Bora Bora, where the honeymooners head, is as famous for the luxury of its hotels as it is for the extravagance of its scenery. Its near-neighbours to the southeast in French Polynesia’s Society Islands want for nothing of the latter, as far as I can tell, and what Raiatea and nearby Taha’a might lack in newlywed bustle, they make up for in … well, no bustle at all. Also: there’s nowhere better in the region to get to know the uses and yields of Polynesia’s rich natural environment. Amid all those coconut forests, beside the teeming turquoise ocean, you might as well introduce yourself to some of the natural industries that satisfy the tastes and vanities of visitors while at the same time sustaining the region’s economy.
Enclosed within a shared coral reef, Raiatea and Taha’a lie an hour’s flight from Pape’ete, French Polynesia’s capital and travel hub. There’s just the one airport, perched by the water on Raiatea, but it’s a quick crossing from there to Taha’a by boat.
It was on Raiatea, driving the coil of a coastal road with guide Tehina Rota early in my visit that I wondered about the big decks we kept passing, scattered with … something. To my Canadian eyes, they looked like Newfoundland fish flakes. Not quite: Tehina pulled over to show me that here, in place of Atlantic cod or capelin, it was broken-up meats of coconuts that were spread out to dry under the high, hot sun.
Later, on Taha’a, a guide named Samuel Tamaehu grabbed a coconut from a pile in his yard and fetched up a short knife to give me a quick tutorial on parting the meat from the nut that falls from the tree encased in a protective husk — hack, hack, hack, done. Copra is what the desiccated finished product is called, and it’s sacked up and sent off for refining. Coconut oil is one of French Polynesia’s principal exports, both for use on its own in the kitchen and as a key ingredient in other products, like margarine and soap.