It is now two months to the day since I came back from the Gambier archipelago. I had to take a step back from this wonderful holiday where we had the chance to bring my parents during their second visit to French Polynesia. I must admit that the year 2020 was complicated for everyone, and it was so good to be able to see our family again, especially in what we consider with Melanie as the most beautiful corner of French Polynesia!
We had already visited the island of Mangareva, the main and almost only inhabited island of the Gambier archipelago, back in 2016, with Louis who was not yet walking. We had been seduced by the beauty, the calm, and the authenticity of the place, in comparison with many other Polynesian islands. So, this time, we decide with great pleasure to book a full week, from Tuesday to Tuesday. There are only two flights per week anyway.
In the link given at the beginning of the article, you will find our first post on the Gambier, but I must admit that I wrote it at the beginning of the blog, and after reading it again, I am not that satisfied with it. Writing a top 10 list of things to do in the Gambier seems a bit stupid to me now. We are not in Ibiza nor in Bali! So, I’ve decided to write again about this beautiful destination which is Gambier.
This trip is a bit special for Melanie knowing that, in 2016, she had lost her grandfather when we were in Gambier. It was obviously a difficult trip, complicated by the facts but also by the impossibility of returning anyway, even to Tahiti. This is also one of the things you have to know when living in French Polynesia. Yes, life is quite pleasant overall, but not always easy, especially when you are far away.
Anyway, this will be the opportunity for Melanie to live a more normal trip, and for me to rediscover this sumptuous archipelago. Louis does not remember, but it is also the occasion for him to come back to see Marie and Michel of the Pension Maroi’i, who cuddled him during our first visit. For Teo, it is not the first time he’s been on a plane, but it is for him the opportunity to discover something else at only 6 months old…
Let’s go back to this archipelago, which is important to me, but this time in the form of a travelogue of the week spent there.
For those wondering, you can only get to Mangareva after a 3h30 to 4h flight from Tahiti. During our first stay, we stopped over on the small atoll of Tureia, a small coral atoll lost in the Pacific. We were not so lucky this time, if I may say so, and we have a direct flight from Tahiti. The sky is a bit overcast at our arrival, but we can already enjoy the beautiful colors of the lagoon through the window, as well as the first landscapes of the island of Mangareva and its famous islets located in its lagoon.
The airport has not changed in the last four years ago, and time seems to have stopped here. Luggage still arrives, like in most islands, by truck, and is dropped off by hand in the terminal. Everyone comes to collect their luggage, no carousel here either. We waited a little while in the local shuttle bus to load everyone, and we finally arrived after about 30 minutes of sailing at the pier in the main village of the island, Rikitea. I forgot to mention that the airport is located on a motu, a large island of white sand, on the outer coral reef of the island. As always in these remote islands, planes arrivals form the pattern of the locals’ life, who come to pick up family, friends, or postal parcels from Tahiti. Michel and Marie are here, and welcome us with a flower necklace, the same way they did four years ago. What a pleasure to see them again here on this small piece of rock! Their good mood and their smile did not change, we are going to spend a great week here, that’s for sure.
I remember the island of Mangareva as if it were yesterday, or almost. As you leave the pier, you have the chance to pass through the small village of Rikitea, which has an old-worldly charm, a kind of isolated village where some 1,500 people live all year round. I feel like nothing has changed, and I must not be far from the truth. We drive on the only road across the island to get to the other side of Rikitea village, right to the Pension Maroi’i. I already talked about it in our first article but I could only recommend this place which, for me, represents everything you can ask for in a French Polynesian guesthouse: calm, smiles, nice owners caring about your stay, a very good cuisine from Marie, spacious and well maintained bungalows, a small garden where children can play, a pontoon on the lagoon, a private white sandy beach, … Anyway, I’ll stop here, but you got it, right? The only problem with recommending this pension is that I may have my wrist slapped because if you come in large numbers thanks to our article, it will require more work from Marie, haha.
