"Ia Ora Na", "Maeva" and "Manava" are the three words of welcome used by Polynesians to greet you. Over these pages, discover our fenua - our country - which is sure to make a lasting impression on you…
118 islands in the middle of the Pacific
Situated right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia spans 5.5 million km², an area the size of Europe. The 118 islands comprising it have a total land area of more than 4,000 km². These stunning islands, all different, are grouped into five archipelagos, each with its own particular characteristics.
The Society Islands, made up of the Windward and Leeward Islands, are a group of tropical high islands ringed by lagoons. They include:
- Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia and home to the administrative centre, Papeete, and the territory's only international airport;
- Moorea, whose volcanic peaks are reflected in a lagoon of turquoise waters, separated from Tahiti by a deep channel 17 km (10.5 mi) wide;
- Huahine, a wild and mysterious island, 175 km (108.5 mi) northwest of Tahiti, a well-kept secret with enduring traditions;
- Raiatea et Taha'a, sacred islands with fertile valleys, which share the same lagoon and offer a particularly pleasant setting for boating;
- Bora Bora, of great renown, which dominates the unreal beauty of its waters teeming with fish, its motus with their palm groves ringed with white sand, and its coral gardens;
- Maupiti, or "heart island", nestled in the centre of a jade lagoon.
The Tuamotu Archipelago comprises a myriad of low islands or "atolls", simple rings of coral set with green islets and enclosing sumptuous lagoons. Among them, Rangiroa, Tikehau, Manihi and Fakarava are the most visited.
Situated in the extreme east of the territory, the Gambier Islands are comprised of the high island of Mangareva and its belt of islets, remnants of the collapsed slopes of its ancient volcanic crater.
The Marquesas Islands consist of a dozen high islands, like dark green fortresses bursting forth from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, located close to the equator and 1,500 kilometres (932 mi) from Tahiti. Only six of these islands are inhabited: Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Ua Pou, Ua Huka, Fatu Hiva and Tahuata.
The furthermost inhabited lands of the South Pacific, off the conventional tourist trail, the Austral Islands are extinct volcanoes, but with gentler slopes and lower summits than those of the other archipelagos, with the exception of Rapa.
Volcanic high islands and coral atolls
Of the islands in this overseas territory which is part of France, most people have only heard of Tahiti and Bora Bora (both in the Society Islands), such is their mythical status. Yet each of the five Polynesian archipelagos (the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Gambier Islands, the Marquesas, and the Austral Islands) has its own unique face, according to its geographical location and whether it consists of high islands of volcanic origin (a total of 35 islands in the Society, Marquesas and Austral Islands) or coral atolls (83 atolls, in the Tuamotus and Gambier Islands).
Of the high islands, Tahiti is the biggest, with a surface area of more than 1,000 km², and most populated (approximately 178,000 inhabitants, or 70% of the total population).
A preserved territory
5,700 km (3,542 mi) from the nearest continent - Australia - and a mother country, France, on almost the opposite side of the globe, 17,000 km (10,563 mi) away. Stardust scattered far from the main economic and political hubs, the main feature of Tahiti and its islands is their isolation. Some islands have no more than a few hundred - or even a few dozen - inhabitants, and forty remain uninhabited.
This geographical isolation has proved an asset in attracting tourists to the islands, as an exotic, dream location with a preserved natural environment. Meanwhile, the growth of new technologies (internet, satellite TV, etc.), contributes increasingly to connecting Tahiti and its islands to the rest of the world. The quality of health and education infrastructure, transport and the proportion of the population who own cars, computers and domestic appliances make this apparently isolated territory one of the most modern in the South Pacific.
