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Raiatea is one of the largest islands in French Polynesia -- second only to Tahiti -- but don't let its size fool you into thinking that it is dripping with tourists. While Bora Bora offers celebrity chic and Moorea is simply exquisite, Raiatea is a secret find. Outside of the main port town, Uturoa, the 105-square-mile island is quiet and lightly populated, yet there's much to do and see along the coast and within its untamed, rugged interior.
Natural beauty aside, Raiatea is known as "the sacred isle" because it was the center of religion and culture in the olden days of Polynesia -- and there is certainly an enticing mystique about it. Members of various Polynesian kingdoms once journeyed here by canoe for tribal meetings, ceremonies and even human sacrifices at Marae Taputapuatea in Opoa to the southeast. Today, visitors can visit the outdoor ancient worship temple and glimpse petroglyphs carved in basaltic stones found along the coast.
One thing that sets Raiatea apart from all of the other islands in French Polynesia is that there are no real sandy beaches (blame Mother Nature). However, those who want to get their feet wet can take a trip to one of the motus or islets that dot the lagoons that circle the island (you have to rent or hire a boat to get to them). Among those are Motu Nao Nao, a stretch of gorgeous white sand, and Opeha Point, known for good snorkeling.
Skirting the same lagoon and protective barrier reef is Tahaa, a tiny island even quieter than Raiatea; you can only get there by boat via ship-sponsored excursions or private tours. Upon arrival you might see a woman fishing for the day's lunch, since hardly anyone works -- they simply fend for themselves. If it isn't a school day, kids will pause from chasing each other to wave hello. It feels a world away, even in the already far reaches of the South Pacific.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Madang • Moorea • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Port Denarau • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti (Papeete)
For local sculpture, hand-painted crafts and farm-direct black pearls, shop at Coco Vanille next to the drugstore in Uturoa. If you venture to Tahaa, be sure to buy some vanilla from one of the family-owned and -operated farms; it is known as the "vanilla isle," as more than three-quarters of all Tahitian vanilla is produced there.
Tahitian and French, though some English is spoken near the port.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the French Pacific Franc, about 100 to the U.S. dollar; check xe.com for the latest exchange rates. Banque Socredo and Banque de Tahiti have branches in Uturoa and both have ATM's. Hours are 8 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships tie up to the new Gare Maritime in the center of Uturoa, the main town on the northern tip of the island.
Watch Out For
Except for popular lunch spots, Uturoa pretty much shuts down midday; banks and most shops close at noon or so and reopen around 2 p.m. Don't be discouraged if you return from a morning excursion to find the town dead -- it will pick back up again.
Shopping and dining are right at your doorstep at the Gare Maritime; after exiting the gangway, head straight toward the building (tour operators set up inside; you can also pick up brochures and ask representatives any questions you might have).
Hertz and Europcar are on location with limited vehicles; expect to pay from $76 per day.
By Taxi: There is a taxi stand in town. Fares should be posted if no meter is present. Be sure to agree on a fare before getting in -- and while you're at it, arrange for a return pickup.
By Bus or Shuttle: Open-air Le Trucks are the main method of public transportation, but unless your sense of direction and basic French are good, you may want to avoid this option in this particular port of call.
Just beyond Gare Maritime lies Uturoa, an easily walkable town with shops, boutiques, cafes and markets. It may seem sleepy, but believe it or not it is the second largest town in French Polynesia after Tahiti's Papeete! The Protestant church on the northern side of the town's center has a memorial stone dedicated to pioneer missionary John Williams.
Even though there are no beaches, diving and snorkeling are still top options either from a boat or motu. On dry land, horseback riding is a major draw. The Kaoha Nui Ranch, south of Uturoa, operates trips from two hours to a half-day, taking riders along ridges and valley bottoms.
Been There, Done That
Visit a vanilla plantation or pearl farm on rugged Tahaa, Raiatea's neighboring island. If you do not go with your ship, L'excursion Bleue is one local operator that offers guided excursions; they also offer trips to nearby motus, or islets, for a local lunch.
Take a walking tour of the Taputapuatea Archeological Site, part of ancient Polynesia. The area's comprised of 19 marae, including Matahiraterai, Valley of the Night, Oro's Shrine and the Sacrifice Stone. Tours can be booked through Almost Paradise (66-23-64) or take a taxi to the area for a self-guided experience.
French cuisine and seafood reign supreme on Raiatea; for dessert, ask if there is vanilla ice cream made locally with beans from Tahaa. There are several Chinese restaurants close to the dock, due to the island's sizeable Chinese population.
Near the Port: You can practically touch the hull from the Sea Horse, in Gare Maritime, which serves Chinese food both inside and on the dockside patio. Standard fare like won ton soup shares the menu with local seafood dishes infused with coconut. The Sea Horse is open for lunch every day, and takes credit cards. Also in the Gare Maritime is Quai des Pecheurs, a cafe serving up simple fish and meat dishes.
Casual, In Town Joints: Snack Moemoea on the main drag offers Chinese and French fare as well as quick bites for folks on a budget, like burgers, hot dogs and croque monsieur (ham and cheese) sandwiches for less than $10. Another Chinese option, in town on the main street, is Jade Garden (open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Friday, dinner only on Saturday).
Lunch with a View: The Club House on Apooiti Marina, one of the busiest marinas in the South Pacific just west of Uturoa, is a hot spot offering lovely views of the water, and steak and seafood prepared in French sauces. Grab a cab; it's past the airport. Open every day for lunch and dinner.
Staying in Touch
To make a long distance call from a public telephone you must purchase a phone card; they come in a variety of increments. There's now one Internet cafe on the island; ITS Espace Com, with six computers, is located behind the Gare Maritime main pier building.
Your cell phone with U.S. service may not work in Tahiti depending on the type of phone you have and your service provider. Click here for more information.
Best Overall Tour: A Circle Island Drive is a great way to get your bearings and see stone temples, the Botanical Gardens, Fetuna Crater, Toomaru Mountains and Faaroa Bay. About 3 1/2 hours.
Best Underwater Activity: After learning about the cultivating process at a pearl farm on stilts over the water, snorkel among the pearl beds to see how the oysters are set up underwater. About 2 1/2 hours.
Best for Active Travelers: Go off-roading on a four-wheel drive safari. The exploration begins on the forest road along Faaroa Bay, where the Maori religious migration began, and passes plantations and Taputaputea Marae. About 3 1/2 hours.
Best Evening Excursion: If you've never attended a luau, check out the Polynesian show and Tahitian BBQ on Motu Ofetaro. Chicken, pork and fish always taste better with mai tais, which are included! Dancing takes place under the stars. About three hours.
For More Information
On the Web: www.tahiti-tourisme.com
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--by Melissa Baldwin, Managing Editor.
Pictures of Raiatea Gardens, View from a Bunglow and Raiatea Coast appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin.