The Gambier Archipelago in French Polynesia, very few people have heard of it. The majority of people visiting French Polynesia focus on the islands of Moorea, Bora Bora, and, in general, the Leeward Islands archipelago. The other archipelagos are generally (and wrongly in my opinion) left behind, often due to lack of time, budget, or simply desire. However, traveling to the Gambier Islands is part of my Polynesian favorite. If I had to answer the question of which islands to choose for my itinerary in French Polynesia, the island of Mangareva, the main island of the archipelago, would be my number 1 choice!
A quick presentation. The Gambier archipelago, located more than 1600 km from the island of Tahiti, is part of the 5 Polynesian archipelagos. It is essentially composed of the island of Mangareva which is home to the capital, Rikitea, the main gateway to the archipelago. Other more or less uninhabited atolls are also attached to the archipelago. The latter was the birthplace of the arrival of Christianity in French Polynesia.
Traveling to the Gambier Islands was one of my desires, as well as visiting the Marquesas Islands. The opportunity came up thanks to the Air Tahiti 5 archipelagoes Pass (one of the tips for traveling cheap in French Polynesia). So here I am with my little family, ready to discover this archipelago at the end of the world.
It may sound silly to say, but arriving by plane over the Gambier archipelago, after more than 4 hours by plane, is one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen from a plane. Mid-route, we made a brief stop on the atoll of Tureia. Admire the view upon arrival.
The arrival above the island of Mangareva is magical, a maze of blue and a lagoon filled with coral potatoes, leaves the visitor dreaming on arrival. The scenery is set, it will be a good stay!
Once you have arrived and your luggage has been put down, I suggest you to take a tour of the island of Mangareva. It is relatively small and a very large part of the island can be done on foot. There is a transversal road, through the tropical vegetation of the island, between the village of Rikitea and the other side of the island, from which you can enjoy splendid views of the lagoon and its turquoise water.
You should take a day to visit this small island and explore paths that lead nowhere. You will have the opportunity to discover a superb waterfront with such beautiful colors.
If necessary, you can ask the guesthouse where you’re staying for some bicycles, even try hitchhiking, if you’re tired of walking.
The highest peak on the island (441 m), Mount Duff, given by the explorer James Wilson in 1797 in reference to the name of his ship “the Duff“, is a relatively easy hike, depending on your level of experience. Ask your guesthouse to be dropped off at the start of the hike, located in a bend of the road leading to the other side of the island.
The hike starts in a forest of pines and lemon trees, which is a bit different from French Polynesia (it is cooler here). The path continues in the forest to end on the summit after about 1h30 of walking. For those asking, it is possible to do it with a baby and a baby carrier (I did it).
The view from the top is splendid and allows you to see the village of Rikitea, the turquoise blue of the lagoon and the other side of the island. A hike that is really worth it. Note for the enthusiasts that a second hike is possible on the mount … you will find the junction of this hike on the same path as the one of Mount Duff after 30′ of road. In short, a small mountainous area that is worth spending the day in my opinion.
If there is one thing to do if you travel to the Gambier Islands, it is a boat trip on the lagoon to discover the beautiful coves / deserted beaches of the island and the islets of the lagoon. Ask wherever you’re staying to see if they offer an outing. The superb guesthouse where we were at was able to arrange the excursion, which was really superb. I recommend it 100%. The day allows you to discover the lagoon and in particular the main islands, such as Akamaru, Aukena, Taravai, Kouaku. Hopping from island to island is really magical.
A memorable memory remains the visit to the islet of Mekiro which, after a 30-minute walk to the rocky summit, offers a breathtaking view. I could have cried the view was so beautiful from above.
We then had lunch on the island of Kaouku, a superb sandbank located on the coral reef. Judge for yourself.
The visit of the islets is also punctuated by stops at ancient ruins from back in the time (I speak about this in the paragraph below).
Whether on the main island or on the islets of the lagoon, there are many vestiges from the time of the first Catholic missionaries. For a short history lesson of the archipelago, it was in 1826 that the first Europeans set foot on the archipelago (Frederick William Beechey). The first Catholic mission was created, and the first buildings were built by Fathers Laval and Caret in 1834.
On the islets of the lagoon, you will have the opportunity to visit the old churches built with lime at the time of the missionaries, around 1835 to 1840. You will also discover the remains of the first schools in French Polynesia, the lime mills that helped in the construction of the buildings at the time or the bread ovens.
Before visiting the Gambiers, it is worth soaking up a bit of local history. The main remnant of the missionary era remains of course the Saint Michael’s Cathedral in Rikitea.
