For a unique, authentic experience far away from everywhere, visit the Gambier Islands! It is the furthest archipelago from Tahiti in French Polynesia and the most isolated. But it is also one of the most beautiful.
There is a one hour time difference between the Gambier Islands and Tahiti. The immense lagoon is home to five high islands and a dozen motu, one of which, motu Totegegie, is where the airport is located. A shuttle ferry takes you to the main island, Mangareva, which is 40 minutes away. That is where you’ll find your accommodation, shops and service providers, including excursion operators. There are no hotels, but the family-run Tahitian Guesthouses are clean, comfortable and welcoming. Hiking, boat trips, excursions, religious and archeological vestiges, pearl farms, the lagoon…there’s something for everyone in the Gambier Islands.
A bit of history
The first day begins with a tour round the main village, Rikitea. Visit Saint Michel’s Cathedral, dedicated to the most important of the archangels, which was built using great blocks of coral. The altar and wooden panels are decorated with mother-of-pearl nacre and pearls. It is a jewel of religious architecture and the visit will help you understand the importance of the catholic religion in the history of Mangareva.
A short distance away, along the coastal road, you’ll find the ruins of King Maputea’s tower, which was built in 1850. Continue up to the higher part of the village and you’ll come to Saint-Pierre cemetery, which houses the tomb of the last king of Mangareva. A little further on, is the entrance to what remains of the ancient Rouru convent. A morning in Rikitea is a voyage back in time!
All about pearls
As you go back down towards the village center, take the time to visit the center for mother-of-pearl (nacre) engraving. Only open during schooltime, it’s where the students of Saint-Raphael College are taught the art of engraving mother-of-pearl shells. A teacher will be pleased to welcome you and tell you all about nacre, as you watch the students at work. Some of their engravings are real masterpieces and it is possible to purchase them while you’re there.
There are several snackbars in Rikitea, and Snack Jojo is the most popular. Take a seat among the locals, passing yachtsmen and other visitors. The fresh fish is absolutely delicious !
A visit to a pearl farm
There are lots of pearl farms on the island of Mangareva and pearl cultivation is the main economic activity on the island. Choose the one you like and ask if you can visit – they’ll be delighted to welcome you. The visit will take about two hours and you’ll be shown all the different stages of pearl cultivation, from grafting to opening the oyster and taking out the finished pearl. Sometimes, you can even accompany the divers who immerse the oysters in the lagoon and bring them back up when the pearls are fully developed. By the end of the visit you’ll appreciate these remarkable jewels even more.
A tour of the island’s interior
You’ll need sturdy footwear, water, some fruit, a snack, suncream and a hat. Then you’ll be ready for a half-day hike in Mangareva. There are two mountains, Mokoto (1,387 feet) and Duff (1,446 feet) and they are the two highest points on the island. Set off bright and early, to avoid the hottest part of the day, taking the trail that leads to the top of Mount Mokoto. The view over Mangareva and the other islands is superb. Continuing on the same trail, you’ll end up at the top of mount Duff, where the view is 60 feet more breathtaking than the one on mount Mokoto !
Beside the sea
Feeling hot and a little weary after all that walking, you can take a dip in the lagoon and relax on one of the best beaches in Mangareva. Not too far from Rikitea, it’s the ideal place for a little snorkeling and a long siesta! Most of the beaches in Mangareva are somewhat difficult to reach, but all of them are worth the effort.
Mangareva motu tour
An unforgettable day spent on the lagoon, which is shared by all of the Gambier Islands and dozens of motu. Obviously, the best way to explore the lagoon is by boat, and your hosts will gladly organize an excursion to visit some of the other islands: Taravai, Akamaru, Mekiro, Aukena. They are among the most beautiful islands in French Polynesia, with magnificent scenic viewpoints over the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, 19th century churches, and idyllic beaches. At lunchtime, you’ll have a barbecue picnic on a motu followed by an afternoon of snorkeling, swimming and basking in the sun. You have to agree, days don’t get much better than that!
Having explored the lagoon, it’s time to explore Mangareva itself. The road round the island is 13 miles long and you can rent a car, borrow a bike, or walk round it if you’re feeling energetic. The last option is the best way to meet the locals, who will be delighted to point out the sites you should visit, such as Saint-Joseph’s Church, which was built in the village of Taku in 1836. There are also many scenic viewpoints around the island and several little villages, where you can stop for a while to take photos and chat with the villagers.
Time for a little shopping
At the end of your stay, spend a little time in Rikitea, visiting the art and craft shops and pearl boutiques. Woven hats and baskets, seashell jewelry and Tahitian pearls, all make superb souvenirs and gifts for friends and family back home.
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