The island of Raiatea is the last island in the Leeward Islands that I have not written about so far. I had to go back a third time this summer 2019 to finally have enough content to finalize an article. Some content is lacking due to the fact that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to do all the available activities over my last visits, however I believe the essential is present in this article.
I must admit that Raiatea was not one of the islands I held close to heart among the Leeward Islands. I found it too big, too developed and lacking in interest. However, this last visit I made has allowed me to appreciate it a little better and after all, it is still a nice enough place to spend a few days without getting bored. Nevertheless, it remains relatively less visited in comparison to the other Leeward Islands, like Bora Bora, Huahine or Tahaa.
I will present you here the essential things to see and do in Raiatea, and I will do this in the way of a travel journal. As usual, I also provide you with all the necessary information to prepare your trip to the island at the bottom of the article.
The capital of the island of Raiatea, Uturoa, is of somewhat limited interest. It is the main town and where most of the activity is located: bars, restaurants, bakeries, various shops, market, etc. You will probably stop here to stock up on food at the local “Champion”, or have a little drink “in town”. If you are staying in the south of the island then it is still much better to do your food shopping here.
I don’t really recommend spending any time there, but you can go and have a quick look at the few different graffiti in town and on the way out. Every year, the street art festival “Ono’u” takes place on the island of Tahiti and Raiatea. It is an opportunity for all artists to come and express themselves in different spots all over the “city”.
If you look at the “mountain side”, you will see a rock: Mount Taipioï. Rising to 294 m, it is a fairly easy walk on a very well maintained path. The place is private so you have to park your car at the beginning of the path, just before a barrier. The entrance is next to the Police station of Uturoa, you can look on the Wikilocs site for the exact path, but it’s impossible to get lost anyway. It will take 45 minutes to 1 hour depending on your walking pace. From the top, you get a beautiful view of the neighboring island, Tahaa, but also of the island of Bora Bora in the background. I went up there in the late afternoon, but the weather was not ideal for a sunset. In my opinion, for photographers, it is better to avoid the morning because you have the sun in full front… Be careful to check that the path is open (as it seemed to be closed at the end of 2019).
Uturoa is also the departure point for the main activities of the island. If you plan to dive or to go on excursions in the lagoon of Tahaa and Raiatea, departures will often be from here. For those who wish to go up the well-known Faaroa River (further south), you can ask at the marina at Gwen, Raiatea Activities. I had the opportunity to do this excursion which was really amazing and which I would recommend 100% if you are visiting the island. I’ll tell you more about it below.
I then advise you to go along the east coast and then stop at PK 6 (you will notice the markers along the road) where you start the short hike of the 3 waterfalls. The access to the hike is via a dirt road that is easy to drive even with a small rental car. The whole path is shaded and goes through a forest of ferns and maple trees, known as the Tahitian chestnut tree. In fact, you will find maple vendors along the road selling this fruit, cooked and prepared. It’s quite nice to taste. I honestly enjoyed walking through the undergrowth. It’s certainly very humid and hot, but the atmosphere is very calm, restful, and the photographers will appreciate the details of the wild flora. The path allows you to access the series of 3 waterfalls. In some of them, you will even be able to swim! The walk will take around an hour. The trek on wikilocs can be found here.
Continuing on your way, you can now stop at PK14.5 at the Faaroa Botanical Gardens, which has just reopened a short while ago. It’s a nice little walk, accessible to all, open every day (7am-7pm) and free! During my last visit in September 2020, I had the opportunity to stop there for an hour with my family. The walk was very pleasant and finally quite nice to do. You can even eat there, there are picnic tables. The end of the trail ends at the Faaora River which you can paddle up in a kayak. At the end, a very nice view on the river.
If you go down south again, I’m of the opinion that there’s one thing that cannot be missed on the island, the kayak trip down the Faaroa River, which starts at about PK 19. If you are staying far from Uturoa, you can check with Gwen to meet directly at the PK which is the starting point of the excursion. If you are staying not far from Uturoa, a minibus can drive you to the site from the town. The beginning of the excursion starts behind the Faaroa police station, at the end of the bay or almost. After some quick explanations about the excursion’s itinerary, the other tourists and I get onto the two-seater kayaks. I must admit to being carried by the guide to allow myself to enjoy the scene and take lots of pictures. The weather was very good and I really enjoyed myself. We went up the river for about 2km upstream and the atmosphere, which is calm, is just great. Everyone appreciated the guide explaining everything there is to know about the fauna and flora of the river. In my opinion, this is indeed the nicest thing to do in Raiatea!
