The name Tahiti conjures up dreamy images of idyllic islands floating in azure lagoons fringed by palm trees and white sandy beaches. But few people realize that Tahiti is actually the heart of French Polynesian, a vast expanse of 118 islands stretched across the South Pacific Ocean. The island has most of the trappings of the modern world with five-star resorts, boutiques selling top-end labels, and a bustling port city. Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti (and French Polynesia), has 131,5000 people—around 69% of French Polynesia’s total population.
Though Tahiti is usually a stopover for many vacationers heading to the outer islands, it offers many attractions to tempt them beyond a one-night stay. Its assets are its natural attractions—soaring, cloud-swathed mountains, deep valleys, rivers, waterfalls—and ancient temple ruins that dot its valleys. And while the outlying islands have more impressive beaches, Tahiti (1,043 square km [403 square mi]) offers an untamed landscape of both wild black sand beaches and quiet lagoons. Tahiti Iti, just 80 km (50 mi) from the capital, offers the opportunity to chill out completely and find a quiet spot by the beach.
While it’s the busiest of the islands, Tahiti still exudes a laid back charm that’s incredibly seductive: nobody rushes, races, or worries unduly. People still fish for supper in the lagoon, and amazingly, roosters and chickens can still be seen scratching around not far from the presidential palace.
With multiple combinations possible among the 15 or so islands with tourism infrastructure, which should you choose? It depends on your experience and interests
First Timers: On their virgin visit to French Polynesia, travelers typically stay for seven to 10 days and stick with a circuit of three islands: Tahiti, where you may have to stay overnight upon arrival or prior to departure, depending on flight times; Moorea, a lush, emerald-hued island located just a short flight or ferry ride away from Papeete; and Bora Bora, the crowning glory of the Society Islands with its magnificent Mt. Otemanu peak and world-famous lagoon.
Specialized Interests: Repeat visitors, honeymooners and scuba divers often bypass Tahiti and Moorea and head to islands a bit further afield.
A great combo for second-time visitors or romantics is: Bora Bora, where the views never get old; Taha’a, located a short flight from Bora Bora with excellent pearl and vanilla farms; and Tikehau, Manihi or one of the other secluded Tuamotu atolls, where the main activities are snorkeling, sunning and relaxation.
Divers typically head for the amazing coral reefs of Rangiroa, which is ranked as one of the world’s great dive destinations. Adventure-seekers enjoy exploring the Marquesas, where ancient tribal lore and customs are commonplace.
The best way to get around Tahiti is by the affordable Le Truck bus. If you’re planning on doing a lot of traveling throughout the island, a rental car is another good option. A bike can be a transportation option, too. For journeys to other French Polynesian islands, you’ll have to book passage on a boat or airplane. Most travelers arrive into Faa’a International Airport (PPT), which is a 3-mile jaunt from the capital city of Pape’ete. If a representative from your hotel isn’t picking you up at PPT, you can hop into a Le Truck public bus or take a taxi to your destination.
Tahiti today is a modern Pacific nation whose population is a cosmopolitan blend of ancient Polynesian heritage and French élan. Most of the Tahitians you will meet at the Polynesian Cultural Center have learned English as their third or even fourth language. For example, most of them grew up speaking Tahitian or another island dialect such as Tuamotu, then learned French in school and English as an elective. While the overlay of French culture and influence is undeniable, the Tahitians still take great pride in their ancient Polynesian heritage.
History and discovery: Like all Polynesians, the Tahitians did not have a writing system that recorded their ancient sojourns; but anthropologists believe they migrated to their islands over 2,000 years ago from central Polynesia, probably from Samoa. The early Tahitians also spread throughout the area to other island groups, including Rarotonga (the Cook Islands), the Tuamotu islands, the Marquesas, and eventually even Hawai’i.
British Captain Samuel Wallis is the first known European to make contact with Tahiti in 1767, followed by French navigator Count Louis de Bougainville in 1768, British explorer Captain James Cook in 1769 and, of course, British Captain William Bligh and his first mate, Fletcher Christian, in 1789 aboard HMS Bounty.
For the next 50 years the British and French engaged in political negotiations for control of the islands in the area, with France emerging as the colonial power by 1842. In 1847 Queen Pomare accepted the protection of France; however, it wasn’t until the hereditary leader, Pomare V, abdicated his throne in 1880 that France came to full power in the region.
Over the ensuing years, various artists have helped spread the appeal of Tahiti to the rest of the world, including Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1890s, French artist Paul Gauguin who came in 1901 and died in the Marquesas in 1903. World War I veterans Charles Nordhoff and James Hall moved there in 1920 and made the mutiny on the Bounty famous with their trilogy that has been made into a series of movies. American author James Michener was stationed on the fabled island of Bora Bora during World War II and, of course, went on to write his first well-known book, Tales of the South Pacific, partially based on that and other island experiences.
The people became French citizens in 1946, and although the islands are still an overseas territory of France, they gained self-governing status in 1977.