Raiatea — home to ancient mariners & natural wonders

Once home to Polynesia’s famed seafarers, Raiatea provides living history and unique natural beauty that you won’t find on more popular islands — it also has the region’s only navigable river.

Many believe Raiatea was the launching point for those miraculous and impossible long ocean voyages that brought Polynesians to far away Hawaii, New Zealand and the Cook Islands and placed them firmly in the history books as some of the world’s top navigators and explorers.

Even though Raiatea is the second largest of the Society Islands of French Polynesia (after Tahiti) it has only 12,024 inhabitants. Most of them are concentrated on the northern coast.

The southern coast and the mountainous inland are fairly undeveloped, which leaves lots of empty wilderness, mountains, bays, motus (islets), and even the region’s only navigable river to explore.

Raiatea is also not overrun with overwater bungalows and mega resorts, so you’re more likely to find a unique and private experience here.

Raitea — still a base for sailors

The island’s sailing tradition continues today, as Raiatea serves as a base for most of the yacht charters that let you sail and explore the waters in French Polynesia.

Back in the 1980s, most charter bases were in Tahiti (where the region’s international airport is located), which meant that sailors had to stick to exploring the waters around Tahiti and Moorea unless they wanted to cross 225 km / 140 mi of open ocean (not exactly a pleasure cruise).

As some of the other islands became more developed and inter-island transportation improved, Raiatea became the preferred location for sailboat charter bases. The bases here are concentrated on the northern coast of the island near the airport and the main town of Uturoa, a sleepy waterfront village with about 1,000 inhabitants.

Because of its convenient location, Raiatea places sailors relatively close to Tahaa, Huahine, Bora Bora. If you’re adventurous and a good sailor, you can also access Maupiti and Tupai, however they’re a bit challenging as you can only enter the lagoon at Maupiti when the swell, wind and wave direction are perfect, and Tupai has no anchorage.

Raiatea was our base for our two week sail of the Society Islands, and it proved to be very convenient.

Firstly, since Tahaa and Raiatea share one large lagoon, we got to do a little exploring and getting used to the boat before having to face our first big ocean crossing; secondly, as it is situated mid-way between Bora Bora and Huahine, we had short sails to these great destinations; and finally it allowed us to hit Tahaa (our favorite island in French Polynesia) three times.

The Sunsail base on Raiatea

The Apooiti marina on Raiatea’s north coast

Raiatea’s little Amazon

Raiatea’s Faaroa River is the only navigable river in French Polynesia. As such, it’s the only place in the region where you can do a little paddling and river exploring.

This little adventure starts in Faaroa Bay on the island’s east coast and is a great way to cool down and get away from it all. And while we saw a lot of beautiful tropical birds and even some blue-eyed eels, the only human we encountered was a local taking his outrigger canoe for a spin.

With only the chirping of birds and the sound of our paddles hitting the water, we followed the river as it wound its way deep into the heart of Raiatea through mangroves and jungle until it became too narrow and shallow to navigate — don’t you just love exploring!

The mysterious and wonderful Faaroa River

The mysterious and wonderful Faaroa River

Raiatea’s pearl farms

Like many islands in this region, Raiatea once had a number of pearl farms.

However, the last financial crisis caused a large drop in tourism and pearl prices and forced many of these farms out of business.

Along the east coast of Raiatea you’ll find the remains of these former businesses in the form of wooden pearl shacks dilapidated and abandoned in the shallow waters. Pearl farmers used these shacks to do the delicate grafting that eventually creates a pearl.

The only pearl farm left here is Anapapearls on the island’s west coast. In addition to continuing to produce pearls, they also offer tours of the farm and even let guests snorkel the pearl beds.

The "black" pearls of French Polynesia

The “black” pearls of French Polynesia

Raiatea’s endemic flower that “crackles”

If you would like to hike Raiatea’s mountainous interior, an ancient footpath will take you up the slopes of Raiatea’s extinct volcano. At 772 m / 2532 ft high, Temehani is the second largest peak on Raiatea and the only one with an easy-to-follow trail.

On the Temehani Plateau at the summit you will encounter the rare and sacred Tiare Apetahi. This white flower in the shape of a half petal corolla is similar to the Tiare Tahiti flowers that most visitors receive as welcome gifts when they arrive in French Polynesia. However, the Tiare Apetahi only grows in Raiatea and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Each dawn the petals open with a slight crackling sound. Local legend says this is the sound of the broken heart of a woman who was of common birth and prohibited from marrying her sweetheart, the son of the Tahitian king.

The majestic mountains of Raiatea

The majestic mountains of Raiatea

Raiatea’s temples of the great Polynesian seafarers

The most sacred and significant, historic religious site in French Polynesia is the well-preserved Marae Taputapuatea complex on the southeast coast of Raiatea.

Now considered a national monument, this immense archaeological area (dating back to 1000 AD) includes dozens of maraes and shrines that were restored in 1994.