We are welcomed at the guesthouse with a good tropical juice (lemon/passion fruit) which sets the tone. My parents are over the moon, and they will clearly enjoy their stay here. Since our visit 4 years ago, the guesthouse has even been improved and we can obviously see that efforts had been made to improve, which I must say is almost never the case here in French Polynesia in guesthouses. Most of the guesthouses rest on their laurels and do nothing, or almost, as long as it does not fall into ruin… To refresh ourselves, we leave with the kayaks graciously provided by the guesthouse to enjoy the lagoon right in front of us. It feels so good to land here, in the middle of nowhere, just contemplating the landscape and the two main mountains of the Mangareva Island in background. I stop offshore with my kayak, look at the landscape, and then… happiness! I hear nothing, not a noise, nothing. There is only to contemplate and to live the present moment. Carpe diem.
We appreciate quite rightly the very good meal of Marie, based on Korori. My parents don’t know, as it’s the muscle of the pearl oyster. I guess you can’t find it in France, being already not easy to find here in Tahiti (even if you can buy it at the market in the morning, and from time to time at Carrefour). But this is the land of pearl farms, and most of the pearls in Tahiti come from the Gambier. It is therefore a common foodstuff here. Anyway, the sun sets early in the islands, around 6:30 pm, we’ve eaten well (as always during our stay) and we went to bed dreaming about the next day…
If the weather was nice, Michel had planned to go out in the Mangareva lagoon, especially to discover the islets scattered around! If you look at the Gambier Islands on a map, you can see Mangareva in the center, but also numerous rocky (in the lagoon) and sandy (on the offshore reef) islets. We are at the stage here of a pre-atoll, where the island of the main volcano of the time is still there (Mangareva) but sinks inexorably to the bottom of the ocean. Since then, coral islets have clung to the reef barrier. However, there are still several rocky and mountainous islands of “quite large” size in the lagoon. These islands are very beautiful vestiges of the time of the Pacific islands’ evangelization. In 1834, Honoré Laval and François Caret decided to build religious buildings on all the islands, including churches (such as the famous Cathedral of Saint-Michel of Rikitea, the first one in French Polynesia), prisons, a middle school, watchtowers, etc.
It is thus with pleasure that we embark for this day of discovery and history on the lagoon of Mangareva. We have already done this trip four years ago, but the idea of being able to rediscover it and going up on the famous islet of Mekiro fills us with joy. The view from this islet is simply magic to my eyes. Well, let’s go! We take off at 9 am with a very good weather. The pension is at the end of a natural channel that we follow to go out towards the open sea. We pass by a set of pearl farms, like they were placed on the lagoon, the “houses on the water” as Louis would say (except that he does refer to the luxury hotels we’ve tested, haha). By turning over to the mountain side, the view on the two summits (Mount Duff and Mokoto) overhanging the guesthouse is already sublime.
We keep going to the very beautiful lagoon, in the early morning, with a pleasant sun. The first stop of the day is on the islet of Aukena. I do not even remember how beautiful was the color of the water when we arrived four years ago. A real natural aquarium right in front of us. We landed on a small beach at the end of the world where a family had come to camp for a few days. They are really well here, in the calm. We go into the natural forest of the islet to discover the remains of the first school of French Polynesia. Even if there are only some walls left, the atmosphere is superb, and these old stones of the time intermingled with the tropical vegetation of the place is really nice to see. While continuing its way, we discover an old lime kiln of the time which, for the blow, is still in “perfect condition”. We continue to discover the vestiges of a bread oven and an oil press. The time stopped here also, in the middle of the forest.
The path goes on in direction of the watchtower built at the time. Along the way, some beautiful white sandy beaches before our eyes! When arriving at the top, at the foot of this small tower, we quickly had a shock. The view on the surroundings, the lagoon, the island of Mangareva and all the other islands of the lagoon, all of this is breathtaking. We stay a bit to contemplate and appreciate the moment. There would be apparently a church on the other side of the islet, but we did not go there for the blow.
We leave the islet of Aukena and continue our road for Akamaru, at the foot of the famous and sublime islet Mikiro. We discover there the very beautiful church “Notre Dame de Paix”, built in the middle of a beautiful well-maintained garden. This building, white and turquoise blue colored, is perfectly integrated in the surroundings. We spend a little time with our group to discover this beautiful small church, the presbytery, and the old school. The place is always so nice here, with the sublime deserted beaches of the edge of this islet. But the highlight of the show will arrive quickly after. We leave Akamaru to cross the turquoise sea leading to the Mikiro islet, this small rocky islet which surely remains the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in French Polynesia. I remember this stroll as if we did it yesterday. We were dropped off on the sandy point of the islet, and then started the little walk along the rocky seashore of this islet with the purpose of climbing to the top.
