Although its name remains almost magical, Tahiti, the largest, most populous city of the archipelago, has generally evolved into a waystation to one of the other islands, rather than as a travel destination in its own right. Still, we decided to take a whirlwind, 1.5-day tour of the island.
Tahiti’s capital city is Pape’ete. While the city is a bit worse for wear, it does have a pretty waterfront promenade (although the view over the island’s shipping terminal, with its cranes and stacks of containers is somewhat less attractive). The city also has a number of smaller public gardens and a pretty protestant church and catholic cathedral (the largest of the island’s dozens of churches).
The city’s highlight, however, its Le Marche, a large covered marketplace with hundreds of tables and stalls where individual proprietors sell everything from flowers and local fragrances, to clothes and shell jewelry, to fish and vegetables. The first floor (the second for Americans), houses a range of shops that primarily sell tee-shirts and sarongs, crafts and of course, Polynesian pearls.
Tahiti’s Museum of Pearls
Speaking of pearls, the Museum of Pearls has an interesting exhibit that provides an overview of the history and evolution of pearl diving (from free diving, through all iterations of assisted breathing devices), European exploitation of pearl reefs, to the emergence of oyster/pearl farming and the bringing of Japanese techniques for creating cultured pearls to Polynesia. It explains pearl creation processes, both:
- Natural, as when an oyster secretes multiple layers of a calcium carbonate-based mother-of-pearl substance around a natural irritant, such as a grain of sand or a shell fragment; and
- Cultured, where oysters are raised to majority (about three years) in farms, and then, grafted with the implantation of a nucleus (around which it will secrete the layers of the mother-of-pearl substance, along with a piece of the oyster’s own mantle.
The museum explains the evolution of bivalves and the many (about 8,000) different mother-of-pearl species, displaying examples of those that are little more than an inch in diameter, to those that are up to 60 centimeters (almost two feet). It explains the importance of the lagoon’s nutrients to the pearl creation process and discusses how pearls are graded on the basis of size, shape, color, luster, purity of surface and the thickness of the pearl around the nucleus, and the scales by which each are determined.
Then, of course, it has a display of hundreds of types of pearls, from small, irregularly shaped ones, to some that are more than an inch in diameter. It has other exhibits that explain how pearls have been valued in different cultures and examples of how they, and mother-of-pearl shells have been and are still used as symbols of royalty, as on crowns and sewed into clothes.
Around the Island of Tahiti
Beyond the city and the resorts, the island does retain much natural charm, with its mountains, beautiful waterfalls, black stone beaches, shore-side lagoons, inland grottos and its scenic views.
After Pape’ete, we headed to the north shore, with its black sand beaches, blowhole, impressive waterfalls and one of the island’s best preserved mareas. While time did not allow us to hike any of the inland trails, our brief sojourn did provide a flavor of the island’s natural beauty. Our stops and view included:
- Marae Arahurahu, a beautifully restored marae (ceremonial center) that is used for annual reenactments of the ancient ceremonies. The entrance, “guarded” by two stone-carved dieties, leads to a black, volcanic stone patio. The temple itself consists of five primary sections: the three-tiered sacred altar (from which the priests pray to the gods), a surrounding wall, a leaning stone (against which tribal chiefs and other important members lean during prayers), teunu (sculptures in front to the altar that represent either dieties or stars) and the te fata’ai’ai (a wooden platform on which offerings are laid).
- Maraa Grottos, a series of three water-carved grottos, the largest of which is 260 feet long and 100 feet wide. The caves, which are home to hundreds of birds, are overhung with luxurious foliage;
- Continuing east, the land flattens into a plain that accommodates a golf course, plantations and gardens where much of the island’s fruits and vegetables are produced. Then comes a botanical water garden that honors what was once a sacred burial site.
- Vaipahi Garden of Water is a lovely garden with a path that winds past small waterfalls, along streams and through a series of lily ponds, a small bamboo forest, and past lovely bushes and trees including plane trees (with their fluted roots) and Indian rubber trees (whose trunks are surrounded by hundreds of aerial roots). Throughout the garden are interpretive signs that discuss the vegetation and the ways in which the site had been used as a burial site for chiefs and priests. Interpretive panels explain how different sections of the garden were used for different parts of the burial process: from the waterfall and pool where the bodies were cleaned and purified, to where they were treated with oils to facilitate dehydration, to the spot where they were embalmed and finally laid to rest until they would awaken in the “garden of delights”.
