Aerial View of Rangiroa
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Located 220 miles northeast of Tahiti, Rangiroa is a stunning atoll, especially when seen from the air. (Check it out on Google Earth.) It's the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Islands and, in fact, one of the largest in the world.
More than 415 motus (tiny coral islands) surround this atoll, which is really just a thin strip of land encircling an interior lagoon -- a lagoon so vast that the entire island of Tahiti could comfortably fit within it.
With fewer than 3,000 citizens, sleepy Rangiroa is perhaps what you've always imagined as a tropical island hideaway, complete with a pink-sand beach and spectacular blue lagoon.
To enter Rangiroa's interior lagoon, you'll sail through one of two main passes -- named after the two villages on the atoll -- Tiputa Pass and Avatoru Pass. Avatoru is the larger of the two towns and boasts a post office, grocery store, a few banks and ATM's, two churches and several casual restaurants.
Rangiroa is a paradise for divers and snorkelers who will thrill at the sight of sea turtles, bottlenose dolphins, hammerhead sharks, manta rays and stingrays.
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Don't miss your chance to sip a chilled glass of "Coral White" wine from the only vineyard in French Polynesia, Vin de Tahiti. This may be the only wine you sample that has a hint of mango, pineapple and coral!
While you can buy unique jewelry throughout French Polynesia, Rangiroa is known for its exquisite black pearls. Visit a farm, and hand-select your pearls to be made into a bracelet or necklace.
The official languages are French and Tahitian, but many French Polynesians, especially those in the tourism industry, also know English. When in doubt, refer to an English/French phrase book.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The French Pacific franc is the local currency. A good rule of thumb is that 100 francs equal $1 -- but you'll want to check XE.com for the latest exchange rates. There are two banks in the small village of Avatoru, but their ATM's are only accessible during the banks' limited operating hours. It's best to exchange currency onboard your ship or on one of the larger islands before arriving in Rangiroa.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor right inside Rangiroa's interior lagoon, most often at Tiputa Pass. You'll tender to shore.
There's not much to Avatoru or Tiputa, but take the time to talk with the locals about life in the Tuamotus. Both towns also offer island handicrafts for sale.
By Car: Europcar and Avis both have locations near the pier. The main drag, and really the only accessible road on the island, is less than seven miles long and runs between the villages of Tiputa and Avatoru. At Tiputa, you'll need to park your car and take a water taxi across the pass to the actual town. Avatoru, on the other hand, is located right on the road.
By Taxi: Few taxis are available at the pier, but you will find a mini-bus (689-77-28-02) that drives between Tiputa and Avatoru a few times a day (no set schedule). The fare to and from just about everywhere on Rangiroa is just $5. Water taxis are also available to take you to various swimming and snorkeling sites.
By Bike and Scooter: Local hotels and guest houses rent bikes and scooters to tourists.
Watch Out For
There's no public transportation on the island, and there are few taxis. More often than not, you'll use the services of a water taxi to get where you want to go. Because of the lack of development, it's best to sign up for ship-sponsored tours or book an excursion with a local activities company.
Even though Blue Lagoon is an hour from Avatoru by boat, many travelers wouldn't miss it. It's there that the coral reef has formed a natural pool where visitors swim and snorkel. Accented by a white-sand beach fringed with coconut trees, Lagon Bleu is postcard perfect. (Closer to Avatoru -- five minutes by boat -- is Green Lagoon. It's smaller than Blue Lagoon and is in the middle of a residential area, but it's the next best thing if you don't have time to make it out to Blue Lagoon.)
When people talk about Rangiroa, they'll no doubt tell you about the gorgeous pink-sand beach they visited. That's Sables Roses near Motu Vahituri. It's a two-hour boat ride from Avatoru. While pink sand is intriguing, this particular beach is eroding, so depending on when you visit, you may not see as much sand as expected.
Some of the highest-quality black pearls come from Rangiroa, so visit a pearl farm like Gauguin's Pearls (689-93-11-20). This is one of the largest black pearl farms in French Polynesia and is located on Motu Avatoru.
Been There, Done That
For something that's decidedly off-the-beaten-path, spend some time at Dominique Auroy Estate (689-54-99-40). This is the only vineyard you'll find in the Tuamotu Islands. That's right, vineyard. To access the winery in Avatoru, you'll need to take a short boat ride, followed by a 4x4 trek.
If ocean mammals are your thing, get out on the water, and visit some wild bottlenose dolphins. Rangiroa Activities (689-77-65-86) offers a two-hour dolphin-watching tour.
Sportsmen favor tours with a bit more adrenaline, and deep sea fishing expeditions definitely fit that bill. Local guides are available at the pier.
Rangiroa may be one of the most remote ports of call you'll ever visit, yet the restaurants there serve up memorable fare -- everything from traditional French dishes and gourmet pizza to Polynesia favorites. It's definitely worth leaving your ship to enjoy lunch on the island.
Local Favorite: You won't find many restaurants on Rangiroa, so locals and tourists alike gather at the few establishments that have set out their shingles. Everyone loves Le Vaimario (689-96-05-96) in Avatoru, near the Maitai Rangiroa Lagoon Resort (formerly Novotel). With both indoor and outdoor seating, you can order a traditional French entree or pizza.
Lunch with a View: Kick off your shoes, and dig your toes in the sand at Le Lagon Bleu at the Maitai Rangiroa Lagoon Resort. This casual beachside restaurant serves up fresh fish, local Polynesian favorites and Continental cuisine.
Luxe Lunch: Located within Les Relais de Josephine, you'll find one of the atoll's finest restaurants, Le Dauphin Gourmand (689-96-02-00). There are just a few private tables, but the proprietor, Josephine, also entertains guests at her table at both lunch and dinner. The menu ranges from Polynesian to French cuisine and features korori curry, Chinese-style mahi mahi and green papaya gratin. Don't miss fruit sorbet or coconut tart for dessert.
Staying in Touch
To make a long-distance call from Rangiroa, you must purchase a phone card. They come in a variety of increments. Wi-Fi Internet access is available at many local restaurants, although the speed is usually slower than you'd hope.
Best Overall Tour: Natural aquariums can be found across French Polynesia, but the one at Motu Nui Nui at the mouth of Tiputa Pass is particularly beautiful. Take the 1.5-hour Lagoon Snorkel tour for snorkeling and swimming in the lagoon. Some guides even let you hand-feed the fish!
Best for Those Who Don't Want to Get Wet: If you're not the snorkel type, there's still a way to visit the gorgeous coral gardens that dot the waters of Tiputa Channel: take the one-hour Glass Bottom Boat tour. You'll have the best view in the house as your guide shows you parrot and butterfly fish, barracudas, grey sharks and more.
Best for Water Lovers: Drift snorkeling can be an incredibly liberating experience as you give up control to the natural currents and "drift" along with the sea life. Rangiroa's Tiputa Channel is one of the best places in French Polynesia to try a drift snorkeling tour since it's where the island's interior lagoon meets the Pacific Ocean. You won't need to swish your fins once. Just drift with the current; it's called "shooting the pass." Take an underwater camera because you'll see plenty of brightly colored fish, as well as rays, sharks and dolphins.
Best for Shoppers: On the educational 1.5-hour Black Pearl Farm tour, pearl farm staff will explain the laborious procedures that are necessary to cultivate high-quality pearls. Armed with the knowledge you gain on this tour, you'll feel confident buying black pearls in Rangiroa and elsewhere in French Polynesia.
For More Information
On the Web: Tahiti Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Pacific Islands boards
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Pacific Islands boards
--by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor