– Tahiti, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora
Our first stop in the Society Islands was the main town of Papeete, Tahiti. Tahiti is the largest of the French Polynesian islands and Papeete is home to more than 80,000 people. The name Papeete translates from Polynesian to English as ‘water basket’ and the name may have come from a freshwater spring behind the current Territorial Assembly building where early Polynesians gathered water. People-watching in Papeete was fascinating with the blend of Polynesian and French cultures both influenced by the modern world as was evidenced by the appearance of the first MacDonald’s I’ve seen since leaving home.
We left Tahiti en route to explore the rest of the Society Islands right at sunset. As we passed the neighbouring island of Moorea, the sky was stunning with a brilliant sunset against the silhouette of the jagged peaks of this high island.
Overnight we covered 119 nautical miles to Ra’iatea and Taha’a in the Leeward Islands, or Iles Sous-le-Vent (Islands Under the Wind). The two volcanic islands share the same lagoon and are estimated to be between 7-8 million years old. Ra’iatea is the second largest island in French Polynesia after Tahiti and is regarded as the hub of ancient Polynesia. It is believed that people migrated from here to places like Hawaii and Aoteroa (New Zealand). Today Ra’iatea is home to approximately 12,000 inhabitants living in tidy houses, in pretty towns and villages around the 171 square kilometer island.
We landed in Uturoa, a small town that has received significant investment to encourage tourism. We explored a new central market with small stalls, shops, fresh fruit and crafts for sale. The island itself is lush and green with a flat coastal road circling all the way around the high peaks in the center. The highlight of touring around the island was seeing a sacred marae, or ceremonial site. This flat, football field sized marae is partially covered with Banyan trees and is believed to date back to 900 A.D. The most prominent features were areas where ceremonial food was prepared and ceremonies like human sacrifices took place. Rather than making a sacrifice of enemies, as was the case in other parts of Polynesia, here at Taputapuatea, the early Polynesians used to fight one-another for the honour of being the human sacrifice. They believed this would secure them the highest place in the after-life. Today, Ra’iatea has a nice, mellow, friendly vibe and everyone I passed raised a hand to wave a greeting. It was by far my favorite of the Society Islands that we visited.
After leaving Ra’iatea, we steamed around the neighbouring island of Taha’a about 20 miles away. Taha’a is the only one of the Society Islands with enough space between the island and the coral reef to circumnavigate the island inside the lagoon. It is slightly smaller and less populated than it’s neighbor and is also often simply referred to as ‘Vanilla Island’ because so many vanilla orchids are raised there.
The vanilla produced throughout French Polynesia is Vanilla tahitensis, a favorite of pastry chefs around the world thanks to its sweet floral flavor. It is seldom grown as a crop on a large scale, but rather on small, uneven, forested plots. The vanilla vine grows propped against the base of scrawny support trees. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world because raising it is a time intensive process. Each flower has to be hand pollinated at just the right time and the beans have to be individually harvested as they ripen. Today, 70-80% of the vanilla exported from French Polynesia comes from Taha’a.
From Taha’a we steamed to Bora Bora, probably the best known of the Society Islands as a high-priced destination for many of the world’s rich and famous. The volcanic island is home to approximately 9,000 people, one-third of whom live in the main town of Vaitape. The island has an international airport that was established during World War II when 4,500 US troops descended on Bora Bora after being shaken by the events of December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. As we travelled around the island the roads were lined with bright hibiscus, frangipani and Tiare Tahiti (the national flower of French Polynesia) as well as breadfruit, banana and mango trees all bearing very ripe fruit. I collected some ripe mangoes from the side of the road to enjoy later on the ship.
Later on we snorkeled at the public beach of Matira Bay and enjoyed seeing butterflyfish, chromis, damselfish, Picasso triggerfish, small rays and one huge moray eel. From the Society Islands we push on to reach the Cook Islands, but that’s a story for another day!
Thanks to Judith Black for some great information about the Society Islands.