.
Taha’a, just two miles north of Raiatea, offers a glimpse of the traditional, tranquil life of Tahitians. The 4,000 residents fish from the lagoon and raise livestock. Taha’a is called “The Vanilla Island” for its many plantations of this sought-after spice, which sweetens the island air with its rich aroma. Each November, Taha’a comes alive with a Stone Fishing tournament. In the method of their ancestors, the villagers wade into the lagoon, beating the water with stones tied to ropes. The frenzy frightens the schools of fish, driving them ashore, where they are easily collected for a feast.
The Tuamotu Atolls: Tahiti’s Strand of Pearls
The Tuamotu atolls, the largest of the Polynesian archipelagos, are located northeast of Tahiti and include 76 islands and atolls spread over more than 7500 square miles. Four of these islands – Rangiroa, Manihi, Tikehau, Fakarava – offer a host of lodging options and exciting activities, including world-class scuba diving, horseback riding, shark feeding and deep-sea fishing.
Rangiroa, a one-hour flight from Tahiti, is the world’s second largest atoll. From the air it appears as a large pearl necklace gently placed on the water. Known as “The Infinite Lagoon,” Rangiroa’s coral ring creates a seemingly endless display of deep turquoise and lapis blue. Because there’s no island runoff, the visibility in the lagoon is over 150 feet and the temperature a constant 80 degrees. The famous Tiputa Pass, which provides an opening to the ocean, is rich with sea life. It’s known as one of the world’s greatest shark dives, and those who “shoot the pass” find themselves in the deep blue with literally scores of gray, black-tip, white-tip, lemon and nurse sharks. Non-divers can try some world-class snorkeling and see schools of dolphins that gather in the pass. For the true adventurer, a two-hour boat ride across the lagoon leads to the Kia Ora Sauvage, a luxurious way to “rough it.” There’s no electricity at this remote property, but it offers spectacular scenery and complete solitude. Torchlit nights add to its exotic and romantic appeal.
Manihi is a small atoll with less than 1,000 residents. Called “The Pearl Island,” this atoll was the site of the first pearl farm that helped pave the way for pearl faming throughout the Tuamotu atolls. The black-lipped oysters, found only in Tahiti, are cultivated for their prized black pearls. Visitors can enjoy lagoon activities while exploring the many black pearl farms for which the island is known.
Located about 10 miles from Rangiroa is the secluded island of Tikehau. Known as “The Pink Sand Island,” this oval-shaped atoll is an important supplier of fresh fish and copra. Tikehau boasts exotic pink sand beaches and an abundance of sea life that make it a must for scuba divers. In Tuheiava pass, diving enthusiasts can closely observe manta rays, barracuda, tuna, sea turtles, and gray and white-tipped sharks. This diverse island is also home to a number of bird colonies that have sought refuge on the aptly named “Isle of Birds” motu. This protected islet is well-known for its red-footed gannets and brown noddies.
Fakarava, “The Dream Island,” is the second largest atoll in Tahiti after Rangiroa. This protected atoll, along with its six neighboring islands, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The delicate ecosystem supports especially rare flora and fauna, including the hunting kingfisher, the Tuamotu palm, and sea life such as squills and sea cicadas. Fakarava also contains one of the first Catholic churches constructed in Tahiti. Located in the ancient village of Tetamanu, this structure is built primarily of coral and dates back to 1862.
The Marquesas: The Mysterious Islands
The Marquesas islands are located about 930 miles northeast of Tahiti. About a 3.5-hour flight from the capital city of Papeete, the 12 islands (six inhabited, six unpopulated) offer some of Tahiti’s most dramatic scenery and authentic experiences. These islands have no lagoons and feature dense jungles with 1,100-foot-high waterfalls and sheer cliffs. There are only five flights a week from Papeete to the Marquesas. Some visitors opt to arrive via the Aranui 3, a working cargo/copra ship that accommodates 200 passengers. The Marquesas is where Herman Melville jumped ship, and where Paul Gauguin came to paint and retire. The most populated islands, Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, offer lodging in small hotels and pensions.