The settlement of the Polynesian Triangle
The Polynesian Triangle consists of the islands of the Pacific that were successively settled by Polynesian navigators: the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand. These populations share the same linguistic and cultural roots and have similar traditions, culinary customs and mythology. The Marquesas were the first islands to be settled by Polynesians, in around the 3rd century AD. The first inhabitants of the Hawaiian islands (4,500 km – 2,796 mi - north of Tahiti) are said to have been Marquesans who arrived there between 500 and 800 AD, navigating by the stars. They went on to find the American continent, which marked the end of their exploration of the eastern Pacific. On their return, they discovered New Zealand (around the year 800), which they called Aotearoa, meaning "the land of the long white cloud". Finally, the Marquesans settled on Easter Island (Rapa Nui), which lies 4,000 km (2,485 mi) southeast of the Marquesas.
In great canoes...
The generally accepted theory today is that Southeast Asia was the starting point for mass migrations which, three or four thousand years ago, led to the settlement of the Pacific by the Polynesians.
Aboard double-hulled sailing canoes built of wood and plaited fibres, these intrepid early navigators used their knowledge of the wind, currents and stars to sail east, colonising the groups of islands in the central Pacific (the Cook Islands, Tahiti and its islands, etc.) between 500 BC and 500 AD.
These great expeditions, which came to an end in around 1000 AD, resulted in the Polynesian Triangle, composed of Hawaii (in the north), Easter Island (in the east), Tahiti and its islands (in the west) and New Zealand (in the southwest). The different languages spoken in these islands, derived from the Ma'ohi tongue, bear witness to the common origins of their inhabitants.
The arrival of the Europeans
In the 16th century, first Magellan then Mendaña reached the Tuamotus and the Marquesas respectively. However, it is the Englishman Samual Wallis who is remembered for the European discovery of Tahiti, in 1767. The following year, the Frenchman Antoine de Bougainville named the island "New Cythera". A year later, Captain James Cook disembarked there and took possession of the Society Islands. At the time, Tahiti and its islands were divided into a series of chieftainships and kingdoms, and Polynesian cosmology comprised various divinities. Gradually, Protestant and Catholic missionaries evangelised the islands, but in around 1797, with the help of the Europeans, one of the chieftains succeeded in asserting his supremacy and founded the Pomare Dynasty.
In the 19th century, Tahiti and its islands were the scene of religious, commercial and strategic rivalry between the French and the English. In 1842, a protectorate treaty was finally signed between France and Queen Pomare IV (concerning Tahiti and Moorea) and, in 1880, Pomare V, the last king of Tahiti, agreed to its annexation.
The 1960s marked a turning point for Tahiti and its islands, which suddenly found themselves thrust into the age of modernity, with the setting up of the Pacific Experimentation Centre (CEP), in 1963, leading to an influx of islanders to Tahiti, growth of local businesses and the service sector, improved living standards and the discovery of, and confrontation with, a hitherto unknown consumer society.
- 3000 - 4000 BC: Beginning of the waves of settlement of the South Pacific from Southeast Asia.
- 3rd to 6th century: First settlement on the Marquesas Islands.
- 850 to 1000: From the Marquesas, colonisation of the Leeward Islands, Hawaii, Cook Islands, Easter Island and New Zealand.
- 1521: Magellan discovers part of the Tuamotus.
- 1595: Álvaro de Mendaña discovers the Marquesas.
- 1767: Arrival of Wallis in Tahiti.
- 1768: Bougainville names Tahiti "New Cythera".
- 1769: Cook's first voyage to Tahiti.
- 1768: Arrival of Bougainville in Tahiti. He takes possession of the Society Islands.
- 1774: Cook takes a Tahitian, Pa'i, back to Europe.
- 1773: Cook's second voyage to Tahiti.
- 1777: Cook's last voyage to Polynesia.
- 1788-91: Mutiny on the Bounty.
- 1793: Beginning of the Pomare Dynasty.
- 1797: Arrival of the first missionaries of the London Missionary Society.
- 1797: Creation of the Pomare Dynasty.
- 1815: Polynesian chiefs lose the Battle of Fei Pi. Pomare II converts to Christianity.
- 1819: Pomare II draws up the Pomare Code.
- 1836: English Protestants obtain the explusion of the French missionaries.
