Raiatea, Society Islands, French Polynesia

The second-largest of the Society Islands is practically twinned with its neighbor Taha’a. Actually they are connected by a reef in the same lagoon and may have been one island in the past. The main town, Uturoa is where most of the population lives. It’s lively, although no competition for Tahiti. Called the Sacred Island, Raiatea’s name means “bright sky,” and it was probably the first human community in the islands. The ancient sacred site of Taputapuatea is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and may have been the place from which Polynesian migrations to Hawaii, the Cook Islands, New Zealand and the rest of the South Pacific started. Although less touristed than Tahiti, caring for visitors has grown in importance. Agriculture is mainly given over to coconuts, pineapples and vanilla. Vanilla orchids are hand-pollinated, since Raiatea has no insect pollinators for vanilla blossoms. South Seas pearls are farmed in the lagoon in various colors. A hike up Mt. Tapioi rewards with stunning views of the lagoon and sea, and tall Bora Bora on the far horizon. Another favorite hike leads to the island’s three waterfalls. The tallest peak, Mt. Temehani, is the place to look for the unique, five-petaled Tiare Apetahi flowers that grow nowhere else. The lagoon is dotted with tiny motus, which are mostly coral sand beach, and are popular for castaway swimming and snorkeling adventures.