Ask someone what they know about Tahiti and most likely they’ll say Bora Bora or possibly Papeete, maybe Moorea. I doubt you’ll hear mention of Manihi or Tikehau, two coral islands that are just as much part of French Polynesia and just as dreamily beautiful as Tahiti’s Society Islands.
These lesser-known atolls are in the Tuamotu archipelago and remain relatively ‘undiscovered’. This is where to go to see what Tahiti was like before it became such a famous destination.
To get there I fly north from Papeete for 90 minutes. On the map, Manihi is an almost infinitesimal speck in the immense ocean, so tiny that when the ATR42-500 banks sharply to start its descent I’m surprised the pilot has managed to find it. With a bump and subsequent bounce we’re down and speeding along a runway of crushed, impacted coral. The airport terminal is a palm-thatch hut beneath a motionless windsock.
The Tuamotu archipelago is the world’s largest atoll cluster, a collection of 78 ring-shaped coral islands, lagoons and reefs scattered across the ocean halfway between Tahiti’s Society Islands and the Marquesas archipelago to the north. Manihi’s layout is typical: several motu (sand islands) denote the fringes of an enormous azure lagoon. Beyond them, a thin white line on the surface of the water marks where the outer reef drops off into fathomless ocean.
Without access to a boat you don’t really go far on Manihi. But isn’t that the substance of any escape to a remote Pacific atoll? Nowhere else to go, with heaps of time in which to do nothing much at all?
I ride a bike for as far as I can along the motu on which both the air strip and the Manihi Pearl Resort are located. My ride takes me past isolated homes set within shady coconut groves but soon I reach the end of the road. A channel of water separates my slice of sandy heaven from the next.
While at the Pearl I sleep in an overwater bure cooled by breezes wafting off the lagoon. At dawn I slip with mask and snorkel into the lagoon and glide over coral gardens while occasionally being nibbled by curious resident fish. Reef sharks patrol out in deeper water.
Manihi Blue Nui Dive Centre offers drift diving through the Tairapa Pass, which is the lagoon’s sole access to the sea. And there are several dive sites along the outer reef. One popular plunge is called the Circus, presumably for all the clown fish seen there?
One morning I climb aboard Captain Kanu’s boat to motor the entire 28 kilometre length of Manihi’s brilliant lagoon, stopping along the way to dangle lines weighted with bait. Almost instantly we hook wide-mouthed, spotted creatures from the deep and some silvery fish that make Captain Kanu lick his lips. We stop at a beach for a swim and BBQ.
Captain Kanu shins up a nearby palm tree with the agility of a monkey, tosses down some coconuts, climbs down and then rips off the tough hairy coconut husks with his teeth! We devour grilled fish and succulent fresh fruit while sitting on golden sands beside Manihi’s limpid lagoon. Pacific island bliss doesn’t get better than this.
Stay Tuamotu: Of the four atolls that take tourists the most popular is Rangiroa, 175 km south west of Manihi. It’s the world’s second largest atoll, with some spectacular dives, four hotels and several homestays. Tikehau is close to Rangiroa and like Manihi has just one resort, as does Fakarava to the south east. The atolls also have a few family-run pensions.