Fakarava is a coral atoll located in the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, approximately 450 km north of Tahiti. It is known for its rich marine life, including a diverse range of fish and coral species. We were fortunate to visit for a day in March 2023 while we traveled on Holland America’s Koningsdam.
Fakarava is the second-largest atoll in French Polynesia because the lagoon in the centre of the atoll has an area of approximately 600 km2. But the atoll itself is just a narrow strip of land that surrounds the lagoon and is barely 42 km2. In some places, the width is just a few hundred metres. You can look in one direction and see the calm waters of the lagoon; turn 180 degrees and you’ll see the Pacific Ocean. The island has a population of approximately 1,600 of which about half live in the main village of Rotoava.
The Koningsdam sailed into the Fakarava lagoon through the Passé Garuae, the larger and deeper of the two entrances. However, once in, the lagoon rapidly becomes very shallow (with a maximum depth of around 30 meters in some areas), so the only way to get to land is via the ship’s tender boats. We arrived in Roatava around 10 AM.
Fakarava is a popular destination for scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts due to its clear waters and abundant marine life. The coral reef here is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and home to over 700 species of fish, as well as a variety of coral and other marine life.. We had originally hoped to take a dive boat over to one of several prime snorkeling spots. However, a community this small is not equipped to handle an influx of people from a ship this size, and even though we tried to make a reservation about a month in advance, we were already too late. Nothing was available! So instead, we decided to make electric bike reservations to cycle north and west from the village of Roatava, towards Passé Garuae at PK 10.5, a distance of about 10.5 km. In French Polynesia, Point Kilométrique or PK is a system used to measure distances on roads and highways, similar to mile markers in the United States. Each “PK” represents a kilometer of distance traveled along the road.
As we came off the tenders, we were greeted by villagers with flowers, a tent with several tables displaying local hand-made crafts, and a separate tent offering both electric and regular bikes for rent. Reserving bikes in advance was a very good idea as only three electric bikes remained under the tent, there only because they had been set aside for us. Alas, Merge and her friend Pam are short, and even at the lowest seat level, the bikes were too big for them! And unfortunately, it was too late to switch to regular bikes as the last ones had been rented out just minutes before we got there!
So we had to go to Plan B. But there wasn’t really a Plan B. There are no taxis on Fakarava, nor is there a bus service. Our objective was to get to Plage du PK 9, a stunning “secret” beach at Point Kilométrique 9. Roatava was PK 0, so we had to find a way to travel the 9 km from Roatava to this beach. Walking seemed to be the only option now but it was a hot sunny day, and we weren’t thrilled about the idea.
Not quite ready to give up, we wandered over to the central village area where we saw an old pickup truck parked under a large shady tree. Several villagers were also sitting around and chatting. One of them was James, the owner of the truck. Turns out that James was waiting for his wife who was running one of the small craft stalls featuring hand-made crafts. She had their baby with her, but James was watching the two older kids. We negotiated back and forth with James until we persuaded him (for a very reasonable fee) to drive us to Plage du PK 9, and then to pick us up two hours later to bring us back to the pier. James’ two older children jumped into the cab with him, and the three of us climbed into the back, using our towels as seat cushions.
As you head north and west from Roatava, the airport is 4 km away at, you guessed it, PK 4. The first stretch of road is well-paved. Apparently former French president Jacques Chirac was scheduled to visit Fakarava at some point in the early 2000’s so the atoll was given the money to pave the road from the airport south to Roatava and further. Chirac never did make the trip, and the road remains as a fortunate reminder. But once you get past the airport and start heading further west, it’s just a jarring dirt track with potholes that get bigger every time it rains. Full props to James — he drove carefully, trying to avoid the ruts as much as he could, so that our ride, though very bumpy, was relatively comfortable.
Plage PK 9 is a gem!! The shoreline is a narrow and mellow expanse of white coral sand, adorned with palm trees and caressed by the sparkling turquoise waves of the lagoon. Perfect for swimming, or just lounging on the beach, the water is endlessly shallow. If you walk out about 200 m, there is also some decent snorkeling. For almost an hour, we were the only three people on this beach, until a few other cruise ship passengers started arriving on their rental bicycles. At no time was there more than about six people in total though!!
About two hours later, James and kids returned with his truck. We piled in and made our way back to Roatava and to the tender back to ship. Another perfect day in the South Pacific!