ABOARD THE OCEANIA SIRENA – When we pulled into the tiny village of Fare, a shorts-clad youngster was wading in the beautiful turquoise lagoon under the watchful eyes of nearby parents.
By the time we got off our excursion bus, that child had removed every stitch of clothing and was happily playing au naturale in the water. Ah, childhood! Ah, French Polynesia!
For my day in Huahine, I chose to take the “Cultural Highlights” tour of the island. It was an interesting way to get a quick overview of this Polynesian paradise. So much to see. The main sites on our itinerary were the Maeva Archaeology Site, a vanilla plantation, historic fish traps and the watery home of the famous blue-eyed eels.
Guide Georgette was fluent in English and in information. While we rode on our flower-draped bus, Georgette told us that Huahine has only one main road around the island, about 6,500 residents, eight little villages, three small hotels and the island’s economy relies mainly on agriculture, fishing and tourism.
Known as “The Garden Island,” Huahine grows abundant vanilla, melons, breadfruit and bananas. One of the least touristy Polynesian islands, Huahine has an interior that is largely undeveloped and uninhabited, leading to its reputation as being the island least changed by the modern world.
Georgette also pointed out that Huahine is actually two islands – Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) – basking in one lagoon with a bridge joining them. At one time, it is believed that Huahine was one island. Since these volcanic islands are slowly sinking into the sea, the two highest portions of the original Huahine are what show above the surface of the ocean today. Mythology claims that the two islands were created when the god Hiro cut a big island in half with his canoe.
“Before they built the bridge, we would have to go back and forth between the two islands in a canoe,” Georgette said. “We are very happy to have the bridge.”
Originally, Georgette said, Huahine was named Hermosa – Spanish for “beautiful” – by Captain James Cook in 1769. But folks called it Huahine instead because the rolling hills seem shaped like a pregnant woman lying down on her back. That sight can most clearly be seen from the air or in the island’s main town of Fare. Georgette pointed it out and I took a photo but, to me, it mostly looked like the peaks and valleys of beautiful hills.
Large ancient temple site
The island is home to the largest concentration of pre-European ancient temples known as marae.
Our stop at Maeva Archaeology Site showcased the best marae I have seen since arriving in French Polynesia. In ancient Polynesia, the open-air sanctuaries were large sacred temples where important events took place and human sacrifices sometimes made. Maraes were for worshipping gods, signing peace treaties, celebrating good harvests and performing rituals asking for victory in wars.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century, the marae were the centers for social, political and religious activity. The ancient Polynesians were polytheists, which means they believed in more than one god.
When missionaries arrived on Moorea in the 19th century, the maraes were considered pagan and destroyed or abandoned as Polynesians converted to Christianity. The Maeva marae is one of the best preserved and reconstructed, plus it has a small museum in a rebuilt chief’s meeting house constructed over the water.
To enter the museum, a polite sign asked us to remove our shoes since we would be walking on a straw mat floor. Made of wood and bamboo, the circular museum was lovely with sunshine seeping through the walls to provide natural light. The museum has some interesting displays about early Huahine life and replicas of artifacts found in the area.
Important historic finds have shown that Huahine has the oldest recorded date of human occupation among the Society Islands. Discoveries at recently uncovered sites date from A.D. 850 to 1200 and include ancient shops for the construction of canoes and assembly of fish hooks.
Ancient fish traps made of rocks and coral
Next up on our tour were the fish traps. Made from rocks and coral, some of the V-shaped traps have been here for centuries and are still in use. A thatched hut offers protection from the sun. Fish are pulled into the traps by the tides and then trapped by the rocks or coral so they are easily caught, usually by net or harpoon. We passed several roadside stops where fresh-caught fish from the traps was being sold.
Vanilla plantations are often family operated
Two cruise ship passengers said the vanilla plantation on our itinerary was the main reason they picked this shore excursion. The women headed straight for the small shop to buy vanilla extract for themselves and as souvenirs for friends at home. The fresh-grown vanilla is a bargain, they said, and far better quality than what we buy in supermarkets.
Walking through the vanilla garden with Georgette, she explained the labor-intensive job of farming vanilla. “They have to pollinate each flower by hand,” she said. “We have very lazy bees here which pollinate only about five percent of the plants.”
It takes nine months until the vanilla beans can be harvested. “Just like a baby,” Georgette said. The beans are then dried and sold as is or made into vanilla extract. “It’s a lot of work. That’s why most vanilla plantations are a family business. Everyone in the family works on it.”
Sacred blue-eyed eels
The highlight for many on my shore excursion was the sacred eels. Stopping by a stream running through the village of Faie, Georgette told us that the 30 or so eels range in size from three to six feet. The eels have adapted to fresh water and are fed by locals and visitors. Fishermen often clean their catches here and throw fish remnants to the hungry eels.
Although their translucent blue eyes are blind, the eels smell food and know when it is at hand. Opening a can of mackerel, Georgette stood on the embankment and scattered bits of mackerel in the water for an eating frenzy by the eels.
“Some people hand feed the eels. The eels don’t bite as long as you don’t stick your fingers in their mouths,” she said. Some folks believe the eels are the souls of departed loved ones who don’t want to leave their beautiful homeland.
I can certainly understand not wanting to leave this island paradise. My time on Huahine passed far too fast.
Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch