On its 64 square miles, Raiatea is a quite sleepy island with a population of about 12,500.Â Raiatea and neighboring Taha’a are surrounded by the same corral reef and may have at one time been one island.Â In Tahitian, Raiatea means “bright sky” or “sky with soft light.”Â
Raiatea was enormously important to ancient Polynesians as the religious, cultural, and administrative center over 1000 years ago.Â The Marae Taputaputatea is the most significant archaeological site outside of Easter Island (although we have heard this claim before in Hiva Oa).Â A Polynesian Mount Olympus of sorts, Mount Temehani is an extinct flat-top volcano that towers over northern Raiatea.Â Polynesian folklore says that Oro, the god of war and fertility, was born there.
Raiatea’s major town, Uturoa is the second most populous city in French Polynesia after Papeete with a population of about 4000.Â Uturoa was established by Reverend John Williams, a very active evangelist throughout the South Pacific, when set up a London Missionary Society headquarters in the 1820′s.Â
Uturoa and Papeete are the only two destinations in French Polynesia with modern cruise ship terminals and docks that can accommodate mega-vessels.Â Additionally, Raiatea is the jumping off point of many sailboat charters since the closely situated leeward islands and the prevailing winds of the South Pacific offer a perfect week long sailing tour.Â Even so, tourism is not Raiatea’s major industry as it has no beaches to speak of.Â Agriculture, cattle ranching, and government administration are more prevalent.
My Lonely Planet guide book says that Uturoa’s lack of charm is what makes it charming.Â After spending a day walking around, I found that statement to be pretty harsh.Â Everyone is very friendly; cars always stop for pedestrians; the town’s three grocery stores are clean and very well stocked.Â We frequently caught a quick lunch at the Snack Moemoea which was good and reasonably priced.Â We also checked out the roulette on the waterfront which served up some dreamy French fries covered in Roquefort.
Uturoa also has a very nice farmer’s market with locally grown produce.Â We had read previously that French Polynesia is quite famous for its melons, but we have yet to find any.Â As such, we started getting really excited when we spied a table full of huge watermelons across the room.Â Then we noticed the price tag.Â 4100 French Polynesian Francs.Â Yes, it’s true, $54 for a watermelon.Â While these watermelons looked really nice, there is absolutely no way that I will ever spend $54 on a watermelon!
The city dock is well protected in that it is behind Raiatea’s fringing reef, but otherwise, it is quite exposed to the prevailing winds.Â While at the dock, we experienced our first Maramu’u in full force.Â For four cold and blustery days, the winds gusted to 40 knots from the south, and the normally flat lagoon turned rough and choppy.Â Spectacle held on to the dock pretty well, but the wind howling through the rigging and waves slapping the hull made it difficult to sleep.Â The local windsurfers, however, were absolutely loving it!Â Right from the boat, we had a front row seat for some of the best windsurfing conditions in the world.