Rangiroa, or "Endless Sky" in Tahitian, is French Polynesia's largest atoll. A long, narrow grouping of 415 small motu strung together in a misshapen circle, it harbors a lagoon so large the entire island of Tahiti could fit in it. It's also impossible to see from one side of the lagoon to the other. Rangiroa's tourism industry has been built around the lagoon and the two passes (Avatoru and Tiputa) that connect it to the ocean. Divers descend on Rangi, as it's nicknamed, to "shoot the pass." The atoll's main town, Avatoru, and the village of Tiputa lie in the northern section of the atoll.
"Where are we going to dinner?" is not a question you'll hear much on Rangiroa or the Tuamotus for that matter. The two hotels—Kia Ora and the Novotel—have sizeable restaurants with water views and plenty of menu choices. If you're staying at a pension you'll be dining on home-cooked meals; dishes often include bouillabaisse, tuna carpaccio (raw tuna), poisson cru (raw tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk), barbecued fish, and mahimahi with vanilla sauce. In many cases the meals will be tastier than resort fare, which can be bland and is always pricey.
As there are only five restaurants on the island, it's best to book ahead especially in the high season of June to August.
Restaurant Le Kai Kai
This is a very pleasant spot for lunch if you're cycling along the main road; you can also check your e-mail here but the Internet connection is rather slow. As there are free transfers from the hotels, you can enjoy a few drinks over dinner. There's a three-course set menu (4,500 CFP) with two to three choices per course, and an á la carte menu featuring mussels in white wine; grilled tuna steak with soy sauce, garlic and ginger; and coffee ice cream with Kahlua for dessert.
This restaurant attracts quite a crowd of locals on weekends and a few guests from the nearby Hotel Maitai Rangiroa. As one of only a handful of independent restaurants on the island it gets busy during the high season. Dine indoors or out under a thatched roof on a mainly French menu with a long list of pizzas (all 1,600 CFP) as well. You might start with homemade foie gras, followed by shrimp sautéed with orange and ginger, and then end with a classic French treat such as profiteroles.
Le Dauphin Gourmand
When you dine at this outdoor restaurant you'll feel like you're dining in a home, not a restaurant. Located on a terrace overlooking Tiputa Pass, there are just five tables for diners and a large table where the hostess, Josephine, often entertains her guests. The three-course set menu may include tuna tartare, fish soup, grilled scampi, or mahimahi with ginger and Chinese spices, while a coconut or chocolate and rum tart are often on the menu for dessert.
Rangiroa has the lion's share of accommodation in the Tuamotu with 200 rooms, most of which are at the four-star Hotel Kia Ora and the three-star Novotel Rangiroa Beach Resort. The other rooms are spread over 24 family pensions.
Every pension has managed to secure a site on or very close to the lagoon. Hotel Kia Ora has the only pool and tennis court on the island and stages Polynesian dance shows twice a week. Those seeking ultimate castaway experiences can either rent a villa on a remote motu or bed down at the five-bungalow Kia Ora Sauvage, located an hour's boat ride across the lagoon.
You'll catch up on your beauty sleep in Rangiroa—and all the Tuamotus—as there's no nightlife beyond having a few drinks at your hotel and taking in the twice-weekly cultural dance shows at Hotel Kia Ora. Some pensions invite local dancers to perform at their establishments, but these are impromptu occasions rather than organized events.
You'll save money in Rangi as there isn't much to buy; that is, unless you're lured into purchasing pearls.
Apart from buying food items, you can pick up sunglasses, pareos, and Tahitian shirts and board shorts. It's across the road from Les Relais de Joséphine.
Pick up a pastry, a croissant, mineral water, and other groceries at this store next to the Catholic church.
This boutique, which is not far from the "wine cave" or wine cellar of Vin de Tahiti, sells single pearls, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and earrings, as well as a selection of artwork.
There's an on-site boutique selling single pearls and pearl jewelry. Free tours of the pearl farm are easily arranged.
Rangiroa's capital is a small village on Avatoru Pass with two churches (Catholic and Mormon) fashioned from coral, a town hall, post office, banks, and a couple of general stores. It has an ideal location with access to the lagoon, the ocean's surf beach, and the pass's good diving spot. To experience a true slice of island life, turn up at 10 am on Sunday for one of the church services.
This deserted village, complete with church, is on the opposite side of the lagoon to Avatoru, midway between Ile aux Recifs and Les Sables Roses. At least one operator runs a tour there, which is combined with island-hopping and lunch. For tour information, contact Pension Martine.
This "lagoon with a lagoon" is a popular excursion. The water is sensationally blue and fringed by white sandy beaches and coconut trees. After an hour's boat ride from Avatoru, the captain anchors off a small island and guests walk across a seabed strewn with coral (reef shoes required), past a few harmless black-tipped reef sharks, and over the island itself to reach the blue lagoon. The seabed is soft and sandy and the views are magical, but the snorkeling, unfortunately, is nothing special.
Ile aux Recifs
The "isle of reefs" is considered the best lagoon excursion of all. Located about an hour due south of Avatoru, it's an area dotted with raised feo (coral outcrops), some 16 to 19 feet (5 to 6 meters) above the lagoon. These amazing formations are on the ocean side so you'll have to put on your reef shoes to explore them. They stretch about 300 feet (9 meters) and between them are pools perfect for swimming and excellent snorkeling. Picnics are usually held on one of the larger motus.
Les Sables Roses
This pink sand beach is in the southeast corner of Rangiroa, reached by a two-hour boat trip. The sands contain eroded coral and foraminiferal deposits (the pulverized red shells of tiny sea creatures) which sparkle in the sunlight. Getting here is one of the most expensive lagoon excursions (11,500 to 12,000 CFP for a day trip with picnic), but what you'll get is complete isolation, deserted beaches, and crystal clear water. You could rent a boat and come here on your own, but why would you want to pass up the BBQ and picnic most operators provide?
Avatoru and Tiputa passes offer some of the best drift diving in the world. Divers, accompanied by a guide, are dropped off on the ocean side of the atoll into the fast-moving current and are sucked through the pass by the tide. Feeling an amazing adrenaline rush, divers come (literally) face to face with hundreds of fish, along with giant napoleon wrasses, hawksbill turtles, manta and eagle rays, dolphins, and sharks—gray reefs, lemons, hammerheads, and dozens of black-tips. Snorkeling and glass bottom boat trips explore the calmer waters of the Tiputa Pass, and seek out the dolphins that are cavorting in the waves.
Rangiroa's other little settlement can be reached by a regular ferry service (called a taxi boat) from Ohotu wharf. Tiputa's well kept, with a few houses enclosed by coral fences, St. Michael's Catholic church, and a little school. A great way to explore the village is by bike, which you can take on the ferry for a small fee (400 CFP return; 200 CFP bicycles, 500 CFP scooters).
Gauguin's Pearl Farm
The farm is an easy walk from the airport on the edge of the lagoon. A guide, who explains the long and laborious process of cultivating Tahitian black pearls, shows around small groups. Tours take 30 minutes and are fascinating; you'll learn about the Pinctada margaritifera or black-lipped oyster, and watch technicians insert a nucleus (a small shell bead) into the oyster and attach it with a graft of oyster muscle tissue to begin the pearling process. There's a jewelry boutique but it's not a hard-sell experience: a single top-grade pearl can cost 41,000 CFP (about US$530).