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French Polynesia

Main attractions

Landscape near Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva
Landscape near Hatiheu Bay, Nuku Hiva / Steve Berardi, CC BY-SA 2.0

French Polynesia takes wast area of Pacific and includes a huge number of very diverse islands. Many islands here are low lying atolls entirely covered by waves during the storms but many are adorned with steep mountains covered with tropical forests and rising up to 2,241 m high (Mount Orohena in Tahiti).

Islands are divided into several groups, each with its own landscape and cultural values but all of them are characterized by pronounced natural beauty and rich cultural heritage.

Highlights of French Polynesia are:

  • Diverse natural landmarks. The manifold natural heritage includes unique ecosystems - both above the sea level and below it, caves, waterfalls and amazing cliff formations.
  • Archaeological heritage. Every island group here offers amazing archaeological monuments. Notable are the numerous ceremonial complexes - marae and me'ae, stone sculptures (tiki), petroglyphs and cave settlements.

Natural landmarks

Cliffs and canyons

  • Bird Island at Hatutu – Marquesas, north-east from Eiao Island. Island with pyramidal form and hoodoo at the top.
  • Eiao cliffs – Marquesas, Eiao island. Up to 440 m tall seaside cliffs.
  • Mou'a Puta – Windward Islands, Moorea, Moorea-Maiao. A pierced rock on a dramatic, enormous cliff. According to local legend, it was pierced by a spear thrown by Pai.
  • Tapueahu Canyon (Grand Canyon of Nuku Hiva) – Marquesas, Nuku Hiva. Very impressive canyon.
Vaipo Falls, Nuku Hiva
Vaipo Falls, Nuku Hiva / Yves Picq, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Caves

  • Ana Pu'uru – Austral Islands, Rurutu. Cave with gours, straw stalagmites and other amazing speleothems.
  • Ana Vairua'uri – Austral Islands, Rurutu. An underground stream with a lake, which is up to 7 m deep. In the stream are living enormous shrimps. Several sinkholes have formed along the route of stream. Legend about octopus who lived here and killed horses.
  • Octopus Grotto – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. A grotto under the sea level, 120 m long. Located in 30 – 50 m depth. Ceiling is adorned with stalactites, which formed when grotto was above the sea level. Numerous fishes live in the cave.
  • Taupe'e Cave (Maperevaru) – Austral Islands, Rurutu. Beautiful cave with stalactites, stalagmites, gours, cave pearls and other cave formations.
  • Toarutu Cave (Mouth of Dragon) – Austral Islands, Rurutu. Amazing cave with numerous columns, resembles a mouth of giant dragon. It formed at the times when sea level was 10 m higher than now.

Waterfalls

  • Fautauà Falls (Fachoda Falls) – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Faa’a. 80 m tall, free falling waterfall. Below the falls has formed deep, shaded canyon.
  • Vaipo Falls (Falls in Kings Valley, Haka Falls) – Marquesas, Nuku Hiva, Hakaui Valley. 350 m tall waterfall in dramatic, impressive valley.

Ecosystems

Taiaro lagoon, Tuamotu - Gambier islands
Taiaro island with lagoon / NASA, public domain
  • Mount Purau rainforest - Austral Islands, Rapa Iti. Remnant of unique montane rain forest with huge number of endemic species of plants (89 species) and animals.
  • Niau tropical forest – Tuamotu – Gambier, Niau. One of the rare areas covered with Tuamotu tropical moist forest. Whole island – atoll is some 20 km² large. The island has green, hypersaline lagoon. The only habitat of the very rare Tuamotu kingfisher (Todiramphus gambieri).
  • Taiaro lagoon – Tuamotu – Gambier, Taiaro. Enlosed, hypersaline lagoon. As this lagoon is enclosed from the surrounding ocean, it often is used for biological research. Here live at least 125 species of marine fish.
  • Temehani Ute Ute Plateau – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. A small plateau with 26 species of plants which grow only here. One of these plants is the famouos Tiare Apetahi (Apetahia raiateensis) with beautiful, large flowers.

