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Pronounced Wa-ee-nee by the French (who never sound an "h") and Who-a-hee-nay by the Tahitians (who always do), Huahine ranks with Easter Island and Raiatea as the three most important Polynesian archaeological sites. Here, the ancient chiefs built a series of maraes on the shores of Lake Fauna Nui, which separates the north shore from a long, motu-like peninsula, and on Matairea Hill above the lakeside village of Maeva. These have been restored, and informational markers explain their history and purposes.

Many honeymooners and other visitors are making Huahine their last vacation stop, drawn by its relaxed ambience, Moorea-esque bays, lovely beaches, and friendly people. Baie Avea (Avea Bay), on the far southwestern coast of Huahine Iti, is fringed by one of French Polynesia's most glorious beaches. Another beach is right in the small hamlet of Fare, one of the region's best examples of what the South Seas were like in the days of trading schooners and copra planters.

Personally, I think Huahine is the third most beautiful of the Society Islands (behind Moorea and Bora Bora). Geographically, it is actually two islands -- Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti (Big Huahine and Little Huahine, respectively) -- enclosed by the same reef and joined by a short bridge, which, in turn, separates two picturesque bays, Maroe and Bourayne. With basaltic thumbs reaching from jagged mountains on either side of the bays, this vista reminds me of Moorea.

France did not annex Huahine until 1897, more than 50 years after it took over Tahiti, and its 5,500 residents are still independent in spirit. When the first Europeans arrived, Huahine was governed as a single chiefdom and not divided into warring tribes as were the other islands, and this spirit of unity is still strong. Pouvanaa a Oopa, the founder of French Polynesia's independence movement, hailed from here. Unrushed by hordes of tourists, the friendly people of Huahine still say "Ia orana" to us visitors.