Most French Polynesian daydreams feature thatch-roof bungalows atop clear waters, but further inland, there’s a new, more adventurous style of tropical travel taking shape: hiking.
Hiking South Pacific peaks isn’t necessarily new. More than 1,000 years ago, ancient Polynesians navigated thousands of miles from the western Pacific, including Samoa and Fiji, to settle land as far east as Hawai‘i and Easter Island. They’d trek the newfound islands to explore their surroundings—something Hawai‘i’s National Historic Trail, the Ala Kahakai Trail, is known for. Artifacts on this Big Island path prove native Hawaiians have hiked here for millennia.
Like Hawai‘i, French Polynesia’s valleys were once well trodden, but trekking here is no walk in the park. The islands’ jagged peaks and typically unmarked trails can be tricky and, without proper training, downright dangerous. Add a limited number of guides—the island of Tahiti had just a handful of professional hiking guides in 2021—and it’s obvious why trekking the islands has been reserved for French Polynesia’s most intrepid visitors.
But that’s about to change. In December 2021, nearly 30 local guides across French Polynesia finished an official hiking-tour certification course through the French Polynesian Institute of Youth and Sport. They’re the first new certified hiking guides on the islands since 2015. The course is offered on an extremely limited basis to avoid overcompetition among guides. In 2021, there was a clear need for it, as tourist interest in hiking had grown, but the number of available outfitters had shrunk, with guides retiring or going out of business, according to course participant Hitinui Levy, a native Tahitian.
The six-month certification requires dedication, with almost daily eight-hour lessons on subjects such as first aid, emergency response, insurance requirements, meteorology, geology, and client management. Training concludes with a series of in-the-field guided-hiking exams. Now, French Polynesia’s newest guides can bolster hiking tourism on their home islands, from Tahiti, which currently has a dozen certified guides, to Mo’orea, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and the Marquesas and Austral Islands.
It’s all part of a push by Tahiti Tourisme, the destination marketing organization for French Polynesia, to inspire authentic, ecopacked itineraries. “There’s a real opportunity to highlight the hiking possibilities to counterbalance that [paradise] cliché and show how luxurious our destination is with a richness in terms of valleys, mountains, and beyond,” says Vaihere Lissant, chief marketing officer for Tahiti Tourisme, which funded a significant portion of the course for participants.
Lissant says this change aligns with the government’s latest strategy for sustainable and inclusive tourism across French Polynesia’s 118 islands. The push, designed to protect the islands’ natural resources and native culture, helped spearhead the creation of the world’s largest shark sanctuary, a 1.5 million-square-mile stretch of ocean where a moratorium on shark fishing and finning protects over 20 shark species. It’s also inspired numerous resorts to adopt conservation initiatives, such as the Conrad Bora Bora Nui’s new partnership with nonprofit Manta Trust.
On the inclusivity side, Tahiti Tourisme changed its branding to “tell a broader, richer story of the destination’s diversity, highlighting the people and their culture,” according to a 2017 City Nation Place interview with past Tahiti Tourisme CEO Paul Sloan. Movement in the inclusivity category has been more gradual, but this fresh wave of hiking tourism, with numerous new Indigenous guides and the course’s training in Polynesian culture and conservation, shows momentum is underway.
Sustainability has long gone hand in hand with Polynesian culture. As navigators, ancient Polynesians were in sync with the Earth. They used such natural cues as the sun, stars, birds, and waves to sail and settle across the Pacific, sans instruments like sextants, more than a millennium ago. This fluency in Mother Nature’s language continues today, and the islands’ newest hiking guides are eager to share this authentic, and even spiritual, form of travel with the world.
“My primary hiking paths are in the wildest part of the island [Tahiti], where there are a lot of remains from the past,” says Levy, who recently founded hike-tour outfitter Heeuri Explorer to lead guests through the unspoiled peaks and valleys around his home village, Teahupo’o, in southwest Tahiti; there he and his wife also run the bed-and-breakfast A Hi’o I To Mou’a. “We can only imagine how our ancestors lived there and how they would go on with their days. Sometimes I just sit back and imagine them here—it’s like meditation.”
Adventure with a capital “A”
While rest breaks and nights camping beneath the stars are meditative, hiking these islands is hard, and hair-raising, work. “In countries like the U.S. and New Zealand, a lot of trails are well signposted, with bridges to cross rivers and streams and good drainage to avoid flooding,” says another newly certified hiking guide, Asher Kora, founder of Mo’orea by Foot. (He can be contacted at email@example.com.) Kora grew up in New Zealand before moving to Mo’orea in 2006. To him, these tricky trails offer one-of-a-kind thrills.
“Here, there is usually just a track wide enough for one person that would be overgrown and indistinguishable from the surrounding forest within a week or two,” he says. “There are trails to access the deepest valleys, the distant mountain passes, and the highest summits. The trails have been in place for a long time, but it still feels like we are some of the first explorers of these valleys.”
Kora’s favorite Mo’orea hike is the sacred Mou’a Puta, the island’s third-highest peak at 830 meters. “It offers everything an experienced hiker could hope for: forests, steep climbs, river crossings, ridgelines, ropes, and epic views,” Kora says of the route, which is typically completed in one day. Easier Mo’orea day hikes include the two-mile Three Pines Pass and the four-mile Three Coconuts Pass, which promise cultural sights and panoramic views along the way.
Both Levy and fellow new Tahiti hiking guide Revaiti Rochette agree on their favorite local trek: Te Pari, a jaw-dropping adventure on Tahiti’s southwest corner. The route’s so far-flung it takes a boat to reach it.
“It’s the last wild coast of Tahiti,” says Rochette, a native Polynesian and one of the few female hiking guides across French Polynesia. “It mixes ocean, cliffs, plateaus, rivers, and valleys all in one. Te Pari, literally ‘the cliff,’ lives up to its name.”
The full 12-mile Te Pari route requires at least one overnight, says Rochette, but a portion of it can be done as a day hike. She notes that several other overnight treks, such as the six-mile trail up Aora’i, Tahiti’s second-highest peak, are growing in popularity as well.
Go with a local guide
Wild, unpredictable trails are perhaps the most thrilling part of any French Polynesia trek. But this all comes with major risk. Unexpected high rains can lead to floods that leave hikers stranded—that happens frequently, according to Rochette. Meanwhile, vertiginous ridges, rope ascents, and complicated terrain can cause even more trouble when hiking on your own.
“It’s not just about knowing the route; you need to know the specificities of each place,” Rochette says, noting a boom in self-guided hike tourism could also hurt the native flora—the very foliage that draws travelers to these trails in the first place. “Some hikers destroy this biodiversity due to lack of education. It’s absolutely essential to be educated on the biodiversity of each place, and on the right behaviors to preserve these magnificent places.”
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