Tahiti in brief
The island of Tahiti colonised by the France, lies in the South Pacific is the largest of the 118 islands and atolls that comprise French Polynesia. Tahiti is in the Society Islands, an archipelago which includes the most popular islands of Bora Bora and Mo’orea. Tahiti is an island country that remains as a self-governing French region and Papeete, the capital city of Tahiti is the Administrative centre. Once a sleepy town, today its harbour is busy with cargo freighters, copra ships, luxury liners and ocean-going yachts. There are sidewalk cafes, shops overflowing with French fashions, shell jewellery and handicrafts and a wide variety of restaurants serving Tahitian, French and Asian cuisine. Though French and Tahitian are the common language spoken there but many people speak English. If you speak or understand French, you will feel more comfortable.
The island of Tahiti is best known for its breathtaking emerald lagoons and island vibes. Its unique and ubiquitous island and is world-renowned for its Polynesian charm. The thought of immersion into the Polynesian colourful culture and the grass-skirted shaking of Tahitian dance were sure to get my toes tapping and heart thumping. The warm-water lagoons and crystalline ocean tides are host to a rainbow’s worth of colourful marine life and the dramatic nightlife provide an experience to stimulate all the senses. This really makes Tahiti a number one destination to visit and I was sure to have this magical locale rejuvenate and excite me to the core while visiting the island.
Seeing Tahiti on wheels
The island of Tahiti in fact has two islands in one. Big island “Tahiti-Nui” known as big Tahiti is completely encircled by a road along the shore whilst the small island “Tahiti-Iti” known as small Tahiti is only partially accessible by road. The road from the big island joins with the small island.
As a visitor for the first time on the island, I was expecting to see grass huts, female natives wearing pareus (single piece of cloth wraps done in various ways). I was very surprised to see the modern city of Papeete. It is a very busy trading centre and the distribution hub to many of the other islands. One of the things I have learnt when arriving in Tahiti was exploring the big island on a self-drive tour. Driving around Tahiti is easy and proved to be the best way of getting around. It allowed me to set my own place while exploring the many hidden gems along the island’s coast. This included spending 1-2 hours walking around Papeete and various stops to see the sceneries and hike to waterfalls on the north side of the island. Driving around the whole island from 8am to 5pm gave me plenty of time for sight-seeing. Yes, I have found some of the nicest spots and some isolated roads. There are very few cars and life goes on very slowly and I forgot that I am in French Polynesia.
The Circle Road
I took a tour of the big island on a rented car circling the island known as the The Circle Road and stopping at the major tourist spots and activities. I did not drive in the interior as some of the inner higher lands were impassable, especially when I was driving in a small car. For such a small island, Tahiti has rugged and wild heart made of rocky peaks and tall mountains. Though driving this circle road took me almost 2 hours and it was perfect for an easy day sightseeing in Tahiti at my own leisure and a list of major things to follow to hit all the best things to do on the island. Amazingly, the list of major things to do on the island were set-out chronologically along the circle road. This made it so much easier for me to follow the list on a day’s road trip and other visitors on the island. With modern technology, the Google Maps is an easy way to follow The Circle Road and it did help at times.
My journey began at the capital of Tahiti, Papeete, spending almost 2 hours seeing few sights before I drove out of the town further. I browsed around the Le Marche, the local market. This local market was my favourite place and is the most interesting place for the tourists to visit in Papeete, which is located near the centre of the town in a large open plan covered area. They sell all kinds of things from fruits and vegetables to artefacts and crafts. My favourite things were local crafts and artefacts made from the traditional local materials (pearls, baskets, hats, grass skirts, ukuleles etc). Anything that evokes Polynesian culture to the visitor is available. For any budget travellers, this is pretty much the only place you will want to shop.
Museum of Tahiti and The Islands
It was time to freely explore the beauties of Tahiti and I drove further out of the Papeete town centre and headed to Punaauia village, my first stop, to visit the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands. It is a very interesting place where Polynesian ethnographic museum is dedicated to conserving the geology, archeology and history of Tahiti. In visiting the museum’s permanent exhibition rooms, it gave me an insight in learning about Tahiti’s natural environment, settlement, material culture, social and religious life and history, and at the same time admiring the Atea’s Gardens.
The next stop on my self-guided tour drive was at the Marae, in Paea. Maraes are scared places in Polynesian society. They are common across the Pacific and in New Zealand but the Marae in this location is one of the few ones that has been saved. This is one of Tahiti’s most significant Arahurahu Marae, which have been carefully restored and used for the re-enactment of ancient ceremonies performed during the Heiva Nui dance celebrations. This gives you a good idea how these early villages were located for defence purposes and how the houses were situated in respect to the Marae itself. While Polynesians have always revered the sea, there are also many Marae in Tahiti that hold great cultural significance. Yes, Marae or pagan temples of the ancient Polynesians were built to worship the islands’ gods, with these sites containing various structures made from basalt rock, coral slabs and stone. The setting is quite lovely and has a really peaceful feel to it.
