While the name Tahiti is often synonymous with French Polynesia, the truth is there are more than 100 islands that make up the destination — each with something special to offer. To help you plan a well-rounded trip to French Polynesia, here are some islands near Tahiti worth checking out.
As Fakarava is located only an hour and 10 minutes from Tahiti, visitors have an easy daily option for visiting this island. The island is a protected atoll that is part of a UNESCO classified biosphere reserve and is touted as the mecca of diving. In fact, the island’s northern pass of Garuae that connects the lagoon to the ocean is the largest in French Polynesia at 800 metres wide and is known for having the island’s highest density of fish. It is perfect for spotting big fauna and colourful corals during a drift dive. Additionally, the island’s southern pass of Tumakoha is accessible for all levels of divers and allows for excellent marine spotting. Expect hammerhead sharks and eagle rays from November to April, manta rays from July to October, grey sharks and mating grouper from May to June and dolphins, oceanic sharks, turtles and barracuda all year long.
Unlike the more opulent islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora, most of the accommodations on Fakarava include homey and basic pensions, with the island having a laid-back, culturally rich feel. While you won’t be living in the lap of luxury, these accommodations do allow you to essentially live with a family for a local experience. Those wanting a more upscale option can stay at Fakarava’s only hotel, White Sand Beach Resort, which blends in seamlessly with the natural environment while also providing comfortable amenities.
On the island itself, spend your days kayaking in a tranquil lagoon, cycling around the small village (most accommodations rent them from about $10 to $15 for a half day) and taking boat trips to the northern pass. Visiting a pearl farm like Dream Pearls or Hinano Pearls is also an interesting experience. You can see how the pearls are harvested, analyzed and grafted to produce the perfect Tahitian pearl, as well as buy some for yourself. And in the old village of Tetamanu, backpackers can visit one of the first Catholic churches built of coral, dating back to 1874, as well as a beautiful pink sand beach.
Known as the “Sacred Island,” Raiatea was the first island to be settled. As it is one of French Polynesia’s lesser-traversed islands, it has preserved its unique history and culture; the residents cater to tourists who want to experience something truly unique. You won’t find giant tour buses filled with 30 people or enormous luxury resorts here; instead, you’ll need to have the desire to explore in order to experience Raiatea’s offerings. There is one main road that partially goes around the island, and those who want to see the interior will need to hike through jungle or take a boat down French Polynesia’s only river, the Faaroa River.
One main reason people visit Raiatea is to explore its unique history, which can be done by visiting Marae Taputapuatea. The archaeological site was already established by 1000 CE, and was the first royal marae — a sacred place where ancient Polynesians believed priests could call on gods to come to Earth to give them strength — in French Polynesia. This particular marae was very important; as a ceremonial hub, offerings were given and priests and navigators from all over French Polynesia came to have deep discussions about the origins of the universe. It’s interesting to note Marae Taputapuatea was dedicated to Oro, the god of war who demanded human sacrifices. Because ancient Polynesians believed there was no greater gift for a god than human flesh, many of these were carried out there. Today, visitors to the open-air temple can view seven marae sites beautifully constructed from coral and stone.
As Raiatea remains largely untouched, it also provides an excellent place to explore nature. A trek to the top of Mount Temehani will allow you to see the wild Tiare Apetahi flower, which looks like a white-gloved hand. The top of this mountain is the only place in the world where this flower can grow. Moreover, their lagoon is home to colourful coral gardens, underwater caves and tropical fish, best explored by snorkelling, diving or kayaking to a nearby motu (a small reef island). In the area’s many passes, one can also go drift diving or scuba dive the Norby shipwreck which sank in 1900.
In terms of accommodation, the Raiatea Lodge Hotel is a three star property — a rare rating in French Polynesia — that helps guests get to know the area through free activities like kayaking, snorkelling and cycling, tours of the island, decor crafted from local wood and a food and beverage program focused on local ingredients.
Additionally, Raiatea provides a budget-friendly destination for exploring the nearby island of Tahaa, which is accessible by boat in less than 30 minutes (the two islands share a lagoon). Many visitors will spend some time in Raiatea before spending a few days on Tahaa.
Known as the “Vanilla Island,” Tahaa is one of French Polynesia’s most fertile islands, filled with sweet-smelling vanilla plants and an impressive variety of tropical fruits: bananas, mangoes, star fruit, coconut, grapefruit, limes, papaya and more. Visiting a vanilla plantation is a must, as over 80 percent of Tahitian vanilla comes from this island. A few of the plantations run organic operations, such as Brian Henderson and his wife Morita Hioe of La Vallee de la Vanille, using rolling hillsides (instead of greenhouses) and coconut shells to fertilize their soil and feed the plants. Interestingly, of the more than 25,000 varieties of orchids, vanilla is the only one to produce something edible. Don’t leave without browsing the onsite boutique, which offers an impressive array of vanilla-infused products, some of which include body oil, soap, shampoo, sea salt, olive oil, perfume, volcano rocks, coffee and sugar.
Tahaa is also known for its abundance of pearl farms, which one can visit to see how the specious beads are cultivated, examined and grafted, as well as learn about the process and the different types of pearls. While pearls around the world are typically white, French Polynesia is known for its black and iridescent-coloured pearls of all shapes and sizes. Most pearl farms also have a boutique where you can shop for your own pearl as well as compare the different grades of pearls.
One great reason to visit Tahaa is the opportunity to stay at Vahine Private Island Resort. While separate from the mainland, it’s about a 10-minute boat ride away for easy exploration of Tahaa’s vanilla plantations, pearl farms and authentic villages. Moreover, the resort allows you to have a truly serene experience. Vahine Private Island Resort features three beach bungalows, three standalone beach suites and three overwater bungalows across a 23-acre island of white sand and coconut groves.
Not only is the experience truly relaxing and luxurious, it also allows you to explore an abundance of nature and cultural activities, most of which are free of charge unless you want to go off the island to tour other motus or islands like Bora Bora or the Tahaa mainland (or enjoy an indulgent Monoi oil massage or get a Marquesan tattoo in your room). Included in the room rate is the opportunity to snorkel the island’s otherworldly coral gardens, go fishing, canoeing or windsurfing in the lagoon, kayak to a nearby motu, see the lagoon’s many rays, catch a coconut show, take a naturalist tour of the island, learn how to tie a pareo (a wraparound garment) or weave palm leaves, to name a few. Additionally, their food and beverage program focuses on French cuisine created with local ingredients. It’s the type of place where you won’t leave without a full appreciation of Tahaa and local culture.
This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape
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