- 1841: Dupetit Thouars proclaims Tahiti a French protectorate, an initiative ratified by Great Britain.
- 1844-47: Franco-Tahitian War.
- 1847: Pomare IV accepts the French protectorate.
- 1914-18 / 1939-45: Many islanders depart to support French troops.
- 1958: The French Settlements in Oceania (Etablissements Français d'Océanie) become French Polynesia.
An omnipresent traditional culture
Cradle of the Ma'ohi civilisation which spread throughout the Polynesian Triangle, the Marquesas Islands have imposing remains and lasting traditions.
The tiki, stone statues, and the me'ae and paepae, religious sites and sacred places composed of stones raised and aligned or assembled in pyramids, are found on all the islands.
The rebirth of traditional art forms is seen in the development of tattoos, an early, ancestral expression of political, social and religious symbols and values. Today they are about adorning and embellishing the body, and the visual appeal of the designs takes precedence over their original, primary meaning.
Dance and polyphonic song forms, such as tarava, 'ute or ru'au, which are the truest expression of the Polynesian spirit, are also seeing a revival.
This intense cultural movement blossoms at numerous festivals, the main one being the grandiose Heiva i Tahiti, in July, where groups of up to 150 singers, dancers, musicians and actors vie with each other in the creativity of their music, dance and costumes. Poetry has also earned acclaim in the art of 'orero, or oratory, an ancestral oral tradition of spectacular tirades, often accompanied by the pure sound of the nose flute, or vivo.
Polynesian culture has its roots in the mythical origins of the great seafaring ancestors who settled in the islands 3,000 years ago. It has been passed down from generation to generation through the sacred word. Of oral tradition, it has survived through the centuries, at times forgotten by all, only to emerge once again, just where it was feared to have disappeared.
The singers of today draw on this ancient tradition for the magnificent strains of their hymns, sacred and profane, whose echoes are lost in the constant murmur of the ocean on the reef. It is the source of inspiration for dancers to create their dazzling dances, and for va'a enthusiasts to discover the art of building these sleek outrigger canoes and make them glide over ocean and lagoon!
From tradition comes the art of the percussive sounds that emanate from the great booming pahu and the rattling to'ere, the art of beautiful, complex tatoos and the art of Marquesan wood carvings, derived from the great tiki, stone statues which still stand amid the lava of the marae, at the bottom of secret valleys.
In the fertile islands of Polynesia, all talents conspire with the splendours of nature to make craft... into art.
In pre-European Polynesia, dances "were numerous and diverse" (W. Ellis, 1831), but little is known about them. We know only that both men and women danced, either together or separately. Some dances were performed standing, others sitting. Musicians accompanied the dances with a limited number of instruments: chiefly the pahu (double-skin drum) and vivo (nose flute).
Associated, like tattoos, with nudity and therefore with obscenity, dancing was prohibited by the missionaries. It was not until the 1950s that this ancestral art once again found its place among Polynesian customs, being revived thanks to oral transmission and travellers' accounts.
In present-day Tahitian dance, there are four main types:
- Otea : Originally, this must have been something of a war dance, restricted to the menfolk. It has become the most famous of Tahitian dances. It is choreographed around a theme, accompanied by percussion instruments, and consists of rhythmic motifs called pehe.
- Aparima : In this dance, the dancers' hands act out the story. The aparima is either vava (silent), in which case it is a mime show, usually performed on the knees and accompanied by percussion, or himene (sung), where the movements relate to a song accompanied by stringed instruments.
- Hivinau : In this dance, male and female dancers move round in a circle, while a male soloist sings a phrase which is repeated by the chorus. The orchestra consists of various drums and the rhythm is marked by the dancers' chants.
- Pa'o'a : This dance appears to depict the activity of tapa making, a kind of parchment made from plant matter. Male and female dancers crouch in a semi-circle and a vocal soloist sings a theme, to which the chorus replies. Then one couple rises and performs a brief dance in the circle, to the sound of hi's and ha's.
