With its palm-fringed, azure lagoon and miles of dazzling white sand beaches, the tiny tropical island of Manihi is considered one of the loveliest in French Polynesia.
But exotic good looks aren't its only claim to fame. With a population of 50,000 -- marine oysters, that is -- this water-bound paradise is a major player in the cultivation of yet another priceless South Sea resource, the luminous black pearl. Add to these assets a world-class hotel, the Kaina Village, and it's easy to see why Manihi's popularity as an international resort destination is on the rise.
Located about 325 miles northeast of Tahiti, Manihi is one of 77 still-remote landfalls in a 1,000-mile-long chain of islands known as the Tuamotu ("sea of islands"), French Polynesia's most extensive archipelago. Running northwest to southeast amid 500,000 square miles of watery blue South Pacific, the Tuamotu are composed almost entirely of atolls -- narrow, low-lying circles of sand and coral with crystal lagoons at their centers.
Most of these atolls form perfect, unbroken rings, but a few, like Manihi, have deep, navigable channels or passes through their barrier reefs that provide a constant interchange of lagoon water with the open sea. The result is a thriving habitat for a variety of submarine life that continues to draw scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts.
As early as the fifth century, Maori seamen, relying on their knowledge of astronomy and navigation for survival, crossed the vast Pacific in outrigger canoes to become the area's first inhabitants. But the Tuamotu Islands remained unsettled until the 14th century, when a series of wars waged on neighboring archipelagoes forced the defeated to the sea in search of new homes.
Not until several centuries later did European explorers venture onto the scene -- the Portuguese under Magellan to the Tuamotu in 1521, the Spaniards to the Marquesa archipelago in 1595, and the English to Tahiti and the Society Islands in 1767, followed a year later by the French under the leadership of Bougainville. In ,, 1842, the Tuamotu became a French protectorate.
If these atolls had any value to outsiders, it was as a rich source of mother-of-pearl shell, harvested relentlessly in surrounding waters for more than a century and a half until oyster beds were nearly depleted in the 1950s. A coveted but all-too-scarce byproduct of these collections was the fabulous Polynesian black pearl, which fetched enormous sums on the world market for its beauty and rarity. In the mid-1960s, following years of experimentation by the Japanese, farming methods were developed and introduced to the Tuamotu.
In the intervening years, cultured pearls have become a major source of foreign currency for Tahiti while bringing new jobs and prosperity to islanders. Today, about two dozen private farms and nearly 100 smaller-scale cooperatives are scattered over 17 atolls in the Tuamotu. Visitors to Kaina Village Hotel can take a free guided tour of one or more of the working pearl farms that dot Manihi's 4-mile-wide, 19-mile-long lagoon for a look at the painstaking steps involved in creating these precious gems.
In their quest for perfect and not-so-perfect pearls, farmers try to simulate on a large and systematic scale what occurs only sporadically under natural circumstances in the black-lipped oyster, pinctada margaritifera. For several months each year, they employ specially trained grafters from Japan for the tricky business of surgically implanting tiny beads in the young shellfish, which then are wired to submarine stakes. There, in the shallow waters, they spend up to three years secreting the successive layers of a milky substance called nacre, which will transform their implants into silky, cultured pearls.
Only about seven in 100 pearls are of the flawless quality that yields top prices, but there is a thriving market for their less expensive, baroque counterparts.
As might be expected, pearl-farm visits usually wind up with a view of the merchandise, in and out of settings, plus a mild sales pitch. For the budget-minded, there's the "demi" or half pearl, created from a teardrop-shaped piece of plastic glued to the oyster shell and left to be covered in layers of creamy nacre. For anyone planning to invest a sizable sum on Polynesian black pearls, whether on Manihi or in the dozens of jewelry stores in and around Papeete, the capital city of Tahiti, it's always a wise idea to make sure the purchase includes a certificate of origin and quality-control guarantee.
The Kaina Village Hotel offers another free excursion to Turipaoa, home to most of the atoll's 450 inhabitants. It's located just across the lagoon at Tairapa Pass, the all-important channel to the open seas.
Typical of most villages in the Tuamotu, its two sandy main streets are bordered by rows of weathered, tin-roofed homes with carefully tended gardens of frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea.