Kiwi connections in Raiatea

By Elizabeth Binning

Many other parts of Tahiti boast luxurious resorts, golden sands and loads of tourist activities, but Raiatea is different.

The largest of the Leeward Islands, it has no beaches but what it lacks in sand is more than made up for with its 170 sq km of tropical bush, quaint villages and history.

Legend has it that it was from this island that the first canoes sailed to New Zealand about 950.

In stories handed down from generation to generation - and told to me by an enthusiastic tour guide - there were seven outrigger canoes but only six arrived in New Zealand.

They left from the majestic Faaroa River, the only navigable river in French Polynesia today and location for the few tourist adventure activities available on Raiatea.

Although there is no sign or tourist platform marking the historical link, there are plenty of places where you can see the river.

Few buildings or signs of civilisation are to be found beside the river and it feels as if you have travelled back in time.

As the mist rolled down from the surrounding hills, I could almost see explorers paddling down the dark green river in their quest for new lands.

About 20 minutes from the river mouth is another place with strong New Zealand links, the Taputapuatea Marae.

My guide Lysis Terooatea explains what the limited tourist information at the site doesn't. The marae was named Taputapu (meaning never come back) after a Maori chief was killed there. From then onwards early Maori did not return to the marae (which dates back to the 17th century) for many years.

According to Lysis, a group of Maori from New Zealand went to the restored marae in the 1990s and did a tapu-lifting ceremony.

Since then other New Zealanders have also visited, some leaving gifts on the tomb of a chief called Oro.

Lysis said a few years ago he took a Maori man and his mother to the tomb. The man placed a block of pumice among the gifts of other offerings to Oro, said a prayer and sang. It was a moving occasion.

But, if learning about history is not enough to rouse your interest in the beautifully landscaped stone marae, ghostly occurrences may do the trick.

It's worth asking a tour guide or local about what a group of workmen experienced while restoring Taputapuatea ...

You will not find the stories on any information sign but locals, such as Lysis, who are willing to show you around for a small fee, are worth it.

Their stories bring to life what otherwise may appear to be an historic pile of stones.

If neither history or hauntings are your thing, try visiting the pearl farms and vanilla plantations - it's best to book a tour.

When I arrived with my guide we were shown a small table containing vanilla products and told we were welcome to look through the mesh at the vanilla plants. That was the extent of my tour into the fragrant world of vanilla, which further reading showed there was more to be learned.

Botanic gardens are also on offer but Lysis suggested we didn't stop because they were too crowded - a small bus had just arrived.

As I said, the island is not as touristy as others in Tahiti. Perhaps that's why it is so interesting.

While most of its 10,000 residents are employed and well-travelled, many still live in days gone by.

Some, like 65-year-old Ruamotu, have never left the island. He spends his days harvesting a green fruit called noni. The plant, although incredibly stinky, is, like most things grown on the island, multifunctional.

Its roots are ground and used to ease tooth pain, its leaves are used to wrap and cook fish, and the fruit itself is believed to help lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, and is used as a treatment for diabetes.

Plants without properties like this are seen as a waste of space on the island.

When I ask about a small pine-tree plantation I'm told they are useless trees "because they don't produce fruit".

Raiatea is surrounded by a turquoise atoll so there is no sand around the mainland.

Tourists who want to lie on the beach have to go to a Motu (an island outside the lagoon between the mainland and the atoll). Several companies offer lagoon tours with picnics, swimming stops and snorkelling.

Lysis is quick to share plenty of stories about his encounters with New Zealanders, including the one about how his second daughter was named by a Maori elder. With Lysis, it all comes back to New Zealand somehow.

* Elizabeth Binning travelled as guest of House of Travel.

Getting there
Air Tahiti Nui flies to Tahiti direct from Auckland three times a week, with connections from Wellington and Christchurch. Air Tahiti flies daily from Papeete to Raiatea.

House of Travel has packages to Raiatea from $2479 a person share twin (valid for travel July 1-October 31) and from $2445 a person share twin (valid for travel November 1-December 15), plus taxes and surcharges of $116 a person. The package includes return economy-class airfares flying Air Tahiti Nui from Auckland to Papeete, two nights' accommodation in Papeete at Intercontinental Resort Tahiti, five nights' accommodation at Hotel Raiatea Hawaiki Nui, return Air Tahiti flights to Raiatea from Papeete and all transfers in Tahiti. A compulsory city tax of French Franc 150 ($40) a person a day is paid when you check out of your accommodation.

House of Travel recommend you buy the meal plan for $129 a day a person including breakfast and dinner at the Raiatea Hawaiki Nui Hotel, which offers great value for money.

Because of the international flight schedule you will need to spend some time in Papeete. An easy way to explore the city is with the Le Truck service. The colourful and busy marketplace Le Marche is open daily and has a wide variety of fresh products, traditional art and handicrafts. The popular Les Roulettes (or mobile diners) on the waterfront are inexpensive and do well-priced meals. Accommodation prices in Papeete start from $104 a person.

Further information
House of Travel 0800 838 747 or (see link below).

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