Raiatea, French Polynesia
Raiatea means "faraway heaven," and that's exactly what you'll find on this lush South Pacific isle surrounded by clear blue-green waters. Less touristed than Bora Bora, French Polynesia's second-largest island is also its spiritual center: It's home to the archipelago's most sacred ceremonial “marae” (temple) and is said to have been the starting point for the great Polynesian migrations to Hawaii and New Zealand. And because it shares a large, protected lagoon with Taha'a, it's also one of the best spots in the island chain for sailing, diving, and deep-sea fishing.
What We Love
Mt. Temehani: The Greeks have Mt. Olympus, and the Tahitians have this 2,532-foot peak, where the rare (only found here), fragrant, five-petal white tiare apetahi flower opens each morning with a crackling noise. Legend has it the sound is the breaking heart of Apetahi, a common woman who was prevented from marrying a Tahitian king.
Taputapuatea: Listed as a national monument and considered the most sacred place in the islands, this oceanfront marae complex can be visited via jeep or outrigger canoe.
Best Known For
Faaroa River: Check out the only navigable river in French Polynesia by kayak, or sightsee in a small motorboat with a guide who will point out colorful hibiscus, wild ginger, and giant ferns.
Hiking and Diving: Ascend the 965-foot Tapioi Hill or sign up for scuba at any of 20 dive sites to explore passes, drop-offs, wrecks, and coral walls.
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Who It's Best For
Lovers of Lore: The ancient Polynesians were a fierce bunch, and Raiatea’s local guides are experts at spinning tales of gods and warriors.
Romance Seekers: Like the rest of French Polynesia, Raiatea, with its otherworldly lagoon and palm-carpeted peaks, seems made for couples.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
The Beaches Are a Boat Ride Away: Most of the inviting sandy stretches around Raiatea are not on the main island but rather on the string of motus that ring its lagoon.
Donna Heiderstadt is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Coastal Living and Islands.