10 Days In The Austral Islands

March 20, 2021

Mount Hiro summit Raivavae - Austral Islands - French Polynesia panoramic view

French Polynesia’s “deep south” may be off the overwater bungalow tourist radar, but its pristine natural beauty and friendly locals, who still live life in the slow lane, make it one of the most interesting stops on a South Pacific voyage. In this Austral Islands itinerary, we’ll head to three of the chain’s islands: majestic Rurutu, lush Tubuai, and forgotten Raivavae. 

About This Austral Islands Itinerary 

I finally made it to the Austral Islands on my fifth visit to French Polynesia in September 2020. Though it was tough to piece together a journey across the archipelago, I managed to spend over a week in the Australs, beginning in Rurutu, followed by a visit to Tubuai and Raivavae. This Austral Islands itinerary is based on my experience on the islands and on some of the lessons learned while exploring them. 

Heading off to French Polynesia? In-depth island guides to all 5 archipelagos await you, including sample itineraries and essential travel tips & tricks.

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Further Reading About The Austral Islands

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10 Days In The Austral Island Map

All points of interest mentioned in this Austral Islands itinerary can be found on this map. Simply click on the image to open in Google My Maps. 

Austral islands itinerary french polynesia

Part 1: Four Days In Rurutu 

Our Austral Islands itinerary begins in Rurutu, the most visited island in the chain. Rurutu’s interesting geology has created one of the most diverse islands in French Polynesia, home to a coral reef, high peaks, lush valleys, and hundreds of caves. But with all due respect, what draws visitors to Rurutu are the whales. Rurutu is one of the best places in the world for observing and swimming with humpback whales. 

Monster Cave interior panoramic view - Rurutu - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Day 1: Arrival & Around Moeari Village

Most flights from Tahiti land in Rurutu in the afternoon so you’ll likely have just enough time to settle in and do a bit of sightseeing. The airport is on the north side of the island and your hosts will arrange a pickup.  

I highly recommend staying at Vaitumu Village, a beautiful lodge on the west side of the island not far from the airport. This gorgeous property is perfect for both sunsets and whale watching. Traditionally decorated yet modern bungalows are spread around a lush garden and the friendly staff will take care of all of your needs. Meals are served buffet style and there’s even a cocktail bar! Other options include Le Manotel, Pension Teautamatea, and Heiata Guesthouse

Vaitumu Village - Rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia - pool

locals playing music in Vaitumu Village - Rurutu - Austral islands - French Polynesia

Vaitumu Village - Rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia - garden bungalow

Vaitumu Village - Rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia - bedroom

If there’s enough time before sundown for an excursion, go for it. If not, head to Moerai, Rurutu’s main village. Moerai was the place of residence of the last chief of Rurutu and it has an interesting architecture that’s worth checking out such as the church and a few pastel-colored homes. There’s a small communal market from 8 am to 3 pm (not sure on which days), two snacks (local restaurants), grocery shops, and an ATM. Ask locals for directions and head to the Tropicbird Lookout for some awesome views of the area. If the hike isn’t for you, find a picnic table on Moerai’s waterfront and look for some whales.

snack in rurutu austral islands french polynesia

Pro Tip: if you’re staying at Vaitumu Village, you can walk or cycle to Marae Tararoa and explore the most impressive remains of an ancient ceremonial site found in Rurutu. It lies on the property of Pension Teautamatea so just ask for permission. Naturally, if you’re staying at this pension, it’s a no-brainer to see this site.

Day 2: Swimming With Whales & Island Tour

Every year humpback whales migrate north from Antarctica to give birth and to mate in the warm Polynesian waters. Their journey takes them via the Austral Islands, where they can be observed from late July until the end of October. Rurutu is renowned for the quality of whale-watching because the whales are easily observed close to the coast and due to the island’s clear waters. Swimming with whales is, by far, the top thing to do in the Austral Islands so it’s best to book your excursion well ahead of time. 

