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Polynesia

Main attractions

Strawn Island in Palmyra Atoll
Strawn Island in Palmyra Atoll / Laura M. Beauregard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, / CC BY 2.0

Although the landmass of Polynesia is small, the charm and special beauty of this region is one of the great assets of our planet. These islands are endowed with lush and beautiful nature, with warm ocean and friendly people representing a distinct culture.

Polynesia is very rich both with natural and cultural landmarks and many of them are unique.

The highlights of Polynesia are:

  • Unique ecosystems. Polynesia consists mostly of small islands which very often are far from each other. People reached them recently and many islands never have been inhabited. Thus it comes as no wonder that many Polynesian islands have unique species of plants and animals met nowhere else in the world. Some pristine Polynesian ecosystems though are especially surprising and impressive - such as Central Savai'i Rainforest, Ecosystem of Henderson Island, Mount Purau rainforest and others.
  • Waterfalls. Even if Polynesia consists of small islands and does not have significant rivers, here exist smaller streams. Sometimes these smaller streams approach a vertical or nearly vertical abyss and tumble down. Some Polynesian waterfalls belong to the tallest in the world - e.g. Olo'upena Falls, Browne Falls, Sutherland Falls.
  • Ancient shrines and ceremonial sites - ahu, marae, me'ae, heiau and others. The distinct culture of Polynesians has created some of the most interesting megalithic monuments in the world. A true wonder of the world are the megalithic moai sculptures in Easter Island but not less intriguing are the mysterious me'ae in Marquesas and others.

Natural landmarks

Champagne Pool, New Zealand
Champagne Pool / Mehlführer C, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-2.5

Volcanoes and geothermal fields

  • Kīlauea - Hawaiian Islands, Hawai'i. One of the most active volcanoes of the world, contains one of the few lava lakes in the world.
  • Orakei Korako - New Zealand, Waikato. Geothermal area with unique, colourful sinter terraces and geysers. Largest geyser field in New Zealand with some 35 active geysers. Lower terrace - Emerald Terrace - is the largest sinter terrace in New Zealand. Part of it is flooded by hydropower station, submerging some 200 hot springs and 70 geysers.
  • Waimangu geothermal area - New Zealand, Bay of Plenty. Geothermal area, created by Mount Taravera eruption in 1886. Area contains many interesting features. Frying Pan Lake is the largest hot spring in the world - area of this hot lake is 3.8 ha. Warbrick Terraces and Marble Terraces are sinter terraces in the process of formation. Inferno Crater is the largest geyser like lake - light blue steaming lake with fluctuating water level.
  • Wai-O-Tapu - New Zealand, Bay of Plenty. One of the most beautiful geothermal areas worldwide. Besides Lady Knox geyser, mud pools, numerous hot springs and sinter terraces it contains highly unusual hot spring - Champagne Pool, constantly filled with carbon dioxide bubbles. Crater of this spring is 65 m across, depth - approximately 62 m. Along the rim of this spring are deposited bright orange arsenic and antimony salts. Champagne Pool contains several species of endemic microorganisms.
  • Whakarewarewa geothermal area - New Zealand, Bay of Plenty. Geothermal area in Rotorua city with unique cultural properties. The facilities offered by geothermal fields, have been used by Maori since at least 1350 AD - they developed bathtubs, made food here. Area contains seven active geysers including the up to 30 m high Pohutu Geyser.

Cliffs and canyons

  • Pelekunu - Wailau Cliffs - Hawaiian Islands, north coast of Moloka'i. Some of the highest sea cliffs, up to 1,010 m high. Drop is not vertical. Contain some waterfalls which thus belong to the highest ones in the world, including some 900 m high Olo'upena Falls and 840 m high Pu'uka'oku Falls.
  • Tapueahu Canyon (Grand Canyon of Nuku Hiva) – French Polynesia, Marquesas, Nuku Hiva. Very impressive canyon.
  • Waimea Canyon - Hawaiian Islands, Kaua'i. Very impressive canyon, some 16 m long and up to 900 m deep, formed by Waimea River.
One of Talava natural arches, Niue
One of Talava natural arches / Pia Waugh, Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Caves, natural arches

