Tahiti’s next big thing

The Tuamotu archipelago may well be French Polynesia’s next big thing. Tahiti Tourism would dearly love to ease the tourist squeeze by extending the horizon for visitors beyond its best known destinations.

The Leeward Islands, which include Bora Bora and Moorea, are now almost too popular for their own good. Tiny, iconic Bora Bora for instance, one of the world’s most famous destinations, now boasts 16 luxurious, expansive and expensive resort hotels. Nearly all of them are spread along narrow sandy motu (islets) fringing the island’s lagoon. Can there be much space left for future development?

The Tuamotus provide a ready antidote. It would be difficult to place yourself in a more remote or more exotic location than this archipelago of 78 atolls, coral islands and reefs scattered across the Pacific Ocean.

The Tuamotus lie between Tahiti in the south and the Marquesas archipelago to the north. The total population of the 41 inhabited atolls is less than 13,000. This is the world’s largest atoll cluster, so surely there’s room for sensitive future tourism development if warranted.

A daily flight now links the capital Papeete, on the main island of Tahiti, with some of these distant atolls. The 90-minute flight in an ATR42-500 transports tourists to a South Seas paradise equal to anywhere else in French Polynesia. Expect the names of Rangiroa, Manihi, Tikihau and Fakarava to become as equally well known as any other Tahitian destination.

A dreamy world

This particular quartet of atolls represent a dreamy world of limpid turquoise lagoons and white coral sands, fringed with shady palms and cooled by soft tropical breezes. And these four destinations already have the basic infrastructure for tourism. Each has a marvellous lagoon, an upmarket hotel, family-run pensions and other simple lodgings. And diving and snorkelling in the Tuamotus is second to none.

Rangiroa, usually simply called Rangi, is the world’s second largest atoll, stretching 75km east to west and 25km north to south. It’s a particular favourite with divers and the most popular Tuamotu destination, with the greatest choice in accommodation. There are two villages, Avatoru and Tiputa.

Rangi’s top end hotel is the Kia Ora Village. It has 53 beach and garden bungalows set beside the lagoon and 10 overwater bungalows. Kia Ora Sauvage is an experience for five guests on a private motu. There are several pensions and small hotels, not all of which accept credit cards. Turiroa Village has only four bungalows. Pension Herenui has three as does Pension Hinanui. Chez Henriette has three fare (thatched rooms). Chez Punua & Moana has three and a camp site and Chez Nanua has four with a camp site.

On Rangi, as with the other Tuamotu atolls, diving mostly consists of drift dives riding on the incoming current through the lagoon passes. Dives are done along the outer reef when the tide’s going out. Rangi is famous for its powerful currents and the presence of sharks, particularly in the Tiputa Pass. Visibility can be spectacular.

Tikehau is a oval-shaped atoll 15 kms from Rangiroa. It’s the location of the Tikehau Pearl Resort, set in four hectares of beach and garden with 38 bungalows and suites, 24 of them over water. The resort is part of a luxury hotel group with fine properties throughout French Polynesia.

Less expensive choices include Tikehau Village, with nine fare and restaurant, Panau Lagon with four bungalows, Aito Motel Colette with three fare by the water, 10 rooms in the village and a restaurant, Chez Nini & Isidore with two beach fare and Pension Tematie’s three fare on the atoll’s ocean shore. The top dive spot is the Tuheiava Pass.

An unfussy ambience

Manihi lies 175km northeast of Rangiroa. Like Tikehau it has one luxury option, the Manihi Pearl Beach Resort. Its 22 beach bungalows and 19 overwater bungalows display a simplicity in design and decor perfectly in tune with the location’s unfussy ambience. There’s a restaurant, bar, horizon pool, boutique, pearl shop and dive centre. Bikes are freely available to guests but there’s hardly anywhere to ride. A brisk peddle soon took me to the channel separating our motu from the next. To go anywhere you need a boat.

The atoll also has three family-run pensions; Chez Jeanne with three fares, Vaianui Perles with a bungalow and four rooms, and Pension Kalou with six bungalows. There’s also a tiny village.

Manihi is famous for the black pearls farmed in its 28 km-long lagoon. My visit to a local pearl farm was thankfully devoid of hard sell tactics and far more educational than similar excursions made elsewhere in French Polynesia. Visitors can explore the lagoon by boat with a local guide, fish using hand-held lines, enjoy a seafood barbeque on the sand, drink fresh coconut juice and generally act out Robinson Crusoe fantasies with all mod cons to hand.

Scuba lovers will delight in splendid drift dives through the Tairapa Pass, the lagoon’s only access to the sea. Snorkelling in the pellucid lagoon directly off the sandy beach, or from your overwater bungalow, is equally enthralling.

Fakarava to the south east is another huge atoll with an enormous 60 km by 25 km lagoon. There’s splendid diving in the two passes between the lagoon and ocean. Garuae Pass, more than 800m wide, is the largest in French Polynesia.

The best lodging is the Hotel Maitai Fakarava, sister property to its namesake on Bora Bora. It has 30 spacious bungalows. Alternatives include Tetamanu Village, consisting of six bungalows an hour by boat from the airstrip, Pension Paparara with three rooms and Vahitu Dream, a seven-bedroom house in the village of Rotoava.

Most things in the Tuamotus are remote. Life there is extremely relaxed. This romantic recipe is what earmarks these tiny atolls as Tahiti’s next big thing.

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