When you have made the effort to travel to the Gambier Islands, a visit to the Saint Michael’s Cathedral is a must. It was built between 1839 and 1841 by the missionaries of the time and recently rebuilt in 2010/2011.
Even if you are not a church and cathedral fan (like me), take a few moments to appreciate the monument. I also had the opportunity to be there on a Sunday and attend church service. Going to church here in the Gambier Islands, in the cradle of Christianity in French Polynesia, doesn’t leave you indifferent.
The Gambier archipelago is also very famous for its quality pearls. A large majority of them are exported to Tahiti and can be found in the capital’s jewelry shops. As you walk around the island, you will easily see the pearl farms, as if posed on the lagoon.
It is therefore quite obvious that a visit to a farm is a must. There are many different sizes of farmhouses. We learned that the guesthouse where we stayed at during the week offers a free visit to their farm. We leave with Michel, the manager of the farm, to visit this little piece of driftwood on the lagoon. The visit allows us to understand all the aspects of the creation of the pearl, from the choice of oysters, to the grafting, to the choice of the graft, to the technique. Everything is explained to us. An excellent moment spent.
And of course, you can’t travel to the Gambier Islands without tasting lychees! Its cool climate allows the cultivation of this delicious fruit. Marie and Michel, our hosts, have many lychee trees in their garden. Every morning and evening, lychees are kindly offered to us and they are frankly the best lychees I have ever tasted. A delight.
The Gambier is obviously also the place to buy quality pearls at a much lower price than in Tahiti. So, try to find out either at your accommodation or from the locals in the village where to buy pearls. Try to favor buying loose pearls that you can choose on site. You can then have them mounted in Tahiti (the shop “Chez JR”, next to the market, is particularly well known).
Finally, depending on where you are, you will have the possibility of kayaking on the lagoon. Once again, the guesthouse where we were staying offered (for free) several kayaks available to go on the lagoon. Take advantage of this to venture into the bays and around the pearl farms of the lagoon.
Finally, you can do some snorkeling at the same time to appreciate the underwater fauna of the island.
- From abroad, you will obviously have to arrive first on the island of Tahiti. I usually have a look on this website to found the cheapest deals.
See if Tahiti isn’t one of this month’s good deals on cheap plane tickets!
- Once in Tahiti, the easiest way will be to fly with Air Tahiti. Count 75 000 fr for a round trip (about 600€).
- For those who wish to visit several archipelagos, the most economical tip (so to speak) is to buy a 5-archipelago Pass with Air Tahiti. Once you have visited the other four archipelagos, Air Tahiti offers you the 5th. However, you will have to pay airport taxes. This is the solution we chose to visit this archipelago at the end of the world.
Please note however that “séjours dans les îles” offers a package (flight + accommodation) which reduces the cost of the week if you don’t have access to the 5-archipelago Pass (You must be on site to take advantage of these offers, as they are reserved for local)
You will not have 35 solutions for accommodation here. There are a few guesthouses on the main island, including the one we stayed at that I recommend eyes closed.
Marie and Michel, from Pension Maro’i, where we spent the week, welcomed us with open arms and very warmly. We had a great time in their company in very beautiful and large bungalows overlooking the lagoon. Between Marie and Michel’s meals, the fresh fish every day, the korori carpaccio, the lychees, the stories about local life, everything was perfect for us.
Michel, Marie or their son will always be ready to help you and take you to the village to run errands if needed. Either way, you will always find someone to take you there. You can also walk from the guesthouse to the village as well and generally from one side of the island to the other. Hitchhiking also works very well on the island with no worries. No need to rent a car on such a small island (I don’t think it’s possible anyway). The island has the advantage for me, like the island of Maupiti, of being on a human scale, where everything is done very quickly on foot, adding a certain charm to the already paradisiacal setting.
We had opted for half board at Marie and Michel’s which was perfect. If you don’t book half board, you can go to one of the shops in the village to buy food without any worries. You won’t find everything you want (we’re in the remote part of French Polynesia, remember) but the essentials are there. There are also a few small snacks in the village which offer small dishes. For a small sum, and her agreement, Marie will be able to make you meals for lunch or dinner without worries.
So I think you understand that visiting the Gambier Islands has been for me one of the best memories I have had since being here. This archipelago has everything to please, a few hikes, beaches to make the beaches of Moorea and Bora Bora blush, the authenticity of the people still present, no tourists. In short for me, it is the perfect island. I invite you, if you like favorites and splendid islands, to take a trip to Easter Island.
So, are you convinced to come and visit the Gambier Islands?