A Complete Guide to Rangiroa, French Polynesia

remote island atoll
M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

Endless skies, azure lagoons, white sand beaches, and coconut palms swaying in the trade winds—it’s a picture postcard ideal, and it can be found in the South Pacific on Rangiroa, in French Polynesia. Rangiroa means “endless sky” in Tuamotuan, a language closely related to Tahitian. It’s also the largest settlement in the Tuamotus, one of the five island groups of French Polynesia.

In addition to diving, visitors come here for sunny weather; laid-back, intimate resorts; and a feeling of true escape, surrounded by nothing by miles upon miles of ocean.

Geography

Rangiroa is one of the largest coral atolls in the world. Atolls are remains of volcanic islands that have sunk back into the ocean under their own weight after millions of years, leaving behind only the reef. Inside the ring of the atoll, the ocean transforms into a placid lagoon with clear waters that are a haven for marine life.

Although the atoll is large (the island of Tahiti can fit entirely inside the lagoon), tourism activities and accommodations are concentrated in the settlement of Avatoru in its northwest corner. The islet Avatoru is situated on is roughly 6 miles from end to end. Visitors can see other points of interest on Rangiroa via guided boat tours.

Language and Culture

French is the official language of French Polynesia. As in the rest of the territory, most customer-facing tourism workers on Rangiroa have conversational English.

However, basic French can be an asset, particularly away from accommodations. Understanding greetings and numbers in French would be most helpful items to travelers. As in France, it’s polite to say or return a “Bonjour” (or "Ia Ora na” in Tahitian) upon entering a shop or approaching a counter to order food or beverage.

Tahitian and its related dialect Tuamotuan are also spoken among island residents.

Things to Do

Rangiroa’s endless sky is often best enjoyed by zoning out in a hammock or beach lounger and listening to the gentle sounds of the sea and sand. It’s important to note that Avatoru does not abound in wide, sandy beaches—sand seekers should take excursions to visit beaches elsewhere on the atoll.

Visit the Blue Lagoon

One of the most popular day excursions is a boat trip to the Blue Lagoon, which you can book through one of several operators. It’s an hour-long ride across the lagoon to the western side of the atoll (there’s almost no surf or swells on the lagoon, so seasickness is unlikely). There, a rough circle of small islands surrounds the small lagoon and its almost impossibly bright blue hues.

Docile black tip sharks are the welcoming committee as visitors wade ashore from their boats for a day of picnicking and snorkeling in and around the lagoon. There are often several additional stops just off the islets for reef snorkeling among the sharks (which are notably shy or uninterested in humans) and other marine life.

Following similar itineraries are trips to Reef Island—where petrified reef skeletons rise out of the lagoon like abstract sculptures—or the utterly Instagrammable Pink Sand Beach.

Go Scuba Diving

Diving is a popular activity, and there are several dive shops to choose from, both at the resorts and off-site. Several of the dives on Rangiroa—notably the drift dive at Tiputa Pass—are on many “Best Of” lists. The dive centers can also provide PADI training and certifications for new divers.

Shop for Pearls

In Avatoru, Pearl-seeking visitors can visit a handful of small pearl shops alongside the road or at their resort. Or, they can call Gauguin’s Pearl for a pickup from their accommodation in an air-conditioned van. The pearl farm and attached pearl shop offer grafting demonstrations three times a day, as well as a short tour to see pearl grafting in progress right next to the lagoon.

Sip Wine

Wine drinkers are in for a special treat here—the only wine made from grapes grown on coral terrain is produced on Rangiroa. Hour-long cellar tours and tastings at Vin de Tahiti (which also include local rum) are available six evenings a week; reservations are recommended.

Over water bungalow at sunset, Rangiroa, Polynesia
Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Where to Stay

There are two hotels in Avatoru, plus a handful of Tahitian guesthouses called pensions. Pensions are operated within or adjacent to private homes; one major difference between pensions and hotels on Rangiroa is the water source. Pensions, like most private homes on Rangiroa, rely solely on rainwater catchment for fresh water, while the hotels operate their own plants that remove salt from the seawater to render it potable.

Hotel Kia Ora

The island’s only luxury hotel, Hotel Kia Ora is situated in the middle of a coconut grove nestled right on the lagoon. The hotel has a variety of accommodation options, including villas with private plunge pools, beach or overwater bungalows, and the unique two-story “duplex” villa, designed for families. The hotel also has an overwater bar with sunset views, and a poolside fine dining restaurant that hosts a weekly Polynesian buffet and show.

Maitai Rangiroa

More moderate, but still solidly three star, is the Maitai Rangiroa. Guests here can choose between a bungalow with a garden or ocean view (note that there's not much beach to speak of). There is also a restaurant and bar with luscious views of the lagoon, as well as an oceanfront infinity pool. Maitai is somewhat more centrally located to the town of Avatoru.

Where to Eat

Aside from wine grapes and coconuts, very little other produce grows well on the coral, so virtually all food is imported from Tahiti. Found primarily in the hotels, restaurants offer French cuisine with a focus on local seafood, plus international options such as pasta and pizza. Of course, the island’s coral wine is on offer as an accompaniment.

Outside the hotels, there are a handful of stores, and many of these will have a selection of takeaway sandwiches (generally ham or tuna) or packaged meals. Outside the hotels, restaurants around the island mainly serve French or Chinese cuisine. There are also a handful of “Snacks” (short for Snack Bar) and roulottes (food trucks) in Avatoru.

Visitors who are staying at a pension with meals included should let their host know no later than breakfast the same morning if they play to dine out in the evening.

Getting There

To get to Rangiroa from the U.S., you will need to connect in Tahiti. The island is eight hours from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the two U.S. mainland gateways with nonstop service to Tahiti.

Air Tahiti, the domestic airline of French Polynesia, offers multiple daily flights between Tahiti and Rangiroa. Many flights operate nonstop between the two islands; travel time is one hour.

While daily service is available from Tahiti, travelers planning to arrive directly from other popular destinations such as Bora Bora, Fakarava, or Tikehau should check with Air Tahiti to learn which days of the week nonstop flights to Rangiroa are available from their point of origin.

Getting Around

There are a handful of car rental operators on Rangiroa with offices at the airport, but rates can be steep. The resorts offer rentals on an hourly basis, which can be a better value. An hour is more than enough time to slowly drive to each end of Avatoru.

Most attractions and tours offer pickup at accommodations; for those that don’t, resort concierges or pension hosts can arrange a taxi.

Both resorts and most pensions have bicycles available to borrow or rent.

Money Matters

  • The French Pacific Franc (CFP, colloquially referred to as the Franc) is the currency of French Polynesia. The value is pegged to the Euro.
  • Tipping is uncommon in French Polynesia. Tour guides seem to be an exception, although even they don’t generally expect gratuities.
  • Credit and debit cards are becoming more widely accepted, but cash is still in wider use on Rangiroa, particularly for small purchases in stores. Many family- or individually-run tour operators are also cash-only; most will be happy to stop at an ATM at the beginning or end of the tour.
  • There’s an ATM conveniently located across the parking lot from the airport terminal. It can also be a good idea to bring some cash from Tahiti (there’s an ATM at Faa’a International Airport for those making direct connections).
  • Bargaining the sales price of an item is not customary, except for Tahitian Pearls. In that case, it's not uncommon to politely ask—once—for a discount, particularly on multiple item purchases.
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