The temple complex was a religious and educational center where priests and navigators from all over the Pacific would meet to offer sacrifices to the gods and discuss the genealogical origins of the universe and the mysteries of ocean navigation. Today Polynesians from all over the region still come to Raiatea to worship their ancestry.

When we visited this temple there was a torrential rainstorm, and I mean torrential. We were there in the rainy season and while we had sunshine every day, when it rained, it poured. We were forced to huddle under some trees for shelter, which really didn’t work, as we got soaked to the bone in minutes.

The rain also forced hundreds of crabs out of their safe little holes, which got flooded. And while they were clearly more afraid of us, it was still a bit creepy. Especially since many of these holes are at the base and root of trees, like the one we were hiding under.

Of course our biggest problem with rain is that camera equipment does not like to get wet. As no end of this downpour was in sight, and we even saw a rat leaving his safe harbor in the roots of the tree, we decided to make a break. Luckily we somehow were able to get back to our boat with our cameras still working.

We had anchored our sailboat just off shore near a reef. It actually proved to be a pretty good spot. Not only did I catch a nice sized yellow-lipped emperor fish (very delicious white meat), but I also took our dinghy to the nearby village and managed to find a bakery and got some warm baguettes right out of the oven in the morning. This is one of the best things about former French colonies: they have really good bread.

Raiatea’s Marae Taputapuatea

One of the many temples at Raiatea’s Marae Taputapuatea

Checking out Raiatea under the surface

Like most of French Polynesia, Raiatea has awesome diving. We dove with the only outfit on the island called Hemisphere Sub. The have two bases in Raiatea. And as one was right around the corner from our marina, it was very convenient to head over there after dropping off our boat.

These are the dive sites Hemisphere Sub visits:

1. Miri-Miri
Crystal clean water, a variety of colorful fish, black-tip reef sharks, Napoleon wrasses and walls of snappers await divers here.

2. The roses
A breathtaking descent in the deep blue that takes divers to a coral rose carpet. Tuna, rays and sometimes hammerhead sharks or swordfish come from the depths to greet you.

3. Raoto Nui pass
If you love barracudas, you’ll find them here, as well as spotted eagle rays that dance in the current.

4. Teavapiti Pass
White-tip and black-tip reef sharks, grey sharks, schools of jackfish, barracudas, napoleons and tuna frequent this pass.

5. The Rairas
Rairas means grey sharks, and you’ll see a lot here. Since they are curious, you can observe them closely, very closely.

6. The Nordby wreck
This three-mast wooden ship is home to nudibranchs, surgeonfish, lionfish, reef stonefish, giant jacks, angelfish, black coral and lots of other species.

As we only had time for one dive, we decided to dive the Nordby. This Danish cargo ship was built in 1894 and sunk in 1904, conveniently in Tapua Bay just in front of the Hawaiki Nui Hotel. So we didn’t even have to take a boat there but literally just jumped in the water from the dock.

I almost had to bail on this dive, as I was getting over a bad cold. Luckily I was able to clear my ears and did not have any issues going down. I am glad, as I would not have wanted to miss this.

Although the water was pretty murky that day, drifting down the sides of the ship we could still see that the hull and the rigging were intact and 2 of the 3 masts were still in place.

The ship lies on it’s side, and we entered through holes in the wooden deck. The Nordby is old ship so we were diving inside a skeleton of steel and wooden ribs — very creepy and very cool.

It was the first wreck dive where I was able to go inside a vessel, mostly because it didn’t require a wreck diving certification, which I don’t have.

Inside the ship our guide showed us a large pocket of trapped air. Although he warned us not to take off our regulators, as it might not be “air”.

Motus and beaches and bliss on Raiatea

Like many of the islands in French Polynesia, the best beaches and snorkeling in Raiatea are on its motus.

Motus are small islands that have sprouted out of the coral reef that encircles the lagoon. They are generally white sand (due to the coral) and spotted with palm trees, making them a perfect place to laze away a French Polynesian afternoon.

And while the motus are perhaps not as numerous or fantastic as one finds in neighboring Tahaa, Motu Nao Nao has a gorgeous white sand beach and Opeha Point is known for good snorkeling.

Also, as Raiatea generally sees less tourist traffic than Tahaa, it’s much less crowded, providing more of a “my own private island” experience.

Important to note: you will need a boat to visit the motus unless you’re a very, very, good swimmer. However, numerous guide companies offer tours here.

One of Raiatea's remote and beautiful motus

One of Raiatea’s beautiful motus

Raiatea has a peaceful relaxed quality that you don’t want to miss, and as it’s not as crowded as Bora Bora and even less touristy than neighboring Tahaa (which isn’t what I would call bustling), you can really get away from it all here. Add to that Mount Temehani, Faaroa River and Marae Taputapuatea and you have a great find.

If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at our Top Spots in French Polynesia. Here you’ll find more great pictures and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.

And if you are a keen diver, our ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia will let you know all about the underwater highlights of this beautiful island nation.

If you have some great stories to tell about Raiatea, please share them in the comments.

Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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