This blog was originally posted on https://jimbyerstravel.com/2020/07/12/wondrous-raiatea-the-quiet-side-of-tahiti/ by Jim Byers.
Tahiti opens for visitors on Wednesday, July 15. With that in mind I’m re-posting this blog on the tranquil island of Raiatea from earlier this year.
RAIATEA – A quick afternoon rainstorm had ended, and it was getting close to the golden hour; that time of day that photographers adore for its soft light.
I was staying at a family run lodge/hotel called Fare Vai Nui on the west coast of this beautiful, quiet island, which is about a 40-minute flight from Tahiti island. They have free bikes you can use and I wanted to see a bit of the island, so I found one my size and hopped on.
On my left side I rolled past a beautiful stretch of lagoon lined by towering palm trees. A small stand selling fresh fruit and drinks was tucked beneath of a grove of palms and beckoned me, but I had left my wallet back in my room.
After a couple minutes on flat terrain I came to a small stream on my right. A small, wooden boat was moored in the flat waters of the stream, which was lined by short palms and surrounded by thick, green, valley jungle . A couple of km’s in the distance a massive pile of ancient rock rose into the sky; towering, powerfully built mountains with gauzy clouds hanging off the tops.
I was mesmerized by the beauty; the shapes, the colours, the rugged mountains and the misty clouds and snapped a few photos.
A little further on a local woman and her two young sons were standing on a cement outcropping at the edge of the lagoon. She had an enormously long, bamboo fishing pole in her hands, and the boys were eagerly grabbing onto small fish she was pulling out of the water with great regularity.
“Poisson. Tres bien?” I asked in broken French. (Hey, I grew up in the states and never took French as a kid, so don’t get too down on me.)
“Oui,” she replies
I have no idea how to say “What do you use them for,” so I mimic putting them on a plate. She shakes her head.
“Beignets,” she tells me with a big smile.
Pastries with fish are, of course, a staple in many parts of the world, such as conch fritters in The Bahamas.
The boys pose briefly for me before going back to their fishing, and I wave goodbye as I toodle back down the road at maybe a mile per hour. It was just a brief experience, a flash of a minute, but it gave me a small insight into the local culture. Between that and the remarkable views of the mountains, I was grinning from ear to ear.
The next day a local guide, Farahei Vetea, takes my wife and I on a half-day tour of the island. We can’t hear any commentary as we’re in the back of a pickup truck with a big covering to protect us from the sun, so we enjoy the quiet as we roll past majestic mountain peaks swathed in deep green jungle and small, roadside homes that back right onto the island’s beautiful lagoon. We drive for a half hour and don’t seen a shop of any kind, let alone a resort. There are small homes on both sides of the road, often hidden behind riotous hedges of flaming pink or red bougainvillea or speckled, green, yellow and red croton plants. We pass front lawns piled high with coconut husks and lagoons with fishermen knee deep in the water. Small islands dot the lagoon a few hundred meters off the shore, and we spot a horse nibbling on deep green grass in front of a modest, seaside home.
We stop briefly to admire the view of the island from on high near Opoa, where we gaze down on a bay of deep blue water backed by impossibly green cliffs. Vetea tells us the name of the area in English would be “Teeth of the Shark,” and that ancient warriors would eat the dirt that’s found in the region and let saliva drip down their chins, thus creating a facial look that would scare the enemy to bits.
After a few more minutes we pull up at the Marae Taputapuatea; the remains of an old Polynesian village/temple area that’s a UNESCO world heritage site on the southeast corner of the island.
This was an immensely important area in eastern Polynesia for centuries. It’s said that the great migrations of the Pacific Ocean – unbelievable voyages across thousands of kilometers of open ocean in outrigger canoes stocked with plants, animals and people – began here; voyages that resulted in the settlement of Aotearoa (“land of the long white cloud,” perhaps better known today as New Zealand).
You’ll find several stone platforms here today, fashioned out of black lava rock and resistant to the perils of time. The structures themselves are mostly gone, but it’s not hard to imagine this as a great centre of religion and learning.
Vetea explains how some buildings were almost like universities, and shows us a small, enclosed area where people from around Polynesia would come and deposit rocks and stones from their own island. Some of the ones you can find here today are said to have originated on Rapa Nui or Easter Island, roughly 4,500 km’s to the east, with damned little in the way of land in between.
Raiatea was known once as Hawaiki Nui, and it’s believed that the Polynesian peoples who settled in Hawaii came from here some 1,000 years ago. I’m a big fan of Hawaiian and Polynesian history and I’m fascinated by how ancient seafarers navigated the wild Pacific without instruments; relying on the wind and the waves and the stars and the birds to understand where they were and where they were going.
