Saturday, September 6, 2014

Raiatea: heavenly island in the South Pacific

Raiatea means “faraway heaven,” and “sky with soft light,” and it’s easy to see why this South Pacific island was reported to be the legendary Captain James Cook’s favorite.  It’s a great place to visit if you want to get away from the beach crowd and explore off the beaten path.
Port of Uturoa with mountains in background
We docked early morning at Uturoa—one of the few South Pacific ports where cruise ships do not have to tender. In the distance we saw mighty Mt. Temehani, a revered mountain, thought to be the birthplace of the Polynesian god Oro. This mountain shelters a unique plant, the fragrant Tiare apetahi, a white gardenia-like flower shaped like an open hand with petals that open with a slight crackling sound at dawn. Legend says it’s the sound of a broken heart of a common woman who was not allowed to marry the son of the Tahitian king. The protected emblem of the island, this flower grows nowhere else on earth.

Tropical flowers glorify
the island.
Beautiful waterfalls can be seen in south Raiatea, and you can kayak on Faaroa River, gateway to the ocean and the only navigable river in Polynesia. With an abundance of flora such as wild hibiscus, bamboo groves, chestnut trees, and ginger flowers, the island is utopia for nature and garden lovers.

The second largest of Society Islands, after Tahiti, Raiatea is regarded as sacred, the center of Polynesian religion and culture more than 1,000 years ago. Historians say it’s likely that migrations to Hawaii, New Zealand, and other parts of East Polynesia originated from Raiatea. Because of its spiritual nature, marae (sacred rocks with inscriptions) scattered across the South Pacific, each contain a rock from the original marae on Raiatea.

Huts in Uturoa provide shade for shoppers.
You can visit one of these historical and cultural sites on the southeast coast. Taputauatea marae is a stone structures where priests and sailors offered sacrifices to the gods--and a place where people worked together to solve challenges of navigating South Pacific waters. Many enchanting legends still give the island an atmosphere of mystery.

Even large cruise ships must enter and leave the Raiatea lagoon
through narrow passages like this.
Although Raiatea has a population of more than 12,000, villages are tiny.  Shops and markets line a newly renovated waterfront area in Utoroa, the only town of any size on either Raiatea or its sister island Taha’a. Large cruise ships call here several times a week, which is an economic boon for the small towns.

Raiatea is a paradise for snorkeling or scuba diving
We learned that the islands of Raiatea and Taha’a are unique because both are enclosed by the same coral reef and may have once been one island. Even though Raiatea doesn’t have beaches, the lagoon is perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling with its coral gardens, caves, and drift diving in the passes. Surfing is also possible at the 10 passes that open from the ocean into the Raiatea-Taha’a Lagoon. Primitive motus (small islands) in the lagoon can be reached by boat, and picnickers or campers, both locals and visitors, often come for the day or weekend.
Camping on motus is a favorite getaway for locals and visitors.
If you’re looking for relaxation, beautiful scenery, or a great place to explore under water, Raiatea might just become your slice of heaven.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier