Exploring Life on Raiatea Island: A Cruise Shore Excursion in French Polynesia

View of the Raiatea coast (Photo: MCArnott)

View of the Raiatea coast (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Ambling through the untidy streets of Papeete, I find myself wondering what happened to the once blissfully depicted capital of French Polynesia. I know the cruise will take us to moss-laden jagged mountains, teeming marine life and stilted over-water bungalows — the images for which Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora are famous. But for French Polynesians life on an island can sometimes present contrasts and conundrums. Seventy percent of French Polynesians call Tahiti Island home; most of them live in bustling, slightly grimy Papeete. In sharp contrast is the less-traveled island of Raiatea Island, which has been a Fromer’s choice of one of the World’s 500 Extraordinary Islands for its pristine land and laid-back lifestyle reminiscent of quieter times.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • The South Pacific is one of only a few recreational pristine aquatic ecosystems in the world.
  • Islanders are willing to share what’s on their mind, so you’ll learn about local life.
  • For anyone who enjoys cruising in calm tropical waters and is willing to hear about the local lifestyle.

We flew to Tahiti’s Faa’a Airport and stayed a couple of nights in Papeete. By then we were ready to embark on the m/s Paul Gaugin for a cruise among some of the Society Islands: one of five archipelagos in French Polynesia. Days went by with water activities, inland tours, and lazy days on a motu (islet). At times, we chatted with friendly locals selling their crafts on the pier or at roadside shops.

Getting to Know Raiatea Island

Our guide draws the geographical location of Raiatea Island (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Our guide draws the geographical location of Raiatea Island (Photo credit: MCArnott)

In Opoa, on the eastern coast of the island, we opt for a shore excursion that would introduce us to island culture via a 4-wheel drive tour and boat trip. Our dashing guide embodies the “à la Gauguin” romanticism. He begins to share the history of the island. “We are in the middle of a triangle,” he says as he draws one in the sand. “The three points are the Easter Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand; Raiatea is in the middle.”

At the ruins of Taputapuatea Marea, we learn that the temple was dedicated to the god of war, and also revered as “the eye of the eagle.” Raiatea was deemed the “Sacred Island” because of its central position in the triangle. Could the tradition story have created a watchful “eye” over the “sacred” island to protect it from three potential invaders? Maybe.

People from Eastern Polynesia gathered here for celebrations. Our guide tells us that boys were tattooed and circumcised here to mark their passage to adolescence; girls were tattooed on each buttock as a symbol of fertility. Harder to imagine were sacrifices: animals, or war prisoners, or, if no animals or prisoners were available, forest dwellers were hunted instead. Change can be a good thing.

Touring Raiatea Island by 4-WD

Coconut shells protect the roots of vanilla vines (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Coconut shells protect the roots of vanilla vines (Photo credit: MCArnott)

Suddenly, our guide grabs a land crab from under a bush and thrusts it at us. This must be the umpteenth time, but he still laughs at our reaction; a familiarity that leads to personal questions. A descendant of Polynesian royalty, Manuia Dean is—surprise!– American by his Californian mother, herself the daughter of an Iroquois by the name of Levahyela, a lineage he is still trying to reconnect with. He says that his grandfather was the mayor who arrested Paul Gauguin. In Polynesia the painter’s legacy is not about his painting, but that is another story.

The thick forest covers over 40 percent of French Polynesia. Here and there, trees and underbrush made space for family gardens. The government lends these plots of land at a symbolic cost to locals who don’t own any, Manuia says. Red ginger flowers brighten the jungle. Empty coconut shells lay not under palm trees, but under vanilla vines: to protect the roots from the sun. Vanilla is a major crop in the Society Islands, as are pineapple and coconut.

On the way back to the pier, we notice new facilities: A vocational center where unskilled adults can learn a trade, a daycare, a temple and a Mormon church. Only 4000 people live in Uturoa, the second economic center of Polynesia based on its imports from New Zealand and redistribution among the islands. Like most islanders, Manuia works for the French government, others work at the port, deep sea fishing, or in tourism. “We need more jobs, but there is no budget for development because France sends all the money to Papeete,” he complains. As a parent, I understand that he wants his children to have opportunities locally instead of relocating in Papeete.

Boating on the Faaroa River

We pass kayakers on the Faaroa River (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

Kayakers on the Faaroa River (Photo Credit: MCArnott)

Our tour continues with a boat ride to the Faaroa River, the only navigable one in Polynesia. Our guide for this part of the journey introduces himself as Captain Maurice. He points to a high valley on the mountain and says that’s where he lives. On the 200 hectares he owns up there, he grows food for his “4 wives and 20 children,” he says. He has no official title to his land, given to him by his late mother. In fact, he complains about UNESCO. (The Taputapuatea- Opoa Valley is considered under the UNESCO Pacific World Heritage Action Plan 2010-1015.) According to him, his sister sold seven acres to buy a new car and a 60 square-foot “house.” I take all of this with a grain of salt, but ponder his statement: “One could be left with nothing if land is traded for something that won’t last forever.”

Smoke rises from the mountainside; empty coconut shells are burnt before they fill with water and mosquito larvae. A new housing development with “Europeans and Chinese owners who come with lots of luggage and do nothing but swim” is an obvious source of frustration. “Then the house sits empty,” he says shaking his head.

The boat slows down at the mouth of the river. People who chose the kayak tour paddle in the calm waters along the jungle. We pass by homes guarded by nonchalant and oddly similar dogs, the result of inbreeding. Roaming pigs and chickens live a true free-range life.

Back on the cruise ship, I try to reconcile the two men’s diverging view points. One has a mixed heritage and a more progressive view of the future. The other holds some indigenous wisdom. Meanwhile, developing or not developing remains a dilemma.


  • M/S Paul Gauguin is owned by Pacific Beachcomber S.C., the largest luxury hotel and cruise operator in French Polynesia.
  • Tahiti Faa’s airport is a seven hour flight from Los Angeles.
  • Most visitors arrive on Tahiti, and leave for other islands, yet the island is equally beautiful.
  • The temple site is sacred to Polynesians, use common sense!
  • Interpretive boards at the site (in English, French and Tahitian) explain the history of the temple.
  • The local currency is the French Pacific Franc (XPF). Locally it’s called the CFP. Most places accept Euros and US dollars.

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