Off the package holiday tourist map, Raiatea and Tahaa offer visitors a look back at traditional Polynesian life and memorable opportunities to connect with nature. Tahaa is known as ‘the vanilla island’ – where some of the world’s finest is grown. Raiatea is the ‘sacred island’ – home to the most important temple in ancient Polynesian times. I spent a week exploring these sister island which share the same magnificent lagoon, as part of a six month voyage across the islands of the South Pacific. Here’s a sample 5 days in Raiatea and Tahaa itinerary which you can use to plan your own trip to this off the beaten track destination.
Traveling to other islands in French Polynesia? Here are the best ones!
5 Days In Raiatea and Tahaa Itinerary Map
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Day 1: Mount Tapioi, Uturoa & Island Road Trip
The first day in Raiatea will also be the busiest one, so get going early. Pick up a rental car the day before (upon arrival) or arrange for an early pickup. Moana Rent A Car has excellent rates and they’ll pick you up if you’re staying close to town (see the Raiatea Travel Guide for more info on getting around the island).
Hiking Mount Tapioi
At 294 meters, Mount Tapioi proudly overlooks Uturoa and the gorgeous lagoon. It’s pretty much the only hike in Raiatea you can do without a guide. If you enjoy panoramic views, don’t miss this hike but do start the one hour climb in the morning to increase your chance of cloud-free skies at the summit.
From the summit, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of Tahaa Island and the shared lagoon, Uturoa, and even Bora Bora on a clear day. Plan on staying here for 30 minutes to enjoy the views, about the same time it will take you to get back to the car.
Note that climbing Mount Tapioi should be done only on weekdays as locals may close access on weekends. UPDATE: since the trail is on private property, closures might take place. It’s best to inquire with your local hosts before making special arrangements for this worthwhile DIY hike.
Checking Out Uturoa
With the morning exercise complete, head back to Uturoa and explore French Polynesia’s second largest town after Papeete in Tahiti. Squeezed between Mount Tapioi and the lagoon, Uturoa is quite charming – not to mention useful. This is a good time to buy some food for the day in one of the supermarkets, a packed lunch from one of the snacks in the center of town and of course fresh fruits & vegetables from the market. It’s also not a bad idea to treat yourself to an ice-cold fresh coconut!
Road Trip Around Raiatea
This will be the longest part of the day so aim to head out of town before noon. The sealed road around Raiatea runs for about 100 km’s and you’ll be making quite a few short but frequent sightseeing stops along the way – driving in a clockwise direction from Uturoa. For a complete list of places worthy of a stop, have a look inside the Raiatea Travel Guide. Here are a few highlights nonetheless.
Belvedere Lookout Point
Take the mountain road connecting Faaroa and the south coast, stopping at the top to catch the views. Some refer to this spot as ‘the belvedere’, though it’s not officially marked. If you feel you’re starting to head back down, you’ve missed it. Locals use this road as a shortcut, but you’ll just turn back around to Faaroa after satisfying your craving for a vista.
This ancient temple and newly named UNESCO World Heritage Site is the prime reason why Raiatea is known as ‘the sacred island’. In ancient times, kings, priests, and dignitaries from all across the immense Polynesian Triangle would gather at this spot for religious ceremonies and key decision making. These days, there are three complexes you can walk around and there’s no doubt you’ll be feeling the mana (ancient spiritual energy). The main island’s only sandy beach is right next door. Though artificially made, it’s nonetheless a good spot for a quick break before getting back on the road.
The southern coast of Raiatea is its most beautiful and isolated. Far away from Uturoa and with locals using the mountain shortcut, you might find yourself all alone out here though I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that. The lagoon colors are spectacular out here, followed by bay after bay of nothing but lush hills and small private islets (motus) loaded with wild palm trees.
Day 2: Hiking The Temehani Plateau
Raiatea is home to the tiare apetahi, one of the rarest flowers in the entire world. The flower only grows in Raiatea and only in the Temehani Plateau. To find it, you’ll need to hire a guide for the 6-7 hour hike (more details in the Raiatea Travel Guide).
The hike starts with a climb up to a pine forest before emerging out on the plateau. It feels like you’ve been teleported away from the tropics to somewhere in northern Europe. Not much grows up here but there are plenty of surprises. Our guide took us to see a lava tube deep inside the clouds. It is thought that this tunnel runs beneath the lagoon, emerging in neighboring Tahaa. It’s not exactly a farfetched idea as Tahaa and Raiatea are believed to have been formed from a single island.
You’ll then be hiking on the top of the plateau at about 650 meters, trying to spot the rare flower. During the hunt, don’t forget to look up and enjoy the 360-degree views. On a very clear day, you can even spot the beautiful island of Maupiti, some 70 km’s away.
If luck is on your side (and if you’re with a guide it probably will), you’ll stumble upon an ordinary-looking bush, except this bush is nothing but ordinary. Growing like the shape of a hand, the tiare apetahi is part of the gardenia family, though unlike its bigger and more common cousins it has no scent.
Legend has it that the rare flower’s handshape is not nature’s coincidence. A long long time ago, a local woman named Apetahi climbed to this very same plateau – killing herself and planting her hand in the ground in vain hopes of seeing long lost lover…
At this point, consider yourself part of an elite group that has seen this rare flower. It is time to start sliding your way back down to civilization.
The hike will take about 6-7 hours and your guide will bring a light lunch with him (full logistics in the Raiatea Travel Guide). After spotting one the rarest flowers in the world, take the rest of the day off and grab a cold beer in town or back at your pension. For dinner, head back to Uturoa and dine with the locals at one of the roulottes in front of the ferry quay. The legendary French Polynesian food trucks are fantastic for grabbing cheap meals of Tahitian fish dishes and Chinese chow mein.
Day 3: Three Waterfalls Hike & Boat To Tahaa
If you haven’t figured it out yet, Raiatea is a nature lover’s paradise. Pack your bags and book a hike with a certified guide before leaving for neighboring Tahaa Island later today.
We’ll start the day hiking deep into the thick rainforest on the hunt for three waterfalls (known locally as les trois cascades).
The highlight is no doubt the impressive third waterfall, but on the way, you’ll cross fresh rivers and learn about the unique rainforest from your guide. Especially impressive are the mape trees (Tahitian chestnut), with roots strangely swirling their way in the general direction of the water. Equally impressive is the Tahitian ginger flower. When squeezed, it gives off a scented oily liquid that’s been used in ancient times as soap.
The third waterfall is reached by ascending a rope and ducking your way through a bamboo forest. The 40-meter high waterfall is made of two cascading waterfalls, and you’ll love taking a refreshing swim in the fresh pool.
The hike takes about 3-4 hours so you should be done before 1 pm. The Raiatea Island Guide has full logistics. After a shower and some lunch, head to the ferry quay in Uturoa and catch the boat to Tahaa!
You can theoretically explore Tahaa from Raiatea but to get the real feel of this off the beaten track island, I highly recommend sleeping there for a couple of nights. You can stay in one of the simple family pensions on Tahaa or better yet, take advantage of its pristine lagoon motu and book yourself a luxury stay at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa – one of the best in resorts in French Polynesia. Families and couples are both welcomed here and you can read a full review of the resort right here.
Whether on the main island or out on the motus, there’s not much to do in Tahaa when night falls except counting the stars with a cold beer or cocktail in your hand – one of my favorite activities in French Polynesia!
Day 4: Tahaa Island Tour
On this day, you’ll explore the ‘vanilla island’! Tahaa is as laid back as it gets in the Society Islands, without too many locals living out here let alone visiting tourists. Book an island tour with one of the local companies or check out the Tahaa Island Guide for an awesome guy who took me around the island.
On the coastal road, be on the lookout for Bora Bora – so close yet feeling like a world away. Also try spotting the wild hibiscus that grows in abundance on Tahaa. Did you know that the flower changes colors throughout the day?
Tahaa is quite an oddly shaped island, carved by deep bays hiding small communities. The most impressive of those bays is Faaaha Bay and there’s a lovely lookout spot just off the road leading up the mountain and down to Haamene – another pretty bay.
Along Haamene Bay you’ll stop in one of the black pearl farms for a quick lesson on how oysters are manipulated to grow these beautiful ‘gems’. Black pearl farming is a very scientific business and I found it quite interesting to understand how it all works.
Your visit to Tahaa is not complete without a visit to a vanilla farm. This cash crop is a major source of income for local residents and Tahaa vanilla is considered to be the finest in the world.
Surprisingly, it takes nine months to get from flower to bean with a lot of work in between. The insects that would normally take care of the pollination are not present in French Polynesia, so farmers need to do nature’s work delicately… and manually. This will also be a good chance to take some dried vanilla back home with you. Expect to pay $15-25 for a small tube containing 5 sticks. Anyone who likes to bake will truly appreciate getting some Tahaa vanilla!
If you’re staying on the main island of Tahaa, grab dinner at your pension. If at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa, treat yourself to a romantic dinner under the stars!
Day 5: Fun In The Sun On The Lagoon Motu
Before heading back to Raiatea to catch the flight later today or better yet tomorrow, you’ll spend the day going Robinson Crusoe on one of the motu that surround the lagoon around Tahaa. They’re some of the prettiest and least visited in the Society Islands and to see them you’ll either need to join a lagoon tour (from Raiatea or Tahaa) or simply roll out of bed if you’re already staying at Le Tahaa Island Resort & Spa. If you’ve chosen the former, your lagoon tour should include a picnic lunch on a motu.
The prettiest motu is Tautau, with the whitest of sand and the bluest of water. It’s home to the ‘coral garden’, a stretch of the lagoon between Tautau and its neighbor. Say hello to Nemo and cruise around the pristine coral – one of the best snorkeling spots in the entire archipelago.
Lots More Information Awaits You
This sample 5 days in Raiatea and Tahaa itinerary should give you a very satisfying taste of the two islands (and a pretty active vacation).
Interested to learn more? Have a look at the complete & detailed Tahaa Guide and Raiatea Travel Guide, filled with useful information, travel tips and all the top things to do in Raiatea and Tahaa!