story by Julia Steele
photo by Kyle Rothenborg
Ten years ago in Tahiti, Marie-Claude Rajaud bought a small hotel at auction. It was on the distant island of Raiatea; simple, charming, right on the sea—but none of that made it extraordinary. What did make it extraordinary was the fact that it sat right next to the greatest marae, or temple, in Polynesia. Imagine a B&B abutting Stonehenge or a pension pressing up against the Pyramids and you have an inkling of the juxtaposition. Rajaud’s place, Hotel Atiapiti, sits just beside Taputapuatea, the monumental marae that for centuries was the sacred center of open-ocean voyaging. It was here, when mariners set sail, that prayers were offered and sacrifices were made, and today Taputapuatea remains one of the Pacific’s most venerated sites—when the Hokule‘a sails south, it stops here.
Just next door—literally a walk of less than a minute—Hotel Atiapiti is quiet, lush, low-key, with just eight small, spotless bungalows. If you didn’t look for it, you’d have no idea it was there. “It’s a very special place,” says Rajaud. “But when you live just to the side of Taputapuatea, it’s necessary to be very well in the head. Sometimes around the full moon, there’s a special atmosphere here. People hear music, see a woman in a white dress. It’s crazy. It’s strange. But it’s nice. But if someone is bad in the head, it’s hard for them. They’re afraid.”
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave? Rajaud laughs. “That’s only around the full moon. For a long stay, this is a very paradise place. When people stay for one month, they are ten years younger.” Ten years into it herself, Rajaud is delighted to have left behind the big hotel she once ran in Aix-en-Provence. “I wanted to change my life, and for me, Raiatea is the best island in the world: It’s big, we have the good luck to have a town with a supermarket and a hospital and schools; there are many biologique things to see on the island, the lagoon is incredible. …” She pauses, hardly needs to speak the next words, “and the marae is number one.”