The ten-minute walk on the seaside already set the sublime frame of the place. The small ascent on the islet is not complicated in itself: it is short (about 10 minutes), but rather steep and slippery. However, the arrival on the bottom of the islet’s crest is splendid. The view is extraordinary, and it will be necessary to keep going on the crest until the top to obtain a 360° view of the top of this islet. Colors are crazy, the lagoon is magical, and the weather is nice, once again. I think pictures speak better than my words, so judge for yourself.
I make the most of the opportunity to fly my drone and make some aerial shots that show the full extent of the place. For the pleasure of your eyes, once again.
I reluctantly left this magical islet and went back down with Louis, so happy to have been able to fly “my little plane”. We took the boat again to go and eat on the small islet of Taravai, another jewel of the Mangareva lagoon. I did not know the part of the islet where we were dropped off. When we arrived, the meal was already installed, in the shade of a small tropical garden. The setting is sublime, as authentic as you could wish, the kind of moment I love. We taste with pleasure the proposed meal. On the menu: fish with all the sauces, obviously, grilled pig, chicken, local bread, etc. It is a real feast waiting for us, and everybody fully appreciates it, without any doubt.
After this very good meal, we continue our way to go and discover the very beautiful church of Saint-Gabriel, completed in 1868 by the Catholic mission led by Honoré Laval. The church is very beautiful to see, and the nice weather always present makes the place even more magical. It is surrounded by a large, well-kept fa’a’apu (garden), composed of grapefruit trees, uru (breadfruit), lemon trees, orange trees, etc. A small taste of paradise emerges. We keep going a little further to go to meet Valerie (and her husband), who live here in total autonomy or almost on this island of the end of the world. A very beautiful encounter, and a great exchange with them. Valerie makes very beautiful paintings, only with sands of the island. I admit that it particularly speaks to me knowing that, in the past, I had collected sand samples from all over the world – but I’ve stopped since. For the curious ones, I used to exchange sand with people from all over the world, and I collected more than 6000 sand samples (no, I swear I’m not crazy, just truly passionate when I’m into something). Still, Valerie’s work is really delicate, applied and she can draw portraits (from photos), landscapes as well as drawings with sand. She often adds Marquisian symbols, for more meaning. If you want to have a souvenir of your time in the Gambier, this is something I really recommend, for yourself or as a gift. You can contact her at this phone number: +689 87710962 or by email: [email protected]
We quietly return to the boat to continue our late afternoon, heading to another golden beach on the other side of the islet of Taravai. When we came here more than 4 years ago, we had not had the chance to discover this small beach at the end of the world. We discovered a beautiful bay, a translucent water, and a vegetation quite typical of the surroundings. Some of us took the opportunity to have a little swim, while I decide to take some height with my drone. Judge for yourself the magic of this setting!
After this last moment of relaxation, we come back, happy, to the guesthouse where, as every evening, a very good meal cooked by Marie awaits us. We feel good here, and I do confirm: the Gambier is really magical.
The weather is not consistently good today, so we begin the small tour of the island in 4×4. I didn’t even do it last time, actually. Even if the weather is overcast, you still have access to some beautiful viewpoints on the lagoon and its beautiful colors. We stopped at the Mataiutea viewpoint (you have to be careful not to miss the sign on the side of the road, half invaded by the vegetation). A short walk in the undergrowth of pines gives a glimpse of the beautiful colors of the lagoon, even if the weather does not help for pictures. The tour of the island remains nice to do anyway and allows us to discover all the small hidden corners of Mangareva. We even stop not far from the guesthouse (on the way back), in a small church lost in the middle of mango trees and lychees, that we taste fully enjoy by the way!
We then do a small tour in town. Well, so to speak because we agree that Rikitea looks rather like a very small and quiet village than like a real town. I could not really explain it, but a certain serenity comes from the streets of the village, a beautiful atmosphere of the former time. Life goes on here but at a slower pace, far from the traffic jams, horns, boom boom of Tahiti. We take advantage of it to do some window shopping in the few stores selling pearls left, right, and center… Well, personally, I am beside myself with joy here. The only missing thing is a good Internet connection (to keep posting on the blog) and I would settle in.
