Some people collect seashells. I collect lagoons. You know the kind I mean; you see them in dreams just after you fall asleep. Shimmering aquamarine water, virgin white sand and towering palm trees swaying slightly in the breeze.
My quest has led me around the globe, but most often to the South Seas, where Bora-Bora and a handful of other islands are said to have the most beautiful lagoons in the world. When I recently heard about a place that was better than Bora, I had to see it for myself. Indeed, what I found was not only a remarkable lagoon, but also an incredible place, natural and unspoiled. And that's another part of my quest: to spend time in some of the world's last untouched places.
Raivavae (pronounced ray-ee-va-vey) may well be one of these. It is part of the Austral Islands, a pretty group of seven French Polynesian islands (two uninhabited) south of Tahiti. Most are mountainous and green, but the real stunner is Raivavae, which looks a lot like Bora, with a tall volcanic mountain surrounded by a lagoon and coral islets floating on a turquoise sea.
The resemblance ends there; Raivavae has no T-shirt shops, no postcards, no hotels, not even a restaurant. Just a happy population of 900 self-sufficient souls. Score 10 points in my search for a 21st century Eden.
"People say Bora-Bora looked like this 75 years ago," said Maitu Asshetorn, who with her husband, Edmond Flores, runs a small home-stay pension. The couple brought leis to welcome us at the airport when we visited in January.
We clambered into their pickup truck for a 10-minute ride to their lagoon-front home. There are six pensions on the island. A few offer individual cottages for guests (some on the lagoon); others, such as the Flores family's, share bedrooms in their homes.
We unloaded the truck, and I hurried outside to see the lagoon that had brought me here.
I wasn't disappointed. Turquoise water stretched as far as I could see, with a few sandy motus, or islets, in the distance. I walked out on a dock over the lagoon. It was longer than a football field and brought me to 8-foot-deep waters, where I could lean over the edge and see schools of colorful fish playing tag around the coral that studded the clear waters below.
I'd heard that Maurice the eel was waiting to slither out of his hiding place and show me his sharp teeth, but I didn't see him.
Flores is a fifth-generation Raivavae resident, and like his predecessors he's a fisherman. Most of the couple's guests go on sport fishing trips to catch giant marlin and tuna.
There's no lack of fish either in the lagoon or outside the reef, and photos of past visitors show the smiling faces of fishermen holding huge trophy catches.
I skipped fishing to take a bike ride; the only road stretches less than 15 miles and encircles the 6-mile-long, 1-mile-wide island. A circle-island bike trip takes only about two hours.
On the way, visitors see a sweeping blue lagoon and 1,400-foot tall Mt. Hiro overlooking a green mountainous interior. Cyclists also pass four small villages, five churches and a handful of magasins, or small shops.
The residents here fish and farm taro and other crops. Their pastel-colored homes look tidy and are surrounded by flowers. Everyone you see smiles broadly and offers a warm bonjour, bonsoir or ia orana, the Tahitian term for hello.
On Sunday morning, all roads — OK, just the one road — lead to one of the island's churches. I visited the Zion Temple, where two drummers, six ukulele players and dozens of singing parishioners created a foot-tapping extravaganza no Broadway show could match.
We also spent a day on a couple of the island's motus, making the trip from Raivavae on Flores' 24-foot inboard fishing boat.
We took a picnic lunch that included fresh fish — every meal we ate here included fresh fish — and played on beaches that looked even better than the beaches in my dream lagoon.
One of the islets, Motu Piscina, or Swimming Pool Island, is known throughout French Polynesia for its beauty. We walked miles along its shoreline and swam and snorkeled in shallow water whose vivid turquoise seemed almost surreal.
Life has a different pace in Raivavae, where adults live simply and in harmony with the land and the sea and kids play in the lagoon instead of maxing out with computer games. I loved it, but it's not for everyone.
Most people speak only French, and accommodations are rustic at best. If you're game, however, you'll find that islanders love to share their stunning lagoon and traditional way of life.
"Everything we do," Maitu said, "we do with our hearts."
If you go:
THE BEST WAY TO THE AUSTRAL ISLANDS, FRENCH POLYNESIA
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Raivavae is offered on Air Tahiti Nui, which connects to Air France or Air Tahiti. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,595, including all taxes and fees. Travel to and from the destination may not be offered every day. Check with the airlines or a travel agent.
To call French Polynesia, dial 011 (the international code), 689 (the country code for French Polynesia), 40 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Pension Raivavae Tama, BP 17 Raivavae, French Polynesia; 95-42-74, http://www.raivavaetama.com. Five small, rustic guesthouses, each with private bath, at the edge of the lagoon. Two or three meals available daily. Bicycles, airport pickup, other activities available. Excellent location, English-speaking host. $80 per person daily, including two meals.
Pension Chez Linda, P.O. Box 45, Rairua, Raivavae, French Polynesia; 95-44-25, www.pensionlindaraivavae.pf/en/. Polynesian-style bungalows with baths, across the highway from the lagoon. Airport pickup and activities available. $100 per person daily, including two meals.
Pension Rau'uru, Rairua, Raivavae, French Polynesia; 95-42-88, email@example.com [no website]. Fisherman Edmond Flores runs fishing trips for guests, who stay in three bedrooms inside the family home. Shared bath. $94 per person daily; includes three meals.
Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, BP 1005, Papetoai, 98728, French Polynesia; 55-1111, http://www.hilton.com. You won't find luxury and over-water bungalows in the Austral Islands, but you can in Moorea, which is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Tahiti. This small Hilton is the best game on the island, offering beautiful grounds and lagoon views without the crazy touristy attitude you'll find in Bora-Bora. Rates from $365 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Stand-alone restaurants are uncommon in the Austral Islands, but many pensions offer visitors hearty fare. Make reservations early in the day.
In Moorea, try Snack Mahana, PK 23, Moorea, French Polynesia; 56-41-70. This open-air cafe serves breakfast and lunch overlooking the lagoon. Try grilled mahi-mahi or another fish of the day or order a burger. Very mellow, very tasty. Entrees $11-$19.
TO LEARN MORE
Tahiti Tourisme, (310) 414-8484, http://www.tahiti-tourisme.com