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5 Things You Didn't Know About French Polynesia

Tropical, secluded, and lush, the islands and atolls of French Polynesia are where travel fantasy meets reality. Although this region is known for its vitreous aqua water, lilting palms, and dreamy white sand beaches, the islands also hold many only-here discoveries to make beyond the sand and sun. From hidden underwater caves to vibrant coral churches, here are five highlights you may not know can be found in this special part of the South Pacific.  

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It's the Only Place You'll Find Tiare Apetahi

Tiare apetahi, a rare version of the tiare flower (or Tahitian gardenia) only grows in one place on the entire planet: Mount Temehani on the island of Ra'iatea. No one has ever successfully replanted this lusciously scented bloom anywhere else in the world. Ancient legend has it that the white five-petaled flowers were created by the gods, which is easy to believe once you take your first whiff of their intoxicating scent.  

Although widely imitated in perfumes, you can only have the experience of being surrounded by fresh tiare here in Tahiti. While you can’t get up close with the rare version, you will find the typcal tiare all throughout the islands. The national flower is used in leis for greeting family and visitors, and many locals wear them behind their ear. Keep an eye on which side the flower appears: Tradition is to wear it on the left side if the wearer is in a relationship, and on the right if they’re single.  

The Mailboxes Hold an Unexpected Surprise

On a drive around Tahiti, Mo'orea, and the rural islands of French Polynesia, you may start to notice an unusual sight: Long mailboxes that look like birdhouses at the end of some driveways. On closer inspection, it seems that the openings of the boxes are long enough to fit not mail, but something more narrow, perhaps even loaf shaped. It turns out that instead of the mailman, the delivery for these boxes comes from the bakery; more specifically, a baguette, or two or three, or even a croissant or French pastry on occasion are placed here first thing in the morning.  

Although no longer widely used, “baguette mailboxes” were once a staple of the islands for fresh daily bread delivery—baguettes were a food staple from the days of French colonialism. Even without a mailbox, visitors can still easily find the French loaves at local bakeries, usually for less than a dollar.  

You Can Swim Among Stalagmites & Stalactites

On the island of Makatea prepare for an otherworldly experience that will rival most others. One of the most unique landforms in all of the Pacific, Makatea is an uplifted coral atoll. That means it used to be underwater before geologic activity raised it up, creating a series of intricate underground limestone caves. With flashlight in hand, you can descend into one of these spectacular grottos, plunge into the coolest fresh water, and swim through to explore. Thanks to the unusual structure of Makatea (which means “white rock” in Polynesian), the leaching of the fresh water through the limestone has created a multitude of stalagmites and stalactites. Float past these incredible formations as you enjoy the stillness of the cave.  

Makatea also has a riveting history of phosphate mining.
Read more about it in this  engaging story from our field correspondent Jennifer Kingsley.  

There Are Churches Made Entirely of Coral

Fakarava, the second largest of the Tuamotu atolls, is renowned for its incredible undersea. The unusual lagoon habitats here earned it a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation and the crystalline waters are teeming with multi-hued fish, gray sharks, crustaceans, and a spate of interesting coral. But on land there’s also something pretty special made with help from the surrounding sea: coral churches! These colorful places of worship were created out of coral blocks cemented together with special island cement made locally out of coral material. Inside, these unique buildings are further adorned with ocean offerings: shell necklaces and chandeliers dangle from above; black lipped pearl oyster shells and mother of pearl inlay line the altars; and a giant clam shell even holds the holy water.

You Can 'Fly' Over Sharks & Coral

In addition to coral churches, Fakarava also presents a unique and exhilarating opportunity to drift snorkel in what Lindblad-National Geographic naturalist Mike Greenfelder calls “my favorite drift in the entire ocean." He credit the “clear, calm water” which allows crystalline views of “healthy coral” and a sea “swarming with rays, fish, starfish, and sharks." The current carries you effortlessly over the Fakarava South Pass for a spectacular underwater show, so you can see more and cover a greater distance than if you had to backtrack to the ship. Plus, a general rule of thumb is the more current, the more sea life, since creatures from microscopic organisms to larger animals get caught up in the moving food chain. So, sit back as you 'fly' above the unforgettable scene unfurling below!

Photo: Mike Greenfelder