For the afternoon, I’m offered to go on a fishing trip with the local guys. I’m not a big fan of fishing, I must admit, but it’s also the opportunity for me to see different things and, most of all, to go to sea. I take my camera bag with me, obviously! As every time we leave the pension Maroi’i by boat, we gaze at the two mountains in the background, and I always find it so beautiful. I take advantage of the opportunity to shoot some pictures of this small fishing moment. We spend some hours off, behind the barrier, trying to find something. In spite of us, the fish weren’t biting and it is not a good day (for fishing). We will eventually catch two fish nevertheless! A nice fishing discovery while Melanie, the children and the parents remained to the pension to rest.
At the end of the afternoon, we make the most of the grandparents’ presence to leave for a romantic tour alone with Melanie, in kayak. As in our habit, we always dispute a bit on the Kayak, we know each other so well now, haha (yes, we’ve been together for 18 years this year…). We decide to go on a small rocky islet, approximately 20 minutes of kayak away from the pension. We cross a translucent water to go there, and we’ll never get tired of it. On the spot, we put on flippers, masks and snorkels, and we discover with pleasure the underwater world, which is really enjoyable. Many corals in very good health, much better than what we can see in Tahiti. We will even cross a small shark which rears its head.
Four years ago, when we came here, we climbed to the top of Mount Duff with Melanie and Louis in the baby carrier. Not so easy to climb with the little one on your back, even if it was still doable. This time, I decided to leave in the early morning with my parents to go on the other summit we can see, the Mount Mokoto. This time, Melanie stays with the two little ones, having some peace at the pension.
We are dropped off by Marie at the entrance of the path, located in a hairpin on the road crossing which leads to Rikitea. If you are on foot or on bike, you will see the signs on the edge, it is rather well indicated. We then set out with enthusiasm to begin the trail, which winds through dense undergrowth at first, then through the pine trees, so characteristic of the island. For those who want to know, the beginning of the hike is the same as the one on Mont Duff. After about 20 minutes, we arrive at the junction where a sign indicates Mount Mokoto on the right.
Things are getting serious now, since it climbs severely, in a pine undergrowth whose needles cover the ground. If we took a picture at this moment, it would be impossible to guess that we are in French Polynesia! And then, we finally arrive on the crest, at a first point of view which is already very impressive. The weather is fine, some clouds perfectly placed for pictures, a beautiful blue sky, and the turquoise lagoon right in front of our eyes. Mangareva’s point is already visible from this small point of view. But it is not the end.
We continue our effort by following the path which climbs towards the crest. Some 20 minutes of walk offer, while passing, some great points of view, each more beautiful than the one before and allow us to reach the summit on the Mount Mokoto, after 1:30 of walk (from memory). And there, I must say that this is something quite serious! What a beautiful view. From the top, you can admire the magnificent blue gradients of the lagoon, the pearl farms as if they were placed on the sea everywhere, all the rocky islets on which we stopped during the boat trip. We can also see the guesthouse where we spend the week, and we can even recognize the pontoon going into the lagoon. In short, it is a magical sview. We spend half an hour fully enjoying the superb panorama, with still a nice weather.
Back at the guesthouse, I take advantage of my free time to finalize my article about my test of the Kase filters, my first photography review! I have some time and I take Louis with me to hang around the place and do some tests and photo shoots! It’s also the occasion to do some tests with my new lens that I bought second hand, here in Tahiti a few weeks ago: the Canon 85mm f/1.8, a little wonder for a very affordable price. Perfect, especially for portraits.
Before leaving Mangareva, I had asked Michel if it was possible to go on a second boat trip to see other places. It hasn’t fallen on deaf ears and Michel planned a “motu trip” the day before our departure. Clearly, it will be in theory less interesting than the outing made on the rocky islets of the lagoon of Mangareva, but we are also here to relax, to rest, make the most of being with my parents, with the small ones. In short, we are not about to complain, especially at the present time when we are lucky enough to be able to move around in French Polynesia, in spite of the Covid19.
