Above: Baby reef sharks in Rangiroa’s lagoon
For all its picture-postcard allure, the Tuamotu Archipelago remains a beguilingly off-the-radar destination. Travelers savvy enough to make the journey can look forward to South Seas romance writ large, not to mention a beach of their own
By Joe Yogerst
Photographs by Francisco Guerrero
I FIND MYSELF FLYING—arms spread wide, hair swept back, my vision a blur of aqueous light and vivid color as the ebb tide shoots me through a channel in Rangiroa’s outer reef. They call this “drift snorkeling,” but that doesn’t even begin to describe the exhilaration of rushing along at five knots above coral heads teeming with wrasse, parrotfish, and a kaleidoscope of other sea creatures. I’m literally swept away by the experience.
Waiting at the ocean end of the channel is a motorized outrigger. A beefy Polynesian boatman reaches into the water and drags me aboard. Before I’ve even got my mask off, he hands me an ice-cold Hinano beer and revs the engine. But the day’s thrills are far from done, because our escort on the return journey to Rangiroa’s lagoon is a pod of energetic dolphins. Watching them cruising along through waves beyond our bow, I think to myself: Now I know how they feel.
Rangiroa is the largest and best known of the 78 atolls that constitute the Tuamotus, a sun-splashed archipelago that stretches about 1,800 kilometers from east to west across the midriff of French Polynesia. Sparsely settled by Tahitians more than a millennium ago, the islands were “discovered” by Magellan in 1521 during his epic circumnavigation of the globe. Other explorers followed. Lacking resources or even much in the way of dry land, however, the Tuamotus were generally ignored by the Europeans who came to dominate so many other South Pacific islands—and a good thing, too. Today reachable via an hour’s flight from Papeete, the French Polynesian capital on Tahiti, Rangiroa and its outlying atolls remain among the least spoiled landfalls in the region.
The only atoll in the chain with a proper airport and more than one hotel, Rangiroa is the most user-friendly of the Tuamotus. It’s also home to about 20 percent of the archipelago’s 18,000 people. But that doesn’t mean it feels overrun. Quite the contrary: in South Pacific terms, this is still far off the beaten path. My first evening on Rangiroa cemented that impression, as I sat on the balcony of my waterfront bungalow watching the sun set theatrically over the lagoon. Soon, Venus was shining bright in the night sky above, and the silence was absolute save for the rhythmic lapping of waves. I felt like I was the only person enjoying this perfect moment—which probably wasn’t that far from the truth.
In the distant geological past, Rangiroa was a classic “high island” with a violent, volcanic heart. But millennia of erosion have whittled it down to a coral atoll with a fringing reef and lagoon over the now-sunken volcanic mass. As with the other Tuamotus, low-lying islets called motus have formed atop the reef, some of them large enough to harbor several villages, others barely able to accommodate a single coconut palm. Rangiroa, one of the largest atolls on the planet, has more than 400 motus. Only two are permanently inhabited, one of those being Avatoru, home to both the airport and more than a dozen small hotels, pensions, and guesthouses.
Hoping to learn more about Rangiroa’s natural history, I met up with Philippe Siu, a local marine biologist who leads reef walks. Slapping on copious amounts of sunscreen, we boated across the lagoon and waited for low tide to arrive.
“There really are no dangerous animals in Tuamotan waters,” Siu told me. “Most sharks are harmless. The big tiger sharks live deep below the reef and only come up to feed at night. The only exceptions are the barracuda, which you do not see very often, and the moray eel. My sister lost her left hand to an eel—they are très vicious.” Note to self: avoid morays while snorkeling.
Sure enough, one of the first animals we came across on our walk was a young eel, lurking beneath a flat stone in a tide pool. Farther on, Siu pointed out another creature, one that I’d never seen before—a pencil sea urchin, beetroot red with thick spines. “And there,” he said, pointing toward a parrotfish, “is one of the reasons we have such nice beaches in the South Pacific. Parrotfish are like little sand factories, gobbling up coral and then excreting it as sand.”
