When I went to French Polynesia, I decided to do it the slow travel way. This meant that, after spending some time living on a catamaran off of Tahiti, I would choose only one other location to explore in French Polynesia. This was a difficult decision, because of the sheer number of possible options. But I eventually chose Tiputa village, in Rangiroa.

Rangiroa is not an island, but an atoll lagoon. I was told that it’s the largest lagoon in the world, but actually it’s the second largest (the largest is in New Caledonia). It lies within the Tuamotu archipelago, which is comprised of strings of islands that formed in the wake of ancient sunken volcanoes. The atolls barely rise over the ocean, forming the fantasy lagoons you see most often on tourism brochures.

I chose Tiputa specifically to get away from the tourism crowd. Adhering to my slow travel rule of thumb, I allocated my minimum of a 1-week stay in Rangiroa. I split the seven days between a secluded motu stay to absorb the landscape itself, and a stay within Tiputa village to get a sense of village life in the Tuamotus.

Bank of brain coral in the foreground with surface ripples overhead and blank blue water of Rangiroa lagoon beyond
Corals in Rangiroa

How to get to Rangiroa

Unless you have a yacht, or Rangiroa is a stop on your Pacific cruise, the easiest way to get to Tiputa is by air. You would first fly to Tahiti (Fa’a’a’ International Airport near Pape’ete, airport code PPT), and then take a domestic flight to Rangiroa. Rangiroa is a popular tourist destination, so the planes are a decent size.

Once you arrive, you would take a boat from Avatoru (the island where the plane will land) to the neighbouring island Tiputa. There is a berthing area right outside the small airport terminal. That’s where my host parked her boat while she waited for me inside the terminal. It’s a very simple set-up, no gangways and such. So if you have accessibility needs, best to mention it in advance.

What to do in Rangiroa in 7 Days

I recommend a week in Rangiroa if you are on a laidback holiday. However, if this isn’t your only stop in French Polynesia, you can spend fewer than seven days, and just do the things you’re most interested in from the list below. That said, even with a laidback sort of stay, I still managed to do all of these tourist activities in Rangiroa at least once, on top of the solo independent travel chores of cooking and doing the laundry.

Tip: Most of the activities listed below would be considered a paid excursion, even if they’re offered to you as an invitation. This was also true in Tonga; maybe it’s a Polynesian thing.

1. Go snorkelling in Rangiroa

Coral bommies on the Rangiroa lagoon floor with fishes around
Snorkelling among coral

If you’re staying somewhere with a beachfront, snorkelling is among the first things you can do in Rangiroa. If you’re staying in the village, you have to arrange for a trip out because the village shoreline is more for boat traffic than recreation.

Tiputa is part of Rangiroa atoll, so it has a lagoon side and a Pacific side. The Pacific side is deep water and generally not for snorkelling. The lagoon side is calm and warm, and good for snorkelling. That said, the Pacific side has the occasional mini lagoon, which can contain a surprisingly diverse coral fish population.

As a general rule, snorkelling spots tend to be better, the less they are visited by people. Tiputa is no exception. Off of the Tiputa coastline is good, but not better than the tapu zone around ‘the Aquarium’. And the Aquarium is not better than far-off Lagon Bleu that is mostly deserted.

2. Go scuba diving in Rangiroa

Silhouette of dolphin in French Polynesia against the sun above the surface
Image credit: Hannes Klostermann; sourced from Coral Reef Image Bank

Rangiroa is a world-famous dive spot because of the channel dives. There are two channels connecting the lagoon with the ocean, and they are on either side of Avatoru. Every time the tide changes, the sea rushes through these channels. This means that drift dives are a specialty draw here. For obvious safety reasons, you would only do the channel drift dive during the incoming tide.

But it’s not just the current that’s interesting. I saw more fish than I’d ever seen in my life all over the reef wall on the side of the channel. If you’re lucky, you can glimpse the resident dolphins. If you’re even luckier, they’d come say hi to your dive leader. One even came over to be stroked. (As a stranger diver, never initiate this contact; always let the wildlife initiate).