Excursions range from 9,000-13,000 XPF and you’ll have the chance to be in the water for a few hours with the whales. I personally went with Raie Manta Club and we ventured into Avera Bay where we found a few pairs of mother and calf. From time to time, a male would emerge to check up on his family. The calf would often breach the surface of the water for that “classic” whale shot. 

swimming with humpback whales - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia 5

swimming with humpback whales - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia - whale breaching 2

swimming with humpback whales - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia 6

humpback whale and calf - Rurutu - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

After a quick lunch back at the lodge or pension, head on a guided half-day island tour to see Rurutu’s main island through the eyes of a local (~4,500 XPF). A half-day tour offers ample time to explore the island on its 30km of road. Highlights include the majestic Ana A’eo, better known as “Mitterrand’s Cave”, Avera Bay Lookout and Avera Village with its craft center and taro fields, and the lovely beaches on the southern end of the island (Toa Tara Tara Beach – also known as “lovers beach” and Naairoa Beach). 

ana aeo - Mitterrand Cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia - interior

avera bay lookout 2 - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

taro fields in - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

Day 3: Monster’s Cave Hike

Besides whales, Rurutu is famous for its caves. Different tectonic movements have uplifted the island’s once submerged coral reef dozens of meters into the air. The huge blocks of fossilized limestone, eroded by rainwater and ocean waves, are now peppered with caves that are richly decorated by impressive stalactites and stalagmites. The most famous cave to visit in Rurutu is Ana Taupe’e, better known as the “Monster’s Cave”. 

The Monster’s Cave is reached via a hike along the “lost trail” and it should be done with a guide (~4,500 XPF). The trail begins at low tide on the beach of Auti Village. The first cave on the trail is Ana Mōuo, with its deep amphitheater-like cavern, stalactites and stalagmites, and generous calcium deposits that have formed shapes and patterns over the ages. 

The lost trail - hiking in rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

entrance to Ana Mouo - hiking in rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

Raised coral cliffs with caves - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

The second cave on the lost trail is the Monster’s Cave. Looking at it from the exterior, it’s easy to understand how this cave got its nickname, resembling the full head of a dinosaur or dragon of some sort. Inside the cave, the “monster’s teeth” are to be carefully negotiated. The Monster’s Cave is often featured in publications promoting tourism in French Polynesia, so this is the “money shot”. 

the monster cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

hiking guide in monstre cave Rurutu - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

monster cave interior Rurutu - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

A third cave is visited on the trail before descending to the coast close to Moeari Village. It makes sense to arrange with your guide to stop in the village for lunch. If you want to continue the adventure, ask your guide to take you to the Secret Cave (an additional ~4,500 XPF). Located close to Avera Bay Lookout, to reach the cave, you’ll need to head underground, carefully making your way down to the bottom of the cave where millennia of rainfall has accumulated in a crystal clear natural pool surrounded by untouched stalactites and stalagmites.  

entering secret cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

peering through secret cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

stalactites in secret cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

closeup of stalactites in secret cave - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

Day 4: Manureva Hike & Beach Time

On your last day in Rurutu, put on your hiking shoes and climb the island’s three highest peaks. You don’t need a guide for this hike but you will need a ride to the trailhead and a map drawn by your hosts to find the right path back to the main road, from where you’ll either hitchhike or walk back. 

The well-marked trail leads to the peaks of Mount Ta’ati’oe, Manureva (the highest peak at a height of 389m), and Te’ape. All three peaks afford panoramic views of the island and especially of picturesque Avera Bay. If you hang around long enough, you should be able to spot some whales breaching the bay’s waters. 

me at the summit of mount manureva - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

taro patches from mount manureva hiking - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

hiking trail in rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

bench on hiking trail - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

Avera Bay from summit of mount manureva hike - rurutu - austral islands - french polynesia

Pro Tip: if horseback riding is your thing, hire a guide to take you to some of these sites on the back of Rurutu’s most cherished mode of transportation. 