It didn’t take long to explore Avatoru, the atoll’s main town. Located on the motu of the same name, it’s laid out beside a channel in a loose grid pattern, with a scattering of buildings and roads shaded by coconut trees and other tropical foliage. The red-roofed church, with its missile-like steeple, stood nearly as tall as the palms, but otherwise the skyline was decidedly low rise. “Mellow” doesn’t begin to describe the place, especially in the heat of midday when most everyone was engaged in whatever they call the South Seas version of a siesta.
I seemed to be the only fool out and about. But I was a man on a mission, intent on finding something that I was certain did not exist: a Polynesian winery. And yet there it was, on the outskirts of town, a funky looking stone structure with a sign announcing Cave de Rangiroa.
Situated next to a cellar lined with oak barrels, the showroom was refreshingly cool inside. The fellow behind the desk spoke enough English, and me enough French—the islands’ official language—to be able to convey that the winery produced three white wines under its Vin de Tahiti label, as well as a better-than-expected Muscat rosé that I happily sampled. The grapes are grown amid a coconut grove on another motu, and shipped across the lagoon to Avatoru, where the fruit is crushed, fermented, racked, and bottled. Of course, I bought a few bottles, uncorking the first one that night to drink a toast to what must surely be Rangiroa’s most unlikely export item.
Hopping the short flight over to Manihi was like traveling back in time to the South Pacific of Michener or Brando or maybe even Gauguin. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I was hooked. The airport terminal was a grass shack with wooden benches. My “airport transfer” involved a golf buggy that bumped along a road of crushed coral stone. And from my overwater bungalow at the atoll’s sole resort, the view was of beguiling nothingness—just sapphire sky, turquoise water, and a string of pearly white motus stretching out toward the horizon. It wasn’t quite the end of the earth, but it felt pretty close.
That’s not to say that Manihi is completely deserted. There are about 1,200 residents, most of them in Turipaoa, 10 minutes by water taxi from where I was staying. On a stroll around the village that afternoon, I spotted a woman cleaning fish outside her tin-roofed home, scales clinging like flecks of silver across her bright red pareu. Farther on, two old men were snoozing on benches beneath an ancient tou tree, while sweet voices—village children singing in French—warbled through the gates of Manihi’s only school. The aroma of freshly baked baguettes floated from a waterfront bakery, blending with the loamy smells of gardens planted with breadfruit, hibiscus, and pungent noni fruit.
Stopping to admire the village’s stout Catholic church, I ran into Patricia Vaeheana, whom I recognized from the front desk at my resort. “If you’re looking for the priest, you won’t find one,” she told me. “There is only one priest for all of the Tuamotus, and he only makes it out here about once a year. The rest of the time, a layperson leads the service. That’s the way it is on such a small island,” she added philosophically. “We make do with what we have.”
Manihi is a breeding ground for manta rays, and ranks as one of French Polynesia’s top dive spots. I had missed the peak manta season (June to December), but swimming with reef sharks and other deep-sea denizens more than compensated. The atoll’s best snorkeling spot is on the outer side of the reef, at a place scuba divers call the Drop-off (or in French, Le Tombant) because the coral wall plunges almost straight down, from about three meters below the surface to a depth of more than a kilometer.
Hanging above that abyss, staring past my flippers into the void, I waited for something to come zooming up from the depths. Sure enough, it did: a flash of silver that caused me to swing my head around. But it wasn’t a shark or barracuda, rather a huge yellowfin tuna. Wild sushi! Then, just as my heartbeat was returning to normal, something potentially dangerous swam into view—a moray eel snaking through the coral directly beneath me.
Manihi is also famous for pearls. It was here, in 1968, that the very first oyster farm in French Polynesia was established, sparking a worldwide demand for Tahitian pearls. Nowadays, there are more than 60 pearl farms scattered around the broad lagoon, with wooden shacks perched on stilts surrounded by colorful buoys that mark the locations of the oyster beds. Pearl farmer Henri Tauraa showed me how you induce an outwardly unremarkable shellfish to produce exquisite gems. “Pearl oysters need ideal conditions in order to thrive—sunlight, salinity, water temperature, those sorts of things,” Tauraa explained. “And Manihi has them all.”
Cultivation begins with grafting a piece of mantel tissue from another oyster and an artificial nucleus (typically a small disk of freshwater clamshell) into the “pearl sack” of an adult oyster—a process that Tauraa performs with dental tools.
