Tuamotu means "islands on the ocean's back," and some romantic observers liken them to the backs of surfacing whales. Each is comprised of hundreds of little motu (islets), which are clumps of coral, sand, and limestone strung together to form circular or rectangular shapes of white enclosing blue lagoons. Fringed by white beaches and sprouting lush green coconut groves, the motu are the reality of most people's South Seas paradise dreams.
Only 41 of the atolls are inhabited and have a total population of 12,500. Tourists tend to visit only Rangiroa, Fakarava, Tikehau, and Manihi, which have the bulk of accommodations, though services like banks are few and far between. There are only five sizeable hotels in the entire archipelago; most lodgings are family-run pensions. There is no nightlife beyond the resorts, and the few independent restaurants close their doors around 9:30 pm. Surprisingly, there is a vineyard—Rangiroa grows the only grapes in the South Pacific.
Pearl farms thrive in the region due to the warm waters favored by the black pearl oyster, Pinctada margaritifera. The islands are well known in diving circles for their spectacular marine life, but are off the radar of the average tourist.