We take off by boat around 9 am at the guesthouse, after a good breakfast. Once again, we enjoy the landscapes and the coast of Mangareva, that we follow with a beautiful morning sun. Michel tells me that we are going to go on a motu owned by his family and that there will be a surprise, maybe, if they are there. I can see it coming, but I don’t say anything. We finally arrive at the famous motu. As always, our arrival is sublime: good weather, clouds in the sky to make beautiful photos, a translucent and turquoise water. We expected it, but it is always so beautiful in my eyes. As soon as we land on this small piece of sand, we are immediately amazed by the beauty of the place. We moor at the edge of a small hoa, these false passes which let pass the water between the lagoon and the ocean.
Once ashore, we meet the people who came to spend some time there for vacation. As very often in these remote islands, we are welcomed in a superb way: smiles, warm welcomes, a fresh beer, we are going to spend a great day here. A part of the family came to spend some good time here, in the simplest way possible. There is a small hut, a table, some chairs, a barbecue, and of course, the whole at the edge of a splendid lagoon.
So, you may ask what do we do on a motu like that all day long? Well, we chill, we chat with people, we discover the place on both sides (lagoon and ocean), we play in the sand, we go snorkeling to have a look at the corals. In short, there is enough to keep us busy, trust me! It is difficult to transcribe the feeling of the moment in a few lines. We just feel extremely good here, and honestly, with what my parents tell me about the situation in France with the Covid19 crisis, we become aware of how privileged we are being here, on this sandbank, at the end of the world. We seize the opportunity with Melanie to let the grandparents taking care of the children, and let’s go for a walk at the end of the motu! The surroundings are sublime, and yet, the word is not enough. The water is amazing, we could think we are in the Tuamotu. Judge for yourself.
As we could almost have imagined, our hosts of the day very kindly offered us to eat with them, under a tent at the edge of the lagoon. The place is crazy, the meal is very good, as copious as can be, with pasta, rice, fish, smoked turkey, etc. Another great time spent in the Gambier. Louis spent the day playing with a friend of his age on the spot, everyone was happy. A small (and funny) anecdote: even if the motu is not big, it is still possible to lose sight of them. I went to look for them at one point, and they were at the edge of the hoa where we landed, playing with sticks, a black tip shark a few meters away from them! And what about Teo’s nap, improvised on a makeshift mattress in the shade of an aito, at the edge of the lagoon? He will not remember it, but it is probably one of the most beautiful places he’ll ever be in his life! We finish the afternoon with a little snorkeling in front of the motu. Frankly, it is really not bad at all, and the observed corals are in very good condition. Always a treat for the eyes.
I even tried to fly my drone, but unfortunately, we are too close to the airport, and I can’t make it take off. We leave the place at the end of the afternoon, thanking everybody for this very nice day. A stop not far from another motu in the direction of the pension will allow us to take off the drone and see the beauty of the place from the sky.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and it is already the end of our time here. For our last day, we leave at the end of the morning to visit Marie and Michel’s pearl farm, located not far from the guesthouse. Finally, it will also be the opportunity to drop us directly by boat to the airport for our flight in the early afternoon.
We spent an hour touring the place with explanations about pearls. Surroundings, under a beautiful sun, are sublime, and everyone really appreciates it. I take the opportunity to fly my drone again so I can observe the places from higher. We can see the beautiful rocky motu on the edge of which we snorkeled with Melanie, as well as the beautiful corals all around the farm! We finally run at full speed in direction of our flight for Tahiti.
As always, I leave the Gambier with a heavy heart and the desire to stay longer. We’ve gone through everything that can be done and seen, it is true. It is our second stay there and we are still amazed by the beauty of the place… The sweet life is such, and I feel so good, that it makes me want to stay and take the time to live, to see the people living there, these same people who welcomed us as their family. As I often say, with a good internet connection (and a job, haha), this is the kind of Polynesian island where I would really like to live all year long.
But it’s not on the agenda, that’s how it is! Anyway, I hope that this second trip to the Gambier Islands has made you want to go there, and I truly recommend you to go there if you want to really experience what I would like to call “the real Polynesia”.
See you soon, and if you are looking for a beautiful destination off the beaten track, come and visit Kauehi atoll.