After spending a few days in Moorea and exploring its wonders both above and below sea level, Dan and I opted to visit French Polynesia’s main island–Tahiti. Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and has long been associated with crystal clear waters, soft white sands and luxurious overwater bungalows.
Yet, in Tahiti, the sands are not white and the waters are not clear. And stepping foot on the island might make one wonder about the swaying palms and snow-white sands of Tahiti’s holiday brochures. It is a paradoxical place–a place whose very name draws people to French Polynesia, yet then ultimately becomes overlooked by travelers opting to visit other islands instead.
But there is no doubt that Tahiti is the heart of French Polynesia. The island is abuzz with locals going about their daily lives–driving to work, going to school and shopping at the colorful market in Papeete.
We visited Papeete’s central market both before leaving for Moorea and again as part of our visit to Tahiti. The market is a perfect place to watch locals and tourists mingle, while shopping for everything from vegetables to flower bouquets and from a hearty Polynesian meals to kitschy tourist trinkets.
Aside from a visit to the market, however, Dan and I found that there was not much keeping us in Papeete, so we opted to rent the cheapest car we could find and set off to explore the island.
Driving around Tahiti proved to be the best way of getting around. It allowed us to set our own pace while exploring the many hidden gems along the island’s coast.
We began our circle of the island with a stop at the well-preserved Arahurahu marae. Maraes are archeological ruins that can be found throughout the Polynesian islands. While today maraes appear to be nothing more than piles of rounded rocks, they were once important centers of social, political and religious activity.
The Arahurah Marae is like an outdoor museum of Polynesian culture. Nestled in a lush, green mountainside amongst jungle-like vegetation, its tiki statues and stone structures are a testament to Polynesia’s rich history and tradition prior to European colonization.
From the marae, Dan and I continued around the island in a counter-clockwise circle, stopping periodically to take in the views of the jagged mountains of the island’s interior. As with Moorea, the mountains looked otherworldly–almost as though they belonged to the backdrop of a fantasy film.
Tahiti’s interior is incredibly impenetrable and exploring the heart of the island can only be done with a 4×4 or on a guided tour. However, since Dan and I were planning on joining a pricey tour to the Tetiaroa Atoll the following day, we decided we couldn’t quite justify adding another expensive day trip to our itinerary.
I’ll be sure to join a 4X4 adventure tour next time, though. Based on what we got to see of Tahiti’s jagged peaks during our drive, I’m sure a voyage into the island’s interior would have been unforgettable.
The next destination on our driving circuit was a stop along one of Tahiti’s beautiful black sand beaches for lunch. We found a local fish shack that sold our favorite Tahitian dish (raw fish with coconut and lime juice) and enjoyed watching the swelling waves crash against the ebony sands. The beach was beautiful and far larger than any of the beaches we had set foot on in Moorea.
After lunch, we continued our driving tour of the island. We stopped by a handful of beaches, hiked up mountainsides to glimpse views of the turquoise reef surrounding the island and headed inland to explore the waterfalls cascading down Tahiti’s lush mountainsides.
The last stop on our round-the-island excursion was the black-sand beach of Point Venus for sunset. It was the perfect place to end our day-long drive and watch the colorful sky light up behind the jagged peaks of Moorea in the distance.
I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as I stood out on the soft volcanic sand and watched the sun reflect its colors onto the ocean. In so many ways, it reminded me of watching the sun set at Punta Jesus Maria on Nicaragua’s Ometepe Island.
Tahiti–with its black sand beaches and frenzied cities–may not be the island of dreams that so many have come to romanticize, but it is without a doubt the beating heart of French Polynesia and a fantastic place for visitors to get a taste of the contemporary culture and deep-rooted history of the South Pacific’s most famous archipelago.