- After a brief stop at the Gaugin Restaurant, a tour bus haven (with its own fish pond), that we mistakenly thought was home to the Gaugin Museum. We discovered that the museum was closed for renovation. So we continued around the island for a drive along the eastern end of the mountainous peninsular known as Tahiti Iti. Past small beach towns on Phaeton Bay, we reached the end of the road at the town of Teahupoo, at the base of Faaone Bay
- Faaone Bay, in stark contrast to the very tranquil, neighboring Phaeton Bay, home to some of the world’s largest waves, is home to the annual Billabong Pro surfing competition. We left our car to cross the river and walk by the lovely homes and gardens to the surfing mecca that, on the day we visited, had very moderate four-to-six foot breakers.
Back on Tahiti Nui, we headed up the east coast to a series of stops including:
- Vaipu Valley, home to the three Faarumai Waterfalls. While officially closed for construction, we persuaded the workers to allow us to pass through the somewhat treacherous path to Vaimahutu Falls, the first and the tallest of the falls. The trails to the two other falls were, unfortunately, impassable.
- Blow Hole, back on the coast, is a hole in the roof of a lava tube that, with turbulent seas, forces a geyser of water into the air. Although we saw the hole and heard the rumbling of the waves beneath, the water was too calm to permit a show.
- Orofara, a leper colony (whose inhabitants are no longer contagious) which was supposed to be an arts and crafts village, but all we saw was a relatively large cemetery for such a small (not to speak of apparently impoverished) village.
- Point Venus, which now houses the oldest (1867) and indeed the only lighthouse on the island, stands guard over an beach that saw historic 18th-century British landings of Samuel Wallis (who stopped only long enough to kill a few natives and bring venereal disease to the island, James Cook (on one of his many famous journeys), William Bligh (three days prior to Spenser Chistian’s famous mutiny) and Alex Duff, the first Protestant missionary to arrive on Tahiti.
- Mahina, an historic town with its lovely pink town hall.
All along this scenic coast are tall mountains, a number of which are terraced and netted to protect from landslides, lovely coastal and mountain views and the volcanic, black sand beaches for which the island is famous.
Then, after crawling through the unrelenting Pape’ete traffic, we made a stop on the way back to our hotel at Fisherman’s Point, for a dramatic sunset over a neighboring island.
Le Coco’s. This charming, albeit expensive, prix fixe restaurant offers choices of three, five or seven courses that can either come as a surprise, or by special selection from a very limited menu. We decided to choose our own dishes, all of which were very good. We began with an amuse-bouche of smoked red tuna carpaccio with mint yoghurt and lime and then we each had two starters: roasted scallops in butter sauce with Andalusia flavors and serrano foam and the particularly good Tahitian prawn ravioli with spiced courgettes fricassee and foie gras cream sauce. For a main course, we both choose the fish, a local ocean fish called paru (soft textured, mild tasting white fish) that was crusted with ground seaweed and served with local spinach pesto risotto and crispy parmesan. We had two different deserts, both also very good: Joyce had a French cheese plate (goat, camembert, gruyere and blue) while Tom ad chocolate mousse with cherry and vanilla cream in a lovely, multi-colored chocolate sphere, with bitter almond and black currant sorbet, followed by a small plate of small chocolate desserts and madeleines. We had a bottle of 2014 Haute Cote de Nuits from Domaine A.F. Gros. Although we were prepared for the expense of the meal, we were surprised that the gratuity was not included. When we explained to our server that it had been included in our previous meals, and requested her suggestion, she recommended an amount that was about 20 percent. Coming from San Francisco, we did not see that as out of bounds, so we added that to the already hefty bill. When we returned to our hotel, we asked our concierge about tipping. She was shocked at the amount that our waitperson suggessted, explaining that additional gratuities are totally voluntary, but should be only five to ten percent. Given that we weren’t impressed by the service in the first place, an otherwise nice dinner turned into a regretful experience.
Puna Bar, the pool bar at the Le Meridian resort where we had a small but tasty mahi mahi sandwich (with mango, vanilla tartar sauce) for a late afternoon snack. Along with these, we took full advantage of the two free drink reward for being Starwood Gold members with two tropical drinks: a Tropicalada (dark rum, cocoa cream and pineapple juice) and Blue Hawaiian (white rum, coconut ice cream, pineapple juice and blue curacao).
Le Carre’, for our final dinner before leaving French Polynesia. We shared two dishes: grilled emperor fish (a fish we found so beautiful from one of our Bora Bora snorkels that we were reluctant to eat it), was very good with Hinano (beer) foam and less than impressive breadfruit gnocchi; and roasted shrimp with plantain flam and rum/coconut emulsion. Both quite good with a bottle of 2015 La Grande Roche Montegny Premier Cru.
We stayed at Le Meridian. As Starwood gold members, we were upgraded to a room with a beautiful view overlooking the water. The bedding was very comfortable and the bathroom had a tub and a nice shower. It was a very pleasant experience.