Trees

  • Autera'a tree on Taaoa marae – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. One of the largest trees in Polynesia, this autera’a (Terminalia glabrata) grows on the ancient shrine of Polynesians.
  • Banyan of Gauguin – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Papeete. Very large and old banyan tree. Painter Paul Gauguin loved to sit in a platform built in this tree and to sip absinthe.
  • Banyan in Hatiheu – Marquesas, Nuku Hiva, Hatiheu. Enormous banyan tree (Ficus prolixa).
  • Punaauia banyan – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Punaauia. Giant banyan tree (Ficus prolixa) with a diameter above 10 m. Tree remained standing next to a motorway because local people.

Other natural landmarks

Teahupoo wave, Tahiti
Teahupo'o wave, Tahiti / Claudio Toledo, / CC BY 2.0
  • Huahine Eels, Faie – Leeward Islands, Huahine. In a creek is living a group of tame, sacred eels, 0.9 – 2 m long, fed by locals and eating from hand.
  • Teahupo'o reef break – Windward Islands, Tahiti, sea at Teahupo’o village. A break in reef, where are formed especially large, glassy blue, smooth waves. These are some of the heaviest waves in the world – a huge water mass is broken and may fall on the head of unwary surfer. Waves are beloved by surfers but are very dangerous.
  • Vaifau submarine source – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Punaauia. 50 m off the coast, at some 15 m depth there is a powerful submarine source of freshwater. It is seen as greenish halo of freshwater, in calm weather the upsurge is seen on the surface of the water.

Man made landmarks

Ancient settlements and fortifications

Morongo Uta fortress, Rapa Iti
Morongo Uta fortress / Sardon, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0
  • Fa'ahia – Leeward Islands, Huahine. Interesting, well preserved remnants of early Polynesian settlement. Inhabited sometimes around 700 – 1200 AD. The site is inundated and thus the artefacts, including wooden tools, have been well preserved. Site contains numerous bones of birds which are now extinct here. Seven species of the birds are extinct globally.
  • Hatuturi fortress and other mountain fortresses of Ra’ivavae – Austral Islands, Ra’ivavae. Ancient refuges of defeated people from other parts of Polynesia. Contains terraced fields, areas laid with stones, marae.
  • Maeva – Leeward Islands, Huahine. Abandoned royal settlement, contains the largest concentration of megalithic structures in Polynesia except for Easter Island. In total here are known some 200 stone structures – marae, dwellings, agricultural structures, stone fish traps, fortification walls. Includes Marae Oavaura, Marae Vaiotaha and other structures.
  • Morongo Uta – Austral Islands, Rapa Iti. One of the most impressive inland fortifications in Rapa Iti, built sometimes around 1500 AD on the top of 258 m high mountain. This small island has 13 - 14 prehistoric mountaintop fortifications.

Ancient cave settlements and cave burials

  • Ana Ae'o (Grotte Mitterrand) – Austral Islands, Rurutu, Vitaria. One of the last inhabited caves in Rurutu. Rurutu island has many grottoes well suited for human habitation – it is possible that people lived even in more than 100 caves here. Caves are adorned with amazing stalactites and other cave formations.
  • Ana Maniana – Austral Islands, Rurutu. Legendary, elusive cave with treasures. King was hiding in this cave and keeping the valuables of his family here. The cave reportedly can be found only by the use of secret words.
  • Ana'o Tetea – Tuamotu – Gambier, near Taravai, north of Agakauitai. A cave – royal burial site and site of legends. Unfortunately the burial was desecrated by foreign tourists in 2005.
  • Ana Pu (Pierced Cave) – Tuamotu – Gambier, Aukena. A natural arch, a former shelter for old people. Found human bones and different other artifacts.
  • Ana Torea Caves – Tuamotu – Gambier, Makatea, Rangiroa. In the impressive Moumu cliffs have formed numerous caves. There are numerous legends about these caves – about treasure left by Spaniards, about ghosts. Caves have served for the burial for local nobleman before the coming of Spanish. Many caves are adorned with stalactites and stalagmites.
  • Tuauru funeral caves – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Tuauru valley. Funeral caves in remote valley of Tahiti. Caves are intact, filled with valuable historical artefacts. One flute has been carried away and sold, thus desecrating the cave.