Back on level ground, head to one of the island’s swimming beaches. If you’re staying at Vaitumu Village or  Pension Teautamatea, head to the beach just across the road from Marae Tararoa. It’s a safe swimming beach backed by casuarina trees and picnic tables. 

beach and lagoon in Rurutu - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Part 2: Three Days In Tubuai

Tubuai is the largest island in the Austral archipelago and its administrative capital. Tubuai lacks “monumental highlights” but there’s plenty to do if you must stop here en route to Raivavae, which is certainly a possibility considering the domestic flight schedule. 

Panoramic view of Tubuai - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Day 5: Arrival & Island Tour

Use the first day in Tubuai to tour the island with a guide and learn about the interesting history of the island. Your hosts will pick you up from the airport and will, most likely, be able to take you on a half-day guide island tour. 

I recommend staying at the Wipa Lodge, located halfway between the airport and the quay. The newly-built lodge is operated by Wilson Doom and his wife Gisele, but don’t let their last name scare you. Bungalows are very spacious and there’s a pretty beach just across the road with a small shack for viewing the sunsets. Delicious communal meals are served in the main house and Wilson will take care of all your needs while in Tubuai. 

Pension wipa lodge - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Wipa Lodge Tubuai - Austral Islands - French Polynesia - room interior

Sunset - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Another highly recommended pension is Pension Taitaa who can also take you on lagoon tours with their boat. There are a few other options that can be booked online, and Pension Toena as another option. 

The half-day tour is more than enough for seeing Tubuai’s main sites (~3,000 XPF). Your guide may simply circle the island but on our tour, Wilson combined coastal highlights with a few inland. We stopped at the site where Fort George was erected in 1789 by mutineers from the HMS Bounty, visited a few ancient ceremonial sites, and explored Tubuai’s lush interior where much of the produce is exported to the markets in Tahiti

Wilson Doom Wipa Lodge - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Marae Raitoru ancient temple Tubuai - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

agriculture - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Day 6: Mount Taitaa Hike & Beach Time

Hiking to the summit of Mount Taitaa, the highest peak in Tubuai at 422m, is fairly straightforward as the trail is well-marked. Some sections can be a bit challenging but overall this is a moderately easy hike. The views from the summit are unbeatable, with unobstructed panoramas of every corner of the island and its shining lagoon. The summit itself is quite strange, formed by a collection of immense boulders that seem to have piled on top of each other. 

hike to Mount Taitaa - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Mount Taitaa - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

view of tubuai lagoon from Mount Taitaa - - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Back on the coastal road, stop for lunch in one of the village snacks, or buy an ice-cold coconut from a roadside stall. Spend the rest of the afternoon chilling in one of the island’s sandy beaches. The best one is a long strip of golden sand halfway between the Wipa Lodge and the airport. It’s also known as “Bloody Bay”, the site of a massacre that took place when the Bounty mutineers first came in contact with the native population. 

Bloody Bay beach in Tubuai - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Day 7: Picnic Motu

Tubuai’s immense lagoon is much larger than the island itself so you really should check it out. I spent a full day chilling on one of the motu (islets) at the edge of the lagoon. The tour was booked via Pension Taitaa (~6,500 XPF) and it was one of the most enjoyable days I spent in the Australs, just relaxing on a small strip of coral sand. 

lagoon motu - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

pass between two motu - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

view of tubuai from motu - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

picnic motu - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

hoa - false pass - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Our guides Narii and his brother, James, fired up at the grill as we arrived on the motu. Some of us helped make the food, learning the tricks of the trade-in baking coconut bread, picking fresh shells from the lagoon, and preparing the national dish of French Polynesia, poisson cru

picnic motu - cleaning clams - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

picnic motu - coconut bread - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

picnic motu - grilled fish - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

picnic motu - guide - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Before and after lunch, we had some time to explore the small islet and even to walk at low tide to its neighbor. 

tubuai lagoon colors - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

snorkeling in tubuai colorful clam - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

The snorkeling was superb, even if the water was slightly colder than the norm in the Society Islands. Tubuai’s lagoon is famous for its large and colorful shells. There were plenty of them growing on coral heads not far from the beach. To cap things off, Narii and James graciously extended the adventure and took us to Motu One, a small sandbar floating at the edge of the lagoon. 

