Tahiti, French Polynesia

Tahiti island seen in the distance from Moorea's northeast coast, Pacific Ocean, Polynesia

Tahiti island seen in the near distance from above Moorea island’s best beach.

Surfing off a black beach, Tahiti, Polynesia

Tahiti is an ex-paradise that’s past its sell-by date

100 years past it according to Gauguin who arrived for his second visit in 1900 and declared it too spoilt by civilisation even then. Big G immediately took off for the Marquesas Islands, where he died. Ironically the Gaugin museum is one of the best ‘sights’ on an island that is pretty short of exciting things to see.

Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia is expensive and barely interesting but has an international airport (Faa’a) and frequent flights that arrive very late so many visitors have no choice but to stay a couple of nights en route to far more attractive Bora Bora, neighbouring Moorea or other lesser known islands.

As an ex-colony of France, French is the official language.

Where is Tahiti?

Tahiti is in the South Pacific Ocean, one of 118 islands that make up French Polynesia – in other words French territory and French speaking. It’s in a group  that includes the islands of Bora Bora and Moorea, and is inhabited by 125,000 people, mostly of Polynesians heritage. Polynesia Map.

Things to Do in Tahiti

Main road, Tahiti, Polynesia

Tahiti’s 114km (72 miles) ring road, showing typical black sand beaches and moderate surf. There is also an interior road that winds around the barely inhabited centre of the island and offers panoramic views.

• Drive: You can drive around Tahiti in four easy hours on a circular road running beside the sea, lined with tropical vegetation and little plasterboard bungalows, unexciting but pleasant, in spite of fairly constant traffic. En route you will come across rocky black sand beaches (with reasonable surf because there’s little protective barrier reef on this island), and one or two anaemic sights – waterfalls and sea puffing lava tubes.

waterfall cascade Vaimahuta, Tahiti, Polynesia

Actually this Tahiti waterfall is Cascade Vaimahuta, not as spectacular as Fautaua but a lot easier to reach if you’re in a hurry.

Hike to Fautaua Waterfall: Situated in the lush Fautaua Valley east of Pape’ete, the Fautaua fall cascades 296 metres (985 ft) over volcanic cliffs into a large pool and will require a three hour hike to reach. In the dry season the falls can shrink to a disappointing dribble and the mosquito action in this area is horrific so serious repellent will be needed.
Lone hikers (as opposed to joining one of the organised groups) need a permit from the Town Hall in Pape’ete. The trailhead is not far from downtown so when you get the permit ask anyone for directions.

• Head for La Plage de Maui, a white sand beach. While most of the island’s beaches are coated in volcanic black sand that is neither attractive nor foot-friendly, La Plage de Maui blazes in white. It’s about 25 miles from Pape’ete and being the best public beach in Tahiti it gets busy is season/at weekends so consider heading out there early, late, or on a slow day.

Plage de Maui, Tahiti. Photo by Michel Six

Plage de Maui, Tahiti. Photo by Michel Six

Visit the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands (Musée de Tahiti et des Îles). Small but informative and well-designed, the museum is divided into four areas: geography and natural history; pre-European culture; the effect of colonization; natural wonders. If you tire of perusing the exhibits, step outside for great views of surfers tackling the ocean waves.
The Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands charges a hefty admission fee. It’s about 16 kms (10 miles) from Pape’ete in the town of Puna’auia and can easily be accessed by car or bus. Closed Mondays.

And/or check the Gaugin museum, more info below.

Tahiti Activities

Mount Aorai, Tahiti, Polynsia. Photo Yanik1214

Climbing Mount Aorai (2, 066 metres), Tahiti, French Polynesia. Photo by Yanik1214.

• Scuba Diving. Tahiti has a variety of sites for all levels of divers and targets ranging from wrecks to sharks. The Aquarium is a popular place to feed fish by hand.

• Surfing. The north coast offers good surfing with both beach breaks and reef breaks. The best time to surf is winter when distant Pacific storms trigger grand waves. The southern coast of Tahiti has the most breaks, apart from Papara’s waves.

• Body surfing or Body boarding. Inexperienced visitors may prefer to try less tricky body surfing or body boarding (on a small board not for standing). Taapuna Pass, Paea, Tapuaeaha, Ava iti, are common locations for newbies.

• Golf. The International Course of Atimaono is a 6, 944-yard, par 72 course and is Tahiti’s only 18-hole golf course.

• Quad Biking. Roar thru the Papenoo Valley in the centre of Tahiti by quad bike, including river crossings.

• Horseback Riding. Club Equestre de Tahiti organises rides into the heart of Secret Mountain.

• Deep-Sea Fishing is a popular activity with French Polynesia visitors. Game fish include marlin, yellow fin tuna, sailfish, swordfish, mahi mahi, barracuda and other pelagic fish.