  • Bulmer Cavern - New Zealand, Tasman. The longest cave in New Zealand, 67,233 m long.
  • Kazumura Cave - Hawaiian Islands, Hawai'i. The longest lava tube in world, 65.5 km long and up to 1,102 m deep.
  • Nanumanga Fire Caves – Tuvalu, Nanumanga. Legendary cave located 37 m below the water level. The cave has dark patches on the roof and blackened fragments of coral on its floor, suggesting that people lived here long before the coming of Polynesians – more than 8000 years ago.
  • Roiho Cave System - Easter Island. 6,500 m long cave system - the longest known in Easter Island. Consists of numerous smaller caves (f.e. Ana Vaiteka, Ana Te Pahu). These smaller parts of the cave were known earlier, but only in 2006 - 2010 there were discovered very narrow passages conetcting them. Here have been found human skulls, arrowheads, petroglyphs, ochre for body paint, endemic invertebrates. Ana Te Pahu contains rich Mataveri - cave garden.
  • Salamumu Cave 1 (Ana Pe'ape'a) – Samoa, A’ana. 3 487 m long lava tube cave - the longest known cave in Samoa. Contains artefacts by people who lived here in prehistoric times - stone platforms. In the cave were living hundreds or thousands of people during the war times. Cave contains unusual form of lava, which has a consistency of soft cheese. When walking on such lava, people sink into it.
  • Talava Arches and Caves (often erroneously: Tavala Arches) - Niue, northern coast. One of the major sights in Niue: beautiful cave with three huge natural arches. After entering the cave, there are two exits - one towards the sea with one enormous natural arch visible (approximately 7 m high and 20 - 25 m wide), another - to a sinkhole with two other large natural arches. From the sinkhole are available some more caves. Sinkhole and arches have formed by collapse of cave roof. First seen by Captain Cook.
  • Waitomo Glowworm Cave - New Zealand, Waikato. The most accessible glowworm cave adorned with thousands of blue-green glowing Arachnocampa luminosa insects. Glowworms are met in numerous other New Zealand caves as well. In Waitomo area are located more than 300 caves, often with beautiful cave formations.
Sutherland Falls, New Zealand
Sutherland Falls / Fred Hsu, Flickr. CC BY 2.0

Waterfalls

  • Browne Falls - New Zealand, Southland. 836 m tall falls in Doubtful Sound, some of the tallest in the world.
  • Huka Falls - New Zealand, Waikato. The most powerful falls - rapids in New Zealand. Formed on Waikato river where it is only 15 m wide - deep blue water falls 20 m over 300 m distance. Highest single fall - 11 m.
  • Olo'upena Falls - Hawaiian Islands, Moloka'i. At 900 metres in height, this is an amazing seasonal waterfall. Considered to be the fourth highest waterfall in the world.
  • Papalaua Falls - Hawaiian Islands, Moloka'i. Approximately 501 m high, very impressive fall at the far end of enormous, up to 850 m deep valley.
  • Sutherland Falls - New Zealand, Southland. Powerful, 580 m tall falls originating from Lake Quill.
  • Vaipo Falls (Falls in Kings Valley, Haka Falls) – French Polynesia, Marquesas, Nuku Hiva, Hakaui Valley. 350 m tall waterfall in dramatic, impressive valley.

Ecosystems

Dysommina rugosa eels in Nafanua Eel City, American Samoa
Dysommina rugosa eels in Nafanua Eel City / / public domain.
  • Central Savai'i Rainforest - Samoa, mainly in Palauli. The largest (72,699 ha) remaining rainforest in Polynesia. In this exotic forest are located more than 100 volcanic craters, some with recent lava fields. Amazing cloud forests constantly covered with fog. Numerous endemic species of plants (e.g. trees Abutilon whistleri, Metrosideros gregoryi, Syzygium christophersenii, Syzygium graeffei, Syzygium vaupelii, Psychotria bristolii, Reynoldsia pleiosperma, blueberry Vaccinium whitmeei and many others) and animals, new ones still are discovered. Magnificent scenery with tall waterfalls, cliffs.
  • Ecosystem of Henderson Island - Pitcairn Islands, Henderson Island. The only forested atoll with intact ecosystem in the world. Endemic species - 9 species of plants and all 4 species of landbirds. Numerous invertebrates are endemic, although they are poorly researched. Island is unwalkable - covered with thicket and rugged limestone peaks.
  • 'Eua National Park – Tonga, 'Eua. Important pristine tropical forest (499 ha) with beautiful scenery and many endemic species of plants and animals. Especially impressive are the dramatic cliffs at the eastern coast of the island. 'Eua is the only place where a conifer Podocarpus pallidus is met. Not more than 1,000 trees are left.
  • Mount Purau rainforest - French Polynesia, Austral Islands, Rapa Iti. Remnant of unique montane rain forest with huge number of endemic species of plants (89 species) and animals.
  • Mount Wai'ale'ale - Hawaiian Islands, Kaua'i. Summit of this mountain is one of the wettest places on Earth, average rainfall 10,800 mm, maximum - 17,300 in 1982. Swampy biotope with thicket has formed and is protected as Alaka'i Wolderness Preserve. Contains numerous unique species. Numerous waterfalls (Wai'ale'ale Falls) falling along the 600 m high wall of crater.
  • Snake Gully - Niue, southern part, less than 20 m long underwater cave. Here live numerous endemic Niue sea snakes (katuali (Laticauda schystorhyncha)) who on a regular basis rise up to breathe. These snakes have extremely toxic venom but are docile. At times hundreds of snakes can be seen. Here are living numerous other sea creatures as well.
  • Vailulu'u Eel City - American Samoa, ocean near Manu'a District. A hydrothermal vent in the summit of enormous submarine volcano which rises 4,200 m from the ocean floor. The Nafanue volcanic cone in the centre of the 400 m deep caldera contains a group of hydrothermal vents inhabited by numerous eels (Dysommina rugosa). This is unusual - in general vertebrates do not live near hydrothermal vents.
  • Waipoua Forest - New Zealand, Northland. The largest remaining New Zealand kauri forest.

Trees

  • Aitutaki banyan tree tunnel - Cook Islands, east part of Aitutaki island. Giant banyan tree with asphalted two-way road going through its countless aerial roots. Road goes 53 m under the canopy of this tree.
  • Mauke Island Banyan Tree - Cook Islands, interior of Mauke. Enormous banyan tree. Crown of this tree takes some 6,000 m². Stem of the tree consists of countless aerial roots creating phantasmagoric landscape.
  • Tāne Mahuta - New Zealand, Northland. A kauri tree (Agathis australis) with a girth 13.77 metres and a height of 51.2 metres.
  • Te Matua Ngahere - New Zealand, Northland. A kauri tree (Agathis australis) with a girth of 16.41 metres and a height of 29.9 metres.
Alofa'aga Blowholes, Samoa
Alofa'aga Blowholes, Samoa. The coconut is blown up in the air / Neil Liddle, . CC BY 2.0

Other natural landmarks

  • Alofa'aga Blowholes (Taga Blowholes) - Samoa, Palauli. Some of the most powerful blowholes in the world, water fountains rise up to 30 m high. These blowholes exist thanks to a system of lava tubes, which reach ocean here. Local tourist guides put the coconuts in the holes and they are blasted high in the air.
  • Karst landscape at Huvalu Forest - Niue, south-eastern part, along the sea. A belt of impressive karst landscape, consisting of thousands of upright, 5-8 m tall limestone peaks with sharp edges.
  • Fossil dog of Pukapuka - Cook Islands, Pukapuka. Here were found remnants of dog who died around 300 BC. This dog was neither Polynesian dog nor Australian dingo. There are no finds of similar sized dogs elsewhere in Pacific and south-east Asia and it is discussed whether this is an aberration. This find testifies also that the island was inhabited earlier than other islands of region.
  • Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier - New Zealand, West Coast. Unique glaciers whose descent is so steep that the ice ends up close to the rainforest.
  • Moeraki boulders - New Zealand, Otago. Large, spherical boulders in the beach. Diameter of these spheres reaches 2.2 m. There are similar spheres elsewhere in the world (also Koutu Point Boulders in Northland) but these are not that impressive and that exactly spherical.
  • Teahupo'o reef break – French Polynesia, 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.
  • Te Waikoropupu Springs - New Zealand, Tasman. Very powerful (14,000 l/s) spring, renowned due to the clarity of the water with the highest measured lucidity in world (63 m).
  • Tongoleleka – Tonga, Ha'apai, Lifuka Island. A site of ancient settlement from Lapita period (850 BC). Found nearly 50,000 sherds of ceramics, including many sherds of decorated Lapita ceramics. Site is rich with remnants of extinct reptiles (the up to 1.2 m large iguana Brachxylophus gibbonsi), megapode (Megapodus alimentum), many extinct doves and other extinct species.

