When it comes to Tahiti, there are a lot of misconceptions. The first to be dispelled is the idea that natives are walking around in grass skirts and coconut bras. Aside from the dance troupes that perform for the tourists, I found that I was the only one (just kidding). The second misconception is a bit broader in scope. When people hear the name ‘Tahiti’ they think of a tropical archipelago stretched across wide expanses of South Pacific scenery; with gorgeous natives, white powder beaches, turquoise lagoons and yes, lots of grass skirts. While elements of each can be found on Tahiti, what people are actually thinking of is the territory of French Polynesia, which encompasses not only its principal island of Tahiti – the main island of the Society Islands group, but several other island groups as well. No offense to Tahiti, but the rest deserve some credit too, which is why I’ve decided to set the record straight.
It’s not Tahiti’s fault that everyone just lumps all of French Polynesia together. It is the biggest, most famous, and most-developed island of the bunch. The airport is the main hub for international and domestic flights. It also houses the capital of Papeete – a few square blocks of urbanization dwindling off into the enveloping jungle. While the city itself isn’t much to shake a grass skirt at, the colorful market gives visitors a vignette of local rhythms. The stench of fish is quite powerful, but other than that it’s a pleasant place to visit.
Tahiti is known for its lush, rugged interior as well as its impressive waterfalls. Adventure opportunities abound for those hoping to experience the former, and as for the latter, these are easily accessible with a rental car. Heading east from Papeete are the Faarumai Waterfalls – twin cascades pouring into jungle pools only a moderate hike from the road. This is a lovely place to both work up a sweat then cool off by taking a dip. Nothing much to misconceive here.
Following the coastal road to Taravao, you can either veer off to the smaller section of the island called Tahiti Iti, or continue the circle route back to town. If you choose to head back, be sure to stop off at Vaipahi Garden and Vaima Pool – a tranquil setting right out of Eden. There may not be any dancing girls, but it’s an attractive place all the same.
Once you’ve seen the island of Tahiti, it’s time to explore the other islands everybody misperceives as being more of the same. Within viewing distance is the island of Moorea, which to me offers the best of what French Polynesia brings to the table. It too has a rugged green interior worthy of exploration. But as opposed to Tahiti, it also has a few decent beaches at Hauru Point in the northwest corner of the island. It also boasts one of the best views in all of Polynesia as seen from The Belvedere – a lookout point reachable via a steeply winding road. I strongly recommend coming here by taxi or rental car, as slogging it uphill in a million percent humidity was not as much fun as I thought it would be. The payoff is a spectacular panorama of both Cook and Opunohu Bays and the aquamarine hues of the lagoon meeting the deeper sapphire of the open ocean.
Continuing westward, the next island over is tiny Huahine. Development is minimal in this green gem, with diving, snorkeling and sun worshipping the predominant itineraries. This place is all about relaxing in the kind of scenery that makes the South Pacific famous.
Moving further afield are the islands of Raiatea and Tahaa, who share a magnificent lagoon. Raiatea is bigger with a better tourist infrastructure. This is a popular destination for those with their own yacht (not me), and offers a diverse mix of activities. My own favorite memory from here was renting a scooter and circling the perimeter of this island paradise. The rental agent warned us against taking a particular road, so, of course that was the first place we went. It was a muddy mix of crushed coral and potholes that was tough on the tailbone, but the tradeoff was witnessing an entire mountainside of gushing waterfalls. In view of the tumble over the handlebars I suffered at one point, I’d also like to mention that not wearing a grass skirt does have its advantages.
Lastly, there’s the only island that could contend with Tahiti for worldwide renown – Bora Bora. Yes, this is the place with all those over-the-water bungalows with prices ranging between $300 to sell-your-firstborn a night. Some may contest that it’s worth the cost to experience up close one of the most beautiful sights anywhere on the planet – Bora Bora’s incredible lagoon. If you don’t have the cash or a kidney to spare, there are many tour operators ready to take you from your over-the-ground accommodations into this wonderland shaded in a million hues of blue. You can wade in the most impossibly clear and inviting water in existence, followed by a snack and some snorkeling with swarms of colorful tropical fish; likely this will include stingrays and reef sharks as well. The truth is there’s nothing to be afraid of here, but I thought you’d like to know.
There isn’t a whole lot to do on land or after dark on the island other than the aforementioned watching natives perform in grass skirts. It is all about the lagoon here – whether from the powder soft beach at Matira Point or one of the outlying barrier islands, or ‘motus’. I can tell you from experience that witnessing the island’s distinctive silhouette looming over the most incredibly blue water you can imagine is an image that will remain with you a long time. That’s not a misconception; that’s a fact.
You might be wondering how to get between the islands and around. Well, keep your coconut bra on, I was just getting to it. The quickest, most direct way would be taking small puddle-jumper flights on Air Tahiti. This is also the most expensive option. Ferry service is available, but not always practical (especially from Tahiti to Bora Bora). If your time and budget permits, I’d recommend seeing the islands via cruise ship. It’s less expensive, still allows for plenty of time ashore, and the air conditioning will refresh your weary body as you come inside from the soupy air.
When it comes to getting around, a rental car or scooter is fine for short stays. Taxis will cost a bit more. If you’re staying in or around Papeete you also have the option of using le truck – open-backed cargo trucks that serve the purpose of buses everywhere else. They don’t cost much and taking at least one trip to various locations on Tahiti is all part of the experience.
I hope I’ve been able to clear up some confusion about French Polynesia and Tahiti in particular. No, the islands are not all the same. No, they’re not all named Tahiti. And no, despite being available for purchase, people aren’t walking around in grass skirts and coconut bras – even if they do lift and separate. The truth may not always be as glamorous as fiction, but at least you’ll know what to wear. Now excuse me for a minute while I find someplace to change.
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