The other groups of islands were heavily influenced by Tahitian dance, but they have preserved some of their own: the "bird dance" in the Marquesas, kapa in the Tuamotus and pe'i in the Gambier Islands.
Today's orchestras use percussion and stringed instruments. The percussion instruments include the to'ere, the fa'atete, the double-skin pahu, beaten with a stick, and the single-skin pahu tupa'i rima, which is played with the hands. The stringed instruments are the ukulele and guitar.
Other instruments long since disappeared have gradually reappeared, such as the ihara, a slit bamboo drum, and the vivo nose flute. In addition, all sorts of sounds are obtained by striking stones and shells with penu (pestles) or coconuts.
Polynesia's skilled artisans are extremely productive, as shown by the many exhibitions held throughout the year in each archipelago. Many woven articles are produced, such as hats, bags, baskets and mats. The women of the Austral Islands are particularly skilled weavers of plant fibres from the pandanus, coconut palm and 'a'eho reed.
A taste for observation and a love of nature are found in the sumptuous tifaifai, bedspreads with handsewn ethnic or plant motifs. The women's creativity and passion for this item of furnishing typical of the fare, or Polynesian homes, have led to the organising of an annual tifaifai exhibition. Another form of artistic expression is woodcarving, a domain exclusive to men. Woodcarvers draw on their own inspiration as well as ancestral, graphic or symbolic motifs, to produce works in precious woods such as tou, the local rosewood, miro and tulipwood. The Marquesans excell at this activity and produce some superb pieces: spears, clubs and umete, a fruit bowl which can be used as a large serving dish. Sometimes volcanic rock, coral and even bone is used to fashion a wide variety of decorative and utilitarian objects, such as penu, or pestles.
Lastly, the revival of pearl oysters has brought to light the iridescent shades of polished nacre (mother-of-pearl). Its mesmeric changing colours make it a decorative element of choice for embellishing dance costumes or making dazzling jewellery.
Tahitian pearls are formed by the secretion of nacre by a particular species of oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, which thrives in the warm Polynesian waters. For the past 40 years, island life - particularly in the Tuamotus and Gambier Islands - has revolved around the harvesting of this famous gem, cultivated in the lagoons. It is a lengthy process: after four years of painstaking care and attention, the cultured oysters produce only a small number of pearls that are fit for sale, while round pearls without any imperfections are very rare.
Tahitian cultured pearls are approved for sale on the international market by the World Jewellery Confederation (CIBJO), which gave its endorsement in 1976, and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), which has authenticated their natural colours.
For although the size and shine of a Tahitian pearl are part of its personality, the incredible variety of colours are what make it a jewel without equal. Although often referred to as "black pearls", they are found in colours ranging from very light grey to deep charcoal grey, with some far more original variations in between, such as ivory, pale pink, rich gold, pistachio, lagoon blue and grey-green.
These myriad colours are the result of an incredible natural alchemy, influenced among other things by the colour of the oyster, the temperature and salinity of the water, the depth, and the plankton and mineral content of the lagoon...
As a result of this process, Tahitian pearls are always different, always unique, and - a fact sufficiently unusual as to warrant a mention - are worn by both women and men. Indifferent to the effects of fashion, they attract celebrities and top designers, who are mad about their mystical connotation and contemporary chic.
Fashion designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen have long since adopted them for their collections, while all the world's iconic women wear them, including Kate Moss, Jerry Hall, Sharon Stone, Liz Taylor and Joan Collins...
Although the most familiar image is of perfectly round pearls, Tahitian pearls are in fact found in far more original shapes. Pearl farmers generally classify their pearls into five shapes: round, semi-round (near-spherical pearls with slight variations in diameter), circled (with grooves on their surfaces), semi-baroque (symmetrical, non-spherical pearls, which may be pear-shaped, drop-shaped, button-shaped, etc.) and baroque (completely asymmetrical).