Man made landmarks

A hilltop fortress, Rapa Iti
One of hilltop fortreses in Rapa Iti, French Polynesia / Sardon, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0

Ancient settlements and fortifications

  • Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) - New Zealand, Auckland. One of the largest Māori fortified settlements () with some of the most impressive earthen fortification systems in world.
  • Morongo Uta – French Polynesia, Austral Islands, Rapa Iti. One of the most impressive inland fortifications in Rapa Iti, built around 1500 AD on the top of 258 m high mountain. This small island has 13 - 14 prehistoric mountaintop fortifications.
  • Mulifanua Ferry Berth site – Samoa, Aiga-i-le-Tai. The oldest known human settlement in Polynesia. The site is located 2.25 m below the sea level and here were found Lapita pottery sherds made sometimes around 1 000 BC.
  • Talietumu (Kolo Noi) – Wallis and Futuna, Wallis. Remnants of a fortified Tongan settlement, developed in 1450 AD, the last stronghold of Tongans in Wallis. The settlement is surrounded by a massive stone wall with several entrances. The central structure is rised stone platform – Talietumu, a shrine. It is rised 5 m high and is 80 m long. The complex architecture of the structure has important symbolic meaning.
Ahu Tongariki - megaliths in Rapa Nui, Pacific
Part of Ahu Tongariki statues, Easter Island / Rivi, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Ancient shrines

  • Ahu Nau Nau - Easter Island, Anakena Bay. One of the most impressive and mysterious ahu on island. Here on one platform are mounted six moai who all have ornate carvings on their backs. The sculptures themselves are more elaborate than most other moais on island as well. Four moais have their pukaos (headknots). One more moai is standing separately, nearby.
  • Ahu Tongariki - Easter Island. The largest ahu with unusual history - its moai possibly were toppled during the civil wars and swept inland some 100 metres by a tidal wave in 1960. In 1955 - 1996 it was gradually restored and all 15 moai again face the sunset during the summer solstice. The largest standing moai of Easter Island is on Ahu Tongariki - it weighs 86 tons. One moai has also pukao on its head. This ahu is 220 m long.
  • Ahu Vinapu - Easter Island, east from Hanga Roa. Group of impressive ahus. The most impressive part of one of ahus (Ahu Tahiri) is the base of it - it is made of enormous (average weight - 7 tons), perfectly fitted basalt slabs made in different way than other ahus on island. This belongs to one of impressive achievements of megalithic cultures worldwide and poses a puzzle to archaeologists who sometimes (if looking superficially) suppose that this ahu has been influenced by Inca architecture. Tahiri most likely had some 6 moais erected on top of it.
  • Hale O Pi'ilani Heiau - Hawaiian Islands, Maui. The largest known heiau - Hawaiian temple. Area - some 12,000 m². Walls up to 15 m high. Developed since the 1200s.
  • Marae Taputapuatea – French Polynesia, Leeward Islands, Raiatea. A unique complex of marae, one of important sacred complexes of Polynesians. Established sometimes 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.
  • Me'ae Iipona – French Polynesia, 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.
Orongo petroglyphs with Motu Nui islands in the backgrouond, Rapa Nui
Orongo petroglyphs with Motu Nui islands in the background, Easter Island / Pablo Rodríguez Madroño, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Petroglyphs, dendroglyphs, and rock art

  • Ana Kai Tangata - Easter Island, west of Hanga Roa. Ceiling of this cave is adorned with unique paintings which are related to birdman cult. Paintings are seen also on a boulder. It is unclear what ceremonies have been performed in this cave but the name of it means "Man Eating Cave".
  • Hapupu dendroglyphs - Chatham Islands, north-east Rehoa. The richest find of the unique dendroglyphs left by the ancient Moriori people. In 1998 here were found 92 kopi trees (Corynocarpus laevigata) with ancient signs cut by Moriori people centuries ago. There are five groups of dendroglyphs on the islands, where 147 trees with carvings were found in 1998. These locations are - Te Waroa (8), Taia (21), Lake Kairae (16) and New Barker Bros Ltd Block (22). In the 1950s there were known some 1,400 trees with dendroglyphs, in earlier times dendroglyphs were reported also on Pitt Island. It is possible that these markings are linked to the cult of dead or to burial rituals.
  • Orongo petroglyphs - Easter Island. One of the most significant petroglyph sites worldwide with 1,274 valuable carvings documented. Large blocks of vulcanic tuff around Orongo village are adorned with beautiful carved reliefs which show mainly birdman.
  • Puako petroglyphs - Hawaiian Islands, Hawai'i. Area with more than 3000 petroglyphs, considered to be the highest concentration of petroglyphs in Pacific.
Ha'amonga 'a Maui in 1990
Ha'amonga 'a Maui in 1990, Tonga / Holger Behr, Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Other archaeological landmarks

