The largest and most often visited of the Tuamotu atolls, Rangiroa lies 312km (194 miles) northeast of Tahiti. Its ring of low, skinny islets encloses one of the world's largest lagoons. At more than 70km (43 miles) long and 26km (16 miles) wide, it's big enough so that when you stand on one side, you cannot see the other. It's easy to see why it's named Rangiroa, which means "long sky" in the local language. In fact, the lagoon is so large, the entire island of Tahiti could be placed in it, with room to spare.

In the early morning and late afternoon, schools of dolphins usually play in Avatoru Pass and Tiputa Pass, the two navigable passes into Rangiroa's interior lagoon, both on its north side. Currents of up to 6 knots race through the passes as the tides first fill the lagoon and then empty it during their never-ending cycle.

Most visitors come to Rangiroa primarily for French Polynesia's best scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing. Others venture across the lagoon to Rangiroa's islets, where they can play Robinson Crusoe at a very remote resort.

Rangiroa's airstrip and all but one of its hotels and pensions are on a perfectly flat, 11km-long (7-mile) stretch of sand and palm trees running between Avatoru and Tiputa passes on the northern side of the lagoon. This main island does not have a name, as it actually consists of seven islets separated by narrow and very shallow reef passes. On the western end, Avatoru village is the commercial and governmental center for the northern Tuamotu islands. On the eastern end, Tiputa Pass separates the main island from Tiputa village. All but a handful of Rangiroa's 2,500 residents live in Avatoru and Tiputa villages.

Come Up Here First -- There isn't a lot to do in the Tuamotu Islands except snorkeling and scuba diving, which makes them great for resting and recovering from your long flight before tackling Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, and the other Society Islands. I recommend coming here first for a little R & R, then visiting the more developed mountainous islands and their incredible scenery.