There is something about Maupiti, a tiny, little-known atoll in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. Its allure, its spirit, its location, its people, its vibe. Everybody who visits Maupiti loves it, and some even stay. But why? This is hard to explain, and doesn’t become clear, really, until you touch and have been touched by the captivating island yourself.
Back in 1989, Bernadette Brennan, then deputy editor of Cruising World, chartered a Privilège 47 catamaran out of Raiatea and, as part of a team, sailed the boat over to remote and rarely visited Maupiti. Not many captains dared to venture into this reef-strewn lagoon, with its tricky unmarked pass. Bernadette might well have been the first person ever to write a sailing article about this mysterious and laid-back gem of the South Seas. She met the hospitable locals, had amazing experiences during her visit and was entranced by the atoll, its residents and its culture.
Since then, few things have changed. The dogleg entrance channel through the one southern pass is marked now, but still only accessible in certain conditions, when wind speeds are below 20 knots and the swell is less than 6 feet. These mellow circumstances are rarely met during the high (trade wind) season from April to October, when boats might get trapped inside, often for weeks at a time. Ideal conditions prevail during the cyclone season, but with no sheltered hurricane holes in the atoll, visits have to remain brief. Because of these factors, not many cruisers and charterers explore the area.
In November 2014, my husband, Mark, and I hopped over from Bora Bora to Maupiti on our 35-foot catamaran, Irie. The sail was faster than anticipated in changing conditions. Being on high alert, with our gaze focused on the range markers, we were gently thrown into the lagoon, but our nerves didn’t relax until the turquoise water was dead-flat and the two sets of leading marks were behind us. Following the usual green and red markers all the way to the town of Vai’ea and finally taking in the surroundings, we expected to be blown away by the atoll’s beauty. But it wasn’t until we had safely anchored and ventured ashore that Maupiti slowly but profoundly began to captivate us.
It all started with a sturdy dock — watch the coral heads on the way in — to safely leave the dinghy. Once ashore, we were greeted with a friendly “ia orana” (hello) by food vendors and local farmers at the covered market. Despite the main island being basically a rock and the surrounding motus (low-lying barrier islands) consisting of sand, palm trees and brush, we were amazed at the diversity of healthy goodies. Free drinking water is provided by a spigot nearby, and a few small grocery stores are scattered in the area. The mairie (town hall) and the poste are right on the water’s edge, and the main bakery, with fresh baguettes, is a five-minute stroll to the south.
Geographically, Maupiti resembles Bora Bora — a ring of picturesque islands around a turquoise lagoon with a high, rainforest-covered landmass in the middle — but the comparison stops there. A flat road, which is paved now but by no means busy, provides an easy, quiet walk around the whole island, following the edge of the lagoon. Modest houses and pretty gardens, many with a well-tended family grave in the middle, line the street, becoming sparser when leaving the village. There, lush mountainsides and massive rock formations — some are “petrified” faces of legendary gods — are the main features along the route.
There is one hill to walk up and over, or a diversion to Tereia Beach on the southwestern peninsula, looking out over one of the five motus. It’s possible to wade across the lagoon to Motu Auira. Along the island’s road, banana, mango, breadfruit and papaya trees abound. As on all the high islands in French Polynesia, nature provides a healthy dose of vitamins here. During the rainy season, it doesn’t only rain fresh water to fill your water tanks, but also mangoes and breadfruit to replenish the fruit bowl!
Maupiti’s biggest treasure revealed itself during a challenging hike to the top of Mount Teurufaatiu. It took us a couple of hours and gallons of sweat to steadily climb to a height of 380 meters (1,247 feet), passing through tropical vegetation, finding reprieve in the shade of junglelike trees and plants, and appreciating the sturdy ropes to pull ourselves over steep rock faces.
Once on the top, our fatigue immediately evaporated when the 360-degree view materialized. Spellbound, we looked over the vast expanse around us: palm-fringed motus framing the turquoise-blue lagoon with indigo-blue ocean depths behind them, an infinite seascape; barren mountainsides interchanged with rocky outcrops and green hills, with patches of coral dotting the blue canvas underneath; frothy, white waves breaking over the outer reef; and the miniature houses of Vai’ea scattered around the picturesque church. It all molded into arguably the best view of French Polynesia.
We were able to explore all the islands in the lagoon by dinghy. No tabu (forbidden) signs here. Unlike on many of the beaches we came across in Raiatea or Bora Bora, as visitors to Maupiti, we were welcome to walk around, sit in the shade of palm trees or go for refreshing swims without being chased off by protective dogs or possessive people. One day, we were even given bananas and coconuts by a nice man living on a motu, before heading back to Irie. But not only Polynesians are of the welcoming kind in Maupiti!
Hey, are you guys Americans?” A tan man with a long, gray beard and decorative tattoos approached in his motorboat. We popped our heads outside, baffled to hear English. While his quiet Maupitian friend Nu-Nu kept the two boats from touching, we met Johnny Coconut. Who would have guessed we’d find an American expat in this remote part of the world? Eager to make new friends and to communicate in English after months of making conversation in poor French, we listened to Johnny’s story.