Marae and me'ae

Marae Arahurahu, Tahiti
Marae Arahurahu, Tahiti / Rachel Roberts, / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Fare Potee – Leeward Islands, Huahine-Nui. A thorough reconstruction of a gathering place of Polynesian community, built over a marae.
  • Marae Anini (Huahine Iti) – Leeward Islands, Huahine. Seaside marae, contains very impressive settings of giant upright stones. Constructed in the 19th century for the worship of deities Oro and Hiro.
  • Marae Fare Opu – Leeward Islands, Bora Bora. Large royal marae, unfortunately, half buried under a road. Some stones contain petrolgyphs – depictions of turtles. Made in the 15th – 16th century. Ahu is 25 m long.
  • Marae Fare Rua – Leeward Islands, Bora Bora. The largest marae in Bora Bora. Altar is some 50 m long and has up to 3 m tall standing stones.
  • Marae Hano – Austral Islands, Tubuai. Large, well preserved marae, 30 by 30 m large, extended by a stone clad path towards the sea. In the centre stands 1.6 m high stone which seemingly has a face cut in it. Contains several more petroglyphs.
  • Marae Hitiagateata – Tuamotu – Gambier, Reao. Well preserved and reconstructed marae, with 27 standing stones on the top of ahu.
  • Marae Manunu – Leeward Islands, Huahine. Large, impressive and once important shrine, with enormous stone structures made of giant stones. Rear wall is located at the sea. Restored in 1967. The most important temple on the island after Mata’ire’a Rahi lost its importance.
  • Marae Nu'urua – Windward Islands, Moorea. Enormous sacred site, 65 by 101 metres large. Ahu is 7 m high. Some stones have petroglyphs. Here have taken place rituals of human sacrifice.
  • Marae Pomavao – Austral Islands, Raivavae. Large, interesting marae. Contains forty standing stones, up to 1.8 m high, one is 2 m high. Interior and access road is paved with stones. In the middle once was a statue.
  • Mata'ire'a Rahi – Leeward Islands, Huahine. The most important marae in Huahine, with huge importance of royal ceremonies. Located on the summit of a hill. Constructed sometimes around 1450 – 1500 AD.
  • Marae Tainu'u – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. Impressive marae with up to 4 m high standing stones. Stones contain petroglyphs (Tevaitoa petroglyphs) – engravings of turtles. In front of marae is built Tevaitoa church.
  • Marae Taputapuatea – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. A unique complex of marae, one of important sacred complexes of Polynesians. Established around 1000 AD and expanded significantly since then, used as a learning centre for priests and navigators. Includes multiple stone structures and sculptures. This unique archaeological monument is partly restored.
  • Marae Tevaihara and Tu Paure Chair – Tuamotu – Gambier, Mataiva. A marae with a chair made from coral blocks. Marae is 16.7 by 8.8 m large.
  • Marae Titiroa – Windward Islands, Moorea. Restored marae, located in forest. 40 m long, 17 m wide, partly paved. Contains 15 standing stones. The area next to marae was inhabited in the late 16th century and contains remnants of more than 500 ancient structures.
  • Marae Unurau – Austral Islands, Raivavae. Important, large and well preserved marae, with some 30 standing stone slabs which are up to 3 m tall. A stone clad pathway leads to the sea.
  • Marae Upeke à Taaoa – Marquesas, Nuku Hiva. Impressive, some 40 m long marae. Discovered in 1925 and reconstructed in 1991. Contains petroglyph and also a gong stone.
  • Me'ae Faepoto – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. A prehistoric meeting place, with three terraces. Area is laid and flanked with stones. Some stones contain intricate carvings.
  • Me'ae Iipona – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. A ceremonial site with the largest prehistoric stone statues (tiki) in French Polynesia, up to 2.6 m high. Restored in 1991.
  • Me'ae Makamea – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. Ancient complex of sacred buildings, now only remnants of these stone structures remain. Contains stones with carved reliefs, including a spiral motiv.
  • Me'ae Pouau, Atuona – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. One of the largest prehistoric meeting places in Hiva Oa. Contains ancient Tevitete burial site with interesting petroglyphs on stones.