• Kayaking. The Lagoon or the windward side of Punaauia are best kayaking spots in Tahiti.

• Hike Aorai Mountain. Mount Aorai (2, 066 metres) is a fine climb and can be done without a guide. Pape’ete has many professionals offering different levels of hikes and mountain climbing over 1-4 days.

Tahiti weather

The best weather is in the months of May, June, September, October. Tahiti and Moorea are warm and humid all year with temperatures running from lows of around 21C (70F) to highs about 31C (88F) and little seasonal variation. The dry season is climatically the best, from May to October, but July and August can get very busy.

Beware the November to April wet season. It may rain for an hour, it may rain for days on end, and even when it isn’t raining the cloud cover, winds and choppy water make marine activities less attractive.

Pape’ete, Tahiti’s capital

Papeete, Marina Taina, Tahiti, Polynesia. Photo Remi Jouan

Tahiti’s capital, Pape’ete, looking gorgeous from a distance. Photo Remi Jouan.

Pape’ete, Tahiti’s capital, is car dominated and lacking in any kind of ethnic niceties or even decent architecture but does offer some excellent pricey restaurants and shops. With a large port (unseen, over to the left), dark, stony beaches and a lot of unprepossessing buildings it’s hardly a beach paradise though there are some stunning and secluded hotels where it may seem that way.

The best thing about Pape’ete is the evening mobile kitchens/food trucks (roulettes) set up in the main harbourside plaza near the ferry dock and delivering quality food outdoors for a fair price, though no booze is served. This is a favourite spot for locals to eat out.

Pape’ete Public Market is a good place to find local produce while fine international cuisine, especially Chinese, French and Italian is easy to find – at a price.

Papeete street, Tahiti, Polynesia

One of the back streets of Pape’ete. Nice people, pity about the shabby, sticky environment totally lacking in heavenly attributes.

Getting around Tahiti

By Rental Car

There’s the usual selection of rental agencies in Tahiti, charging for unlimited kilometres. Do pay attention to local rules of the road which are quite antiquated such as priority given to vehicles entering an intersection from the right in Pape’ete (priorité a droite as it was in France in the old days but so rare now that it’s always specifically sign posted).

Parking is difficult to find in Pape’ete so ensure your hotel has parking or rent the wheels just for a few hours. A round-island trip will be about 114km (72 miles) long not counting Tahiti Iti.

By Taxi

Pape’ete has plenty of taxis though they are difficult to find during morning and evening rush hours. Most taxi drivers understand some English.
Taxi fares are expensive. Few cabs have meters so it’s essential to agree on a fare before you get in the cab.

By Bus

Modern buses are the normal, decently-priced transport system for most locals in spite of the number of cars on the road suggesting otherwise. Tahiti’s famously colorful and crude le trucks have almost run out of road so you’d be lucky to see one, let alone get a useful ride on one.

Places served by each bus are written on the sides and front of the bus and the bus fare is low.

Buses travel all over the island so ask your receptionist where the nearest stop is. Unfortunately long-distance buses run from 6am to noon on weekdays so it’s not possible to tour the island in one day on a bus.

Gauguin, naughty but nice

Gaugin museum, Tahiti, Polynesia

The Paul Gauguin Museum.

Paul Gauguin, a French stockbroker, abandoned his wife, six children and Paris life in 1891 to sail to Tahiti and develop his passion for impressionistic painting. As it happened he also developed a passion for lithe and liberated Polynesian girls, painting them vividly and nakedly as well as interacting with them on a more physical plane, outraging French colonial society and ensuring that he would be an outcast on the island.

Gauguin particularly disliked Pape’ete, the capital (who doesn’t? ), and lived for two years on Tahiti’s south coast. He then made a trip back to Paris, perhaps as a marketing exercise, perhaps because he tired of the tropical life but whatever the reason France didn’t work for him second time around either so he returned to Tahiti in 1990.

Unfortunately civilisation had arrived in the meantime and the island was way too sophisticated and spoilt for him, so he sailed off to the Marquesas Islands where he died, penniless, in 1993. Gaugin’s paintings are now worth many millions of dollars.

Tahiti’s Gauguin Museum is user-friendly with a relaxed and varied collection of copies, artifacts from that era and stories about the G man.

Tahiti Map with tourist sights, Polynesia

Map of Tahiti, French Polynesia by Google + a few Bugbog additions. Moorea is much closer to most traveler’s picture of a tropical paradise and is 30 minutes ferry ride away just beyond the top left corner of the Tahiti map.

The bugbog crew were delighted to get to Moorea in half an hour on a fast ferry. Moorea is what Tahiti once was, we think. And sadly it will become what Tahiti is, in time.