If a drawback could possibly exist in visiting Bora Bora, French Polynesia's most famous tropical idyll, it's that while you're on it you can't admire its thrilling, unmistakably lush, conical shape rising from a cerulean sea. While one of its neighbours, Raiatea, the second largest of the Society Islands group after Tahiti, offers less of the romance and cache of its counterpart, it is considerably more affordable, and you can glimpse Bora Bora from many parts of it. Raiatea is a sacred island that was the departure point for the great ancient Polynesian migration and it is overwater bungalow-free. Its most luxurious accommodation is this agreeable 15-room lodge. Run by French expatriates, it's a pension-style accommodation that is now proliferating throughout these islands, offering a more affordable and authentic alternative to pricey luxury resorts.
Raiatea is located between Moorea and Bora Bora with good daily domestic air connections to and from both destinations, as well as to the main island and international gateway of Tahiti. Raiatea shares its lagoon and coral reef with its more conventionally idyllic neighbouring island, the lovely Taha'a, which is a short boat ride from Uturoa, Raiatea's main township. Uturoa is about a 10-minute drive from the lodge.
The attractive two-storey faux French colonial timber lodge is fronted by extensive lawns, studded with coconut palms and tropical gardens. . There's a sizeable swimming pool and the lodge has its own private jetty from which guests can swim and snorkel. The pleasant main public areas, including a shaded semi-alfresco restaurant, are at ground level, with views of the garden and lagoon.
My comfortable "superior room" features a balcony with both garden and lagoon views as well as everything you'd need for an overnight stay or longer. Sure, it lacks the finesse and amenities you'd find – and for that matter expect – at one of those five-star-plus resorts, but with Raiatea Lodge Hotel charging a fraction of the price as well as offering a different take on the more typical French Polynesian accommodation experience, who could complain?
The island is not overwhelmed by quality dining options so it's a relief that the modern French and Polynesian-style cuisine at the in-house restaurant and bar is excellent. Many of the dishes utilise the abundant fresh local seafood, including tuna invariably served raw or lightly seared. The menu includes the local classic, poisson cru, a delicious and refreshing dish featuring red tuna marinated in a blend of lime juice and coconut milk.
Raiatea is notable for not having a single beach, but it has plenty to offer beyond the prototypical French Polynesian activities. Take a tour by kayak along Faaroa, the only navigable river in French Polynesia, with 1000-metre tropical peaks towering above or make a pilgrimage to the largest marae, or place of worship, in French Polynesia. Raiatea is also home to a protected endemic flower, the tiare apetahi, which can be viewed on guided walks to Mount Temehani, the only place on earth where the bloom is found. Neighbouring Taha'a offers guided visits of vanilla plantations, pearl farms and rum distilleries as well as the chance to swim with, and feed, reef sharks, snorkel on a coral reef and swim off the sandy shores of a motu, or islet.
In a destination that suffers from a reputation for being an expensive place to visit, Raiatea Lodge Hotel is a breath of fresh French Polynesia ocean air. It's the sort of unpretentious, oft-overlooked or even unknown, pension-style accommodation that makes a visit to this part of the Pacific more feasible.
Doubles from €280 a night with an additional €22 for breakfast and €63 for both breakfast and dinner. See raiateahotel.com
OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE
Raiatea Lodge Hotel offers one of the best opportunities to experience the delights of French Polynesia without the exorbitant expense.
If your idea of a French Polynesian vacation encompasses just a beach or overwater bungalow, Raiatea may disappoint.