Rikitea, Gambier Islands

Photo: Utilisateur:FREDFRED at fr.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Utilisateur:FREDFRED at fr.wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
So you think you’ve conquered French Polynesia? Not so fast. The French overseas collectivity includes more than Mo’orea, Bora Bora, Huahine, and Taha’a. A lot more. Five island groups, which include nearly 120 islands and atolls, are spread out over two million square miles. That’s an area the size of Europe. So forgive us for questioning whether you’ve really been everywhere.

One place you may not have reached yet: the Gambier Islands. The archipelago lies 1,000 miles south of Tahiti and southeast of the Tuamotu Archipelago, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. A single reef surrounds the remnants of a caldera, volcanic islands, and a bright blue lagoon. The islands were ruled by Polynesian kings for centuries. Then Roman Catholic missionaries, who arrived in the 1830s, started here to spread Catholicism through the South Pacific islands. Today, many consider the Gambier Islands to have to the finest and most colorful pearls in all of French Polynesia.

Mangareva is the largest and most central of all the Gambier Islands. A high ridge runs the length of the island. Its highest peak, Mont Duff, sits near the southern coast. In less than two hours, you can hike to the top for amazing 360-degree views. Taravai, Akamaru, and Aukena are in the distance. Mont Mokoto, the island’s second-highest peak, is to the north. While Rikitea, the main town, is below you on the eastern coast.

Rikitea has fruit tree-lined streets, two small markets, and the homes of most of the people who live on the island. Its focal point is Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Rikitea. Missionaries started building the Neo-Gothic church in 1839. The fired limestone building has white walls, black pews, and a pearl-decorated altar. Everyone, including visitors, looks forward to Sunday Mass, when singing can be heard well beyond the open doors. A 140-year-old rectory is across the street. While the ruins of the Rouru Convent, long overgrown with weeds, are nearby. Sixty nuns once lived in the convent; they hid the local women when whaling ships visited the island. Like the rest of the island, it’s a quiet and beautiful place.

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