I had my first dolphin encounter in Rangiroa. Not to mention a Maori wrasse that came super close, and we saw a hammerhead shark in the gloom. This was the dive location that finally convinced me to just buy a dang GoPro. The only reason why I haven’t written much about scuba diving spots is because I have no photos. You can thank Tiputa for future scuba diving articles.

All of the dive centres are on Avatoru; there are none on Tiputa. If you’re staying in Tiputa, you’ll need to get picked up from one of the piers. So your dive timing will be less flexible since you can’t just show up for the afternoon dive and skip the morning ones.

Tip for new divers in Rangiroa (especially those with thin and light bodies)

In Rangiroa, you would probably be diving with more experienced divers. The channel drift means that these tend to be your adventure bros rather than your exceptionally-good-buoyancy reef divers.

The current isn’t actually that scary (at least not in December). However, even if you’ve already done drift dives before, certain dives require you to know how to weight yourself for updrifts. It’s best if you already learned what to do in locations that are more tolerant of teaching skills to new divers. They’ll tell you when you need to keep close to the rock, but you’re supposed to already know how, and you’re supposed to know if you need to change your usual weights for that dive.

All the more so if you’re not a French speaker; the language barrier is an additional obstacle. Double down on that if your body type isn’t typical of tourists who come there. In Easter Island, my dive leader had clearly led a sufficiently diverse range of clients to anticipate my lower cold resistance. But you’re not always going to be that lucky. There are special considerations for the wafer-thin, light Asian frame that heavier body types can’t relate to, so you have to know how to edit the standard advice yourself. We need less weight to sink, but also need more for currents because we’re more aerodynamic.

3. Do a picnic day at ‘the Aquarium’

Coral fishes out grazing on the shallow Rangiroa lagoon reef at the Aquarium, near Tiputa
Fishes in the ‘Aquarium’

‘The Aquarium’ is the local nickname for an islet that lies at the lagoon end of Tiputa Pass. After a period of overfishing, the locals decided to reserve the Aquarium and ban fishing within its zone. Today, the fish have returned and the Aquarium is the best snorkelling spot in Tiputa.

Aside from coral fish diversity, you would also encounter reef sharks. While on shore, I even saw a moray eel come right up to the water’s edge, hunting. If you’re going snorkelling, do carefully pick a path out into the sea. The corals come right up to shore. Even when you’re in water deep enough to float in, you need to be a very good snorkeler to glide over them without touching them. I recommend entering the water where your boat landed, and exiting there as well.

Pro tip: When snorkelling with mask and fins, can you float like a log, only using your ankles to change direction, without any noticeable splashing? If yes, you can snorkel closer to shore. If not, swim out a little bit to the deeper reef.

But I said ‘picnic day’, didn’t I? A trip to the Aquarium can be combined with a traditional Polynesian picnic. This involves a barbecue and Polynesian ground cooking (the meal is cooked while buried in the ground).

4. Channel drift across Tiputa Pass

Swimmers in Tiputa Pass in Rangiroa, viewed from beneath the water surface
Drifting with the incoming current

Can you drift across Tiputa Pass without scuba diving? Absolutely. In fact, this is a local pastime. You can do this together with a picnic day at the Aquarium.

Obviously, you would only do this during an incoming tide. Otherwise, you’d be swept out to the Pacific Ocean. But basically, to drift with the current across the pass you would go by boat to the mouth of the pass, and jump in the water. In my case, our hosts also went in the water, towing the boat with us.

That’s all there is to it. You would automatically drift, see a lot of fish down in the gloom along the way, and kind of slow down to a stop somewhere past the Aquarium. It’s awesome!

You can also drift through Avatoru Pass; I did this on the day I went to Lagon Bleu.

5. Go on a day tour to Lagon Bleu

Looking out to the motus of Lagon Bleu with coconut trees and turquoise blue lagoon water to the left and hard cemented coral on the foreground
The prettiest lagoon I’ve ever seen

I took only one tour while I was in Tiputa. Not that there were many options, but I ended up only taking one because I preferred to do more diving, and otherwise generally just liked enjoying village life. But I thought I should do at least one, and I chose a day tour to Lagon Bleu.

My hosts arranged this tour for me with Tereva Tane e Vahine Excursions, who picked me up on Avatoru just across the channel. We waited for the pick-up at a place where local fishermen were cleaning their catch. They tossed the fish guts into the water, where sharks were gathering, clearly used to the routine. The feeding frenzy was fierce, and a great photo background to freak out your friends.

Then, they drove across the island, to pick up other tourists. At the other end of Avatoru, we got on a boat and crossed the lagoon all the way to the western edge of Rangiroa. On the atolls, there were different picnic areas, presumably belonging to different tour companies or resorts. It probably was the off-peak season, because we were the only group in Lagon Bleu that day. It really felt like a deserted island.

I thought the tour was really good. The tour organisers were all Polynesian, and I didn’t feel excluded even though it was primarily in French. Walking towards our picnic spot, the guide shared local knowledge about indigenous plants. They even literally wove the serving baskets for the food on the spot from coconut fronds as they cooked. We enjoyed live Polynesian music as we ate, and afterwards we had free time to wander around.

Swimming with sharks in Lagon Bleu

I wanted to go in the water more in Lagon Bleu. But I didn’t, and I think it’s because it was so stupefyingly beautiful, that I was just dazed. Lagon Bleu was easily the most drop-dead gorgeous lagoon I’d ever seen.

However, at the end, the boat paused outside the shallow lagoon entrance and the tour organisers disposed of our food scraps to the sharks. We had some time to snorkel (yes, I went in the water with sharks in it!), and it’s probably the best reef I saw in Rangiroa without scuba diving.

6. Go fishing in Rangiroa lagoon

Silhouette of Polynesian man in a woven palm hat baiting a hook with octopus with the sun setting beneath the lagoon horizon in the background
Pulling in a line

Fishing is a major part of life in Tiputa. They don’t have a lot of land here, but there’s a wide, wide sea. I recommend going on a fishing trip at least once in Rangiroa, especially if you love fishing. Nowadays, with some exceptions, fishing in Tiputa is by hook and line only. This was instituted after a period of overfishing.

Maybe it’s because Malaysia has been so overfished, but to me it looked to be successful. Fishing is so easy in Tiputa. It blew my mind. You could pop out at any time, and in an hour return with half a dozen good-sized fish. There’s no need to aim for special fishing holes, no need for quiet or rituals. You could be laughing on the boat and you’d still hook a fish.

As a marine ecologist (at least, by qualification) I knew why – in theory. So it felt amazing to see the proof for real. The reason why the fish stay dumb is because you never catch so many that the only ones left to breed are the ones that learn to avoid the hook. And that’s why people in Tiputa can pop out to get fish like they’re going to the supermarket, while in Malaysia we’d spend hours and not even know if we’ll catch anything.

7. Tour a pearl farm in Avatoru

The black pearls of the South Seas were originally from the Tuamotu archipelago. (They are actually multi-coloured, not just black.) Not that I’m a pearl connoisseur, but I think the Polynesian black pearl is in a class of its own. Today, these pearls are farmed with a lot of industry knowledge to select for the best lustre, nacre thickness, and colour.

There is a pearl farm you can visit on Avatoru, next to Gauguin’s Pearl. You can go to the pearl farm for a tour. Although the pearl oysters are mainly left to grow offshore, they are periodically brought in to be seeded or harvested. You can ask for the process to be explained, and I got to watch them seed the oysters. Afterwards, if you want to buy a pearl, you can browse the shop.

Lifting a crate of pearl oysters from the holding pond at Avatoru pearl oyster farm in Rangiroa
Holding tank for oysters being harvested for pearls

Types of black pearl souvenirs in Rangiroa

There are four kinds of black pearl jewellery you can get in Rangiroa. If you’re looking for pearl quality specifically, buying pearls as jewels, then a place like Gauguin’s Pearl is where you should go. The pearls are all graded for quality, and you get a certificate.