Thanks to Sophie who lives there, I was informed that two trails were recently opened on the island of Raiatea. The first one, the gabbros walk (“la promenade des gabbros” in french) starts at PK2 of the cross road, in the south of the island. You can discover these geological curiosities from a path on about 150m. I also visited this small, recently opened site in September 2020. It is a very short walk but a must-see if you are on vacation on the island. A small staircase allows access to the site, nothing very complicated, I can assure you. On site, explanations are present to explain these geological formations. You can take advantage of a few viewpoints which offer superb views of the surroundings.
Further on, at the Faaroa Belvedere (still on the cross road in the south), you can follow the famous Macaranga ridge trail (endemic tree of the island of Raiatea and Moorea). I haven’t been there yet, but Sophie recommends 1 hour max, taking your time. It is a small trail with several places with passages secured by ropes, quite steep. It’s quite tricky for small children. I really recommend good shoes and especially avoiding taking the path after heavy rains. It is currently in perfect condition as it is very recent and I hope it will be well maintained. I have to go to Raiatea soon, so I’ll go and take pictures of it!
As you continue the road towards the South of the island, the houses and villages are less and less common. The south of the island is calmer. One day, at the end of the afternoon, I met Alain Abel, the local manager of “Tahiti Vanille“, a vanilla processing company. Alain agreed to show me the places where he’s working at the moment, while waiting for the finishing touches to be done on his future vanilla dryer. Having been present for more than 20 years on the island of Raiatea, he is in charge of buying vanilla from local producers but also from the other islands. I plan to write a complete article on vanilla production and processing with his collaboration the next time I visit Raiatea. To put it simply, vanilla is bought fresh from local producers and then dried several times in the sun, out in the open air according to a specific process. It is then sorted, graded and sold to the finest French restaurants. Alain even received the Gold Medal at the “Concours Général Agricole” in 2019, after the Gold Medal at the 1001 tasting competition.
You can also continue your Raiatea Island tour by visiting the renowned Marae of Taputapuatea, near PK 30. The island is becoming more and more well known for it, with the recent classification of the site in 2018 as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area is considered a cultural site thus attracting curious visitors passionate about old stones, culture and history. The maraes are testimony to pro-European civilization in all its splendor. They represent cultural, social and political sites of the ancient Polynesian society. The site is nice to walk around for 30 minutes, but you should not expect anything extraordinary “visually” speaking though. There are a group of several old structures that can be seen. Please note that the entrance is free. Furthermore, there is a nice little white sand beach with turquoise water right next to the marae, which is very nice for swimming. I note this because there are very few on the island… There is apparently also a new trail that was recently created in 2019, 200m before the marae (mountain side)! (Thanks Fanny).
Once the southern point is crossed, I must say that there are not many things to do and see in the south-west and west. On the other hand, for those who love photography, I really recommend to go up the west coast between 4 and 5 pm to see the beautiful lights on the lagoon and a beautiful sunset on Bora Bora. Apart from that, there’s not much to do on the west coast itself.
For walking enthusiasts, there are two locally known hikes that are very worthwhile: Mount Temehani (821m) and Mount Orotaio (479m). I didn’t have time to do either one, but for those who spend a few days on the island, it’s really something good to do if the weather is nice. It’s really not recommended to go walking just after a rainy day or during one, as it’s too slippery. You can look at the wikilocs site to go and have a more detailed look.
Among other activities to do on the island, many of you will take advantage of being in Raiatea to go for a boat ride around Tahaa’s lagoon. I didn’t do it personally, but I have heard nothing but good things about a day spent on the lagoon. You can also take advantage of being on the island to go on an excursion on the two public motu of the island: the motu Ofetaro also known as the “motu in town” because it is close to Uturoa and the motu Iriru in front of the Faaroa bay, a communal public motu which depends on Taputapuatea where you can camp with the agreement of the town hall. Both motus are accessible with service providers offering transfers throughout the day, usually with a departure at 9am and return at 4pm. Food and drink must be brought. On the motus, there are fare pote’e (in case it rains), tables, benches, showers and toilets! I know that Faaroa Cruise Raiatea offers the excursion to the motu Tefaro for example (1000fr A/R for adults, 500fr for children, free for children under 5 years old). Other pensions such as Manava and Opeha also proposes these rides, even if you don’t sleep at their place! It’s a great way to spend a day at the beach because the island doesn’t have that many, even if recently a beach has been set up in Tevaitoa (West coast) not far from the fire station.
I talk about it in our article about the Raiatea Lodge (see below), but in September 2020, we managed to go to the Motu Iriru with Maxi TAPU Excursion for 1000fr per adult and 500fr per child, roundtrip. It’s really cheap. We were literally dazzled by the beauty of the motu which is really superb. With one side slightly more exposed and the other side calm (lagoon side). The water is translucent and you can frankly spend half a day there (which we did), or even a full day to relax. On site, you have access to barbecue grills, toilets, etc. So it’s great if you have the opportunity to do it.