“You hope the color of the pearl will come from the piece of mantel tissue that you selected, but you can’t be sure,” Tauraa smiled. He reached for a box tucked into the shelf of his oyster-cutting desk. Inside were pearls of a dozen different sizes and colors, including flywing green, aubergine purple, and peacock blue, to use the names endowed by pearl marketers in Papeete and Paris—the same hues, as a matter of fact, as Manihi’s multicolored lagoon.
It only took me a few languid days to reach a state of mind where I began toying with the notion of never leaving Manihi. Yet one more atoll beckoned: Tikehau—only 45 minutes away by air, but even farther off the grid. The lagoon there looked more inviting than any water I’d yet laid eyes upon. So rather than unpacking or showering or doing any of the things I normally do after checking in to a hotel, I pulled on my board shorts, grabbed my mask and snorkel, and plunged straight off the patio of my overwater bungalow.
The Cousteau Society made an extensive study of Tikehau Lagoon in the late 1980s and declared it home to more fish species than anywhere else in French Polynesia. The variety of fish really is incredible. More astounding still is their almost total lack of fear. Baby mullets swam right into the palm of my hand. Zebra fish flitted around me. At one point, an amorous, teal-colored parrotfish seemed to take a fancy to my teal-colored flippers.
One morning, I borrowed a bike from my resort and took a water taxi to the motu of Tuherahera, where most of the atoll’s 400 people reside. Pedaling around to the back of the island, I found an empty stretch of beach to eat a picnic breakfast—croissants with guava jelly, French cheese, vanilla yogurt—as rollers broke over the outer reef. Afterward, I poked through the nearby tide pools, uncovering several small eels and a baby blacktip reef shark that had been stranded by the tide.
The high point of my visit to Tikehau was a daylong kayak trip along the eastern edge of lagoon. Within half an hour of leaving the resort, I was paddling through pristine tropical wilderness: not a hotel, cruise ship, pearl farm, or even a fishing shack to be seen. This was Polynesia au naturel. I paddled past six motus before discovering what appeared to be the perfect landfall—a stretch of pink sand shaded by coconut palms. Beaching the kayak, I stepped ashore on what for a few hours would be my own private isle. It took all of 15 minutes to walk around it. The only footprints in the sand were my own, and the only evidence of “civilization” was the remains of a coconut-trunk raft that looked like it had washed up here long ago.
Settling at the base of a palm tree, I gazed across the water and contemplated the fact that I was completely alone. There aren’t an awful lot of places left on this planet where you can make that claim. The Tuamotus are one of them.
The Tuamotu Archipelago
Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com) flies twice weekly from Hong Kong to the Tahitian capital of Papeete (the gateway to the Tuamotus) via Auckland. From Singapore, Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) flies a daily red-eye to Sydney, which connects on Fridays and Sundays with an Air Tahiti Nui (airtahitinui.com) flight to Papeete. Air Tahiti (airtahiti.aero) provides domestic service from Tahiti to Rangiroa, Tikehau, and Manihi.
When to Go
There really isn’t an off or on season in the Tuamotus. Lying just below the equator, the islands are warm and mostly sunny year-round, tempered by a steady sea breeze; the weather is coolest and driest from May to October, when temperatures average a pleasant 26°C.
Where to Stay
** Hotel Kia Ora (eu.hotelkiaora.com), the largest and best-known of Rangiroa’s resorts, is closed for major renovations until further notice.
** But half a dozen smaller places are most definitely open for business, including Les Relais Joséphine (Avatoru; 689/960-200; relaisjosephine.free.fr; doubles from US$350), a lagoon-side pension comprising six thatched cottages and a breezy French restaurant overlooking Avatoru’s Tiputa Pass.
** The 10-bungalow Hotel Raira Lagon (689/931-230; raira-lagon.pf; doubles from US$222) is another pleasant option.
** As Manihi atoll’s sole hotel, the friendly Manihi Pearl Beach Resort (pearlresorts.com; 689/508-445; doubles from US$350) caters to both serious divers and diehard landlubbers. Likewise, its more upscale sister property, Tikehau Pearl Beach Resort (pearlresorts.com; 689/ 508-450; doubles from US$540), is the only accommodation on its atoll, with swank overwater bungalows and great cuisine.