In 1991, John Brito, of California, read the article “Maupiti, Island of Spirits” in Cruising World and was captivated. That’s where I want to go, he thought. Maupiti fit his picture of a quiet island paradise with friendly people, no paved roads, no big hotels and minimal tourist infrastructure. He loved the water, he loved boats; Maupiti had plenty of both. A call to author Bernadette Brennan confirmed his expectations, and he jumped on a plane to the South Pacific. He celebrated his 50th birthday in Maupiti and was received with open arms. “I am staying!” he told his new friends, and over the following two decades, Maupiti became his home and his life — he married, he divorced, he ran houseboat tours. He became known as Johnny Coconut.
During our stay in the atoll, Johnny shared tips and stories and invited us over to his house on the south side of the island, where he and his American friend Jennifer prepared a delicious lunch. We indulged in the island life, cherishing the peace, atmosphere and views over the lagoon. Life was simple here, and delicious at the same time. There were other “foreigners” like us, who could not withstand the charm of Maupiti. Johnny told us about a Tahitian-French couple who had been living on a motu near the pass for many years. When we took Irie to that part of the lagoon, not only did we enjoy sundowners and brilliant sunsets on one of the nicest beaches in the area, and snorkel among colorful fish, healthy coral and a group of majestic manta rays, we also visited the secluded couple we were told about. We were intrigued by their life, impressed with the house they built and in awe of its sublime location.
In 1996, Louis — a sixth-generation Pacific islander — and Maud, who’s originally from France, bought a substantial piece of land on a motu in Maupiti, far away from the hustle and bustle of Tahiti, where they had lived for 25 years. Their fondness of the island was based on a visit by schooner in 1977. Fortunate to have come across such a chunk of property, which is rare in these archipelagos, where most land is owned by large families, they packed up and moved to the western extremities of French Polynesia. On the southern point of Motu Pitihahei, overlooking the pass and the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean, they built their residence with predominantly natural materials.
The oval-shaped house was open and breezy, with a coral floor and a perimeter of concrete. They decorated it with local arts and crafts and souvenirs they had collected during their travels. From the balcony on the second floor, they can observe all the boats that come and go, and on a clear day, Bora Bora and Raiatea are visible. Seventeen years ago, a cyclone brought devastation to Maupiti, removing the top floor like a hat off someone’s head. Louis and Maud rebuilt the whole house back to its original state. They have a cute boathouse with a va’a (outrigger canoe), and their property spans the whole south side of the motu. Here, a few bathhouses and two bungalows for visitors are other products of the couple’s imagination and artistic talents.
When asked how things have changed in Maupiti over the years, Louis said, “The island looked different in 1977. There was a small stretch of dirt road and one car. When we moved here in 1996, the dirt road surrounded the island, and we counted 10 cars. Now, the road is paved and there are 100 cars! The number of people is about the same as 25 years ago, but there are fewer houses, occupied by bigger families. The youth now is into gadgets they cannot afford, and fish and lobster are not as plentiful anymore. Everyone wants a big car and big outboards. People spend a lot of money and want more than in the earlier years, when life was more focused on sustaining oneself. This evolution is a sad one, but one nobody can change.”
But Louis and Maud are happy where they are and taking life easy. They have a powerboat, which they need to visit the main island and is kept in a small natural basin inside the pass. They maintain their property, and Louis fishes for 30 minutes off the beach, every morning, before walking his dogs. The couple’s lives are isolated and their relatives spread out over the world, but they welcome friends with open arms. They invited us over for a delicious lunch of fish and sweet potato, grown in their garden; we provided a salad, fresh basil to grow and Belgian goodies for dessert. It was a relaxed French way of dining in a magnificent Polynesian setting. We enjoyed the couple’s hospitality and company while appreciating the symbioses between people and nature. The coral floor, despite being a bit tough on the feet, provided a clean living platform, on which crabs and nocturnal creatures act as vacuum cleaners!
The time of our departure arrived. It promised to be a windless day with many squalls when Mark and I motored our sailboat out of Maupiti’s lagoon at 0600. I visually lined up the range markers, looking backward, while Mark steered us through the subdued cut. When we passed Maud and Louis’ house, we paused and waved. Louis, already finished with his first activity of the day, catching fish, stood on the second floor of the house and watched us disappear toward the horizon. It was with mixed feelings that we entered the darkness and wetness of the ocean. Determined to come back one day to this captivating place and its friendly people, we hoped that Maupiti would continue to remain unspoiled.
Liesbet Collaert and her husband, Mark Kilty, cruised the Caribbean and South Pacific for eight years on their 35-foot catamaran, *Irie. They left from Chesapeake Bay in 2007 and sold their floating home in Tahiti in 2015 to focus on their business, the Wirie. Read about their adventures on their blog (itsirie.com).*