Motu One from the air - tubuai - austral islands - french polynesia

Part 3: Three Days In Raivavae

Raivavae is an up-and-coming destination in French Polynesia though it is still extremely low key and very few tourists make it here. It’s located in the southern end of the Austral Islands, beyond which is only lonely Rapa Island. Those who know say that Raivavae feels the way Bora Bora was a few decades ago. The airport was dug out of the lagoon in 2002 but the pace of life still hasn’t picked up. The island is slowly getting used to welcoming outsiders and still retains its traditional charm.

Raivavae - Austral Islands - French Polynesia panoramic view

Day 8: Arrival & Island Tour

Much like in Tubuai, the first day in Raivavae will be used for settling in and touring the island with your host. I stayed with Clarisse Paulin at Pension Vaimano, not too far from Vaiuru Village. Her pension has four bungalows perched on a hillside facing Motu Piscine. Clarisse is not only a very gracious host who bakes delicious coconut bread in the morning, but also well-known across the Austral Islands for her tifaifai

Clarisse - Pension Vaimano - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

Pension Vaimano - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia - view from bungalow

Interior of bungalow - pension vaimano Raivavae - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Other recommended options in Raivavae are Raivavae Tama Resort, Pension Ataha, and Pension Chez Linda. You’ll also find a few low-key options on Airbnb and a few other pensions that are more of a homestay type of accommodation. 

On the island tour (3,500 XPF), Clarisse didn’t spare any effort and showed me all of Raivavae’s major highlights, along the coast and in the lush interior of the island. We stopped at several marae, in which Clarisse was very knowledgeable about the ancient tradition and the specific use of each ceremonial site. In Antonu Village we stopped to see the whitewashed Protestant church and the workshop where traditional wooden canoes are still made. Completing the rounding of the island, we stopped at beautiful Plage Ruatara and the famous smiling tiki

pig crossing road - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

smiling tiki - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

village and church - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

Ancient temple marae in Raivavae - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

house near lagoon - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

aerial view - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

Day 9: Mount Hiro Hike & Beach Time

At an elevation of 437m, Mount Hiro is the highest peak in Raivavae, and hiking to its summit is one of the best hikes in French Polynesia. The hike begins with a challenging ascent up to the ridgeline but from here until the summit, it’s nothing but one endless treat for the eyes. Up here, you’ll enjoy a bird’s eye view of Motu Piscine, the coastline, and the “S” shaped ridge that slices through the middle of the island. Prepare to spend a few blissful hours up here. 

view of motu piscine from mount hiro - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

ridge on mount hiro hike - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

lagoon view from mount hiro hike - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

view from summit of mount hiro hike - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

In the afternoon, head to relax on one of the main island’s beaches. The easiest to reach would be Plage Ruatara, which was visited as part of the island tour, but for a bit of adventure, head to Motu Hotuatua. This high islet rises close to the shore of the main island. It might remind you of a small Thai island. There’s a small and dreamy sandy beach on this motu. Inquire with your hosts about permission to kayak there. 

Plage Ruatara beach in Raivavae - Austral Islands - French Polynesia

Day 10: Motu Piscine

When picturing a South Pacific beach, you’re likely seeing Motu Piscine. Translating to “swimming pool islet”, this jewel has untouched landscapes and more than a mile of beaches lined with vegetation. With its blues of indigo and turquoise, this place is the perfect postcard scene and one of the best beaches in French Polynesia. All pensions can arrange day trips to Motu Piscine that include a picnic lunch. If you really want to “go Robinson Crusoe”, you can even spend the night here. 

motu piscine - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

aerial view of motu piscine - raivavae - austral islands - french polynesia

What’s Next? 

This 10 days in the Austral Islands itinerary should give you a pretty good taste of what this archipelago has to offer. Check out the following guides for more information about the Austral Islands and French Polynesia.

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