Pearls to suit all tastes
The wide variety of shapes and colours of Tahitian pearls makes them an endless source of inspiration for jewellery and fashion designers. A good idea of the wealth of possibilities offered by pearls can be gained from Polynesian jewellers' windows.
If you are looking for a discreet piece, you might, for example, choose a single pearl mounted on gold, diamond, silver, steel or leather as, according to its colour, a pearl goes with any type of material. Some designers create superb pieces by combining several different pearls. Depending on the desired effect, these pieces may be perfectly symmetrical (pearls of the same size or arranged in ascending/descending size order) or unicolour (assortment of pearls of the same colour), or quite the opposite - asymmetrical, bicolour or multicoloured (designs made of completely different pearls).
In addition to this wide range of jewellery, Tahitian pearls are also used in conjunction with other materials, such as precious stones or engraved mother-of-pearl.
Most Tahitian pearl merchants sell, in addition to their collections of finely worked jewellery, a wide range of raw pearls. So you can choose exactly the pearl or pearls that appeal to you, and have your own bespoke jewellery made. All you need to do is tell the jeweller what you have in mind, and he will mount your pearls according to your wishes.
If the pearl is intended as a gift or if you would like to have it mounted later, you can ask the jeweller or pearl farmer simply to drill a hole in it.
Pearls aren't the only treasure produced from Polynesian oysters. Mother-of-pearl from the shells is another natural resource exploited by jewellers. After sorting, the mother-of-pearl is cleaned, pumiced and polished to obtain an iridescent shine. It is then cut or engraved with Polynesian motifs to make a wide variety of jewellery.
Mother-of-pearl jewellery can be admired and purchased from all tourism establishments in the islands: Papeete market, Tahiti seafront, hotel and airport gift shops, craft centres, etc.
Monoi oil is made by combining two of Polynesia's emblematic natural resources: the tiare, or Tahitian gardenia, and the coconut. Although this sacred oil has been an intrinsic part of everyday life going right back to the early Tahitians, who used it as a health and beauty product, its fate was to change dramatically in 1942. That year, the founders of the future Parfumerie Tiki began selling it commercially, while preserving ancestral production techniques. Recycled medicine bottles were used to package the product, and a real tiare flower was added to each bottle.
Today, this famous product is sold throughout the world in a variety of forms, including hair lotion, insect repellent and tanning oil, all of which are available in a range of fragrances.
And, of course, the fabulous story of monoi doesn't end there. Other cosmetics companies have also succeeded in adapting Polynesian traditions to new technologies to produce new ranges of products. Under the leadership of researchers, monoi has been successively combined with other local natural resources, such as vanilla, pearl extract, frangipani and sandalwood, to produce all kinds of body care products: body mousses, shampoos, soaps, perfumes, body milks, and so on.
The enchanting scent and moisturising and repairing power of monoi oil have even won over the top cosmetics brands. So don't be surprised to find monoi among the ingredients of your favourite beauty products. Some are even labelled "Monoï de Tahiti Appellation d'Origine", recognisable by its flower logo and which guarantees the authenticity of the ingredients used and compliance with the required minimum content.
It is the combination of its exotic fragrance, natural ingredients and active properties that makes monoi oil so popular with laboratories and consumers. Numerous in vivo tests have demonstrated its moisturising and repairing properties, ideal for regenerating the skin and embellishing the hair fibres. In addition, the product is harmless, making it safe to use, with no risk of allergic or skin reaction.
Monoi oil can therefore be used quite safely to enhance the natural beauty of your face, body and hair, or to soothe and nourish your skin after exposure to the sun. This sensual product can also be used as a massage oil or bath oil. The ultimate relaxation and wellness product!
Tahitian vanilla, a treasure from the Americas…
One of the most precious treasures of the Polynesian Eden, Tahitian vanilla is reputed to be the most exquisite variety of vanilla in the world. Its unique fragrance is partly due to its incredible history, which can be traced across time and the ocean. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside claim that Tahitian vanilla is the result of a crossing of two vanilla species by the great Central American civilisation of the Mayas, which disappeared in the 16th century.
