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Paradise Found

Rangiroa is a slow-paced haven for divers and those who wonder what Polynesia used to be like

September 16, 2007|Rosemary McClure | Rosemary McClure is a Times travel writer.

Twice a day the tide changes here on this South Seas atoll, and when it does, 8- to 12-foot-tall waves churn through Tiputa Pass, creating a thunder of clashing water, riptides and whirlpools that can kill an unwary swimmer. But the bottlenose dolphins of Rangiroa revel in it. Twice a day, the pass becomes their playground, a place to soar and dive and frolic.

The dolphins' acrobatics are so well known here that crowds gather to watch. I joined a group last April, gazing spellbound with others on a veranda suspended over the sea. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was being welcomed to the French Polynesian atoll of Rangiroa by its most famous residents, a school of dolphins that lives in the pass that separates the atoll's lagoon from the Pacific Ocean. I had arrived at Rangiroa (pronounced Rain-GHEE-ro-ah) just a few hours earlier, flying northeast about an hour from Tahiti to the Tuamotu Archipelago, a string of nearly 100 coral atolls.

Millions of years ago each was an island, but when the volcanoes that formed them became extinct and subsided, all that remained were these coral-encrusted islets rising a few feet above the water. Most are so small they look like dollops of sand strewn across the surface of the sea.

Rangiroa dwarfs the other atolls. Its hundreds of islets stretch more than 110 miles, encircling a deep lagoon. One of the largest atolls in the world, it is so big that the city of Los Angeles could nearly fit within its lagoon.

But it has little else in common with the City of Angels. Cars are few in Rangiroa--it has only about 10 miles of paved roads. Far from the traffic jams, pollution and edge-of-the-seat anxieties of daily life in a megalopolis, Rangiroa drifts in a sea of sublime simplicity.

"It's easy to live here," said Rangiroa resident Moana Estall, who spent several years in Tahiti. "If you want to eat, you go fishing. In Tahiti, if you want to eat you go to the market and buy fish, and it's expensive and not so good."

The atoll is almost unknown outside the scuba-diving community, which prizes it for its crystalline waters and abundant marine life. Its anonymity has preserved an authenticity that is disappearing in a South Seas world of faux realities.

A friend who was sailing the South Pacific told me years ago about Rangiroa. It sounded like a rainbow chaser's dream, so I tucked it away in my mind, hoping to visit one day. My chance came last spring, when I tacked it onto a trip to Tahiti and Bora-Bora. After visiting both, Rangi--its nickname--seemed like Paradise Found: a slow-paced haven for travelers who wonder what Polynesia was like before the hotel industry discovered it.

The atoll, like its sister island Tahiti 200 miles southwest, is a French territory, and most of its 2,500 residents speak French or Tahitian. Rangi's residents always have depended on fishing for their livelihood. Tourism has begun to augment their incomes, but it's still small scale.

Bora-Bora, less than half Rangiroa's size in area, has 1,000 hotel rooms. Rangi has about 160, with a range of accommodations from air-conditioned, over-the-water bungalows at $800 a night to guesthouses or rooms in private homes for about $100 daily. Most tourists arrive in summer, although the weather often is more pleasant in the fall, when hotel and airfare rates are lower.

I stayed at a small inn, Les Relais de Josephine, paying $216 a night for an un-air-conditioned cottage with an extraordinary location overlooking Tiputa Pass and the twice-daily dolphin acrobatics show.

The morning after my arrival, I boarded a skiff with about a dozen other tourists and spent more than an hour bouncing through choppy waters to Lagon Bleu, or Blue Lagoon. (No, not the one made famous by Brooke Shields in the 1980 film. Blue Lagoons are as common on tropical islands as Main Streets are in the U.S.)

The tour boat driver stopped about 50 yards from a picturesque islet crowned by swaying palms. The lagoon was so clear that I had no trouble spotting three black-tip sharks circling near the boat. We would have to run a gantlet to get to the alluring white beach off the bow, but no one hesitated. I plowed ahead, wading through waist-deep water, keeping a wary eye on the three fins near me. There were 13 sets of legs and only three sharks. Not bad odds. Besides, the sharks were small.

Lagon Bleu, one of the most popular tourist excursions in Rangi, is a lagoon within a lagoon, a shallow turquoise pool carved into the reef on the northwestern edge of the main lagoon. It's ringed by motu, small islets, and offers myriad spots to snorkel. But most of us spent the morning crossing a sharp coral reef to l'ile des oiseaux, a bird sanctuary a couple of miles north where hundreds of gulls and other seabirds nest.

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