Sad to say goodbye to Moorea Island after a memorable month, it was time to embark on the final leg of my journey across the South Pacific Islands and the most exciting one. They say you should always save the best for last so… here goes. Over the next seven weeks, I’ll do a bit of island hopping in French Polynesia, exploring 9 islands on 3 different archipelagos. This has always been my dream and I am sure I share this dream with many others. The first stop after Moorea was a week in Maupiti Island. In this update from the South Pacific, we’ll check out the island where time really does move at a slower pace, and where sunglasses are definitely a must. Ready?
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What’s the relation between Air Tahiti & Ryanair?
I woke up bright and early at the crack of dawn, to say goodbye to Yann and to ensure I catch the 8:25 ferry to Tahiti for the flight. This would be my first inter-island flight in French Polynesia and boy, do you get your money’s worth. The 50-minute flight from Tahiti to Maupiti is more like a ‘scenic flight’. In fact, all inter-island flights in French Polynesia reward those who grab a window seat in the right side of the plane. With no assigned seats, it’s the reason why pre-boarding looks like a Ryanair flight. Anyone who has taken at least one flight in French Polynesia knows the trick, and queuing starts early. ‘Heads’ we take the left side of the plane, ‘tails’ the right side…
Just to make me feel even sadder to leave Moorea, the Air Tahiti captain swung the plane over the island, offering amazing views of the heart-shaped gem. I’m pretty sure I could spot Yann having his morning fruit juice and even Harley going for a morning poo.
The plane then flew over Raiatea, Bora Bora and Huahine – giving a sneak peek of what’s to come over the next few weeks.
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Maupiti, you are so damn pretty!
As the plane started to descend, the brightest of blue came into view. Layers of turquoise and mysterious spots in the lagoon water, with a towering mountain rising out of the middle – wow! But wait, there’s something wrong. The plane appeared to swing away from the island, descending towards one of the small islets (motus) on the fringes of the lagoon. It turns out that the WWII runway is built on one of these motus, setting the scene for a spectacular arrival. There’s nothing like Maupiti to help you get over Moorea!
The beauty of Maupiti hits you right as you exit the plane into the sleepy airport. You better have your sunglasses on because such bright water challenges your eyes. Kind of reminded me of stepping onto the beach in Zanzibar for the first time. I’m just at the airport and already loving this place!
Maupiti lies at the very edge of the Society Islands archipelago. Its main island rises out of the waters of the warm lagoon and is only about 9km in circumference, making it such an easy island to explore by foot. Guarding the lagoon, are a handful of small motus, where a few lucky islanders reside and where the bulk of the Maupiti’s fruit is grown – mostly grapefruit and coconut for export back to Tahiti. It’s really a postcard of an island as you can see but wait, there’s more.
Though a stone’s throw away from Bora Bora by nautical standards, the 1,500 or so residents of Maupiti have decided that their little island paradise will not turn into another Bora Bora. There are no resorts to be found, just a single road around the island and hardly any cars. Heck – there isn’t even an ATM! You come to Maupiti not only for the beautiful sights but also for the relaxed vibe. Everyone is so friendly over here, always saying hi as you pass each other (why can’t we do this back home folks?).
And the smell… man, this island smells so good! Fruit seems to be growing out of every corner and the trees can hardly bear the heavy load: grapefruit, passionfruit, mango, breadfruit, noni and more. And in the flower department, there’s definitely no need for a florist around here. Heavenly scented tiare (gardenia), hibiscus and tons of other flowers that I have no idea what they’re called.
The island provides almost everything needed to survive. Aside from tons of fruit, fishing is a way of life in Maupiti. Tuna and Mahimahi are some of what you’ll find on the local menu every night. Maupiti really reminds me of Ofu Island, back in American Samoa. I never really thought anything will ever come close to Ofu, but Maupiti is certainly up there.
Maupiti Islanders are very simple folks, and in traditional Polynesian style, they are very family oriented. In fact, they are so family oriented, that loved ones are buried in front of the house, usually shaded by the breadfruit trees. Family members like to hang around the grave at sunset, chatting away and always remembering.
The French Polynesian pension
And now back to our story. The boat ride from the ‘airport’ to town didn’t help in getting the heartbeats of the few tourists back to normal. As you near the island, the village of Vaiea comes into view – a picturesque South Pacific village tucked in the footsteps of a massive mountain, with its signature church visible from a distance.
I was greeted by my host Dawn with a tiare necklace in classic Tahitian style and driven to Pension Tautiare Village, run by Dawn, her super handy husband and the future Mr. Tahiti, little three-year-old Natuanui (meaning ‘big ocean’ in Tahitian).
Staying at a good pension makes all the difference when traveling in French Polynesia, and I really hit the jackpot with this one. One of the longest pontoons in French Polynesia (131 meters according to Dawn) brings you right into the middle of the lagoon and the food… wow, the food. Dawn whips up delicious dinners with classic Tahitian fish dishes always on the menu. My favorite is the poisson cru, raw chunks of fish in coconut milk – but anything that Dawn makes has room in my stomach!
In search of the best view in Maupiti
The next morning was a gorgeous day, with hardly any clouds in the sky. I headed out to climb Mount Teurafaatiu, the one that shades the village at 380 meters tall (good luck pronouncing that). En route, I saw locals starting out their day and stopped at the local market before it closes to stock up on some supply for the hike. Business hours in Maupiti are worst than banking hours back home so the rule of thumb is – buy early!
Climbing Mount Teurafaatiu is a sweaty affair, but it’s one of the most rewarding hikes you’ll ever do. The views just keep getting better and better as you ascend, with the village just beneath your feet, the beautiful motus with their palm-fringed white sand beaches, and even the airport – which you can now clearly see how there’s no room for pilot error during landing!
The hike saves its best for last and chances are, you’ll have the summit all to yourself. Using a series of ropes, you pull yourself onto the bare rock and voila- take a look at the view! It just doesn’t get better than this. The colors from up here are indescribable, and remind me of the beautiful colors of the Aitutaki Lagoon in the Cook Islands. I’m curious as to what lies inside those odd-looking ‘rings’ inside the lagoon.
I hung around the summit for hours, baking in the warm sun and digesting the fine vista. Here’s what it feels like at the summit.
Back in the village, I headed to check out Maupiti’s famous petroglyphs before returning to the pension. The most impressive, is the image of a turtle carved into the rock. I don’t exactly know how many centuries ago the artist created this, but it sure is impressive.
I made it back to the pension just in time for the sunset off the pontoon. What a way to end a great day in Maupiti!
Walking on water
The next morning was just as glorious as the previous. I was curious to see what lies beneath those patches of blue that I saw from the summit, so I headed out to Motu Auira. This is one of the motus at the edge of the lagoon, and it’s also where the bulk of the island’s grapefruit is cultivated. Apparently, grapefruit ain’t the only crop that’s raised here… if you know what I mean… so I was politely advised to stick to the beach and not venture inland. This would be a day with a lot of walking, on land and on water as you’ll soon see.
To reach the motu, you first need to climb up a steep hill that offers amazing views of the bay where my pension resides. Along with Mount Teurafaatiu, this is my favorite spot in Maupiti – and for good reason. Can you spot the pontoon off the pension?
Motu Auira can be reached by foot, so they say. It’s about 1 kilometer off the main island, and requires walking through knee-deep water. I packed my gear in waterproof bags and made a pit a pit stop at Snack Chez Mimi to grab a packed lunch as there ain’t no shopping mall on the motu. The ladies at the snack (French Polynesian for a local fast food joint) have never met an Israeli before, so it was nice to exchange some thoughts even with my limited French.
With no more time to time to waste, I followed the ladies’ instructions and set off for the motu. This is what Moses and the Israelites must have felt like when crossing the Red Sea, except that instead of Pharaoh and his army chasing me, there were only stingrays and reef sharks that came to say hello once in awhile.
This island is sick!
After about 20 minutes of aqua exercise, I made landfall at the motu. Wow, this place is sick! Super white sand blinds your eyes, with the blue lagoon everywhere and the main island in the background. Wild palm trees are growing everywhere, and every now and again you come across a local residence. Fishing boats rest just a few inches off the water and life seems to move at a much slower pace. This is one of the prettiest islands I have been to!
I found a nice patch of blue to park by and had the egg sandwich that Mimi made for me. It was time to hit the water and see what lies beneath the waves. Visibility was surprisingly not amazing inside the lagoon, but when I did find a patch of coral, it was amazing. The patches that I saw from the mountain were ‘mini pools’. The visible edges were actually coral that grows just like bonsai trees, and inside the small pool were tons of colorful fish.
Back on land, it was time to check out the reef side of the motu. As I walked to the other side, guard dogs were barking from every corner. Scary little bastards. There was one dog however who followed me along, as if guarding me and taking me to his secret spot.
The reef side of the motu is wild. Waves are crashing about 100 meters offshore and the windswept beach is scattered with shells nestled in the white sand. From here, you can spot the silhouette of Bora Bora in the far off distance. See you in just a couple of days. Bora Bora is not the only thing you can spot from here. Once in awhile, a shark’s fin made an appearance above the water, en route to grabbing some lunch.
This snorkeling on the island was simply spectacular. The water was super clear, as it was constantly ‘cleaned’ by the currents, unlike inside the lagoon. As I entered to check out the marine life, Harley II followed along. Avid readers of this blog might recall Harley the wild dog from back in Moorea. This Harley simply did not leave me alone, hopping from one coral slab to another, while showcasing impressive swimming stamina. He must have destroyed a few decades worth of coral growth in the process, but what can I do?
The reef was teaming with life, and it was just Harley II and me. Fish of all colors, big and small, tons of radiating shells everywhere and even one scary looking moray eel that just wouldn’t come out no matter how hard I tried. I really didn’t want to leave and I loved this place so much, that I came back one more time during my week in Maupiti.
That night, the full moon was out in full force. I headed back up to my favorite spot to catch the moon, the stars and sleepy Maupiti as everyone was heading to bed.
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