According to the researchers, the Mayas took Bourbon vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) and the extremely rare Vanilla odorata and produced the famed Vanilla tahitensis, to take the bitter edge off the chocolate of which they were so fond. The plants were then exported on Spanish galleons to the Philippines, where this same species of vanilla is found today with the name "Guatemalan vanilla". In the 19th century, it crossed the Pacific once again, this time on board a French ship, to disembark in French Polynesia and become "Tahitian vanilla".
A painstaking skill
But not everything can be left to History. To obtain the precious pods, Polynesian vanilla growers must carry out a whole series of highly complex tasks on the vines. The plants require a hot, humid climate and plenty of shade in order to produce the orchids which in turn will produce this most sought-after of spices.
The first flowers appear after two long years of growth, and must then be pollinated by hand, one by one. The flower lasts only 24 hours, which means several thousand flowers must be hand-pollinated in just a few days. The base of the flower then broadens to form a pod, and another nine months of patience are required for it to reach maturity.
And the growers' work doesn't end there. After harvesting, the vanilla has to be cured. This involves browning, cleaning, sun-drying, air-drying, grading and conditioning, all of which demands painstaking care in order to guarantee the quality of the spice.
Unique aromas and flavours
The main reason why Tahitian vanilla enjoys such a fine reputation among gourmets is because its pods can be harvested intact when fully mature, unlike those of other species, which must be harvested earlier so as to prevent them from splitting and losing their taste qualities. This means Tahitian vanilla has two extra months in which to produce seeds and develop its aromatic properties.
The combination of its origins, its unique properties and Polynesian know-how is what has made this subtle spice the finest in the world.
Tattoos appear to have existed throughout the islands which form what is today known as the Polynesian Triangle: French Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, Easter Island and the Cook Islands. They are found in different forms in all of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, except the southern Austral Islands and the eastern Tuamotus. Yet despite being widespread in ancient times, their origins are hazy, going back beyond the earliest traces of Ma'ohi civilisation, to be lost in Polynesia's mythical beginnings. The word "tattoo" comes from the Tahitian tatau, from ta, to strike.
Beware of mixing up the different kinds of Polynesian tattoos. For example, Tahitian and Marquesan tattoos are completely different, both from a graphic and a symbolic point of view. In the Leeward Islands, the commonest designs were abstract geometric shapes (circles, crescents, rectangles) and figurative motifs (animals and plants), tattooed on the arms, legs and shoulders. In the Marquesas Islands, the art of the tattoo is said to have seen unrivalled development, given the great richness and elaborate nature of their designs. In this remote archipelago, the name for tattoo is e patu tiki, meaning "to strike images", which reveals a lot...
Marquesan designs have a particularly geometric style. Tiki, the first man, who became a deified ancestor, is frequently depicted. Yet his appearance is stylised in so many different ways that, to the untrained eye, it is practically impossible to recognise!
The same goes for the animal and plant motifs, which are also highly geometric. Turtles, lizards, rays, moray eels, fish heads, bamboo, banyan roots and palm fronds represent, in a highly stylised manner, the natural terrestrial and marine beauty of the islands.
Past and present
Today, it is especially difficult to trace the origins and meanings of tattoos because tattooing ceased to be practised for more than a century and a half. In 1819, the Pomare Code, named after the first Polynesian king to convert to Catholicism, prohibited the practice.
It was not until the 1980s that this art form was revived in French Polynesia. Today, a new generation of particularly talented tattoo artists ensures the cultural revival of Ma'ohi tattoos, to the delight of the local population and visitors.
Enjoying optimum climate conditions, French Polynesia is a veritable Garden of Eden, where exuberance and abundance go hand in hand. In this sun-drenched country, farmers cultivate a wide variety of fruits, spices and vegetables, with names evocative of distant lands. These exotic treasures are so popular with consumers because they combine aromatic qualities and nutritional benefits, to delight both the body and the taste buds.
The legendary breadfruit, or 'uru, coconut, dozens of varieties of banana, including the incomparable fe'i banana, and a wide variety of root vegetables, including taro, tarua, ufi and 'umara, form the basis of Polynesian cuisine. Meanwhile, papaya, mango, pineapple, watermelon, grapefruit and lime are combined with vanilla to make delicious desserts.
Fish from the lagoons and the open sea, such as snapper, dolphinfish (mahi mahi) and parrotfish, found especially in the Tuamotu Archipelago, are also on the menu of typical Polynesian dishes. Fish is often eaten raw, sometimes marinated in lime juice and coconut milk, as in the world-famous "Poisson cru à la tahitienne".
All these tropical ingredients make their way into the traditional ahima'a, the Polynesian oven used to stew fruit, vegetables, suckling pig, chicken with fafa (local spinach) and other delicacies, such as po'e, the local fruit pudding, all served with lashings of fresh, creamy coconut milk.
Many tourism providers also offer the opportunity to discover the flavours of the islands, with organised picnics on a beach or motu (islet), where you get to eat with your feet in the water. These trips are the perfect opportunity to enjoy freshly caught fish, such as the flavoursome ume, the spangled emperor and small trevallies.
Tahiti and the high islands owe part of their reputation to their lush tropical vegetation, which fascinates visitors. Visiting the many parks and botanical gardens (in Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Tahaa and Ua Huka) is a real voyage of discovery of an extraordinarily rich flora.
Plants with many uses
During the course of his migrations, man introduced numerous "traditional" useful species, used for food, clothing and medicines. The settlement of the Polynesian islands by the first Maoris brought an initial selection of food plants, including the coconut, mape (Tahitian chestnut), uru (breadfruit) and yam, all of which originated in Indo-Malaysia, and also sugar cane, banana and ambarella, or pommier-cythère.
The early missionaries, too, brought new useful plants (e.g. tamarind, lemon, avocado, vanilla and mango) and ornamental flowers. The Polynesian plant-based pharmacopoeia comprises many raau, or remedies, which to this day are passed down from generation to generation. Meanwhile, certain species are widely used as traditional building materials, including structures of bamboo or coconut palm trunks and roofing made of niau (woven coconut palm fronds) or pandanus.
On the mountainous islands, the vegetation grows in tiers according to altitude, soil, exposure to wind and sunshine, and rainfall. The coastal plains are the domain of the coconut groves and many other species of tree (aito, frangipani, mango, tamanu, etc.). The valleys, meanwhile, present varied flora as a result of crop cultivation and large-scale irrigation. The plateaux and summits are home mostly to indigenous species, including tree ferns and numerous endemic shrubs.
While the high islands have around a thousand different plant species, the low islands, or atolls, under the influence of the wind and sea spray, have no more than a hundred or so, the commonest being tou, coconut palm, fara (pandanus), nono and miki miki...
Flowers: a way of life
Flowers are part of Polynesian life and culture. From the minute they get off the plane, travellers are welcomed with fragrant, colourful necklaces. It was also the custom to give necklaces of tiaré flowers to departing travellers to bring them luck, but for plant health reasons, the flower necklaces have been replaced by shell necklaces. Flowers are a symbol of celebration, pleasure and rejoicing. Around Papeete market, the women make floral crowns which the Polynesians wear on special occasions like weddings or just for an evening with friends.
Flowers are the source of many Polynesian legends. The tiare flower, known today as tiare tahiti to distinguish it from the word tiare, which means flowers in general, is said to have been created by the god Atea with the help of Tane, the god of beauty. In the era of the Polynesian ancestors, only kings and princes were allowed to pick this sacred flower. Later on, it was used only as a symbol of love. It was customary for the home and bed of Polynesian newlyweds to be covered in these pure white flowers for thirty days. Their scent was said to enable the young couple to attain the god Atea's secret of plenitude. Today, the tiare remains a symbol of love: when worn on the left ear, it means the wearer's heart is taken; but, on the right, it means her heart is for the taking...
