Clear as Glass

Tuamotu Archipelago offers dazzling snorkeling and diving in waters clear up to 100 feet

By: Kevin Brass

FAKARAVA, French Polynesia On the tiny atoll of Fakarava, population 700, workers are busy repaving the island’s only road in preparation for a visit this summer by French President Jacques Chirac.

Part of a scheduled tour of French Polynesia, Chirac’s visit is an important symbolic step for Fakarava, which is seen as a model for new development of the Tuamotu Islands, the often-ignored scattering of atolls and lagoons, which are barely 100 miles from Tahiti. Last September, the first resort-quality hotel opened on Fakarava, and an effort has begun to certify half the atoll’s lagoons and coral reefs as a UNESCO biosphere.

“It is the beginning of tourism to Fakarava,” said Nicolas Froger, general manager of the new resort, the Hotel Maitai Dream Fakarava.

With new facilities emerging all over the Tuamotus, Air Tahiti is increasing its flights to the islands by 15 percent, by adding more direct connections from Bora Bora to Rangiroa, Tikehau, Manihi and Fakarava atolls which redefine the phrase “getting away from it all.”

Serenity often comes at a price, even on a hosted trip. Sometimes, there may be no shampoo in the rooms or the village stores could be out of beer. The islands are usually supplied by a freighter, but a few months ago, the freighter sank.

“Sometimes, if there is no tomatoes or lettuce; people understand,” Froger said.

On Manihi, the air terminal is a thatched hut. “It’s the whole Robinson Crusoe kind of getaway,” said Cindy Klein of Santa Barbara, Calif., an agent who specializes in Tahiti.

Klein often builds Polynesian itineraries with a stop at Tikehau, where Pearl Resorts opened a resort with over-water bungalows in 2001. But she carefully qualifies clients first, recognizing that the idyllic Tuamotus are not for everyone.

“It can’t be the type of person who needs night life,” she said. Until recently, the Tuamotus were best known as France’s nuclear testing site, which detonated 181 bombs in the southeast Tuamotus, from 1966 to 1996.

In tourism terms, the Tuamotus are hampered by geology. The atolls are mere rings of coral dotted by tiny islets and enclosing shallow lagoons, a sharp contrast to the towering peaks of Bora Bora and Tahiti. “Some people like to see a mountain,” said Annie Toomaru, a Los Angeles-based Tahitian native who sells Tahiti packages and tours. But she recommends the Tuamotus to clients, especially “if they like to dive and really want to be secluded.”

The Tuamotus have their own history and charm, far removed from the crowds of Bora Bora. For example, on Fakarava explorers can find the remains of an infamous 19th century prison. Bird-watchers love Tikehau, where all sorts of colorful species are found feeding in the lagoons.

The new all-inclusive Maitai Dream Fakarava hopes to attract travelers looking for a quiet Polynesian experience.

“You can see how Polynesian people actually live,” said Froger. “People looking for an authentic island choose the Tuamotus.”

The Maitai has 30 bungalows, scattered over a white sandy beach. Each bungalow includes an open-air shower and a deck offering colorful sunset views. Plans call for construction of over-water bungalows and an on-site dive center, as well as the addition of air conditioning.

So far, less than 10 percent of the visitors to the new Maitai are American. “Not a lot of travel agents know about Fakarava,” Froger said.

Diving is the main attraction in Fakarava, as it is on most of the archipelago. The channels into the lagoons and the steep ocean drop-offs that surround each atoll are legendary sites for seeing all kinds of sharks and manta rays.

Like most of Polynesia, 60 percent of the Manihi Pearl’s customers are either on their honeymoon or celebrating an anniversary.;