The society islands, the polynesian postcard
This island chain was given its name by Captain Cook, as a tribute to the Royal Society of London who sponsored his first voyage there in 1769. It is both the demographic and economic heart, being home to 87% of the population (243,290 inhabitants in 2017) and provides more than 90% of the region’s GDP. The Society Islands are separated into two groups: the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands.
The Windward Islands
The group consists of four high islands: Tahiti, Moorea, Mehetia, Maiao and one atoll, Tetiaroa. All are inhabited (except Mehetia, where access is restricted) and their combined population of 207,330 people (primarily on Tahiti and Moorea) represents ¾ of the total population of French Polynesia. The capital (Papeete) is found on the island of Tahiti (which of itself makes up a quarter of French Polynesia’s land surface), as well as Faa’a International Airport, the regional port, and numerous administrative services, the university, the hospital, museums, industrial zones and most businesses … It is also the arrival point for international tourists visiting The Islands of Tahiti. Moorea, the nearby sister island, is a well-known tourist destination.
The Leeward Islands
These 9 islands (with around 35,000 inhabitants) in the western part of the Society Islands include: Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora, as well as Tupai and Maupiti; as well as three atolls: Mopelia, Scilly and Bellinghausen. The Leeward Islands get their name from their position relative to the trade winds. They have a total surface area of 430 km² (166 mi²). Geologically older than the Windward Islands, they are each surrounded by huge reefs, which gradually transformed in to atolls, over several million years. The motu (islets) that perch atop the reefs and the colours of the lagoons are the main tourist attractions. Bora Bora has its reputation as the “Pearl of the Pacific”, and the Taputapuatea marae, a sacred site on Raiatea, has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
Bora Bora, Moorea, Tahaa, Maupiti, Raiatea, Huahine : names that make you dream, islands that are a must for all lovers of turquoise lagoons.
Less visited than its glitzy neighbour Bora Bora, this lush tropical Garden of Eden and its people have maintained the warmth and simplicity for which Polynesians are known, and remain largely unchanged by the modern world. Huahine is actually two islands, connected by a small bridge. In the north, Huahine Nui, or big Huahine, is where the main village of Fare is located. Alongside several marae (meeting places), there is a small museum exhibiting objects and remnants from digs, and stone fish traps (an ancestral method referred to as “lazy fishing”), and is where the sacred blue-eyed eels can be found. At the southern tip of the island, Huahine Iti, or small Huahine, though a little more rugged, offers a picture postcard images of gorgeous white sand beaches and a lagoon in varying shades of blues and greens.
Moorea, or the “Yellow Lizard” in Tahitian, is a perennial favourite for many who visit the region and offers the best of both worlds with a range of land and water activities. Choose from water sports taking place at the two, nearly symmetrical, bays of Cook’s and Opunohu Bay, or take to the hills where the large mountain ridge offers equally impressive views for hikers reaching the lookout point on Mount Rotui.
Originally called Havai’i Nui, Ra’iatea is considered to be the cradle of the ancestors and the ma’ohi civilization, which is claimed by all the Polynesians of the triangle (Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Easter Island). The expansion of Polynesians throughout the Pacific began from this exact site on Raiatea. After offering blessings through sacred ceremonies and celebrations, outriggers with the original pioneers ventured north to Hawaii and west to New Zealand.
As the first Polynesian island to be populated, Raiatea maintains the most spectacular and first international marae of the Polynesian triangle, called Taputapuatea and is where inauguration ceremonies, political alliances and international meetings would have taken place in ancient times. The sacred site was the headquarters of religious and political powers of the Polynesian region. Today the communities of Hawaii, New Zealand and the Cook Islands still meet at this pilgrimage venue, which they consider as the home of their sacred culture.
Raiatea is an incredible natural source of interest for scientists and nature lovers due to its rare flora and fauna. Mount Temehani shelters the tiare ‘apetahi (and about 30 other endemic plants), a flower found nowhere else in the world. It has become the symbol for Raiatea with a half-circle of white petals, this delicate flower only blooms at dawn.
You may go a hundred times; but you will always feel the same emotion, a repeated sense of wonder, of renewal: Bora Bora, the pearl of the Pacific, “first born” en reo ma’ohi by the Polynesians from Raromatai who also named it “Mai te Pora”, “created by the gods”.
For most visitors, their first breath-taking view of Bora Bora is seen from the air. So entering through the pass of Teavanui with Aranui is a rare privilege, reserved for cruise ships and sailboats. The emotion visitors feel on that first view of the lagoon and the reassuring gaze of the old sacred mountain, Mount Otemanu, which has been eroded by the years and the rains, will be equally strong as it takes hold within them. Under the shadow of the mountain and in its bays, the small villages of Bora Bora follow the rhythm of this unique lagoon with all the blues and greens from creation are gathered here to mesmorise, delight and entrance each visitor.
Raiatea’s little sister island, and with whom she shares the same lagoon, Taha’a is a jewel of serenity. Also called the “Vanilla Island” for the quantity and quality of its deliciously perfumed plantations, Taha’a looks like a huge colourful garden! It was once called Ūpōrū, a name that is reminiscent of the island of Upolu in Samoa, and from where some of the great migrations began. The history of Taha’a is inseparable from that of Hiro, the legendary hero of many exploits: you will see his traces around the island on the picturesque and mysterious sites.
Just under 5,000 people live on this island that has maintaned the traditional rhythm of Polynesia from yesteryear with the cultivation of vanilla, pearl farming, copra production and fishing, alongside tourism, now forming the balance of life in Taha’a.
Nicknamed “the small Bora Bora”, Maupiti is a small, secluded island (7 mi²/11 km²), with endless white sandy beaches, both on the island and the outlying motu,which are complemented by the magnificent rocky peaks of its highest mountain, Mount Te’urafa’atiu (1,250 ft. / 381 m.). Here visitors will find ancient marae meeting places and a warm welcome from the friendly and smiling style of the islanders.
Some 1,200 people now reside in this peaceful community, living mainly on the cultivation of traditional Noni fruit and watermelons, as well as copra, fishing and a little tourism. Far from the main tourist trail, Maupiti charms its visitors with the splendor of its tranquil atmosphere and the spontaneity of the warm hearted islanders.