After a week of exploring the breathtaking vistas of the remote Marquesas islands followed by two laidback days at sea, we are entering the most visited archipelago of French Polynesia, the Society Islands. Created by volcanoes eons ago, they have evolved into the dreamy landscapes of soft mountains covered by lush jungle greenery and silky white coral sand beaches of South Seas fantasies.
A Busy Day in Paradise
Within the shimmering turquoise ring of its lagoon, Huahine retains the alluring authenticity of timeless Polynesia. Actually two islands, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine), connected by a short bridge, it is a jungle of coconut groves, banana plantations, breadfruit trees and watermelon fields. And this lush landscape sprinkled with bright tropical blooms is also a preserve of sacred temples and unique pre-Columbian structures.
The M/S Paul Gauguin is anchored in the serene Maroe Bay this morning, with the ship’s tender taking passengers the rest of the way to the sleepy Huahine Iti village of Maroe, where an off-road vehicle (the de-rigueur means of transportation throughout French Polynesia) awaits. We cross the bridge to Huahine Nui and the charming little town of Fare before climbing the steep road to the Belvedere, the island’s prime lookout with a panoramic view of the bay and the wilderness of Huahine Iti. It’s back down after that, to feed the sacred giant blue-eyed eels that fill a stream running through the tiny hamlet of Faie. Our guide buy cans of mackerel from a nearby road stand, tosses in a few chunks and the water becomes alive with writhing eels. Although I am assured they don’t bite, I pass on the opportunity to step into the stream and hand-feed them.
Fish Traps and Black Pearls
We continue along Lake Fauna Nui to Maeva. Once the seat of local royalty, it has the highest concentration of ancient marae (sacred stone platforms) in French Polynesia. Its most unique feature, however, is its ancient maze of fish traps. Laid out in V-shaped patterns pointed toward the ocean, the stone labyrinth emerges above the water level. As the fish are drawn toward the sea by the ebb tide, they become trapped in a circular pool where they are easily netted or harpooned. The centuries-old traps are still in use today.
We part company with our guide to board an outrigger canoe for a cruise around the lagoon. After a stop at the “Huahine Pearl and Pottery Farm” to learn about the cultivation of the rare Polynesian black pearl, we bounce across the crystalline waters to Motu Murimahora on the east coast of Huahine Iti (motus are reef islets of coral sand that surround an atoll. In other words they are tiny slivers of heaven). The snorkeling is magnificent here, a slow drift over coral heads amidst schools of multicolored fish. When I regretfully come out of the water, my six companions on this adventure are already convivially lingering on our host’s dock, sipping the ‘milk’ from freshly beheaded coconuts before we re-board the outrigger for more spectacular views of the island on our way back to the pier.
The Vanilla Island
Like its neighbor Huahine, the flower-shaped Taha’a is a botanical beauty. In addition to her fertile valleys and hillsides covered with banana and coconut groves, this island is also a vast natural greenhouse for the prized Tahitian vanilla orchids (Taha’a produces about 80% of all the vanilla in French Polynesia). Its intoxicating scent wafts on the warm breeze as I board a catamaran for an exhilarating morning of sailing on the infinite shades of blues of the Taha’a lagoon. The ultimate destination of the morning is the Taha’a coral garden and another memorable snorkeling experience before completing the sail around the island.
After a quick stop back on the ship, I catch a tender to Motu Mahana, the Paul Gauguin’s very own private motu, where a lavish beach barbecue lunch is already in full swing. Many of the ship’s passengers are here, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, or just chilling on the pristine sand with a drink from the floating bar. No scent of vanilla here. The mouth-watering aroma of grilling meat and fish fill the air. In the shade of the coconut grove, a good-humored game of beach handball is in progress. I wander off to the back of the islet. Here, the narrow water’s edge path is deserted, and the lagoon so shallow it looks like molten crystal. After a couple of hours on Mahana, I begin to fantasize about getting left behind. Robinson Crusoe never had is so good.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By air: Huahine is served by Air Tahiti with flights throughout the day from Papeete, and regular flights from other Society Islands (Moorea, Bora Bora and Raiatea). Faha’a, which is located less than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from and within the same lagoon as Raisatea, can only be access via ferry from that Raisatea airport. By sea: The 5-star Paul Gauguin, the only luxury cruise ship operating year round in French Polynesia, offers frequent itineraries that include both Huahine and Taha’a. For those who wish to travel independently around the Society Islands, two cargo/passenger ships, the Hawaiki Nui and the Taporo VII, make two weekly trips between Pape’ete and Bora Bora with stops in Huahine, and Taha’a. However, it is my understanding that they are slow, rather uncomfortable and booked months in advance.
- The M/S Paul Gauguin is owned and operated by Pacific Beachcomber, S.C., based in Seattle, WA, U.S.A, and a specialist in French Polynesia tourism. The company is engaged in the ownership and management of quality hotels throughout the region and a pioneer of sustainable development and environmental protection in French Polynesia. All their properties are EarthCheck certified.