Known as the “Sacred Island,” Raiatea was the first island to be settled. As it is one of French Polynesia’s lesser-traversed islands, it has preserved its unique history and culture; the residents cater to tourists who want to experience something truly unique. You won’t find giant tour buses filled with 30 people or enormous luxury resorts here; instead, you’ll need to have the desire to explore in order to experience Raiatea’s offerings. There is one main road that partially goes around the island, and those who want to see the interior will need to hike through jungle or take a boat down French Polynesia’s only river, the Faaroa River.
One main reason people visit Raiatea is to explore its unique history, which can be done by visiting Marae Taputapuatea. The archaeological site was already established by 1000 CE, and was the first royal marae — a sacred place where ancient Polynesians believed priests could call on gods to come to Earth to give them strength — in French Polynesia. This particular marae was very important; as a ceremonial hub, offerings were given and priests and navigators from all over French Polynesia came to have deep discussions about the origins of the universe. It’s interesting to note Marae Taputapuatea was dedicated to Oro, the god of war who demanded human sacrifices. Because ancient Polynesians believed there was no greater gift for a god than human flesh, many of these were carried out there. Today, visitors to the open-air temple can view seven marae sites beautifully constructed from coral and stone.
As Raiatea remains largely untouched, it also provides an excellent place to explore nature. A trek to the top of Mount Temehani will allow you to see the wild Tiare Apetahi flower, which looks like a white-gloved hand. The top of this mountain is the only place in the world where this flower can grow. Moreover, their lagoon is home to colourful coral gardens, underwater caves and tropical fish, best explored by snorkelling, diving or kayaking to a nearby motu (a small reef island). In the area’s many passes, one can also go drift diving or scuba dive the Norby shipwreck which sank in 1900.
In terms of accommodation, the Raiatea Lodge Hotel is a three star property — a rare rating in French Polynesia — that helps guests get to know the area through free activities like kayaking, snorkelling and cycling, tours of the island, decor crafted from local wood and a food and beverage program focused on local ingredients.
Additionally, Raiatea provides a budget-friendly destination for exploring the nearby island of Tahaa, which is accessible by boat in less than 30 minutes (the two islands share a lagoon). Many visitors will spend some time in Raiatea before spending a few days on Tahaa.