Petroglyph sites

Marae Fare Opu, petroglyph
Marae Fare Opu, petroglyph / Makemake, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0
  • Eiaone valley rock paintings – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. Six rock shelters with prehistoric rock paintingsm depicting humans, animals and, possibly, birdman.
  • Fare Hape petroglyphs – Windward Islands, Tahiti, Papeno’o. Large rock with numerous petroglyphs – stylized humans, spirals.
  • Hakaiki stone carvings – Marquesas, Hiva Oa. 6 m long stone surface covered with interesting petroglyphs.
  • Hanativa Cave – Marquesas, Fatu Hiva, Omoa. A cave with ancient petroglyphs – tiki, heron. Contains skulls and other bones. The location of the cave is secret.
  • Hatuana petroglyphs – Marquesas, Nuku Hiva. Diverse petroglyphs depicting humans and geometric patterns, carved on the cliffs expised at the beach.
  • Petroglyphs of Haapapara Valley – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. One of the richest finds of petroglyphs in French Polynesia. Contains depictions of humans, turtles, geometric symbols.

Museums

Tahiti pearls
Tahiti pearls / Lizzy Saldana, / CC BY 2.0
  • Paul Gauguin Museum – Windward Islands, Tahiti. Art museum dedicated to the life and works of Paul Gauguin and Constance Gordon-Cumming. In the garden are located two tiki – sacred stone statues from Ra’ivavae island.
  • Robert Wan Pearl Museum – Windward Islands, Tahiti. World’s only museum dedicated to pearls, their history, traditions, collection.

Sites of legends

  • Grotte aux pas (Cave of footprints) – Marquesas, south-east coast of Ua Huka. A spooky cave at the beach. The entrance of the cave is covered with fine sand. Every time before the tide here are footprints left by some unknown beings.
  • Tepoto treasure – Tuamotu – Gambier, Tepoto. This small atoll is possible location, where has been hidden treasure, looted in Pisco church, Peru in the 19th century. One treasure seeker has found a cache of medallions from South America, but it is unknown whether somebody has found here something.
  • The cave of Spanish princess in Makatea – Tuamotu – Gambier, Rangiroa. A site of legends – a cave where reportedly is located treasure. In the cave is located a coffin of girl. Locals believe that everyone who searches for treasure, has a bad luck.

Other archaeological monuments

  • Haurii tatoo workshops – Austral Islands, Tubuai, Haurii valley. Unique site with different adjustments for making tatoos. Includes stone tools for making the ink, utensils for making the ink, oven. Site contains several workshops – one for making facial tatoos, one for tatoos on feet, one for the tattoos for men.
  • Ra'ivavae tiki – Austral Islands, Ra’ivavae. The only remaining tiki – sacred stone statue – in Ra’ivavae. It represents a child of Moana and Heiata – two other stone statues now in Papeeete. Mysterious, legendary stone.
  • Te Ruara observatory – Tuamotu – Gambier, Mangareva. Ancient observatory. In Mangareva are several observatories, unique in Polynesia. Consists of mountaintop observation post with benchmarks (place between two stones), which shows the location, where the sun rises or sets in winter and summer solstice. This particular observatory is well suited for winter solstice.

Other man made landmarks

  • Arutua fish ponds – Tuamotu – Gambier, Arutua. Large stone enclosures in the reef (seen in satellite images), made by Polynesians as traps for fishes. Numerous diverse fishes always are caught in it.
  • Papetoai Church – Windward Islands, Moorea. Octagonal church, built in 1822. Considered to be the oldest existing European building in Southern Pacific.
  • Saint André Church in 'Uturoa – Leeward Islands, Raiatea. Unusual church building. Adorned with stone lace, what creates interesting play of lights inside.

List of described attractions by administrative subdivisions

French Polynesia is an overseas country of France. It is divided into 5 administrative subdivisions:

Austral Islands
ArrowMorongo UtaFortifications
Leeward Islands
ArrowMarae Fare OpuAncient shrines, Megaliths, Petroglyphs and cliff art
Marquesas Islands
ArrowMe'ae IiponaAncient shrines, Megaliths, Petroglyphs and cliff art
ArrowVaipo FallsWaterfall
Tuamotu – Gambier Islands
ArrowNiau tropical forestEcosystem
Windward Islands
ArrowMarae ArahurahuAncient shrines, Megaliths, Sites of legends

Map of French Polynesia

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