If what ‘s important to you is pearl quality and jewellery design, then Gauguin’s Pearl is fairly basic. You might be better off browsing boutique pearl shops along Avatoru, or hold your pearl shopping until you get back to Pape’ete.

If you’re shopping for black pearls as trinkets, like for everyday or rougher wear, head out to the airport terminal. There are usually local islanders at a table selling such jewellery somewhere outside the terminal. The souvenir shop in Tiputa also has some limited options. This is a building near the main pier, with traditional island architecture.

And finally, if you want indigenous, island-style jewellery, that’s the main craft on display in Tiputa’s souvenir shop. Jewellery in this style is entirely made from natural materials, generally by hand. It doesn’t feel as secure (i.e. closures etc.), but it does have that raw look to it.

Things to do in Tiputa in the evenings

Not that this is a really pressing question for a laidback vacation. However, there are a couple of notable things you could do in Tiputa in the early to late evenings.

Dolphin watching by the channel

As I mentioned before, dolphins hang around this area. So, a local pastime is to sit by the channel near sunset and watch for dolphins. I only did this once, after an afternoon cycling around the island with my host. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any leaping dolphins.

Polynesian barbecue & dance

Polynesian barbecue grilling whole fish and breadfruit in the front yard
Barbecued fish

Your host might also organise a barbecue. This could be a barbecue where you’re staying, or it could be a campfire feast.

I was lucky that one of my hosts used to teach hula, so she taught us a few moves during the campfire feast, and we did a little performance together. Her husband gave us a performance of the traditional Polynesian warrior response to a call from his chief to go to war.

Village life in Tiputa

Although there are homes on Avatoru, Tiputa is the actual village. That’s where the town hall is (I never found out why the entrance walls are decorated with a pair of centipedes – do you know?), as well as the church, the post office and clinic.

Tip: Buy French Polynesian postage stamps at the post office as a souvenir.

Although fishing is still an important source of food in Tiputa, nowadays it’s supplemented by imported foods. These range from new staples such as rice, to confectionery goods, spices, and sauces. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Asian sauces are popular here, even though there were no local Asians in Tiputa.

That said, living in the village means you get a feel for the local supply cycles. Fresh water depends on rain, and water scarcity meant that bottled drinking water is common in faraway Tiputa. The travel tech that my host was most interested in was my portable water filter.

Supply ships are not always on time. I can’t remember what it was that I was looking for, but the ship that was due to arrive to re-supply the grocery store only came near the end of my stay, having spent unexpected days in Ohotu.

In the village, the ship’s arrival was an event. Polynesian reggae blared from speakers somewhere. People crowded the pier waiting for their parcels, and those sending them hurried with their shipments, coming by bicycle and truck and cars, on tricycles with baskets behind, and I even saw someone come on a sand buggy.

Local islanders of Tiputa waiting for goods to be unloaded from the cargo ship at the pier
Waiting for the ship to unload

Christmas carolling in Tiputa

I’m not sure whether ‘carolling’ is the right word to use. Maybe ‘procession’ is better. Nevertheless, it was December when I was there. One day, as I was chilling out in the front yard, a group of locals (some in vaguely Santa-like clothing) walked past with music playing out from speakers. Apparently, it’s a local tradition.

This is exactly the reason why I’d forgo the comfort and service of a resort, and instead go for independent travel even if I have to do my own laundry. It is for these moments of surprise and serendipity.

Eating out in Tiputa

But what if you want to eat out? I’m used to making my own meals, but it’s nice to check out restaurants.

Admittedly, this is the trade-off with the Tiputa option. There was just one restaurant in Tiputa (at least, when I was there in 2018). It was out near the pier, the food was good and the prices tolerable. It was good enough for me, for a 1 week stay. But then, I like quiet evenings. So if you’re more social, take that into consideration.

