Southeast of Rangiroa and about 490km (300 miles) northeast of Tahiti, Fakarava's rectangular reef encloses French Polynesia's second-largest lagoon. This 60*24km (37*15-mile) aquamarine jewel is filled with such a rich variety of sea life that part of it has been designated a UNESCO nature preserve. Needless to say, there is some very good diving and snorkeling here.

Unlike most Tuamotu atolls, I find Fakarava interesting from a historical standpoint. The airstrip and the main village, Rotoava, sit at the atoll's northeastern end, but the first European settlement here was at Tetamanu, on the far southern end of the lagoon beside narrow Tumakohua Pass, a 1 1/2- to 2-hour boat ride from the airport. Coupled with fine snorkeling and diving in the pass, seeing the crumbling ruins of a prison and a restored 1834-vintage Catholic church make a visit to the ghostlike Tetamanu one of the more fascinating jaunts in the Tuamotu Archipelago.

The administrative center was moved to Rotoava to take advantage of Garuae Pass, the widest in French Polynesia. It's so wide and deep, in fact, that ships as large as the Queen Elizabeth 2 can safely enter the lagoon and anchor off Rotoava. The cruise ship Aranui 3 pulls in here on its way to the Marquesas Islands.

From Rotoava, a road -- facetiously dubbed "rue Flosse" because former French Polynesian President Gaston Flosse paved part of it prior to a visit by French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 -- runs for 30km (18 miles) along French Polynesia's longest motu. Extraordinarily beautiful beaches border this skinny strip of land that encloses the northern and eastern side of the lagoon (the western and southern sides consist of reefs dotted with a few small islets). As you ride past these deserted beaches in a boat, you'll wonder how long it will be before Fakarava has more than one international-level resort.

Rotoava has a post office (with public phone), infirmary (tel. 98.42.24), school, whitewashed church, and three general stores, but no bank. The island's only resort, the Maitai Dream Fakarava, and most of its pensions accept credit cards, but bring local currency if yours doesn't. Do not drink the tap water on Fakarava; bottled water is available at the resort and the grocery stores in Rotoava.