Highlights of your time here will include visits to the ancient maraes, day trips to and around Tahaa, picnics on small islands on the outer reef, and four-wheel-drive excursions into the mountains.
A paved road runs for 150km (92 miles) around the shoreline of rugged Raiatea, the second-largest island in French Polynesia, behind only Tahiti. Its tallest peak, Mount Tefatoaiti, at 1,017m (3,337 ft.), occupies the triangular-shaped island's southern end. To the north, the flat top of sacred Mount Temehani soars to 792m (2,598 ft.). Much of Mount Temehani is a high plateau, where the five-petal tiare apetahi flower grows. Polynesians in ancient times believed that when they died, their souls ascended to the plateau, where they faced a fork in the road. If they were told to go right, they went to Paradise. If they went left, it was into the crater and their version of Purgatory.
Several rivers carve steep valleys on their way from the Raiatea highlands to six bays indenting the coast. One of them, the Faaroa River, is the only navigable waterway in French Polynesia. It empties into mountain-sided Faaroa Bay, which provides a protected anchorage for yachts and other small craft. Most charter-boat operators, however, are based at Apooti Marina on the north shore beside the strait separating Raiatea and Tahaa.
With 88 sq. km (34 sq. miles), Tahaa is about one-third the size of Raiatea, but it is still French Polynesia's fourth-largest island. Its main villages are Tapuamu on the west coast, Patio on the north side, and Haamene in the center. Tahaa is a rugged island, with its tallest peak, Mount Ohiri, reaching to 598m (1,975 ft.). The island's inhabitants live along a narrow coastal plain and at the head of four narrow bays, two of which -- Haamene and Harepiti -- almost cut Tahaa into two. Completely surrounded by a deepwater lagoon, and with the sheltered bays providing fine anchorages, Tahaa is a sailor's heaven.
Delicate Petals -- Found nowhere else except in Raiatea's mountains, the tiare apetahi is a one-sided white flower of the gardenia family. Legend says that its five delicate petals are the fingers of a beautiful Polynesian girl who fell in love with a prince but couldn't marry him because of her low birth. Just before she died, heartbroken, in her lover's arms, she promised to give him her hand to caress each day throughout eternity. At daybreak each morning, accordingly, the tiare apetahi opens its five petals.
Visiting the Marae
Raiatea is known as the "Sacred Island" because of its religious importance in pre-European times. On the outskirts of Opoa village, 29km (18 miles) south of Uturoa, the Taputapuatea Marae is the second-most-significant archaeological site in all of Polynesia, behind only Easter Island. Legend says that Te Ava Moa Pass offshore was the departure point for the discovery and settlement of both Hawaii and New Zealand. The large marae on the site was actually built centuries later by the Tamatoa family of chiefs. Vying for supremacy, the Tamatoas mingled religion with politics by creating Oro, the ferocious god of war and fertility supposedly born on Mount Temehani, and by spreading his cult. It took almost 200 years, but Oro eventually became the most important god in the region. Likewise, the Tamatoas became the most powerful chiefs. They were on the verge of conquering all of the Society Islands when the missionaries arrived in 1797. With the Christians' help, Pomare I became king of Tahiti, and the great marae the Tamatoas built for Oro was soon left to ruin, replaced by the lovely Protestant church in nearby Opoa village.
The marae was restored in the 1960s and, more recently, Tahiti Museum archaeologists discovered human bones under some of the structures, apparently the remains of sacrifices to Oro. The marae's huge ahu, or raised altar of stones for the gods, is more than 45m (150 ft.) long, 9m (30 ft.) wide, and 3.3m (11 ft.) tall. Flat rocks, used as backrests for the chiefs and priests, still stand in the courtyard in front of the ahu. The entire complex is in a coconut grove on the shore of the lagoon, opposite Te Ava Moa Pass, and legend says that bonfires on the marae guided canoes through the pass at night.
Taputapuatea is worth a visit not only for the marae itself, but also for the scenery here and along the way. The road skirts the southeast coast and follows Faaroa Bay to the mouth of the river, and then back out to the lagoon.
On the west coast, 15km (9 miles) from Uturoa, Taninuu Marae was also dedicated to Oro. Stones bordering the foundation of the ancient chief's home bear petroglyphs of turtles. This is a place of Christian history, too, since the lovely white Eglise Siloama is one of the oldest churches in French Polynesia.
Walking Around Uturoa
There was not even a village at Uturoa before the Rev. John Williams, who proselytized throughout the South Pacific, set up a London Missionary Society headquarters here in the 1820s. The settlement later became the Leeward Islands' administrative center and major trading post. A number of Chinese-owned stores still line Rue Centrale, Uturoa's main street, but the center of activity is the glistening Gare Maritime, a cruise-ship terminal built with money from France's economic restructuring fund. You can't miss this big Mediterranean-style building that houses restaurants, shops, the island's visitor information office, and public restrooms. Needless to say, the waterfront is busiest when a cruise ship arrives, and local women sell handicrafts and souvenirs in small thatch buildings next door known as fares des mamas (mamas' houses). Across the street is the Marché Municipale, the local produce market.
You can make a walking tour of Uturoa by following the four-lane road northward from the town docks along the shore, past a park built on landfill to the public yacht marina on the northern edge of town. From the traffic circle, follow Rue Centrale back through the business district. Although Rue Centrale was once along the shoreline, landfill has left the street a block inland from the waterfront. Behind it on the mountain side, an expressway speeds vehicles past downtown (there's a traffic circle on each end).
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