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Articles Blog

Rangiroa, French Polynesia

Karyn Planett

Wine Capital of the South Pacific 

The Tuamotu Archipelago is the largest chain of atolls in the world, spanning an area roughly the size of Western Europe. And Rangiroa is the largest atoll in this chain as well as the second largest atoll in the whole world. In fact, the entire island of Tahiti could easily fit inside its 618 square mile lagoon, which is about 50 miles by 20 miles when measured at its largest points. This lagoon is so vast, it has its own horizon and gives the island its name, which means “big sky”. 

Whew! Now that we have these superlatives out of the way, let’s look at some of the details. 

These are not the towering, jagged, volcanic islands of Moorea and Bora Bora. Those will come later. These are low, barely-above-sea-level coral rings covered by a bit of sand and coconut palms clinging for dear life against strong sea breezes and relentless surf. Rangiroa atoll consists of over 250 islands, islets and sand bars, separated by breaks in the reef. Only two—Tipitua and Avatoru, named for the atoll’s only two settlements—are actually navigable.

Shooting The Pass 

Four times each day, the tide sweeps through the Tipatua Pass at over five knots. Whether in the water with scuba or snorkeling equipment or in a glass bottom boat, visitors can participate in this daily ritual along with a staggering variety of marine life. On the outgoing tide, hundreds of sharks hang motionless against the current while lunch or dinner is delivered to their waiting jaws (don’t worry, they’re over one hundred feet down—although clearly visible in the crystal water). 

The incoming tide is a thrilling ride ending in the lagoon’s huge natural aquarium. Some of the clearest seawater in the world is found here and seems to magnify the presence of ten-foot devilfish, many shark species, manta rays and sleepy green sea turtles.

Tupac And Kon Tiki

Ferdinand Magellan gets credit for being the first European to discover Rangiroa during his circumnavigation in 1521. There followed the usual progression of Dutch, Portugese and English mariners and explorers including Captain James Cook 150 years later. However, the first non-Polynesian to step ashore may well have been a prince of the Incan Empire in 1480. 

Tupac Inca Yupanqui, having conquered most of the regions around his capital in Cuzco, was smitten by tales of exotic islands populated by beautiful people and heaps of gold. He built enough sailing ships from Balsa logs to embark a 20,000-man army and set off on a ten-month cruise of the South Seas. The imperfect (mostly verbal) history of the time leads some to believe that Rangiroa, or at least the Tuamotu Archipelago, was one of the port calls from which he returned with “black people, gold, a chair of brass, and the skin and jawbone of a horse”. 

Almost 500 years later, Norwegian explorer and author Thor Heyerdahl sought to prove the technical possibility of such a voyage by building a raft of balsa logs and other materials available at Tupac’s time. His expedition successfully crossed 4300 miles of the Pacific on Kon Tiki before running upon the reef at Rairoa in the Tuamotus on August 7, 1947. 

In 2006, another Norwegian team, including Heyerdahl’s grandson, duplicated the feat in a new raft named Tangaroa. Little else of historical significance has occurred in the islands unless you count 193 French nuclear bomb tests between 1966 and 1996 (but none on Rangiroa).

The Ultimate Wine Snob’s Discovery

You can talk to friends back home about your Old World wines and your New World wines but nothing’s going to bring them to their snobby knees like the 2004 vintage from Domaine Dominique Auroy. Yes, strange as it seems, from cuttings brought to the island in 1992—3500 miles from the nearest vineyards, from vines planted in coral sand guarded from salty breezes by a barrier of trees, from grapes harvested twice a year and brought to the winery by boat, comes a full line of premium table wines.

The winery, which sits in the middle of the village of Avatoru, is the result of a collaboration between Mr. Dominique Auroy, a Tahitian entrepreneur living in the islands for 35 years, and Professor Bernard Hudelot, a viticulturalist from the University of Dijon. In what sometimes must have seemed a fool’s mission, the pair tested over thirty grape varieties to find specimens that would thrive in the particular and peculiar soil and weather conditions of the tropics. 

Not least of their discoveries was that the hot weather combined with pergola trellising techniques resulted in merely a four-month cycle from pruning to picking. Even slower maturing red varieties are harvested in May and again in November, leading to some interesting vintage choices. 

No matter what vintage may be available when we call, the bottles you bring home are sure to help the slide show of your own journey slide by a little bit faster.