About a dozen local college kids are on the site when we visit, pulling weeds from between the stones and performing other backbreaking work in the hot sun. Their teacher, Cindy, tells me it’s an important job.
“We want to show this place to Polynesians, not just to tourists,” she tells me. “This is very important, as there is maybe 1,000 years of history here.
“It’s our past, but also our future,” she tells me.
The students traipse to and fro over the ancient, weathered stones but I stay back, preferring not to dishonour the site.
We walk towards the coast to admire small stone walls. Off to the south we can see the island of Huahine. The north we spot Taha’a, the so-called Vanilla Island, which shares a lagoon with Raiatea.
Vetea briefly shows us a haka-like dance/ceremony and then laughs.
“I’m half German and half Tahitian, but my heart is Polynesian,” he explains. “I was born here and I grew up here. In our society they call me a demi, or half Polynesian. But I don’t care.”
Vetea points out a sacred mountain on the island of Raiatea, called Temehani, and tells us it’s one of the most important in all Tahiti.
“Your spirit would go to the clouds or to heaven from there,” he explains.
The mountain also is home to the lovely, pure white flower called Tiare Apetahi in the Tahitian language.
I’m transfixed by these ancient tales of spirts and sacred mountains and sacred flowers, but it’s time to head back to civilization for lunch. After a short drive up the more developed east coast of Raiatea, Vetea drops us off at a stunning, seaside restaurant called Fish and Blue.
The tables are scattered about a covered area but placed on the sand, and the surroundings are all in gauzy shades of white and soft green and blue. There’s a giant Buddha head off to one side and little lights hanging from the ceiling that would likely be charming at night.
Out behind the tables is a long pier that stretches out into a brilliant blue-green sea, with the small mountains of the island of Tahaa in the distance.
Off to one side of the restaurant is a raised area with more tables and chairs and a crazy bathroom filled with knickknacks and more shades of the sea. Back near the main seating area I see a white picnic table in the shade of a palm tree that’s right on the sand, allowing diners to tickle their toes in the surf when they din
To top it off, we had an excellent meal; tuna crudo with fresh baguettes, fruity tropical drinks, tuna sashimi with green papaya salad and more. I can’t remember a more memorable lunch in a prettier restaurant. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect at a posh resort, not on a casual island like Raiatea.
We had another fine meal at a hotel/restaurant on the island called Villa Ixora. It’s a small place with five rooms on a quiet bay that’s run by a married couple from France. Laure tells me she worked at several fine hotels in France, including a Four Seasons property.
“We never owned a place of our own but we always wanted to,” she tells us. “We wanted something cozy, not a luxury property.”
Two of the rooms are on the water and have nice patios, with a variety of sizes available. They’re not fancy but they’re clean and nicely decorated, and they all have air conditioning, a small fridge and a kettle. One has an extra bedroom, and the hotel has kayaks and bikes you can use. They also have a small pool.
Laure’s husband is the cook, and we dined on fabulous poisson cru (raw fish mixed with coconut milk, tomatoes and other veggies) and an excellent pork confit with mashed potatoes.
We bedded down for two nights on the west side of Raiatea at another small, family-run spot called Fare Vai Nui. There are five beautiful, hand-built wooden cottages on a small beach, each with sunning areas and small decks or patios that face the sea
The inside of our unit, number five, was filled with gorgeous wood and had a very large bathroom and a second bed that would fit a teen or small child. We also had generous closet space, a strong air conditioner and a small refrigerator.
It’s a super quiet area of the island with fabulous sunsets and a small store a few minutes walk down the road if you need something. There’s also an attractive fruit stand a few steps away, and they have tons of bikes you can use to ride around this part of the island, which is quite flat around the edges and offers stunning views of Raiatea’s lagoon and rugged, green mountains
There’s a small pool and area for sunning (or resting in the shade, if you prefer), and a pier that juts out in to the lagoon. They set us up with massages from a local woman named Viana, who gave us a “Lomi Lomi” massage with coconut oil and pineapple as we listened to the sound of birds in the trees outside our room. It’s a great service, and Viana only charges about $70 CAD for 50 minutes.
We didn’t get a chance but you can kayak from the hotel to a couple of small islands with pretty beaches, admiring the still waters of the lagoon as you paddle along.
The owner’s daughter is one of the chefs at the on-site restaurant. She worked for years in Paris on the Champs Elysees and makes great pastries and also makes her own sorbet, which is delicious (especially the passion fruit). The hotel also serves fine meals at breakfast and dinner, including local mahi mahi and excellent crème brulee for dessert