The Seldom-Seen Side of the South Pacific

Raiatea
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Sandwiched between Huanhine and Bora Bora sits Raiatea, an ancient capital for islands kings where festivals would unfold. In fact, anthropologists believe it was from here that the Maori set out before making their home in New Zealand. With that kind of history here—not to mention the sky-blue water, misty cliffs, and languid rivers—I realize I've found the best of both worlds—if Nuku Hiva's main attractions are ruins and jungles, and Huanhine's the resort and the sea, Raiatea offers a perfect blend of both.

Located about 120 miles northwest of Tahiti, Raiatea feels busier than Huanhine and downright metropolitan compared to Nuku Hiva. Raiatea, which sits within eyeshot of Bora Bora, is the administrative center for the leeward islands of the Society Archipelago and is home to about 10,000 people. Still, tourists here are few, with about 15,000 coming a year.

One of the first hotels to be built on pylons over the water here, Hawaiki Nui Resort seems more modest than Te Tiare. But step inside and you'll see why this place has been around for 36 years. With 28 huts, the resort has nine deep-water bungalows, each with a Plexiglass window set in the floor. Change into your bathing suit atop it and you can give the clownfish and jacks swimming by quite the peep show.

The diving here proves to be some of the best I've ever done, which isn't that much (about 75 dives.) But if you're a solid intermediate diver, you're in for a treat—sunken ships and sharks.

The Hawaiki has a dive shop right on the property, so I meet Farid Sedira, 33, for an afternoon of adventure. We head out to Teavapiti Pass, a channel cut through the reef, and drop into the deep blue. The current is strong so we zoom along the bottom before latching onto a small rock about 100 feet down. Huge schools of Moorish idols come by—something I've never seen—as well as tons of black tip sharks, a barracuda, and a spotted eagle ray. I stay down for more than 50 minutes, drifting along walls and zooming over coral.

It'd be hard to believe the next dive could be better—and it isn't—but it certainly comes close. In 1900 a Danish cargo ship sank in a storm so close to the resort that you can jump off the dock to explore it, so we do. Sitting on its side in about 90 feet of water, the Norby's superstructure is still intact, meaning you can swim through its hull. Some 21 different types of nudibranchs—those slug-like, Day-Glo creatures—cling to the side of the iron ship. About a dozen more dive sites sit scattered about the island, but by the time evening rolls around I'm ready for a dinner of fresh lobster and a big Bordeaux.

Satisfied with my underwater intake, I devote the next day to exploring topside, driving narrow roads to wander ancient ahu, sacred burial spots, passing vanilla plantations and the occasional pearl farm. To stretch my legs I hike through dense bamboo forests lining the Fa'aroa Valley. A light rain begins to fall over the steep shoulders of To'omaru, the highest peak on the island at 3,510 feet, so I pause under a huge chestnut tree for lunch.

The only navigable river in French Polynesia, also called the Fa'aroa, runs through the island. And though I could explore it by canoe, I opt instead to head back to the resort—these islands have an alluring way of lulling you into a calm sense of inactivity.

On the deck I watch yachts slip past the sunset, waiting for the seeds of munity to sprout.

Access and Resources

Hawaiki Nui Resort does not have a website. Visit www.pacific-resorts.com/tahiti/raiatea/hawaiki-nui/index.html for info.
Scuba outings can be arranged through the hotel. A two-tank dive runs around $150; contact the resort for info, or call +689-66-12-49)


Published: 10 Apr 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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