Huahine means pregnant woman. The outline of the island is shaped like a pregnant woman. Huahine has the most ancient Polynesian ruins of all the islands. There are many sacred places throughout the island that hold high significance to the Polynesian culture. This is also the least visited island by tourists. There are only three hotels and a few guesthouses for visitors to stay in. We chose to live like locals and stay in a guest house named Rande’s Shack, more on that story later.
What stands out most about Huahine is the size and the jungle of various trees and plants. This is the largest of the Society Islands. Huahine spans twenty miles wide. We drove the entire island is a less than two hours (including a few photo stops). Unlike Tahiti and Bora Bora, the first language here is Tahitian. After the French colonized the island, Tahitian was replaced with French in schools until the 1980s. Today the Tahitian language is taught along with French and English.
There aren’t many restaurants and a few snack places (small privately owned restaurants/take outs). Most people sell things on their property, on the curb. We bought fresh pomelos and bananas from home stands. The main area of town has one supermarket, police station, Air Tahiti office and a couple of stores (without electricity) selling souvenirs, sarongs and pearls. Fisherman sell their catch at the end of the day by hanging the fish on a string against a tree or on homemade rack.
Tahitian pearls and vanilla are among some of the finest in the world. We visited a pearl farm in the middle of the ocean. After taking a boat ride to a small hut built in the water, we learned the process of the pearls. The oyster is much larger than the ones served with lemon in the restaurants. Tahitian pearls come in many colors. The inside shell of the oyster is the “mother of pearl”. The color is on the rim of the inside of the oyster. A piece of that live oyster is planted in another oyster to grow a colored pearl. It’s a long process and some oysters are used several times. The pearls are sold loose and the factory will mount it for an additional cost. Not all the pearls are high quality. If the pearl is a lower quality it can be sold to locals but not to outsiders.
I’m learning that French Polynesian Islands are not the white sandy beaches I’d imagined. Most of the coastline is sand with a heavy mix of rocks and coral. It’s astonishing how the Tahitians can walk barefoot everywhere including in the ocean. During our flight to Huahine a man checked into the same flight with no shoes or luggage. He rode on the plane barefoot!
Tahitians resent French more so on the island of Huahine. After getting use to saying bonjour we were answered with Ia ora na which means hello in Tahitian. Even the European locals speak Tahitian. There is a bad history between the Tahitians and French. Besides colonizing their land, over 180 atomic bombs were tested on some of the nearby neighboring islands. The few locals I did speak to did not speak too highly of the French. On the top of the most sacred mountain stands two military tanks memorializing the French takeover of Huahine. The locals are disgusted by this memorial. I can understand why. There are many archaeological sites on Huahine that are preserved. Huahine is rich in Polynesian history and culture and many of the sites are sacred.
Everything closes early on Huahine. The manager of Avis rental car told us on Saturdays the local bakery makes coconut bread and delivers it to the supermarket at 5:30am. We tried it and loved it. Coconut donuts are baked by locals on Sunday and sold on the street on the main strip until they run out. By the time we got back to the house, the bag was soaked in grease and they still tasted great.
This is the third island we have visited in French Polynesia and there are a few things I’ve noticed across the board. The first being Tahitians love french bread. It is sold in all of the grocery stores and in Tahiti is was common to see people walking home with a large long loaf of French bread. It’s not soft like the French bread sold in the United States and doesn’t come wrapped or protected. This is what stopped me from buying it, everyone touches the bread trying to find that perfect one.
The other thing is kids love to ride their bikes on the back wheel only. In Tahiti, Bora Bora and Huahine we saw kids popping their bike up on the back wheel and riding it as far as they can. I know it doesn’t sound like much but most of the boys we saw on bikes were doing it – all ages.
Our accommodations were at a guest house called Rande’s Shack. The owner is Rande, an American who has lived on the island with his Tahitian wife since 1977. His property is large and right on the ocean. He built two separate guest houses and a studio. While we were staying in one of the guest houses the other two places were filled with return guest. The place was nice but Rande was always around and always checking on us to see it we were okay or needed something. It was obvious that we would have to socialize every time we stepped outside. We learned fast that Rande was a penny pincher and a lot of the amenities listed were unavailable, such as internet and warm water. Luckily he installed screens on the guesthouses after numerous complaints over the years. Not having the internet was okay since the entire island has a bad connection and sometimes no connection. The semi cold showers were not fun. Rande would go into our guesthouse and turn down the temperature in the refrigerator every time we left. We came back from town, opened the refrigerator and noticed everything had condensation on it and it didn’t feel ice cold. The temperature was on three, Doug swore he turned it to four when we checked in. Low and behold the next day it was turned back to three when we returned from a day of touring. So knowing he was coming in after we left wasn’t winning him any points. But we are staying on his property and he didn’t install any locks from the outside on the guesthouses, only a metal hook latch from the inside. How would we approach him without a place to go to or a flight off the island? We didn’t know how we would last the six nights. We started turning the knob to three when we left hoping he would stop coming in after seeing it on three a few days. Who knows if it worked.