Another possibility to consider is with Raiatea Activities (the same ones I did the kayak trip with) to do a short paddle session with some sailing and windsurfing on the lagoon. Another possibility, that I have not yet discovered is some diving to discover the underwater world.
Before arriving in Raiatea, you will have no choice but to take a plane ticket to Tahiti. For the cheapest flights to Tahiti, i recommend this great flight comparator that I have been using for at least 10 years now. I have found it very easy to use and have always found great cheap flights.
For Americans, the cheapest solution will be to book a flight from San Francisco to Papeete with French Bee or United Airlines. Other companies also exist such as Air France and Air Tahiti Nui, but they’re usually more expensive. From Canada, the cheapest solution will be to catch a flight from any large city in the country to SFO and then from SFO to Papeete.
As for 95% of the other islands in French Polynesia and for a majority of tourists, you will get to Raiatea by plane. It is the simplest and most timesaving way but not the cheapest of course. The only other possibility is to take the Hawaikinui boat that serves the Leeward Islands on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30 pm from Papeete (check with them anyway). It will cost 2000xpf for the crossing if my numbers are good. You can even take your car from Tahiti for 15000xpf. I’ve wished to take it several times, but believe me when I tell you that it’s far from easy. It is possible “in theory” to reserve seats for this, but you have to be there at 5am for the beginning of the ticket sales… There is also a limited number of places (12 as far as I know), and the only alternative is to show up when the boat leaves and ask if there’s a place left. To sum up, you will be flying with Air Tahiti, because it is (for the moment, as of summer 2019) the only company that serves the Polynesian islands.
Thanks to Julien who gave me the latest news, I update this article in February 2020. So check it out if you had read it much earlier. You may consider taking the Maupiti Express, which is running again between Raiatea Island and Bora Bora. Here are the info’s:
– Connections between the two islands on Monday, Friday and Sunday,
– Departure from Bora Bora at 7am (except Sunday at 2pm) and return from Raiatea at 4pm (Monday and Sunday) – 5pm on Friday.
– One-way fares: 5400xfp (adult) – 2700xpf (child)
– Roundtrip rates: 10800xpf (adule) – 5400xpf (child
– Reservation by phone is mandatory: 40 67 66 69 or 87 740 240
– For information, it’s by email.
Another possibility for those who have the means and wish to consider this type of trip: cruises on the Paul Gauguin or on other large liners are possible to visit this small tropical paradise.
I was about to forget one last possibility that can be considered anyway, which is to go on a catamaran for a week’s cruise to the Leeward Islands. I’ve never done this archipelago by boat but after spending a week on a catamaran in the Tuamotu atolls (Rangiroa – Fakarava – Apataki – Arutua – Toau), I can only advise you to try the experience if you like sailing. If you’re looking for someone serious about sailing from Tahiti, don’t hesitate to contact me, I’ll give you the tips, and I can get you good prices!
The island is clearly too big to consider just walking around. Even on a scooter, I wouldn’t recommend it. Personally, I often book my car rentals through this comparator. Don’t hesitate to take a look. Recently, I discovered that there is also an electric bike rental on the island. It’s indeed a great way to discover the island in a quieter, more ecological way and more at the same rhythm as the island…
Hitchhiking should, as on all the islands, work pretty well for those who want to try. Note that in the south of the island and on the west coast, there aren’t any crowds…
I have often slept with friends or in Airbnbs so I wouldn’t have a guesthouse that I have personally tested to advise. However, I have heard really good things from 3 places on the island several times:
- Opoa Beach Hotel: a very nice establishment, the most recommended on the island very often!
- Raiatea Lodge: I didn’t sleep there either but I did eat there one evening. The place is superb with beautiful decoration. I would come back,
- The Atiapiti hotel: I also stopped there for a drink at the end of an afternoon. The location is also great and it’s perfect to come to refresh after visiting the marae of Taputapuatea (not far). The bungalows at the waterfront looked great anyway and I have only heard good things about the place.
To have a drink at the end of the afternoon with the sunset on Bora Bora, I was suggest to go to the Fish and blue, just after the Raiatea Lodge on the west coast. To have a very nice meal, which I have personally tested, I was told to test out (under Alain’s advice) the Villa Exora (you can also sleep there).
That’s it, this is the end of the post on the island of Raiatea. I hope you enjoyed the discovery! If you already know the Leeward Islands, which islands have you preferred so far? Personally, my favorite is still Maupiti! I’m going to write a comparative summary article about the Leeward Islands seeing as I’ve visited them all now. The idea is to help you decide which islands to prioritize on your visit as you can’t see everything on one trip to French Polynesia!
See you soon,