Tahiti? Been there. Bora Bora? Done that. Though it’s hard to tire of these well-loved South Pacific destinations, there’s more to French Polynesia than these oft-visited isles. If you’re looking for somewhere a little more exotic, consider the Tuamotus, a chain of islands that’s a quick one-hour flight from Tahiti or Bora Bora. Whether you want to spot spinning dolphins, snorkel amidst hundreds of colorful fish or taste the fruits of French Polynesia’s only winery, consider these tips for living the high life on these low-key atolls.
Where to go
The Tuamotu Archipelago is comprised of 77 slender coral atolls — clusters of small islands — that circle aqua lagoons. Unlike the mountainous “high islands” of Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora, the Tuamotus are flat, ringed with white or pink sands and shaded with coconut palms. Of the Tuamotus atolls, Rangiroa is the most populous, with the best facilities for visitors, and nearby Tikehau offers opportunities for unique soft adventures.
Air Tahiti has regular service to the Tuamotus from the Fa’a’ā International Airport in Papeete. The most frequent direct flights travel from Tahiti to Rangiroa; you can also fly to both Rangiroa and Tikehau directly from Bora Bora. Within the Tuamotus, Air Tahiti has daily or near-daily flights, including regular service between Rangiroa and Tikehau. If you’re traveling to several islands, consider an Air Tahiti air pass, which can be more economical than booking individual flights.
What to do
Visiting the island of Rangiroa, you’ll want to plan excursions into its immense lagoon, which measures more than 100 miles around. It’s a mecca for scuba divers, but snorkelers, too, can explore the underwater world in the area known as “The Aquarium” that teems with sea life. Or go drift snorkeling through the Avatoru Pass just offshore, letting the swift current carry you amongst the colorful fish.
If you fantasize about escaping to a deserted island, book a tour to Rangiroa’s Blue Lagoon. An hourlong boat trip from the main island, it’s essentially a lagoon within a lagoon with some of the clearest, bluest waters you’ll ever see. Laze on the sand, enjoy a beach barbecue, and get up-close-and-personal with the lagoon’s other inhabitants — a population of curious, and generally friendly, blacktip reef sharks. Several local companies such as Tane Excursions run Blue Lagoon trips; book through your hotel.
Another popular Rangiroa excursion takes you across the lagoon to Île aux Récifs, where the volcanic outcroppings create dramatic silhouettes against the sea. You can splash in small basins that form between the rocks, examine the unusual coral formations, and just enjoy the quietness of this remote atoll. Pa’Ati Excursions’ well-regarded Île aux Récifs tour includes an excellent alfresco lunch, which might include fresh fish, poisson cru (Tahiti’s signature cured fish dish), and grilled coconut bread.
Rangiroa’s main land-based attraction is its pearl farm, Gauguin’s Pearl. Watch the pearl grafters at work as you learn about Tahiti’s most famous product: black pearls; shopping is encouraged. Rangiroa is also home to the region’s only winery, Vin de Tahiti. While the winery isn’t open for tours, you can taste the locally produced Blanc de Corail, Rosé Nacarat, and dessert-style Blanc Moelleux at any of the local hotels and restaurants.
Just 15 minutes by plane from Rangiroa, the island of Tikehau is also popular with divers and snorkelers. Its lagoon houses a colony of graceful giant manta rays that even novice snorkelers can easily spot. Across the lagoon, on a small motu (island) known simply as Bird Island, you can spot numerous colonies of sea birds that live free from most natural predators. Several of Tikehau’s beaches glisten pink in the sun, reflecting the local rose-hued coral.
Where to stay
Rangiroa’s most deluxe accommodation is the 60-unit Hotel Kia Ora Resort & Spa, fronting a white sand beach. Bring a special someone, and choose from classic overwater bungalows, secluded beachfront cottages or spacious garden villas with private plunge pools. If you can drag yourself out of your classy quarters, you can savor a cocktail in the waterfront Miki Miki Bar overlooking the infinity pool, or unwind with the taurumi, a traditional Polynesian massage in the Poekura Spa.
If you care more about exotic food and good company than over-the-top luxury, book a bungalow at Les Relais de Joséphine, an upscale family-run Rangiroa pension. The seven simple but well-appointed cottages, with queen-sized four-poster beds draped with mosquito nets, sit right on the waterfront, overlooking the Tiputa Pass. Every day, dolphins come to ride the changing tides in the pass, leaping, flipping, and spinning through the waves, a natural show that’s easily enjoyed from the outdoor terrace. Polynesian-French three-course dinners featuring local seafood are served family-style on the terrace, too.
To live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasy in high style, book a getaway at Tikehau’s Ninamu Resort. Australian owner Chris O’Callaghan and his Tahitian-born wife Greta purchased a private island, where they built seven rustic thatch-roofed bungalows with open-air bathrooms and spiral staircases crafted from local woods. Every day at Ninamu is like summer camp; O’Callaghan takes his guests deep-sea fishing, snorkeling with the manta rays, or bird-watching on nearby Bird Island, or sends them off kite-surfing, kayaking, or swimming in the warm lagoon waters. Of course, you can simply lounge on the white sand beach or sip a mai tai in the open-air restaurant. Don’t expect butler service or posh pampering, but do expect awesome adventures.
Photos Courtesy of Carolyn Heller and Alan Albert