Still mostly unknown, Taha’a is an island apart, which nurtures and maintains a distinctive flavor. With all of its specificities, it remains the soul and the sap of Polynesia, and it reserves all of its riches to its most humble and determined visitors.
It is probably around the 6th century AD that Taha’a was settled by the first Polynesians arrived during their large settlements in the Society Islands. In the 20th century, no fewer than 169 archaeological structures were recorded, sometimes even underwater, which reflect the rich spiritual past of this island. It is also in Taha’a in the early nineteenth century, that some kind of seminary was built where most Protestant missionaries were trained before spreading later all over the Pacific Islands.
Taha’a always liked to preserve its difference, caught over several centuries in the crossfire between its rivals Bora Bora and Raiatea, then raising against the unpopular King of Tahiti and Raiatea, Tamatoa V, who ended up being overthrown in 1871, it remained one of the last Windward islands to surender to France in 1897.
A unique case in the Polynesian archipelagos, one reef ties together in one single large lagoon, both the islands of Raiatea and Taha’a. The latter is therefore accessible through the lagoon, as it does not have an airport, and uses the one in Raiatea, from which it is separated only by a 5km lagoon channel.
In ancient times, it is said that Taha’a, then named Uporu, was hidden from sight from Havai’i (Raiatea) the founding island, by… the island of Tahiti! When Tahiti left to try and spread on its own over the Polynesian world, Taha’a finally appeared for everyone to see. Its name translates, literally, into “nakedness” in its ordinary meaning, as in “unveiled”, while today some interpret it as the island, which “Tâ Haa“, i.e. which renders “humble”.
Taha’a, the untamable, has now become the leading agricultural producer of Vanilla and Coconut in French Polynesia, and it is also the home of the only “Relais & Chateaux” in the country. It is also the only land that can be completely sailed around in the lagoon, revealing its deep bays and fertile valleys, as well as its string of motu that border the reef on its north side.
Getting to Taha’a should not be left to improvisation. To get there from Raiatea, you have to take an early morning shuttle from the Port of Uturoa, or make sure that your hotel or “pension” will ensure the transfer. There is a cost involved in addition to air travel. This crossing is the best way to arrive on the island, on the surface of the lagoon, skipping the big central sand bar, through a channel that hesitates between the deep navy blue, turquoise and green colors, which mark the sea path. This is an important passage, to the rhythm of a slight splash, which lets you on one side admire the spray mist rising above the reef, and on the other side, reveals slowly, and gradually, the promise of an attractive, but not entirely similar world. This path often causes a very physical sensation of the elements, of the surrounding immensity. Then comes the first step on Taha’a, usually on a small and simple wooden pontoon. Your stay begins. Later, when it is time to leave, it will often be with a slightly tight throat that you will redo this trip in reverse.
Dance of the Sails
For connoisseurs of the Leeward Islands, the double lagoon of Raiatea and Taha’a is an inexhaustible playground. All the shores of Taha’a offer the most spectacular aspects of it. All around Taha’a, the reef is continuous, punctuated by more than 40 motu (coral islets), with only two passes to the south on both sides of the island
The first thing to do is to sail inside the lagoon. Throughout the year, you can cross many yachts, with single or multiple hulls, some coming from the other side of the world, or simply from Raiatea, which is home to the major boat rental bases in Polynesia. Thus, the majority of sailing vacations fans, owe their first emotions to Taha’a, whose lagoon allows you to stroll, anchor, engage in all water sports, as freely and safely as on a lake. Moreover, being able to go around the island without leaving the lagoon is a specificity such that the most important festive regatta of the Pacific islands, the Tahiti Pearl Regatta, schedules this race each year, and offers to the people of the islands, as well as visitors, a ballet of colorful sails and spinnakers competing in an uncommon setting.
The same way, cruise ships like to sail through the lagoon, so that passengers can enjoy Taha’a from the upper decks, like on the MS Paul Gauguin, who comes three times a month to drop its anchor in front of Patio (on the north side) and takes all its passengers to a motu reserved for this purpose, for a day of guaranteed calm, charm and scenery. Each year, more than 700 residents of Polynesia embark on this ship with visitors from all over the world to rediscover the happiness of life in the islands.
Admittedly, the lagoon of Taha’a, for which the municipality just passed a resolution to create a marine areas management plan (MCCP), is of a remarkable beauty, shielded from most of the problems that generally threaten coral reefs. The island is very little urbanized, villages and houses are scattered all along the coast. Agriculture is still practiced the traditional and reasonable way, no significant chemical pollution is seen. For the moment also, no over fishing or tourism over activity constitute an important risk.