Rande was our source of information for things to see on the island but he wasn’t very helpful telling us the special landmarks. When asking about a rental car he replied he would call Isabelle and book it for us. He later came back and said she was all sold out and nothing was available until Monday (the day we leave). While riding bikes through town we inquired at Avis and they had cars available for the same price Rande quoted us ($70/day). We also saw exactly who this Isabelle was – she rents her own personal cars!
We mentioned to Avis we were staying at Rande’s Shack and she gave us a discounted rate (supposedly). The Avis rental car we received seemed more like the agent’s personal car. The paperwork was on an official Avis invoice but the information was vague and the credit card transaction didn’t say Avis. We also noticed the car was old and worn. It was then that we realized it was most likely her car. There wasn’t anything on or in the car that suggested it was owned by a company. The car had a hard time getting up hills so we returned it for a new one. Instead of swapping the car she got in the driver’s seat and drove us about five minutes to the nearest hill to see for herself. She gained a bunch of speed and floored the gas petal in second gear up the hill smoothly. She said she couldn’t give us any of the cars on the lot because we were on a special rate. She also rented the car with an empty gas tank. We only put a couple of gallons in the tank since we had it for only two days and the entire island is twenty miles around. She asked us why the car was still on empty. It was surreal but we kept the car anyway.
The next day we drove into town around noon to get gas and the gas station was closed. Everything closes early on Saturdays. This is where Rande came to the rescue and lent us some of his gas for his lawnmower. He made a funnel tube for the tank with a snorkel, funnel and long rod to keep the flap open. It was a true Macgyver creation.
By the fifth night we learned that Rande’s Shack was one of the nicest guesthouses in the area. After riding around the island and checking out a few other pensions (pension means guest house in French Polynesia) we realized we had a comfortable setup at Rande’s. Most places didn’t have screens and the expensive hotel was gated in facing other cottages on the property. This is true island living and the only way to understand it is to get into the rhythm of the island. Only time makes this possible. Had we checked out the second day because we were uncomfortable at first, we would have shut the door on experiencing true local life here. It also makes me grateful. Grateful that we have a place with screens and space. Grateful we have electricity and a clean sheets to sleep on. Some of the locals don’t have electricity at all. Rande’s American influences have made his place more desirable than others.
I forgot to mention my two favorite things about staying at Rande’s Shack. The first is the twelve resident wild chickens I fed everyday and his two dogs Boy and Blackout. Both dogs are large black retrievers that live on the property and always have smiles on their faces, partly because they are panting and it’s hot and humid. It was always nice to feed them our leftovers and see their smiling faces everyday. As a reward they would sleep at our doorstep and act as our own watchdogs. They loved watching us swim in the ocean and sometimes stole the chicken’s food I put out. I was sad to leave them at the end of the trip.
Tahitian women wear these beautiful fresh flower crowns on their heads that really stand out. I love the way it looks. It really reminds me I am on a Polynesian Island. I noticed more women wearing them on a Saturday. These are worn for special occasions and most are handmade. They are available for sale starting upwards of $25.00 (USD). The larger and more elaborate ones can cost even more and only last two days.
Tahitian women also have great hair. Its thick, long and healthy. I mentioned to Rande’s wife I wanted my hair to grow and she told me a couple of Tahitian secrets for great hair. The first was Tahitian people like to get their hair trimmed on a full moon and preferably by a pregnant woman. The second is a Tahitian oil called moinui. This is made by cold pressing oil from a coconut only grown in French Polynesia, and then scenting the oil with gardenia flowers. It’s a long process that can take many weeks but it’s the secret of their healthy hair. She said the kind sold in the stores isn’t as effective as the homemade. She told me where to buy it on the island. After following her directions to look on the right side of the road for a stand with a bunch of bottles. I found it. Buying this oil was an experience and the lady didn’t speak any English but we got completed the transaction. There was a table set up with plastic soda bottles filled with her creations. I was already told it didn’t smell that great but it worked. After smelling several bottles I bought pineapple and citron scent.
One of the highlights of Huahine are the sacred blue eyed eels. The eels are dark, have blue eyes and are from 3 to 6 feet long. They live in a freshwater stream near a bridge. For decades the local children have been handling and feeding them by hand. They don’t bite because they are so use to human beings touching them. At first they were eerie to see because there are so many and the only thing you can really see is their blue eyes from the top of the bridge. Even though their eyes are blue, they have horrible eyesight and use sense of smell to find food. They were living in only a few inches of water and most of them were motionless. We were told that kids actually pick them up and play with them. We did see a bunch of kids but none of them were playing with the eels at the time. The eels are considered sacred because of Polynesian mythology. It’s hard to get a good picture of them because of the shaded areas they were in.
Huahine is the most naturally beautiful island out of Tahiti and Bora Bora so far. I love the Tahitian way of life and their attitudes towards family. Anyone considering French Polynesia, this would be a great stop, but don’t expect the same luxuries of Bora Bora bungalows and high end hotel restaurants. The next stop is Moorea island. I can’t wait to see what beauty awaits.