Now, there is a cafe that deserves special mention. As the days went on, my host figured out what kind of traveller I was. With a woman’s insight, she shifted from suggesting tours to just hanging out ideas. I underestimated how much cash I would need in Tiputa, so eventually I needed to go to the bank, which is back at the airport.

Since we were going to the airport, my host told me where her favourite cake shop was: in the arrivals hall. Now, I’m not a cake person. But that cake was really good. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the cake; it sounded French (but then, everything she says sounds French). But stop for cake in the arrivals hall – that’s my tip.

Trabzon cake in the Avatoru airport
I think maybe this is trabzon?

Why did I choose Tiputa over Avatoru?

Aside from trying to prefer the most local options, I also specifically chose against the more tourist-oriented Avatoru. It’s not because I oppose tourism resorts. Rather it’s because of the reason I was travelling in Polynesia in the first place.

Unlike tourists from Europe, I have gorgeous tropical islands in my own region. I’m from Southeast Asia; I can get a 5-star, tropical paradise vacation without spending two days travelling, and it even costs less. It’s one reason why, until I came to Easter Island, it never occurred to me to holiday in the Pacific.

But after Easter Island, I got curious. Not about the holiday aspect, but about the culture of the people. And the living culture of the people is not on the holiday island, but on the local island.

I still got to see a Rangiroa tourist resort

Because of the reason I was there, I packed more Malay and less western. Mainstream Malays typically dress in an unassuming way, rarely putting emphasis on style. On Tiputa, I think I could have gone even more indigenous. For example, I could have packed another sarong instead of pants.

But the scuba centre I was diving with dropped me off at one of the resorts for lunch. Fortunately the resort didn’t have a dress code. Even more fortunately, I didn’t leave my credit card in Tiputa! So I found myself in the paradoxical situation of walking into a resort restaurant definitely underdressed, and then paying for lunch with a Platinum card! I felt like I blew my cover!

Anyway, from what I could see, the resort was what I would expect for a good resort vacation.

Polynesian ground oven spot on the Aquarium motu with a cruise ship in the distance
Cruise ship anchoring in the lagoon

Carbon offsetting information to Rangiroa, French Polynesia

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Rangiroa via Auckland and Fa’a’a produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,713 lbs CO2e. It costs about $54 to offset this.

Rangiroa deserves its fame and Tiputa is a sweet little village. One week is a good duration; not too rushed and not too long. Are you planning to visit Rangiroa?

8 Responses

  1. Susanna says:

    Oh my goodness this looks like an amazing trip. I love the aquarium concept and what a fun name for a place they were able to restore and bring back natural species. The BBQ and dance evening looks like a wonderful cultural experience. Thanks for sharing the slow itinerary for Tiputa! <3

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! Indeed, I didn’t realise they had an overfishing episode at all! Maybe it used to be even more amazing than that. The channel slopes were teeming with large schools of fish, and yet they told me this is the ‘reduced’ condition!

  2. Krista says:

    I like the sounds of your slow travel rule, I should do that more often. It looks like a beautiful place to visit.

    • Teja says:

      Stupefyingly gorgeous. There was a Swiss couple who joined me near the end, who had just come from Bora Bora. They told me that actually they preferred Rangiroa over Bora Bora!

  3. Laurel says:

    Great information here. I am planning a trip through Polynesia and will have to add this dolphin stop to my itinerary.

    • Teja says:

      It’s so hard to choose between places in French Polynesia. Pick Rangiroa if you’re specifically looking for life among dreamy atolls.

  4. Zara says:

    Love the whole slow travel thing. It’s so easy to rush from one place to another, cramming in as much as possible and finishing the trip feeling like you saw everything and nothing at the same time. Loved this post. Great read! Definitely be enjoying more slow travel myself in the future.

    • Teja says:

      That’s a great way of putting it! ‘Seen everything and nothing at the same time’! At some point I discovered that doing less but slower feels disappointing in the short term (before the trip) but lasting satisfaction for a long, long time after. And I think that’s a brilliant trade!

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