Tahiti — way more than just a gateway to Bora Bora

Tahiti is the gateway to (and synonym for) French Polynesia. However, people often miss out on this gem in their rush to get to more popular places like Bora Bora.

We almost made the same mistake, as our original plans did not allow for much time to explore this somewhat developed and populated island.

In fact, even though we had half a day to kill on arrival in Tahiti waiting for our connecting flight, our only plans involved shopping for a SIM card and working on some newspaper stories in the airport.

Tahiti’s people are some of the most friendly in the world

It wasn’t until we met a incredibly nice man during our desperate SIM card search who offered to drive us to the mall (and also to wait for us and take us back to the airport), that we started to think about adding some Tahiti time to our agenda.

What impressed us was how safe and friendly Tahiti is. Many of the ports of arrival we have experienced are dangerous, dirty, and unpleasant.

Tahiti Papeete

Tahiti’s capital Papeete seen from the harbor

Tahiti is different. People are exceptionally nice and the island has a kind of energy, diversity, culture and vitality that make it a wonder to explore.

Maybe it’s because of the gentle blend of cultures here. Of the close to 200,000 inhabitants, about 67 percent are Polynesians, 12 percent Europeans, 5 percent Asians, and 16 percent mixed or “demis”. But you’ll find no color or cultural barriers here. Everyone gets along.

And you also don’t find much crime. I asked a pearl shop owner about crime in the capital city of Papeete and she started laughing. She told me that if someone steals something, people know who it is in a couple of days.

Tahiti’s crazy surf scene

Perhaps one way these folks keep their tempers down and a permanent smile on their faces is surfing.

Ok, I might be biased, as it’s my favorite sport (even though I’m terrible at it). But the fact is, I’ve never seen so much surfing anywhere.

If you take a drive around this island, almost any beach that has any kind of wave worth surfing is full of locals with boards, no matter how dangerous.

Of course, if you really want to see some serious surfing, visit Tahiti in the mid summer when the big swells kick up 7 m / 21 ft high waves at the village of Teahupoo off the west coast of Tahiti Iti. Tahiti Iti is a small peninsula on the southeast corner of the island that looks like a “miniature” Tahiti (Iti means little in Tahitian).

Tahiti Teahupoo surfboard

A surfboard welcomes visitors to the famous brake of Teahupoo on Tahiti Iti

This is where you’ll find the Billabong Pro Teahupoo surfing competition. Part of the ASP World Tour, Teahupoo is touted as “one of the world’s heaviest big wave competitions”. Also called Jaws, it has the only natural wave in the world that breaks below sea level, it’s also one of the deadliest waves associated with surfing.

Tahiti has something for nature lovers too

If you’re in Tahiti Iti at any other time of the year but during the surf competition, you’ll find a very laid back, quiet, bucolic setting of little country bungalows and a beautiful natural beach. There’s a great bike path here and it’s a fantastic destination for a sunny afternoon picnic.

Tahiti Teahupoo beach

Beach time with a mountain view on Tahiti Iti

Another great place for nature lovers to explore is Tahiti’s vast interior.

Even though Tahiti is much more populated and developed than the other islands in French Polynesia, most of that development is along the coast.

The interior of this main island is wild, beautiful and full of waterfalls, ancient sacred sites and lush green rainforest.

We did a 4WD tour with a local guide, Teiva from Tahiti Discovery, that blew us away. Teiva grew up in these mountains, so in addition to showing us some amazing sites on our tour, he also told us fascinating stories of his youth when he hunted wild boar here with his grandfather. A tour of the interior with Teiva is a definite must-do on Tahiti!

Tahiti safari Teiva

Teiva grew up in the valley of Papenoo and shows it now to those that venture off in his 4WD into the mountains of Tahiti

Papeete’s rich markets

We had a few hours to kill on the day we boarded the small cruise ship Paul Gauguin in Papeete. And while it was tempting to blow off this scruffy little town and enjoy the free cocktails and welcome celebrations on the ship, we decided to give it a whirl.

On the surface, Papeete is not what I would call “pretty”. But dig in a little and you’ll find some nice gems.

The most obvious of which are the pearl markets. Black pearl shopping has a lot of variables and as such can be somewhat of a flim-flam game, so it’s buyer beware.

That being said, the most reputable shops are in the capital because competition here is pretty fierce. Our pick (and one that came highly recommended) is the Tahitian Pearl Market on Rue Collette.

We spent a serious amount of time shopping for loose pearls here. What impressed me most was that instead of giving us a hard sell, these merchants were relaxed, friendly and informative, even though we made it clear that we were not going to buy anything.

They actually seemed Ok with the fact that they’d taught us a thing or two about pearl shopping, which they did. When we finally did buy pearls at a shop in Moorea, we made a good choice, primarily thanks to what we learned in the Tahiti Pearl Market.

If pearl shopping is not your cup of tea, you can go more local and take a walk through the Municipal Market—a sensory extravaganza of bright colors, fragrant fresh vanilla and essential oils.

Tahiti Papeete Municipal Market

If you’re looking for local arts and crafts or produce, visit the 150 year old Municipal Market of Papeete in the center of town

Located in the heart of downtown, this impressive two-story market sells hats, handbags, local textiles, shell necklaces, as well as produce from local farmers, including uru, fei, taro, tamarins, carambolas and corossols.

You’ll also find quality hand-made crafts of all shapes and sizes. Be sure to try the well-known Monoï oil and taste the local jams.

Situated between François Cardella and Colette streets, the market recently celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Tahiti’s food scene comes alive in form of roulottes

With hefty meal prices in the capital’s restaurants, we were looking for an authentic and affordable option. Luckily we didn’t have to search for long to find out where the locals go to eat cheap—the roadside “roulottes”.

These food trucks serve delicious local fare and only appear at night, sprouting up out of nowhere in parking lots around the island. During the day they’re gone (along with the crowds), and the parking lots return to being just parking lots.

They also exist on some of the other islands in the region, but Tahiti is known for having the best quality and greatest variety.

A weekend night at a roulotte is a real social scene.

We visited a roulotte on Friday night and it was like a mini festival with folks of all ages. One one side of our table was a large groups of 20-somethings who looked like they were on their way to the night clubs, and on the other was an extended family of young parents, toddlers and grandparents.

In fact it was so crowded with locals it took a while to get a seat. But the owners, happy to make more money, managed to squeeze us in.

One warning: be careful how much you order, they really like to feed you here! I suggest splitting a plate to start.

Tahiti roulotte

Tahiti’s roulottes offer a huge variety of different food styles and are the place to be in the evenings

The reason people come to French Polynesia is to experience the raw nature of this tropical paradise. But not all its wonders lie in the lagoons, beaches and bays of the outer islands.

In fact, I only wish we had some more time to explore Tahiti as I saw some really nice surf spots that I think even I might have been able to handle. And given how friendly folks are here, they would probably be Ok with letting a “stranger” paddle in.

If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at our list of Top Spots in French Polynesia which shows you more great pictures, and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.

Do you have more tips on what to explore while on the island of Tahiti? Let us know in the comments!


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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