Coconut, the multi-purpose fruit!
The coconut palm is both a symbol of Tahiti and a vital resource for its inhabitants. The precious nut it produces has many uses: its water, deliciously refreshing, quenches the thirst, while its flesh, grated and pressed, produces a fragrant milk for use in all kinds of sauces, in particular to prepare the famous "poisson cru au lait de coco". At a more advanced stage of maturity, the coconut flesh becomes coprah, which is used to make cosmetics, such as soap, shampoo and monoi oil. Lastly, coprah oil has proved to be an excellent biofuel, and could in the long term find a place as a renewable energy source.
In these archipelagos where the largest island, Tahiti, has an area of just 1,000 km², the terrestrial fauna is relatively limited. While a small number of rare insects are found here, there are no reptiles (except the harmless margouillat, a kind of small gecko) and no dangerous animals.
Otherwise, the only land animals found in the Polynesian islands are those that were imported by seafarers: dogs, cats, goats, chickens, pigs, cows and horses. In the Marquesas Islands, the horses are often wild, and roam free in the mountains, where they contribute to the magic of the landscape.
Chickens lay their eggs in the undergrowth or in the sand of the atolls, under the greedy, attentive gaze of crabs. Goats scamper on dizzyingly steep slopes, while entire families of small black or speckled pigs find sustenance in the forests of mape, or tropical chestnut, making their homes among the high roots of the pandanus. It is not advisable to disturb them, although hunters do so, at their own risk and peril, for their tasty meat!
French Polynesia has 33 species of land birds, 26 of which are endemic to Tahiti and its islands, and 28 sea birds. The finest specimens can often be seen on mountain walks or on trips to certain motus (islets).
Many motus are used as stopovers by migratory birds, as well as being home to indigenous species. Common sights are the frigatebird, or 'otaha, a large sea bird whose male, during courtship, inflates a scarlet pouch beneath its beak, and the blue-footed booby which, at the first sign of danger, conceals its large, downy chicks in the miki miki bushes.
The upper slopes of the valleys are frequented by swiftlets - plump, beige birds of the swift family - and predatory swamp harriers, while the riverbanks are shared by kingfishers - 'uriri - and small herons - 'otu'u. Over the mouths of rivers, Pacific swallows circle in the sky at sunset.
The crystal-clear waters of Tahiti and its islands are home to over a thousand species of fish, whose diversity of colours is equalled only by their variety of shapes and sizes. The smallest, often highly colourful, are fond of the coral gardens and shallows of the lagoons, while the larger species prefer the hustle and bustle of the passages, reef slopes and open sea.
As the backdrop, canyons, caves and coral intermingle to create a world of many nooks and crannies.
An aquarium of 4 million km2
Because of its exceptional biodiversity, the Polynesian sea bed is considered by scientists to be "the richest aquarium on the planet". In 2002, the entire region was classified as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a genuine sanctuary where, among other things, drift-net fishing is prohibited, which has earned to French Polynesia the highest distinction awarded by the WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature).
The jade and turquoise waters of the lagoons of the Tuamotus and Society Islands are the playground of more than a third of the world's dolphin species! Here, too, countless fish, in delicate shapes and rainbow colours, are found. Shoals of damselfish, rubyfish and soldierfish dance among the jagged coral, while striped surgeonfish and sulky-looking picassofish pass by.
On the shimmering ocean bed, manta rays glide, then, with a sudden turn of speed, rise skywards, only to dive down again close to the placid sharks of the lagoons. Turtles bury their eggs in the hot sand of the deserted beaches, while whales come to mate and give birth in the wild bays of the Austral Islands, Gambier Islands, Tuamotus and Society Islands.
So you get the picture: in this world where the infinitely small rubs shoulders with the immensely big, you can expect to have some quite unique experiences.
Click on the links below for an unforgettable trip: