Soaking up the Society Islands
The ancient, seafaring culture of French Polynesia has rippled across the Pacific as far as Hawaii and New Zealand. Yet there’s still nowhere on earth quite like this scattering of island jewels. From Tahiti’s bustling towns and black sands, to Raiatea and Taha’a’s crystalline lagoon, find a piece of heaven in one of the country’s crowning glories, the Society Islands.
Tahiti: welcome to paradise
The international gateway to French Polynesia
Post-impressionist artist, Paul Gaugin, spent years painting bright, stylised pictures of Tahiti. In real life, it’s possibly even more colourful. For most visitors, Tahiti – or more precisely the capital, Pape’ete – provides an inspiring (if hectic) first glimpse of French Polynesia. Many stay only as long as it takes to board connecting flights to luxury resorts in Mo’orea and Bora Bora, but it’s well worth sticking around to explore.
If you have time, take a tour of Tahiti’s wilder side for a taste of French Polynesia’s rugged mountain landscapes. 4WD excursions mean exhilarating drives along jungle roads and up gravity-defying slopes, all while taking in views of magnificent valleys and archaeological sites.
Just make sure you’re back in Pape’ete by 6pm. That’s when the incredible roulottes of Place Vaiete open for the evening. These fantastic food trucks draws locals and visitors alike for nights of feasting and, at weekends, live music. Pick up anything from pizza and crepes to locally caught, ultra-fresh red tuna – served sashimi style.
Raiatea: land of the gods
45 minute flight from Tahiti
Tahiti is your introduction to modern island life, but on Raiatea, you’ll take a step back in time to the cradle of Polynesian culture. Raiatea’s most sacred site is Marae Taputapuatea – a rocky clearing where ancient Polynesians worshipped the gods before voyaging to new islands.
It’s said that navigators took a stone from the marae to forge a spiritual link between their home island and the ones they were yet to discover. To this day, Taputapuatea remains a place of pilgrimage for indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Hawaii and the Cook Islands.
Before you go, discover the stories of trickster god Maui and his powerful goddess wife, Hina. They add a touch of myth to an already magical landscape. Of course, it’s not hard to be swept up in the wonder of nature on Raiatea. Hike up Mount Tapioi for soaring views across the lagoon to Taha’a. If you have more time, take an all-day guided trek to the Temehani Plateau to spot tiare apetahi – one of the world’s rarest flowers.
Top tip: Raiatea’s one main road circles the shore and public transport is almost non-existent. To explore, either rent a car or base yourself in the main town, Uturoa and book onto island tours. Tahiti Tourisme is a good place to look for local tour operators.
Taha’a: total tranquillity
Under 30 minutes by boat from Raiatea
Yet more peaceful is Taha’a – an island where there’s little else to do but immerse yourself in the beauty of nature. Known as the Vanilla Island, the air almost seems sweet here thanks to the farms producing the finest vanilla in the world. Visit a local grower to take some home with you, straight from the source. Then follow it up with a visit to a pearl farm, where oysters are carefully coaxed to produce French Polynesia’s famous black pearls.
As you travel around the island, keep your camera close to hand. The island’s peculiar shape means there’s no shortage of twists and turns opening up enchanting views of remote valleys and mist-topped peaks.
Raiatea and Taha’a may be short of beaches, but they share a beautiful lagoon dotted with sandy islets – or motus, as they’re called here. These desert islands are ideal for tranquil days on the sand, without another soul in sight. Some offer the chance to stay awhile, for the full luxury castaway experience…
Vahine: private island bliss
35 minutes from Raiatea by shuttle boat
Vahine Island Resort and Spa, set on a secluded motu in the Taha’a lagoon, makes a wonderful last stop on a Society Island adventure. This luxury hotel lets you savour your French Polynesia setting in exclusive style. Lounge on a private stretch of sand from your beach villa, or choose an over-water villa to watch rays dart through the impossibly clear water. Pure heaven.