The sleepy town of Uturoa is building a park at the pier, and it was quite a pleasant, active scene. The port was buzzing with small ferries and other boats going and coming. Vendors set up their wares in small huts on the pier, and you can wander around the town and shop for all sorts of handicrafts and souvenirs without having to use a tender to get to shore. Uturoa is an administrative center for the Society Islands, but the rest of Raiatea is lightly populated, with about 10,000 residents in all.
Our first morning in Raiatea we opt for the "Tahaa Discovery - Motu Snorkel and Pearl Farm" excursion. Raiatea doesn't have any natural sandy beaches, but the motus surrounding the island are perfect for sitting on the sand and for swimming and snorkeling. We ride on a small boat across the lagoon to Motu Toahota on the east side of Tahaa. The water in the lagoon is a beautiful blue-green and indescribable.
The motu is a perfect island paradise. Everyone snorkeled near the motu and sat on the beach or under the trees for an hour or so. A cash bar helped to quench our thirst, and we are careful to NOT sit under any of the coconut trees! Some of the group stayed on the motu, but most of us got on the boat for a short ride to the Motu Pearl Farm on Tahaa. The pearl farm is family-owned, and everyone in the family has a job. The patriarch and one of the daughters divided us into two groups to explain in detail how the peals are farmed. It was fascinating, and helped me to understand why the black pearls can be so expensive. After about a 25-minute presentation, we were set free to explore their gift shop or have a drink at the cash bar before boarding the boat and going back to the ship. Many of us (including me) bought pearls from this family, just because they were so gracious and the prices seemed comparable (or better) to what we had seen elsewhere. It just makes a good story, also, to say you bought your pearl at the source!
The first night on Raiatea we were all in for a treat. Some of the children of Raiatea (ages 3-13) came aboard and danced for us in the Cabaret lounge. They were very good, and cute to boot! Even the three-year-old children could do many of the Polynesian dances. At the end of the show, the children sang one Christmas song in Polynesian and one in French. The French song was "Jingle Bells". The idea of these 25 local children--who have probably never even seen a frost--singing a song about "Dashing through the snow, . . ."
The second morning in Raiatea we did a combination 4x4 and canoe excursion. First we rode in a covered outrigger canoe (pirogue) from Uturoa down the east side of the island to Faaroa Bay. We then rode up the bay to the Faaroa River, the only navigable river in French Polynesia. Our guide told us that the river was like the one at Disney World, only without any wild animals! Although there were no monkeys or tigers leaping at us from the jungle, this river does have a special significance for the Polynesians. Oral history of the islands relates that the great migration voyages of the early Polynesians to Hawaii and New Zealand commenced in this river. While riding along the coast, we saw a huge school of porpoises bobbing their way along. There must have been 30 or more! We didn't see any jumping and spinning, but one of the other tour boats did.
After cruising the bay and river, our guide gave us a bathroom break on shore and then we walked the short distance to the most sacred marae in all of French Polynesia--Marae Taputapuatea. This marae was only built in the 17th century, and was dedicated to Oro, the god of war. It is an extensive marae, spreading across Cape Matahira. This marae's central importance is evident in that any marae constructed on Raiatea or any other island had to incorporate one of Taputapuatea's stones as a symbol of allegiance and spiritual lineage. Although well restored and on a clear, landscaped site, you will need a guide such as we had to explain the different parts of the marae and their significance since there are no markers (even in French or Polynesian) explaining the different elements of the marae.
After some time at the marae, we boarded a 4x4 truck for the rest of our excursion. We went up into the mountains for views of the old volcano crater and the sea below. The 4x4 ride was not nearly as bumpy or muddy as the one we had on Bora Bora, nor was the view of the ocean below. Our 4x4 driver did not stop as many times as we did on Tahiti to explain the different plants we were seeing. However, it was a good combination to have both the canoe and truck ride. The truck did have to ford several small streams, and the driver also took us down inside the crater of the old volcano. When we got back on the main highway for the trip back to the R3, the driver drove much faster than we all would have preferred.
The afternoon we sailed from Raiatea, we shared a great experience with a couple of other journalists. We rode on the bridge as the captain took the R3 out of port. The ship had thrusters which move the ship sideways, so the captain was able to easily move away from the dock. The tricky part was running the "slalom course" down and around the markers in the lagoon between Raiatea and Tahaa. The pass through the reef was very narrow, and the captain had to make a couple of sharp turns to negotiate the channel, including a sharp left turn to exit the small gap in the reef. This ship can turn very sharply! The ship sailed between Tahaa and Bora Bora, and I got some pictures of the sunset from my balcony. It was a beautiful sail away from Raiatea!