— Islands of Tahiti —
Officially known as French Polynesia, Tahiti is made up of 118 islands spread over four million square kilometres of ocean in the eastern South Pacific. The islands are further grouped into five archipelagos: the Society Islands, Austral Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Islands and Gambier Islands.
Capital and major centres
Papeete is the capital of Tahiti, the largest island within French Polynesia, dubbed ‘the island of love’. The country’s only international airport, Tahiti-Faa’a, is located on the island, making it the first stop in every itinerary. Moorea is Tahiti’s closest neighbouring island, some 17 kilometres north-west of Papeete. Heart-shaped Moorea is home to soaring volcanic peaks and magnificent views overlooking the tranquil waters of Cooks Bay and Opunohu Bay.
The Society Islands also include legendary Bora Bora, 240 kilometres northwest of Tahiti, as well as Huahine, comprised of two islands joined by a narrow isthmus and enclosed by a protective necklace of coral.
Rangiroa and Tikehau are the best known islands in the Tuamotu archipelago. Rangiroa is the largest atoll in the Tuamotus, encircling a 67– kilometre turquoise lagoon famed for its rich diversity of marine life.
Tikehau has an almost perfectly circular shape, with its many atolls surrounding a lagoon that extends 26 kilometres across.
Tahiti’s population is a multicultural mix of Polynesians of Maohi (Maori) extraction, Europeans and Asians. They are noted for their hospitality, friendliness and easy-going nature. French and Tahitian are the two official languages on the islands, however English is widely spoken in hotels and shops.
Hundreds of years after the ancient Polynesians made the Tahitian islands their home, explorers like Mendana, Quiros, Le Maire, Schouten, Roggeveen and Byron made brief and unplanned visits to the Tuamotu Islands and the Marquesas islands in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Later in the 18th century explorers such as Bougainville, Wallis, Vancouver and Cook ‘discovered’ Tahiti and called it ‘La Nouvelle Cythère’.
Captain Cook returned three times to study the transition of Venus, Captain Bligh came to collect seedlings from the wondrous ‘Uru’ or breadfruit tree, and the insubordinate Fletcher Christian returned to the islands following the infamous mutiny on the Bounty.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the islands were divided into districts, each governed by a chief. When Pomare V abdicated in 1880, Tahiti and her islands, previously a protectorate of France, became a French colony, and in 1957 French Polynesia became a French Overseas Territory.
Lush vegetation grows high above the lagoons and bays and floral scents permeate the tropical air.
A myriad of tropical flowers grow throughout the Tahitian islands. The national flower is the tiare, a heavily scented gardenia which forms the basis of the traditional lei necklaces.
You can visit Point Venus where Captain Cook camped to observe the transit of the planet Venus in 1769, visit the Faaruma waterfalls, and at Taravao on the strategic isthmus joining Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti, wander through an old fort built by the French in 1844.
Don’t miss the Gauguin Museum in the Papeari district, set in exotic botanical gardens, and the wonderful fruit, vegetable and flower market in central Papeete.
Food and entertainment
Tahitian tamara’a’ or feasts can be arranged through local tour operators. The major international hotels often host evening programs with lavish buffets and dance shows featuring the performances of some of Tahiti’s most talented dancers and musicians. Outside the hotels, French, Italian and Chinese cuisine is widely available. There are a host of bars, cafes and nightclubs scattered around Papeete giving travellers a wide choice and a chance to mix with the locals. Les Roulottes are a Papeete institution, a collection of mobile diners operating from early evening until late at night on the waterfront at Vaiete Square offering mouthwatering savoury meals as well as delicious desserts.
Where to stay
International luxury resorts and hotels nestle alongside motels, lodges and small pensions in the islands. For an authentic Tahitian experience, many families also offer rooms for rent within their homes. There are also youth hostels and campsites with cooking facilities for those on a tight budget.
Le Truck is Tahiti’s public bus service. The destination is posted on top of each Le Truck, which always begins and ends its round trips at the public market in the centre of Papeete. It is also possible to travel between islands by ferry, with the Aremiti ferry taking just 40 minutes from Papeete to Moorea.
Tahiti is renowned for its range of water sports, from diving and snorkelling, to windsurfing and sailing, to deepsea fishing, surfing and jet-skiing. Speedboats are available for waterskiing and there are glass-bottom boats for viewing the coral reefs. Tennis and squash are on offer at many resorts and at the country club and Tahiti and Moorea offer championship golf courses.
For the more adventurous, there’s a range of bushwalking and hiking available on the volcanic islands of the Society Islands, as well as horseriding.
Bright pareus or T-shirts are popular souvenirs, as is Tahitian shell jewellery, the famous black pearls, French perfume and local handicrafts.
The French Polynesian islands enjoy a tropical climate. The average temperature is 27℃, and the waters of the lagoons are a fairly constant 26℃.
Casual. Pareus are popular worn over swimming costumes to the beach or around the pool. Papeete is more cosmopolitan.
Most hotels use 110 or 220 volts, AC 60 cycles.
GMT10 hours. AEST-20 hours. Two hours behind US Pacific Standard time and 19 hours behind Australia’s east coast. The Marquesas Islands are 30 minutes ahead of the rest of French Polynesia.
French Pacific francs (CFP). Tipping is discretionary.
Visas and health
All passengers entering French Polynesia must have an outbound ticket. Check with airline as entry formalities may change.
There is no departure tax and Australians do not require visas. Other visitors, check with the French Consulate.
Air France, Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand, QANTAS, LanChile (via Easter Island), Air Caledonie International and Air Tahiti Nui. The domestic carrier is Air Tahiti.