Do visions of flower leis, shiny yachts, overwater bungalows, and smiling honeymooners dance in your head when you dream about French Polynesia? Not so fast. While these luxuries may be pretty standard on Tahiti, Bora Bora, and even Rangiroa, not all of the islands in the South Pacific are as pampering. There are more than 100 islands, after all.
The Bass Islands look a lot different from the well-explored Society Islands. The southernmost islands in French Polynesia are remote. Very remote. Since there isn’t an airstrip, let alone an actual airport, on the islands, it’s a 50-hour trip on a cargo ship to reach Rapa. Once you set foot on the largest and only inhabited island in the chain, you’ll find more goats than people, bulls roaming freely through the dirt roads and the taro fields, and a distinct language and culture (Rapan). Oh yeah, you’ll also find the world-famous Tahitian Choir.
The volcanic Bass Islands, which include Rapa and Marotiri, were first settled in the 13th century. Though beautiful, Rapa was not peaceful. Polynesian tribes lived in hilltop fortifications, like Morongo Uta, to protect themselves from one another. Things only got worse when the Europeans—the French and the British—arrived. They brought disease, liquor, and ultimately many deaths. The island’s last queen was deposed in 1887.
The isolated islands are now quiet and very peaceful. Mount Perau, an ancient volcano, towers over Rapa. Its caldera, Baie d’Ahurei, is a protected bay ringed by high mountains. Ahuréi, the main town, sits on the bay’s south shore. A second, smaller village, ‘Area, lies on the north shore. While a nature reserve, the Manatau French Polynesian Reserve, protects the ridge-top forts, as well as endemic and endangered birds like Rapa fruit doves and Newell’s shearwaters. There may not be anything ritzy or extravagant about remote Rapa, but the island is still a French Polynesian paradise.