One of the largest and most beautiful atolls in French Polynesia, Fakarava is the stuff of South Seas fantasy. The bboomerang-shaped atoll is the second largest of the Tuamotu atolls known as the Tuamotu and Gambier Islands located about 280 miles from Tahiti and 75 miles south of Rangiroa.
Most islanders live in Rotoava village at the northeastern end of the atoll, 2.5 miles east of the airport. Aside from Rangiroa’s Avatoru, this is the most developed and busiest town in the Tuamotus, but it’s still quiet by most people’s standards. With only a few streets, a couple of churches and stores, a town hall and a school, it’s easy to explore.
The pristine waters surrounding the atoll have been given UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. They are recognized for their rich, intact ecosystem, and efforts are being made to study and preserve it. Heavenly white and pink sand, ruffled coconut trees and an unbelievable palette of lagoon blues are the norm here.
The atmosphere is very relaxed and the infrastructure is quite good, with an assortment of pensions. Fakarava is a great place to unwind, but for those looking for more than a suntan, it offers a number of water activities. The fantastic diving and snorkelling is legendary among divers, who come for a truly exhilarating experience in the two passes, Garuae Pass (Northern Pass) and Tumakohua Pass (Southern Pass).
Similar to Avatoru, Fakarava had a single road traversing the atoll. As we strolled, one of the locals was feeding sharks near the sandy shoreline.
We walked past a Catholic Church which was ornately decorated inside with sea shells. We were surprised to see a working phone both from which calls can be made using the satellite network.
Today, the tender shared the pier with a supply ship from Papeete which was unloading supplies throughout the day.
We strolled down the one street that runs through Avatoru. After a 45-minute walk, we came upon the Kiora Resort with bungalows over the water. This is one of the swankiest resorts in French Polynesia, with 50 plush bungalows, including 10 enormous overwater units on a perfect turquoise lagoon. The garden villas come with their own pool and are dotted around a magnificent coconut plantation situated on a stretch of white sand. It incorporates restaurant, bar, spa and swimming pool. Since were not many guests at the property, we asked if could use the beach. The answer was "yes but day use privileges are $50 US per person."
Although we did not visit, Vin de Tahiti has a 6-hectare vineyard planted on a palm-fringed motu about 10 minutes by boat from Avatoru village. This is the only atoll vineyard in the world, making the only wines produced from coral soil. It produces coral white wine, dry white, sweet white and rosé.
The number-one activity on Rangiroa is diving, and it’s no wonder. The Tiputa Pass with its reefs and currents has achieved cult status in the diving community and offers some of the best drift dives in the world. Several diving outfitters offer services to take out small diving groups.
After exiting the lagoon through the very narrow channel of the Tiputa Pass, the departure that evening was later highlighted by another spectacular sunset.
Opunohu Bay, Moorea
Known as the "magical island," it has lush natural beauty that seems to appear magically out of the turquoise waters. It was formed by a volcano over a million years ago and geologists have speculated that tbousands of years ago the northern rim of the volcano was either swept into the ocean or was blown away by a volcanic eruption. The result is the heart-shaped island that now makes Moorea, complete with the rest of the volcanic rim, that gives the island its impressive jagged peaks.
The shape is distinguished by two bays on tbe north, Opunohu Bay to the West and Cook's Bay in the East. Wedged between these bays is the Belvedere lookout which offers a South Pacific panorama and Mount Rotui.
With a small population of 16,000, Moorea has become an attractive destination for Westerners and other Tahitians who can easily visit the island on weekends via ferry.
We took a 4x4 truck inland island tour, sat in back of pick-up truck with padded bench seats and cover.
First stop was the Manutea pineapple distillery (juices and liquors) with tastings for visitors - - catering to tourists.
We headed up the mountain to the Belvedere de Opunohu which is a good viewing area for both Opunohu Bay and Cooks Bay. On the way Damien, our driver/guide, pointed out the vegetation and fruits unique to the area. Mangoes, bananas, plantains, papaya, breadfruit, pineapples, avocados were prolific. We sampled some locally-made. breadfruit chips.
On the way back, we stopped at a temple (marae) and looked at the ancient stones which are revered by the islanders.
Moorea is 70% Protestant and 30% Catholic. Speaking of religion, I was puzzled how the missionaries were able to convert the natives to Christianity throughout the South Pacific since the islanders had strong tradtions and tribal beliefs. Once the islands were discovered, missionaries came during the late 1700s and 1800s. It was not always without setbacks, and the proces was complex. The chiefs were the primary targets of conversion since once they were converted they imposed the religion on the rest of the tribe. The chiefs were impressed by the Europeans' big sailing ships, guns, and metal technology. At other times, the missionaries were able to cure the chiefs' relatives who were afflicted with maladies. Eventually, the chiefs came to believe that the missionaries' God had more power than their gods which were symbolized in objects like mountains, forces of nature and rocks.
With a population of 190,000, what Tahiti lacks in wide, white-sand beaches, it makes up for in waterfall-laden, mountains, black-sand beaches, sheltered blue lagoons and a distinctly Polynesian, modern buzz. This is the heart of the islands, where the cultures from all the archipelagos are mixed in the noisy, dusty, yet smiling and energetic capital of Papeete. Sometimes given the nickname "the island of love," Tahiti is the largest city of French Polynesia and home to the capital of Papeete.
With the ship docked conveniently in the center of the city, we were able to explore this bustling city on foot.
First, we stoped at the market which fills an entire city block. Shoppers will find colorful pareu (sarongs), shell necklaces, woven hats and local produce in the main hall. Dotted among the meat and fish sellers are lunchtime hawkers selling takeaway Ma’a Tahiti (traditional Tahitian food), fresh fruit juices and local ice cream.
Although the Catholic cathedral is placed squarely in the town centre, Tahiti remains predominantly Protestant, a lasting legacy of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionaries. The large pink Temple de Paofai makes a colourful scene on Sunday morning, when it is bursting at the seams with a devout hat-wearing congregation dressed in white and belting out soul stirring himene (hymns).
We were greeted soon after our arrival with a four-masted steel schooner which was making its way to the port during thunder squals. This Chilean training cadet vessel had its entire military band on deck playing patriotic songs in the pouring rain as it docked.
There were more than six food trucks near the dock with various types of cuisine. One the popular local favorites is fish tartare in coconut milk.
The second Tongan island we visited was Vavau. The port city of Neiafu (population 6,000) was only reachable by taking a 20-minute boat ride from the ship's tender.
As in most South Pacific ports, local dancers and singers greet the visitors upon arrival. The local Utukalongalu market was next door to the pier offering local fruits, vegetables and handicrafts.
Since someone was still in need of rest to kick a mysterious bug, I opted to do a local van tour with four others to see the area around Neiafu. The key sights were St. Joseph's Catholic Cathedral, a landmark for Tongans, and Mount Talau National Park. Climbing the Mount Talau to the top is treacherous and possibly a death trap but the views are great.
The driver went past residential houses, dogs, chickens and pigs either in yards or roaming on the streets. The surrounding terrain is mainly agricultural with small kava, vanilla bean, taro, pineapple, and yam farms. Coconuts and breadfruit grow everywhere.
We also stopped at Pouono Park, where a monument reminded of the historical importance of the first landing place of Christianity into Tonga and where in 1839, the 1st King of Tonga gave Tonga to God for protection, instead of giving it to colonial power. For Tongans, this park is of great historical significance.
The island is an active yachting hangout. Moorings has a sailboat charter base located in the area. Sailboats are anchored in the bay and there is even a boatyard to store vessels on the hard.
Fun facts: weddings are only held on Tuesdays and Thursdays for good luck; you can bury your deceased loved ones in the garden; 11 to 12 cruise ships visit annually.
We entered the Kingdom of Tonga, the only country in the region that was never colonized - - making them unique in the South Pacific. Consisting of 176 islands, Tonga has a history dating back over 3,000 years, and the monarchy has been in place for about 1,000 years. Today, Tonga still has a monarchy and the King has the final say in all matters in tbe country. Tonga was given the nickname "the friendly islands" after Captain James Cook arrived here in 1776.
In the 19th century missionaries arrived, converting the majority of the islanders to Christianity. This zeal to convert the natives during this period was tbe norm throughout the South Pacific with strong inroads made by the Mormons and the Catholic church. The strong bond to Christianity still holds true today. Sunday is strictly a day of worship with church choirs and hymns being an integral part of the culture. Sunday is a day of rest and it's enshrined in Tongan law that it is illegal to work. There are no international or domestic flights, shops are closed, the streets are empty, sports are prohibited, and most Tongans are going to church, feasting and sleeping
Our first port of call in Tonga was the capital where a large part of Tonga's population lives. This walkable city has a friendly feeling, an interesting market and a surprising amount of international influence.
We did not explore very much since someone was quite "peak-ed" that day and needed to rest.
Interesting Tonga factoid: Around the island you'll see neatly tarmacked roads emblazoned with 'China Aid' signs and hear people talking about the 'Japan road'. They're referring to the sources of international funding used to construct these thoroughfares. China and Japan seem locked in a battle to see who can inject more money into Tonga's economy by financing civic projects: roads, schools, hospitals, police stations, community health centers. Why? The international largesse is most welcome and Tonga is deeply indebted, but some cynical locals suggest that what China wants in return is to establish a naval base here, and that Japan is angling towards recommencing whaling in Tongan waters.