Rain in paradise - Huahine, Raiatea, and Tahaa

Category: Ships Log
  Raiatea, French Polynesia, Sailing, Green Panther, Papeete  

August 3rd - August 9th

Rain, a car trip, ancient ceremonial sites, lots to learn about vanilla and the coral gardens


“You can stay here for free for an afternoon or a night [mooring ball in front of the hotel], no problem,” Fredo tells us at the Hotel Hibiscus while showing us the numerous flags cruisers from all over the world left on the ceiling of the hotel's restaurant and bar.  Five minutes earlier, we took a mooring buoy in front of the hotel and then landed at the dock with our dinghy to ask about the rate and the sea turtle nursery which is supposed to be here. The nursery was closed last year, we learn soon. We are not too disappointed however since another reason for our stop here, to visit a vanilla plantation, seems to be possible. “Let me call them, they will come and pick you up for a free tour,” explains Fredo and reaches for his cell phone. We are pleasantly surprised with the warm welcome here on the island of Tahaa; “free” is a word you don’t hear very often in the high priced and rather touristy Society islands.


Tahaa french polynesia
The green hills of Tahaa


Tahaa shares the same coral lagoon with its big brother Raiatea. Several large cruise ships stop at Raiatea and tourism is an important economical force. Tahaa on the other side is relatively unspoiled, has little tourism, some fishing, copra production and two main vanilla plantations. The tiny island is the largest vanilla producer in French Polynesia and we definitely want to visit a plantation. While we wait for the pick-up, Fredo, who speaks Tahitian, French, English, German, Italian, some words Japanese, and probably also Klingon tells us that he actually doesn’t work here at the hotel. He is only a friendly neighbor whom the owner calls if he is busy and there are people approaching the dock and the restaurant behind it. He seem a little bit too honest for this job though, since he goes on ”. . . and sure you can have a beer here, but if you walk down the road 5 min to the Chinese grocery you can get it for half the price,” - and we all laugh.


Raiatea French polynesia Tahaa
Fredo showing us around in Hotel Hibiscus


Ten minutes later we are sitting in the back of an off-road vehicle zooming up a windy road to the neighboring valley just past the tiny village of Hipu where the Vanilla Valley farm (contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is located. It turns out that the owner is Morita Hioe, a local woman who speaks perfect English and is married to a guy from Denmark. This has the advantage, according to her, that “since he is white and I am the local I can kick him out any time." Of course she laughs while saying this and eyes her husband who seems to have good humor too. The boss explains to us the various size and quality criteria to categorize the vanilla beans for sale, or not sale. If they are shorter than 6” they will be dried completely, cut into pieces and submerged in rum. And voila you have vanilla extract. Next we see the vanilla plant itself - a green inconspicuous orchid that attaches itself to a host tree. What looks like long leaves are actually the still green vanilla beans. Morita explains that they have to pollinate each flower by hand, since “we have very lazy bees here which only pollinate about 5% of the plants." The workers are all family, because otherwise she could not afford to run a farm like this. "A family business can be hard sometimes,“ she sighs, “you cannot choose your family and you cannot fire them either.” Then she laughs.


Tahaa Vanilla valley vanilla farm
  Morita explaining how to sort the vanilla beans by size.


Tahaa Fench Polynesia Vanilla Valley farm
The vanilla orchid with the green vanilla beans (red arrows) on the acacia host tree.


We also learned it takes a full 9 months until the vanilla beans can be harvested, dried, sold as is, or made into vanilla extract. We can now appreciate much better how much work goes into producing real vanilla. Too much work even for some of the locals. “My two oldest kids didn’t want to work on the farm, so we said if you don’t want to work here with us, then move out."  Morita stops for a little bit and then goes on, “Well my husband said that, I am Polynesian, we would never do that,” - and again she laughs. We enjoyed the rest of the tour, the free drinks (juice only :-)) and fresh coconut, and ended up buying a few vanilla beans and some extract before our driver shipped us back to the boat.


Before visiting Tahaa we briefly stopped at the island of Huahine and explored the giant supermarket in the center of the little town of Fare. The rain prevented further activities, so we moved on to Raiatea the next day. Unfortunately so did the rain. We anchored in front of the marina at Uturoa, did some grocery shopping, and rented a car with our friends on Cool Running for one day to explore Raiatea. This was a welcome break from the rain squalls and strong winds shaking Green Panther in the anchorage. Our trip around the island with Georg and Sandra was fun, although pretty wet. Our “let’s see if we can make it to the waterfall hike,” ended in a mud sliding event, so we decided to backtrack. The gigantic religious ceremonial site Marae Taputapuatea was very impressive though. Taputapuatea was the main ceremonial site for all of French Polynesia and back in its heyday included large boathouses for the sailing catamarans of visiting tribes from other islands. Huge huts and very long altars, big enough to sacrifice several virgins and apparently also children at once, were erected on each of the large marae (stone plattforms). Those platforms are the only remains, but several interpretive signs show how it looked several hundred years ago. The next day the rain clouds started to break up and we headed north inside the lagoon to the neighboring island of Tahaa, the Hotel Hibiscus and the vanilla plantation.


Huahine, rainbow
Huahine after a short break from the rain



Waterfalls shooting down every hill after the rain on Raiatea.


Raiatea rental car Georg Cool Running
Georg from Cool Running and Chris chatting during the lunch break on the rental car roof.


Raiatea Marae Taputapuatea is a large marae complex at Opoa in Taputapuatea, on the south eastern coast of Raiatea
The Marae Taputapuatea is a large marae (ancient celebration site) complex at Opoa in Taputapuatea, on the southeast coast of Raiatea


After our stop at Hibiscus and the vanilla farm (see above) we anchored for a relaxing day between Motu Maharare and Motu Tautau and enjoyed snorkeling in the “Coral Garden”. This shallow area harbors lots of corals in pretty good shape still, though they are fighting against crown of thorn seastars (we found two large specimens) and the Turbinaria algae with has taken over large parts of the shallow reef already. The fish are however still plenty and they are used to snorkelers (i.e: are likely fed) which allows for good photo opportunities. The sunset at our anchorage next to the coral garden was very beautiful, in particular because it took place in front of the silhouette of Bora Bora, our destination for tomorrow.


Tahaa Coral Garden
The coral garden is beautiful but also suffers from the algae Turbinaria ornata.


Tahaa Coral Garden
Alena hunting for pictures in the coral garden


Tahaa Coral Garden Chris
Chris getting caught doing the same thing.

Tahaa Coral Garden between Motu Maharare and Motu Tautau
Clownfish in anemone


A picasso triggerfish.


Sunset from our anchorage near the Coral Gardens. The island in the background is Bora Bora.



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