Secret Slices Of Paradise
The Society Islands of Raiatea and Tahaa offer French Polynesia's less-touristed slices of paradise. Raiatea is the most sacred island in the South Seas, with the best-preserved archaeological site in Polynesia. Separated from Raiatea by a thin lagoon, the "vanilla island" of Tahaa is even more traditional. Caressed by omnipresent trade winds, both islands are dripping with enchanting lore and remain blessedly untouched by modern life.
Most people who visit Raiatea and Tahaa do so as a day trip or short excursion from nearby Bora Bora or Moorea (both of which are a 45-min. flight away). One of the reasons Raiatea isn't as well-known as its more famous neighbors is that its lush and rocky coastline, however picturesque, has no sandy beaches. But don't let this deter you: The waters around Raiatea and Tahaa are dotted with motus, tiny uninhabited islets that are the definition of tropical fantasy. Your basic motu is a strip of sand, backed by a mound of green, punctuated by perfect palm trees, and surrounded by crystalline turquoise water. Rent a motu for a few hours or the day and have a picnic, comfortable in the knowledge that someone will pick you up well before sundown.
The highlights of visiting Raiatea and Tahaa aren't limited to the sea and water-sports. The stone temple, or marae, at Taputapuatea is Raiatea's spiritual treasure and the most extensive archaeological site in the South Seas, second in importance only to Easter Island . Set in a coconut grove on the shore of the lagoon, Taputapuatea is marvelously evocative of the pre-European era here. Raiatea's Mount Temehani is not the island's tallest peak (it's 792m/2,598 ft. high) but its most sacred one. As the place where ancient Polynesians believe their souls ascended after death, the mountain is inextricably linked with Polynesian mythology. Mount Temehani is also the only place in the world where the fragrant tiare apetahi flower grows, its petals opening each morning with a crackling sound. Trips along the Faaroa River in powered outrigger canoes give you a glimpse of the island's lush and mountainous interior.
To the immediate north of Raiatea lies Tahaa. According to legend, Tahaa was detached from Raiatea by a sacred eel, and in the lagoon that separates the two islands are shipwrecks that divers and snorkelers can explore. Tahaa is commonly known as the Vanilla Island because of its many vanilla plantations -- you can smell the richly aromatic bean being harvested all over the island. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are the best way to discover all the hidden corners of the island and are easily rented in town. When cruise ships are in port, thousands of passengers spill onto shore, so try to plan your organized activities for days when ships are not expected.
Getting There: Raiatea airport (served by flights from Papeete, Tahiti; Bora Bora; Moorea; and Huahine).
Where to Stay: Le Taha'a Private Island & Spa, Motu Tautau, Tahaa (tel. 800/657-3275; www.letahaa.com). Raiatea Lodge Hotel, Uturoa (tel. 689/600-100; www.raiateahotel.com).