Maupiti, in the far western tip of French Polynesia in the Leeward Islands, offers an unforgettable stay in one of the most beautiful Polynesian landscapes as well as an encounter with people who have known how to keep their authentic way of life
Maupiti at a glance
Arriving by plane to this Leeward Island is striking indeed. The landing strip completely covers Tuanai motu and extends through the lagoon, which gives the impression that you are landing on an aircraft carrier floating through the Pacific waters. The island can also boast as having one of the most beautiful aerodromes in the world. The buildings are surrounded by a beach of fine sand shaded by coconut trees where you’d love to just lay down your towel. From there, you can delightfully contemplate the stunning colors of the lagoon and the main island which is shaped like a pyramid. Welcome to Maupiti!
As to the lagoon, it is the island’s true treasure with a vast area of 27 km2 /10.5 sq. miles. It is bordered by two large motus on its northern part, Auira and Tuanai. However, in the southwest and south eastern parts, motus are scarce and the only thing protecting the island from strong southern swells is the coral reef. This lagoon is characterized by shallow, sandy bottoms. It is these natural elements that give the lagoon its unique vivid colors. The island has only one pass,‘Onoiau, located between Tiapaa and Pitiahe motus. It is one of the most dangerous passes in our islands due to powerful waves on the ocean side, the narrowness of the pass and violent currents that can reach up to 8 to 9 knots (14-16 km/8-10 mph). For a long time, including during the heroic era of sailing ships, the pass kept people away since ships would often give up trying to set anchor due to the violent elements.
This place is the western outpost of French Polynesia. Farther in the same direction, there remain three uninhabited atolls: Mopelia, Scilly and Bellingshausen. However, let’s return to Maupiti whose history started 80 million years ago back to the time when dinosaurs still roamed the planet. According to scientists, it was during this geological time the ocean floors holding the Polynesian islands were first formed. From this floor rose huge volcanoes which after having attained several thousand meters in height, emerged to form all the islands of what is now French Polynesia. This is how it was with Maupiti, whose beginnings go back to between 4.5 and 3 million years BC, making it one of the oldest islands in the Society Archipelago. In comparison, the “young” island of Tahiti was formed following the same procedure between 1.37 million to 800,000 years BC. Its advanced age is estimated due to its morphology. From the ancient volcano and after millions of years of erosion due to wind and water, only the tiny main island remains with a surface area of 12 km2 /4.6 sq. mile surface area. It is dominated by two summits and marked by the impressive Hotuparaoa cliffs overlooking the town of Vaiea from their 200m/656 ft. altitude.
In 1722, Dutch navigator and explorer Roggeveen was the first European to see the island some 50 years before the “discovery” of Tahiti; however, he never set foot on it. This same scenario repeated itself in 1769 during Cook’s first expedition throughout the Pacific. He simply noted the presence of the island. On board his ship, the Tahitian Tupaia who joined the English expedition revealed the name of the land to Cook as Maurua. It was not until June 1823 that the island came out of the shadows with the expedition of French captain Duperrey on board the corvette La Coquille. This was an expedition that 55 years after the arrival of Bougainville marked an “official” return of the French to the Polynesian islands. During that time, with the troubling times of the Revolution and Empire, they had left the way open to the English. The expedition arrived on the island and created a map whose precision is still impressive to this day. Of course, they did not set anchor on uninhabited land. Polynesians had occupied Maurua for several hundred years and had established themselves there during their great migrations to settle the Society Islands. In 1961, Maupiti provided a major contribution to the scientific debate over this population movement.
While planting watermelons, a farmer came across ancient graves on the southern point of Paeao motu. A year later, a team led by two big names in pre-European Polynesian civilizations, professors Emory and Sinoto, started archeological excavations and research. They found several fishhooks. Their findings showed that Maupiti was settled around 800-900AD. This established that the island was one of the first places to be settled in the Society Islands. Tiny Paeao motu became a major research area. Several archeological missions followed over the next 40 years studying and re-evaluating the site as well as others on the island. The most recent scientific advancements have allowed a revision of the chronology to finally pinpoint the settlement of Maupiti between 900 and 1200 AD. From pre-European times as well as from a rich oral tradition, there are several sites in which the largest is uncontestably Vaiahu marae in the district of Farearii. Set up beside the sea, it is one of the best preserved sites in French Polynesia. Other major vestiges that are striking are the petroglyphs, undoubtedly pre-European, located in the bed of Haranai creek on the northeastern part of the island. At once mysterious and evocative, these sites are a must-see when on a journey to explore the island.
