Rangiroa — a magical end-of-the-world destination

Rangiroa is French Polynesia’s biggest atoll, consisting of over 400 islands, of which only two are permanently inhabited, making this wild, untamed tropical paradise a deserted island lover’s veritable dreamland.

The atoll is part of the Tuamotu Archipelago—a collection of volcanic islands that sank back into the sea millions of years ago, leaving behind rings of coral reef islands (motus) covered in a thin veneer of sand and palm trees.

If you want to know what Tahiti or Bora Bora might look like in a million years, this is it.

Rangiroa means “endless sky” in the local language, likely because of its massive size. This 80 km/50 mi long and 32 km/20 mi circle of islands is so big, the entire island of Tahiti would fit inside its 1,462 km²/564 mi² lagoon.

The only two passes big enough to feed water in and out of this atoll are Tiputa and Avatoru. Averaging a depth of about 25 m/82 ft, these passes are also where you’ll experience some of French Polynesia’s best scuba diving.

Rangiroa Tiputa Pass

Going through Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass by ship

Rangiroa is off the beaten path but still easily reachable

While most of the Tuamotus are difficult to reach using conventional means, Rangiroa has one-hour flights from Tahiti twice daily, mainly used by locals to visit their families.

You can also visit aboard a ship. That’s how we ended up there, on the Paul Gauguin. This small cruise liner is specially designed for sailing the shallow waters in and around French Polynesia.

Or if you want to have a completely different cruise experience, you can hop on the Aranui, a local freighter that takes a limited number of passengers on a unique tour of French Polynesia’s many island ports, including the Marquesas.

Rangiroa is not the kind of destination for travelers looking for a Bora Bora experience geared for mega tourism. Yes, there are a couple of resorts and a handful of small pensions and lodges, but for the most part it’s a desolate and wild place.

Rangiroa inland road

Deserted side road on Rangiroa’s main island

Rangiroa kids

Kids playing on Rangiroa’s main island

However, if you like to explore “pink sand” beaches, a cartoon-like blue colored lagoon, and snorkel and dive some of the most amazing hard coral and marine life anywhere in the world, you’ll love it here.

Rangiroa has a wealth of prime dive sites to choose from

The grandfather of modern scuba diving, Jacques Cousteau, called the Tuamotus one of the best dive locations on Earth. Not surprisingly, our focus on our visit was diving.

The clear, clean waters you find in this remote and undisturbed paradise produce some of the world’s most beautiful and abundant hard coral life.

All of this rich coral stuck way out here in the heart of the deep blue southern Pacific Ocean attracts some of the most magnificent aquatic animals, such as dolphins, Napoleon wrasses, marlins, manta rays as well as gray, black-tip and hammerhead sharks.

Rangiroa fish shadow

A fish seen against the sunlight while diving in the crystal clear, blue water around Rangiroa

Our scuba dive center of choice was TOPDIVE. They have dive centers all over French Polynesia and have a well-equipped, expertly-staffed operation that you can really trust. They offer full-service dive excursions to four main dive sites on Rangiroa:

  1. Motu Nuhi-Nuhi: For novice divers, this small coral islet in the lagoon near Tiputa Pass is a great place to get your feet wet and experience the wonders of diving Rangiroa.
  2. The Wall: A deep blue dive, this dive site offers a steep wall with depths ranging from 11-55m/35-165 ft. and numerous shallow caves and overhangs to explore.
  3. Avatoru Pass: The lagoon pours in and out of Avatoru Pass bringing with it a huge variety of fish. The fresh current also feeds lots of amazing hard coral.
  4. Tiputa Pass: Rangiroa’s most famous and favored dive spot, the currents in this pass (like Avatoru Pass) can be tricky, and given the tide and direction of flow, there are times when diving here is too dangerous. But even so, there are a lot of of other dive sites to explore near the pass, namely Tiputa Reef, Soldierfish Reef, The Angle, The Blue, The Step and The Canyons.

TOPDIVE promotion

Just send us a message indicating the nature of your inquiry (e.g., discount code TOPDIVE) and we’ll give you a discount code that you can use to save 10% on booking with TOPDIVE.


Diving Tiputa Reef in Rangiroa

On our visit, we had wanted to dive inside Tiputa Pass, but during our available time window the current was going out, which is not good because it can suck you out and down into the deep ocean if you’re not careful.

This was a bit of a bummer as we had heard that when the current is right you can float past 200 sharks waiting for food at the entrance to the pass, but we knew it was the right call not to dive the pass under poor conditions.

However, as a back up, our guide took us to the Tiputa Reef, an equally incredible dive spot just right outside of Tiputa Pass.

We dove along a magnificent coral plateau at a depth of 17 m/50 ft. The reef here has a rich coral garden with multitudes of fish species. We saw a hawksbill turtle feeding on sponges, black-tip sharks wandering the reef, gray sharks, schools of barracudas, massive Napoleon wrasses and blue jackfish.

Rangiroa barracudas

School of barracudas while diving at Rangiroa’s Tiputa Reef

Rangiroa diving Tiputa Reef1

Diving over hard coral at Rangiroa’s Tiputa Reef

Leopard rays are also common here, and if you’re really lucky you might see a manta ray enjoying the grooming services of many small wrasses.

During our dive we also swam into the “big blue”, where depths can reach more than 1,000 m/3,280 ft. Bottlenose dolphins are common here and these playful creatures have no problem showing off to divers.

You have to be careful though. When staring into deep water you can lose your perspective and can start drifting down to a depth that’s not safe. So make sure you have your own dive computer and know how to use it.

Beach time on Rangiroa

For non-divers, there are plenty of great remote spots to explore in this massive atoll that can easily be booked at your hotel or guesthouse.

Some of these include the pale pink sand beaches of the motus on the southeast side of Rangiroa and the Blue Lagoon, a “lagoon inside the lagoon” located on the western edge of the atoll.

Rangiroa Blue Lagoon

Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon is a lagoon in a lagoon and offers incredible hues of blue to its visitors

It’s important to note that many of the trips in Rangiroa can involve long passages across the lagoon, which can be grueling when the weather is rough.

For a more laid back day, have a private picnic on one of the closer deserted islands; any tour operator can hook you up with this, and with so many motus, islets and sandbars to explore, it’s not hard to find your own “Private Idaho”.

Wildlife lovers can find a couple of islands where they can watch nesting sea birds.

Rangiroa has French Polynesia’s only vineyard

To be honest, Rangiroa is that last place I would have expected to see a vineyard.

But apparently some crazy French guys decided the soil and climate here are favorable for wine growing and gave birth to the Dominique Auroy Winery. The first harvests were in 1999 and today they have eight acres of land and produce over 40,000 bottles per year.

The vineyard produces mostly white wines and rosés. I tried their premium white and it was definitely drinkable. They also make a dessert wine, Blanc Moelleux, that matches well with spicy dishes and grilled meats.

The winery is not technically open to the public, however visits can be arranged for large groups. So it might be something you can talk to a tour guide operator about.

 


No matter how you choose to spend you time, a trip to Rangiroa should definitely be on your list when you visit French Polynesia.

And while I recommend doing at least one dive, even if you spend your time only relaxing in a hammock outside of your bungalow and gazing out at the peace and solitude that’s Rangiroa, you’ll get what this place is all about.

Rangiroa outrigger canoes

Rangiroa’s locals heading out in their outrigger canoes to train for the upcoming race

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 the 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.

Have you ever had this end-of-the-world experience anywhere? Where was it?

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.

Leave a comment