  • Ha'amonga 'a Maui (Trilithon) – Tonga, Tongatapu. Amazing megalith – a trilithon of three limestone slabs, located in the second capital of Tonga (established around the 10th century AD). Each stone weighs some 20 tons and is some 6 m high. Built in the beginning of the 13th century, possibly as a royal gateway. Nearby is large upright stone slab – Maka Fa'akinanga – a legendary throne of the king.
  • Langi in Lapahi – Tonga, Tongatapu. Burial mounds in the first capital of Tonga – Lapahi (Mu'a), where are buried the kings of Tu'i Tonga dynasty. Lapahi served as a capital in the 12th – 16th centuries and for several centuries more – a spiritual centre of Tonga. The town contains some 28 royal burial mounds – rised platforms (pyramids), laid with enormous, rectangular coral slabs. These coral slabs fit together very well. One of the best preserved langi is Paepae-o-Tele'a.
  • Pulemelei Mound (Tia Seu Mound) – Samoa, Palauli. The largest man-made mound in Pacific. This pyramid shaped mound is made of stone, up to 12 m high, with 65 x 60 m long sides. Built around 1100 – 1400 AD.
  • Rano Raraku quarry - Easter Island. One of the visually most impressive megalithic monuments of the world. Rano Raraku served as a mine of moai, used sometimes around 1200 - 1700 AD. Here in the comparatively soft volcanic tuff were hewn moai sculptures for further transport to different parts of island. Numerous - 397 - sculptures are still located in situ, half-made or left on the way to their destinations. Very impressive are the semi-completed moai still standing in the vertical cliff face. Not less imposing are the moai dotting the slope and partly subsided in the ground. Rano Raraku serves as a great place to research the evolution of moai. Here is located the largest moai weighing 270 tons and 21.6 m tall, many times larger than any transported moai. Here nearby is located also Tukuturi - unusual sitting sculpture made of red stone from Puna Pau quarry.
  • Te Ruara observatory – French Polynesia, 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.
Larnach castle, New Zealand
Larnach Castle / AJ Oswald, Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Architecture monuments

  • Art Deco architecture in Napier - New Zealand, Hawke's Bay. The town at Hawke's Bay was destroyed by earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the architectonic style of the time. Thus Napier represents one of the best Art Deco architecture complexes worldwide.
  • 'Iolani Palace - Hawaiian Islands, Hawai'i. The only royal palace in United States, built in 1879 by king Kamehameha V and used as royal residence until 1893. Palace is built in unique architectural style sometimes called - American Florentine style.
  • Larnach Castle - New Zealand, Otago. The most beautiful historical palace in New Zealand, built between 1873 - 1887. Building has 43 rooms and is well known also due to ghost stories.
  • Percy Burn Viaduct - New Zealand, Southland. One of the largest historical wooden viaducts, initially built for logging tramway in 1923. Now this 125 m long and 36 m high bridge serves for pedestrians.
  • Robert Wan Pearl Museum – French Polynesia, Windward Islands, Tahiti. World’s only museum dedicated to pearls, their history, traditions, collection.

List of described attractions by countries

Polynesia consists of the following countries and territories:

American Samoa (United States)
Baker Island (United States)
Chatham Islands (New Zealand)
Cook Islands (associated with New Zealand)
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) (Chile)
French Polynesia (France)
Hawaii (part of the United States)
Howland Island (United States)
Jarvis Island (United States)
Johnston Atoll (United States)
Kermadec Islands (New Zealand)
Kingman Reef (United States)
Midway Atoll (United States)
New Zealand
Niue (associated with New Zealand)
Palmyra Atoll (United States)
Pitcairn Islands (United Kingdom)
Samoa
Tokelau (administred by New Zealand)
Tonga
Tuvalu
Wallis and Futuna (France)

Map of Polynesia

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