As an outcome of the census, there are several dozen sites such as family marae and home foundations. There is still an entire abundance of sites that have yet to be discovered because they are not easily accessible. The islanders are very proud of this rich heritage. Today, this small community of 1230 inhabitants wishes to preserve, and knows how to do so, their traditional way of life in which fishing and farming play an important role. The two main motus have considerable farmable land. As to the lagoon, even though it is shallow, it provides a lot of fish. The surrounding waters are also abundant in tuna and high sea species which allow for professional fishing. The major developing activity is tourism for visitors seeking a unique and authentic Polynesia off the beaten path. The island has 17 family-owned guest inns where lodging occurs within the host’s residential compound. Several of them are located on the motus with white sand beaches straight from a post card. There are no grand hotels here such as those in nearby Bora Bora, 26 nautical miles away (50 km). This is a choice made and claimed by the people who wish to keep these little structures scattered here and there throughout the landscape
From its mountain peaks to the waters of the lagoon, Maupiti offers an exceptional journey from its landscapes to the shining sun to the kingdoms of the blue waters in a truly Polynesian ambience. So let’s take off for a walk! First, let’s go to Terei’a point on the western part of the main island. This point closes off this part of the island delineated by Faanoa Bay to the north and Atipiti Bay to the south. There, a strip of sand is casually spread out, surrounded by a turquoise lagoon. Boats from the island’s family-owned inns arrive here with guests delighted to discover this immense tropical pool that seems to appear straight from one of the most flattering postcards. This locaiton is also very popular among the locals on weekends. Very close to the beach, the chez Mimi snack bar offers shaded tables to taste poisson crû while admiring the view. Visitors can lose all track of time while immersed in a gentle, lengthy contemplation.
Auira motu is about 600 meters ahead. The lagoon is so shallow that you can even get there on foot. For Maupiti islanders, the walk or crossing—not sure which—is part of an initial itinerary to discover the heart and soul of the island. Visitors should allow themselves to start from Auira motu to reach Terei’a point then make their way to the island’s peaks. This is a gorgeous route, however we won’t do any climbing so soon but rather work our way towards Paeao motu. By boat, we sail along the vast Auira motu. On this large piece of flourishing land between the lagoon and the ocean there are thriving watermelon plantations. However, this farming culture has been somewhat in decline due to limited maritime service since Maupiti Express ceased to operate rotations to Maupiti in October 2014. Extremely useful, the ship performed shuttles with other islands within the archipelago. Consequently, it has become challenging for the people of Maupiti to send produce to Bora Bora with its numerous tables in the grand hotels that need fruit.
However, without missing a beat, it is time to climb to new heights! We’re going to throw ourselves into a conquest of Mount Teurafaatiu. The path starts not too far from the water in the village of Vaiea. You need to figure about a two and a half hour trek to conquer Maupiti’s summit. It is a good thing to not go alone and to hire the services of a guide because it is not easy to find the trail along some areas of the route. The reward far outweighs the efforts with an exceptional panoramic view, one of the most stunning of all the islands. It gives a 360 ° overlook of the island and the lagoon whose splendor is incomparable. Farther to the east over the ocean, the shadow of Bora Bora is visible with its proud Mount Otemanu peak. The most athletic people as well as those who are a little afraid of heights can attempt a trail along a ridge that leads to Hotuparaoa cliffs. This crossing entails climbing between rocks and the sky which paves the way to another extraordinary view. In May 2013, a brave base jump took place on these very cliffs. This is an extreme variation of skydiving that involves jumping from fixed objects (and not a plane) with a fast-opening parachute. This is a very quick way, albeit risky, to reach sea level.
After a few minutes, we’ll set foot on Paeao motu, well renowned for its archeological digs on the footsteps of the enigmas of ancient Polynesian civilizations. Today, however, no need to search for any eventual traces…After the excavations, archaeologists returned the sites to their original state through covering them with sand, earth and stones. This is to protect anything that may not have been exhumed as well as to preserve the site for future research. The motu is surrounded by two hoa, which are shallow passes. To the east is Avaava Vaiatoti, which thrills snorkelers since they can explore the coral gardens while floating on the current. Since the reef is close by, there is an abundance of underwater wildlife obviously due to the incoming waters from the deep sea. On land, your eyes sweep the endless idyllic beaches to take in the island’s majestic silhouette in front of the motu.
Indeed, once past the summits, there is land. Let’s make our way to the southeastern part of the lagoon to the extension of ‘Onoiau pass in order to meet the island’s celebrities: the impressive rays. They chose this area as a “cleaning station” where small lagoon fish rid them of parasites and where they get to rub themselves along heads of coral. They are often at this spot and thrill visitors who can dive alongside them. Their impressive size and proximity make for a very popular show.
Let’s continue just a little bit farther to come across the superb Tiapaa motu. It borders ‘Onoiau pass and has long beaches whether on the ocean side or the lagoon side. Trade winds cool off this idyllic spot that is the location of several inns planted within one of the most gorgeous decors. However, the most beautiful place is uncontestably Tefara’ote Point to the most northern tip of the large Tiapaa motu. This is a sandy point where different waters from the lagoon meet. It is a magical place unaffected by the passing of time…one of the most beautiful in all of French Polynesia. This point offers an extraordinary panoramic view over Hotuparaoa cliffs and their succession of peaks. This is a lookout point that is as unique and unforgettable as all of Maupiti.