What Tahiti lacks in wide white-sand beaches, it makes up for in waterfall-laden, shadowy mountains, unpretentiously beautiful black-sand beaches, sheltered blue lagoons and a distinctly Polynesian, modern buzz. This is the heart of the islands, where the cultures from all the archipelagos are mixed in the cacophonous, dusty, yet smiling and energetic capital of Pape'ete. Outside the city, explore the majestic, mountainous interior on a 4WD tour, learn to dive in the translucent lagoon, wander amid mystical archaeological sites, and from July to October go whale-watching. In July, catch the country’s most spectacular festival; the percussion and dance-heavy Heiva. Stay at a resort or head to Tahiti Iti to experience a more traditional pace of life – all international air travel goes through Tahiti, and it would be a shame to miss such an essential part of this region's cultural puzzle.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tahiti.
There’s a popular surf break just before the headland that signals the start of the small village of Papenoo. A long bridge crosses the Papenoo River at the far end of the village, and the 4WD route up the Papenoo Valley, cutting through the ancient crater rim to Relais de la Maroto, starts up the west side of the river.
Part of Captain Cook’s mission on his three-month sojourn in 1769 was to record the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in an attempt to calculate the distance between the sun and the Earth. Pointe Vénus, the promontory that marks the eastern end of Matavai Bay (Baie de Matavai), was the site of Cook’s observatory. Today Pointe Vénus is a popular beach stop. There are shady trees, a stretch of lawn, a black-sand beach, a couple of souvenir shops and an impressive lighthouse (1867).
The Territorial Assembly and other government buildings occupy Place Tarahoi, the former site of the Pomare palace. The termite-riddled 1883 palace was razed in 1960, but you can get an idea of what it looked like from the modern mairie (town hall), a few blocks east, which is built in a similar style.
Bain de Vaima (Vaima Pool) is where locals come from all over to bathe in the icy but exceptionally clear waters that are thought to have healing properties. Unfortunately there are so many visitors here on weekends and holidays that the ‘clean’ pools can get filled with rubbish. The Vaipahi Spring Gardens further along is a beautifully landscaped garden with a magnificent natural waterfall.
Strategically situated at the narrow isthmus connecting Tahiti Nui with Tahiti Iti, the town of Taravao has been a military base on and off since 1844, when the first French fort was established. The original fort was intended to forestall Tahitian guerrilla forces opposed to the French takeover from mounting operations against Tahiti Nui from Tahiti Iti. Today the Faratea Port, on the northeastern side of the isthmus, is being built to shift commercial sea trade from Pape’ete (which is getting gussied up for tourists) to Taravao. Although there is little of interest in the town, it does have shops, banks, petrol stations and a number of small restaurants.
Through the village of Tiarei where the road swoops around a black-sand beach, you’ll see a sign on the mountain side of the road for the exceedingly high Faarumai Waterfalls. Unfortunately you can’t swim here anymore since a tourist was hit on the head by a falling rock, so bring mosquito repellent and just enjoy the view.
The 137-hectare Jardins Botaniques has walking paths that wind their way through the garden past ponds, palms, a massive banyan tree and a superb mape forest. The gardens were founded in 1919 by an American, Harrison Smith, who introduced many plants to Tahiti including the large southeast Asian pomelo known on Tahiti as pamplemousse, the French word for grapefruit.
A Pape'ete institution. If you see one site in town, make it this market, which fills an entire city block. Shop for colourful pareu (sarongs), shell necklaces, woven hats and local produce in the main hall. Dotted among the meat and fish sellers are lunchtime hawkers selling takeaway Ma’a Tahiti (traditional Tahitian food), fresh fruit juices and local ice cream.
Just east of the village of Papara, the Marae Mahaiatea was the most magnificent marae on Tahiti at the time of Cook’s first visit (according to Cook it measured 80m by 27m at its base, rising in 11 great steps to a height of 13m). Today the crumbling remains of the marae are still impressive for their sheer size. Coming from Pape’ete, take the first turn towards the sea past the PK39 sign. Follow the road about half a kilometre all the way towards the coast. In the middle of the car-park area are the hidden massive remains of the marae.