You must also spend time on the island itself, on land, and fall for the rhythm, the delicate flavors and fragrances floating around the trade winds. Taha’a has a remarkable serenity, and though you can get around it very fast, because of its small size, if you abandon yourself and take the time, you will be able to explore its many aspects. Often it will be the details, instead of looking for a “show” staged or orchestrated, that will reveal the presence and history of a particular island, not quite like its sister Leeward Islands.
It is well known, one of the strong elements used to promote Taha’a are its vanilla plantations. The island is the largest exporter in Polynesia of Tahitian Vanilla, and has been for many, many decades. All proposed excursions take the visitor inside a plantation, explain and detail the manual “marriage” that allows the orchid to give rise to the coveted pod. What is less known, yet also very characteristic, is the predominance of Taha’a for everything related to copra and dried coconut. Among the six disciplines of traditional Polynesian sports, two teams from Taha’a distinguish themselves each year at the Heiva i Tahiti festival: copra cutting and coconut tree climbing competitions. The first is a test of skills where each team, in a short time, has to open full coconuts to recover the pulp and thus collect as much as possible of it. The operation seems extremely simple when done by families and experts in the field … The visitor who tries it will immediately understand the feat it represents!
Joys of Childhood
Sailing is one thing, putting your head under water is another one. A highlight of any visit to Taha’a is the “descent” to the Coral Garden. There are two of them, but the best known is located between Motu Maharare and Motu Tautau, on which Le Taha’a Island Resort & Spa is built, an upscale showcase of Polynesian lifestyle, which received the prestigious “Relais & Chateaux ” label. The emblematic silhouette of Bora Bora is seen on the horizon as you arrive in this properly named garden, for both the lushness that characterizes it, and its atmosphere of kindergarten. It is indeed a journey through the emotions of childhood, coming back bright and cheerful, when carried by a continuous current of 50 centimeters of clear water, equipped with a mask and snorkel, you witness all the most colorful and mischievous aquatic life that exists. Each fish, each coral, each anemone and every sea urchin seems to do its best to differentiate itself from the others by its color, its prowess, its vivacity or its immobility. All around the island, there are many fully accessible sites for exploring the lagoon, either while remaining on the surface, in a completely safe environment, or during surprising underwater diving, such as the dive called the “Hole of the Octopus”. Thus, when you dive under the flat reef between Raiatea and Taha’a, you find yourself among mostly yellow stalactites, and the most daring divers can explore two different rooms. Another opportunity to reconnect with the excitement of childhood, with the discovery of an unknown and impressive world.
Taha’a families have the required training, since the island is, there again, one of the leading exporters of copra in Polynesia. Therefore visit coconut plantations, either along the lagoon or in the back of the valleys, which also serve as parks for herds of cows. And you also have to discover the copra dryers, totally handmade structures of sheet metal and wood, where coconuts face the Polynesian sun before being converted into coconut oil, then into Monoi de Tahiti.
It is no coincidence that in 2006, Taha’a was chosen to organize the Forum of Agriculture of the Leeward Islands, the Farereira’a no te no ta’ata Faapu no Raromatai, or that among its highlights, a rich and vibrant agricultural fair takes place each year. And while you discover the diversity of its land productions (Vanilla, Coconut, Noni, Tiare, Pineapple etc.), the elements that make its culture are revealed one by one.
Paths of Memories
Taha’a is also ideal for hiking, and makes you discover the diversity of trees and flowers that grow on the island, but also some historical remnants. With a guide, it is possible to discover the large Marae of Vaimai concealed until the last moment in a path with dense vegetation. Similarly, the Fa’aaha valley is full of historical sites: Ofai Fanauraa, the birthplace of Hiro, the marae Te tau i Uporu, or Te Ofai Nohu, the Fish Stone (“nohu” is the name of stonefish, feared because of its poisonous stingers), a true guardian of the bay. Similarly, different types of plantations, banana or taro, but also the great waterfalls at the bottom of the valleys, horticulture, century-old banyan trees also often linked to legends, will parade at the hazard of the paths and trails you use.
Then, a little higher, at certain times of the day (early morning, usually at sunrise), you have to surrender yourself to the light reflected over the quiet and peaceful bays, that sometimes sparkle like light effects carved by traditions and myths. It is this whole atmosphere out of today’s time, out of its rhythms and of its rituals, which surrounds the land of Taha’a – the “Humbling.”