Leaving the cultural and historical understanding of the Polynesian islands, especially Tahitian, I headed for the islands beach lifestyle. Tahiti is interesting and fascinating when it comes to beaches. Most of Tahiti is made of black sand beaches but on Tahiti Iti (Small Tahiti) and some on the southern part of the Tahiti Nui (big Tahiti) you will find long stretch of white sand beaches that are very popular with locals. I stopped by Tahuruu beach which has soft black sand with lots of breeze which is unique to Tahiti. As I sat there simply watching the waves die on the shore and took a siesta with the car doors open letting the see breeze pour in.
Waterfalls & Garden Stop
From cultural, historical sites to beaches, I continued driving along the coast until reaching the waterfalls and botanical gardens. Tahiti is known for its extremely high waterfalls and some of the place are so peaceful and tranquil wherever I pulled off the road. This waterfall and botanical gardens were absolutely beautiful place to walk and cool off in the shaded gardens and absorb the beauty of all the tropical flowers and the water gardens. It is very peaceful and serene. This botanical garden is a beautiful little stop on the circuit around the island of Tahiti. Though, it is not that large, I found myself wanting to stop in several places to reflect for awhile and deeply appreciating the scenery, tranquility and the beauty of the area. There was so much serenity and a sense of peace as I walked through the gardens.
Along the circuit road, I found one of the nicest spots, Gauguin restaurant by accident. The restaurant by the seafront is owned by Juliette and Roger who are prominently known in the area. Juliette also gives tours on the medicinal value of plants on their property and it is absolutely beautiful.
Further drive from the Gauguin restaurant, on the northern side of Tahiti Nui, I found the Arahoho Blowhole. It is scary, especially when the sea is rough, it is expected to be showered by this spitting natural phenomenon. I was told by the locals to be careful if I was viewing from the platform, as it is not a safe place on days when the blowhole is active. Without any hesitation, I left the area within minutes.
I continued my drive to Point Venus, my last list of major things to see on the Circle Road before I headed back to Papeete for long awaited infamous outdoor dinner – Food Trucks.
Point Venus is a very significant landmark in the history of Tahiti, if not, the whole of French Polynesia islands. This is where Captain Cook decided to follow the sun and noticed the transiting of Venus over the sun, hence the name. In reality, Venus Point offers a rich history from Great Britain, France and beyond. Not only is there a beautiful enclave with a black sandy beach but here you will find Captain Cook’s monument showing that he came here to see the transit of planet Venus across the sun’s face.
Also, at this location, you will find the first church by the protestant Missionaries, a lighthouse which was built in 1867 and is still in use, a monument of the bounty which arrived in 1787 and a black sandy beach, which is where the first Europeans landed.
As I slowly drive back to the town centre, it was beginning to get dark as the sun slowly disappeared over the horizon. In Papeete, and Tahiti in general is famous for its food trucks known as Roulottes (It means something like cart in French) by locals. It was fascinating, yet interesting to see various food trucks fitted out with all kinds of cooking equipment capable of making quite an array of food. These trucks are not content with just selling take-away snacks to passersby but instead set-up tables and chairs in the open-air parking lot nearby and allow people to have a full sit down outdoor meal under the stars.
The food trucks start around 5pm and go until around 10pm or so. The prices of meals at these trucks are much cheaper than the average restaurants or snack bar. The meals were absolutely delicious and what a good way to end the self-drive tour and my sightseeing of Tahiti.
Where to stay?
There are various types of accommodations in the area to suit all budget ranging from resorts, backpacker, holiday houses, apartments, B&Bs and camping nearby. Also, the town offers a range of properties throughout the island to fit most holiday styles and budgets. To have a bit of taste of luxury, I stayed in one of the hotels in the heart of Papeete that over the waters. I was happy as things I wanted in the town centre were within walking distance.
Exploring the area
It is entirely possible to get around and visit many attractions and places in this area with the help of public transport. However, my recommendation would be to hire a car or do a self-drive tour and explore the area on your own time. Driving in this area is straightforward but be wary of locals who are notorious and have a tendency of driving really close behind you. These can eventually rush you making miss-turns and most of the time, road markers are not easy to spot. Don’t be pressured by this. When visiting new areas, be aware of no-drive zones and one-way streets. Sometimes, you will save yourself a few headaches when it comes to parking or driving around places to locate the area, it is best to go on a tour and get away with less stress. However, island lifestyle is easy, very laid-back and less cars on the roads.
Tahiti is one of the few islands I would return to for a visit. The people, tropical beauty, cultural history and black Taharuu Beach are stunning. There are very few cars and life goes on very slowly. At times, this part of the island reminded me a lot of Hawaii, after all, two sets of islands have very similar geography and topography.
The beauty of the people and lifestyle are places that will stay in my mind and returns when I think of Tahiti