As the cradle of Ma’ohi people and culture according to traditional legends, the island of Raiatea is also the third largest island in French Polynesia after Tahiti and Nuku Hiva. There, you will find a very important archeological site, the Taputapuatea marae, which is actually inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. However, this island is also exceptionally rich in natural land and sea resources, which make it a tourist destination worth discovering.
At a glance
Located a little over 130 miles to the northwest of Tahiti, Raiatea is the largest of the Leeward Islands. It is not as well known as Bora Bora, which is about 50 km away (31 mi), but with its surface of 238 km2 (148 sq mi), it has an extensive coastal lagoon which offers typical seascapes of varying shades of blue punctuated with a string of motu (islets) along the coral reef. The reef, sliced with about ten passes, holds within its grasp in the same lagoon Raiatea’s little sister, the island of Tahaa. As such, the “Vanilla Island,” separated by a channel of only 3km (1.8 mi), is just a few minutes boat ride away. This large lagoon offers wonderful opportunities for nautical tourism, making it one of the main destinations of its kind in French Polynesia.
Deep bays cut into the coastline, evidence of the island’s volcanic history. On land, these turbulent origins did not leave Raiatea unscathed. Several peaks and collapsed craters are highly visible. The main summit, Mount Tafatua has an altitude of 1,017 meters (3337ft). Peaks, cliffs, and waterfalls are interspersed with densely lush landscapes through which several rivers flow. Among them is the Apomau river of Faaroa valley, the only navigable river of French Polynesia. Temehani’s plateaus contain exceptional indigenous flora, including the famous tiare apetahi. This protected endemic flower is only found in the heart of this ecosystem. A hike along the Temehani plateau is available to explore this island whose mountains have so much to offer.
A bit of history
Before the arrival of Europeans around 1790, the island was divided into autonomous chiefdoms, and Opoa, notwithstanding, was set apart. In the genealogies recorded in Ancient Tahiti by Teuira Henry, a reference book written in the 19th century, the royal family of Opoa is described as one of the most influential because of its legacy of 30 generations as well as its alliances. Tamatoa III was the maternal grandfather of Pomare 1st at the origins of the Pomare dynasty, the reigning family of Tahiti and it dependencies until 1880. France’s annexation of Raiatea and Tahaa proved to be much more difficult than in the other Leeward Islands. In 1897, the two islands engaged in a strong rebellion. France sent three war ships and more than a thousand men to capture the local chief Terahupo and send him to New Caledonia into exile. This allowed a return to peace and the reinstatement of the de facto annexation of these two islands, which had actually been declared in 1888. Under the grip of John Williams, the infamous pastor of the London Missionary Society, Uturoa had already been transformed into a small town as early as the 1830s. During the 18th century, some Raiateans became renowned for escorting Captain Cook on his voyages throughout the Pacific: Tupaia (1725-1770), a navigator, interpreter, priest, and expert over Polynesian customs, and Omai (1750-1780), the first Polynesian to go around the world who accompanied Cook to England. Today holding strong with a population of almost 11,000 (mostly fishermen and farmers), Raiatea is essentially rural but its largest town, Uturoa, is the capital of the Leeward Islands. Besides a market, businesses, and various administrative centers, this small town is equipped with a marina and a harbor that regularly welcomes cruise ships, turning the island into an unforgettable stopover for visitors during their stay in French Polynesia.
At the heart of Polynesian civilization
In comparison to other archeological sites on Raiatea, access to the Taputapuatea marae is easy since it is located right off the road and is clearly marked. A marae is a platform constructed of dry rocks where pre-European Polynesian societies held their religious, social, or political ceremonies. Constructed by the sea, Taputapuatea marae was part of a vast ceremonial and archeological network that includes other structures such as archery platforms and various paepae, which are also dry stone foundations.
Ancient Hava’i of ancient times
The migratory movements to populate the South Pacific took place over a number of consecutive stages spread out over several centuries. About 1500BC, one of these movements brought navigating and agricultural peoples from Southeast Asia to Melanesia, to the shores of New Guinea, to Micronesia, and from there, to the islands of the western Pacific. Throughout the continuation of this movement, the Society Islands would have been reached during 1000AD. The islands most likely served as a dispersal point towards the north via the Marquesas (from there onto the Hawaiian Islands, around 500AD), towards the east (Easter Island, around 900AD), and towards the south (New Zealand, around 1100AD). According to oral tradition, Raiatea was the first occupied island in the central Pacific, and it is from this island that the rest of the Polynesian triangle became populated. This triangle starts at the northern tip of the Hawaiian Islands, moves southeast to Aotearoa (the Polynesian name for New Zealand), then shifts southwest across to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Raiatea is also called Hava’i, the name of a mythical island where Polynesian people situate and identify their origins. The Maori people of New Zealand relate their origins to ancestors arriving from Raiatea in seven waka (pirogues/va’a in Tahitian). For several centuries, the island played an important religious and political role between all these different island groups, notably to allow inter-island gatherings on the “international” Taputapuatea marae.
Protected flora and fauna
At the heart of the island, Mt. Temehani is composed of three plateaus: Temehani ‘ute’ute (surface area of 94 ha/232 acres), Te Òmehani rahi (202 ha/500 acres) and Te vaihue (12 ha/30 acres). These plateaus offer an exceptionally unique natural heritage considering their biodiversity. 216 species of plants have been classified there, including 182 indigenous flora. Among them, 93 types are endemic to French Polynesia and 96 to eastern Polynesia. 48 types are endemic to the island of Raiatea, of which 26 are only found on the Temehani plateaus (‘ute ‘ute and Rahi). This means they are not found anywhere else in the world. The most emblematic is the tiare apetahi (Scientific name: Apetahia raiateensis), a gardenia from the same family as the tiare tahiti. It is extremely fragrant and has only five petals on one side of the flower in the shape of half a corolla. Furthermore, it only opens up at dawn through making a discreet snapping sound. This flower has become the symbol of Raiatea. The flower’s originality has unfortunately made it the victim of irresponsible picking. All attempts to transplant it have failed, while according to criteria of the UICN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), it is severely threatened with extinction. Officially protected from now on, picking the branches or flowers of the tiare apetahi is strictly prohibited, and access to certain areas of the plateaus is regulated and can only be done accompanied by an approved guide.
International marae of Taputapuatea
Taputapuatea is one of the largest marae in French Polynesia. The site is at the heart of ancient Eastern Polynesian religion and mythology. It is remarkable as a symbol as well as for its international notoriety. After the 16th century, Raiatea had become the spiritual, cultural, political, and religious center for all of eastern Polynesia. According to oral tradition, Taputapuatea was the “seat of consciousness,” the “cradle of (ancient) Polynesian gods.” With this title, its influence reached far outside the limits of what is French Polynesia. During the English navigator Captain Cook’s time in the 18th century, this center was dedicated to the ancient Polynesian divinity of war, Oro. One of the other marae in the network, Hauviri marae (called Tauraa-tapu in olden times), belonged to the historic, powerful Tamatoa chiefdom that dominated the Leeward Islands and had influence all the way to Tahiti before the Christianization of the islands. As a place of prestige, it had a critical role in the Society Islands. Still visible is an imposing witness to this history, the famous sacred stone Te-papa-tea-ia-ruea (or Te-papa-o-na-maha), which stands more than 2.5 meters high (8ft).
The legend of Raiatea
The “Sacred Isle” has several names, such as Hava’i Nui. Today it is called Ra’i ātea, which broken down into Tahitian, means ra’i (sky) and ātea (cloudless, distant) in reference to the island’s typical scattering of clouds for Polynesian navigators. A legend also attributes this name to celebrated figures from the past. Rai was an island sovereign who fell in love with Atea, a Tahitian warrior. A daughter was born out of this union, Rainuiatea, who in time, became “queen.” She changed the name of the island in honor of her mother and a father she had never seen, since he left to go back to Tahiti. Ancient Polynesian myths also recount that Taha’a and Ra’i ātea were once a single island, and that a giant eel separated them with a slash of his tail…
The legend of the tiare apetahi
The tiare apetahi is unique in its class. Besides being endemic and having its five-petal shape, this mythical flower is the star of a legend that has several different versions. After an argument with her husband, Apetahi, a fisherman’s wife, leaped to her death from the peak of Mt. Temehanirahi. Just beforehand, she lost an arm, which she placed in a hole with the hand pointing toward the sky. Sometime later, white flowers shaped like open hands burst into bloom all over the plateau. As a result, the flower was baptized tiare apetahi, which means, “only one side.” Once alerted, the husband went to the plateau and tried to uproot some of the flowers and transplant them to his garden in memory of his wife. Despite several attempts, the flower refused to bloom anywhere else except on the plateau…
The river of Faaroa bay
Located in the middle of the eastern coast of Raiatea, Faaroa bay is more than five kilometers deep (3mi). Behind the bay is the mouth of the only navigable river in French Polynesia, the Apomau, which can be sailed for a kilometer or two (about a mile) in a small boat. Kayaks, pirogues, or dinghies can take a trip of wondrous discovery through the middle of a lush nature and an enchanting setting that blends mangrove landscapes with tropical woodlands. According to oral tradition, this is where the seven large double canoes left to populate New Zealand.
For sailing and diving enthusiasts
Beaches are somewhat rare in Raiatea, but one only has to take a kayak or boat to reach a motu, swim in the idyllic coral gardens, or to relax in the shade of the coconut trees. Raiatea is renowned as a hotspot within the Society Islands. Most of the water sports centers and charter companies in French Polynesia are concentrated on Raiatea. The island has a great number of ports located in the heart of deep, calm bays within a spectacular protected environment. Raiatea has optimal sailing conditions, to the point that it is easy to sail to other Leeward Islands: Tahaa, Bora Bora, and Huahine, which are visible from Raiatea with the naked eye. Deep sea diving is also available. The depths of the lagoons shelter a privileged space where diversity reigns (coral gardens and grottos). Drift diving is possible in many of the passes that open the lagoon into the sea. You can even explore the remains of the Nordby, a magnificent three-masted ship that sank in 1900, whose wreck reposes at a depth of 29 meters (95ft).
A mythical octopus.
Along with Taha’a (Uporu was its ancient name) – the two islands are located in the same lagoon – Raiatea represents the head of a giant mythical octopus tumu-raì-fenua (or taumata-fee-faatupu-hau) that according to oral tradition, has its eight tentacles spread out across the Polynesian triangle.
Annual mythic pirogue race, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a
In reference to the mythic island of Hawaiki, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a is a race between Polynesian pirogues (called va’a) that takes place on the high seas and in the lagoons of the Leeward Islands in French Polynesia every year in October or November. The race is divided into three consecutive daily courses that connect the islands of Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora-Bora.
Tahaa, “Vanilla Island,” a few cable lengths away
A tiny island with 5,220 inhabitants, Tahaa shares a lagoon with Raiatea. The remains of an ancient volcano, Mt. Ohiri (590 m/1936ft) and Mt. Puurauti (550 m/1804ft), rise up through the center of the island. Deep bays slice up the coastline, whereas the coral reef surrounding the island is sprinkled with numerous motu. Tahaa is world renowned for its vanilla production, which has earned it the name of “Vanilla Island.” Tahaa is also known for several archeological sites secreted within the heart of lush vegetation.