“Kristin! You come eat,” beckoned Karl, intent on having me join the Sunday feast his family spent all day preparing.
A little shy, I willed myself to eat whatever was placed before me and walked downstairs. Though I’d steeled myself, in the end I was wowed. he table was full of purple taro, and what would become my favorite French Polynesian dish – poisson cru de coco – raw cured tuna cubes in lemony coconut juice. Thus began two weeks of being welcomed everywhere I went in French Polynesia as though I was already a friend. Even better, it was the impetus of two weeks of never having anything less than a stellar, fresh-as-they-come meal line-pulled right out of the glittering blue Pacific.
I laughed a bit to myself. Even after all these years of solo travel, I had some trepidation about coming to a place I knew nothing about. It was all unfounded. French Polynesia quickly shot up to my top five favorite countries of all time.
But not because of Tahiti.
Tahiti is the first stop when you come to French Polynesia. Many tourists stay there, or head to Bora Bora for overwater bungalows. I think they’re missing out. It’s not that Tahiti, with its lush jungles and abundant waterfalls, did anything in particular wrong, it’s just that FP has so much more, so much better on offer.
To me, Tahiti is a pass-through. But it is worth spending a few days, or maybe just one, to see the jungly interior. If you do, these are some of the best things to do in Tahiti:
Whether you’re coming in by plane or cruise ship, you’re going to pass through the capital, Papeete. At the market you can find local fruits, veggies, vanilla, and can see people playing music. Eating there is cheaper than in other parts of the city, and it can be a good place to buy souvenirs. You’re also pretty close to the pearl markets. It’s open every day: Mon: 5 AM – 6 PM, Tues-Sat: 4 AM – 6 PM, Sun: 3 AM – 9 AM.
From there, you’ll make your way south past Fa’a’ā and down to the next stop.
This one’s a quick stop off of the main road, about half a kilometer down a dirt road, to some old Polynesian ruins.
Most of the statues are replicas, but much of the grounds is authentic. The best way to get a good sense of it is to go with a guide because there are not many signs, but if you’re just popping by on your way around the island, it will give you a bit of history.
I have no doubt this place used to be cool. It looked absolutely beautiful in photos, which is what motivated me to visit. It’s pretty easy to access, is well-marked, and is just off the road. It’s also free to visit, which is a plus.
However it’s totally blocked off! I believe, due to falling rock, you can no longer walk up to the grottos and instead have to view them from behind a fence. That kind of ruins it for me, although there was a guy there who kept offering to let me take pictures of him and his tattoos, which I politely declined.
Water Gardens Vaipahi
From there the next major stop is the Water Gardens, which are also free.
You can walk through the palm forest, check out the lotuses, and there are even some waterfalls along the trails, which range from 1-2.5 km long. Bring bug spray! That advice goes for all of Tahiti.
Teahupo’o is one of the world’s most famous surf breaks – the one you’ve seen on dorm walls (or was that just me going to school in California?), and in surf videos. It’s known as the most dangerous break in the world due to the unique combination of size, power, and speed, not to mention it breaks on a coral reef. If you’re there at the end of August, you can catch the Tahiti Pro Teahupo’o surf competition.
In case you’re not ready to shred that way, you can see from the shore with binoculars, or take a water taxi over from the town by the same name. We just flew the drone over to get a closer look, which felt like cheating but also like winning.
From there you’ll need to backtrack a bit back to where the island narrows and feeds back into the larger circle. Heading north you’ll pass by a couple of roadside waterfalls. They are not that amazing, I would suggest you keep going or make it a very quick stop. You can’t miss them.
When you pull off for this waterfall, you’ll notice that there are three others in the same area, all of which are big and beautiful. At the time of this writing, only one is open due to rockfall at the other two trails.
Like most of this list, they are free to visit and not much of a deviation from the route, so it’s worth pulling off to see if they’re open when you visit. They look best after rainfall.
This is where Tahiti really shines. The uninhabited interior of Tahiti is full of waterfalls, the famous Lac Vaihiria, impossibly green jungle, and jade-colored water.
Most people book a 4 x 4 tour to see this part of Tahiti, as it’s not possible to get very far unless you have a 4 x 4 vehicle. While you can book those at the airport, they are all stick shift.
With our one day layover, my friend and I rented a cheap car that we could both drive as non-stick shift drivers, and we really felt like the beauty of Tahiti was in the center, not the roadside attractions.
Next time, I plan to spend all of my time in this valley.
The best way to make sure that you see everything is probably to book a 4×4 tour (here’s a list of the best-rated ones on Tahiti). However if you can drive a stick, and are feeling adventurous, to me it would be tons of fun to do this independently.
This is supposed to be one of the most famous and beautiful waterfalls in Tahiti, inclusive of a somewhat long but nice hike to get there.
Nowadays, you’re required to obtain a permit before hiking to this waterfall. You can get it at city hall in Papeete, but there’s a catch, as it’s only open on weekdays until 5 PM. So if you’re only there over a weekend, unfortunately you won’t be able to go to this waterfall, as word on the street is there is a gate preventing you from continuing. This is what kept me from visiting Fautaua.
Hike Mount Aorai
This is the third highest peak on Tahiti at 2066 meters tall and though it’s a tough, slippery hike, the reward is stunning. There are sharp drop offs and breathtaking views all along the way.
The trail begins at Le Belvedere restaurant, a fantastic spot for views, and continues upward for 5.5 miles. Since low-hanging clouds often compromise visibility, more time, two days, is often necessary to complete the hike.
There are apparently huts along the way, but this is one might be best organized with a local guide, unless you’re feeling particularly adventurous.
Swim with Sea Creatures
French Polynesia experiences several migrations throughout the year. In the months of August through October, humpback whales migrate through and Tahiti and neighboring Mo’orea – two of the best spots to swim with them. You can read more here.
There are also many stingrays and sharks in the area. Both are friendly and amazing to swim with. You can also see turtles and all kinds of colorful fish on both diving and snorkeling tours, almost all of which take place in nearby Mo’orea.
Pop over to Mo’orea
Tahiti’s neighbor is stunning and also easy to access via ferry from Papeete. This is where more of the snorkeling and diving excursions take place. While it can be done as a day excursion, do yourself a favor and spend some time on Mo’orea as well.
Let’s be honest, Tahiti is not known for its beaches. However as you drive on the southeastern part of the island there will be several places where you can pull off and explore some black sand beaches.
There’s also a public beach at Mehana Park, which you will pass before the grotto coming down from Papeete.
Stay in an Overwater Bungalow
While Bora Bora made overwater bungalows famous, Tahiti has plenty that you can stay in as well. The following resorts have overwater bungalows with gorgeous views:
If you want a more local, cheaper, pension experience referenced in the opening of this article, you can meet Karl and stay at Fare Nukumai.
At the end of my time in Tahiti, all I can say is I’m glad we had a drone during our day long island road trip. I learned a lot though, mostly that having a 4 x 4 is the best way to see the really cool stuff on Tahiti, and to avoid the buses full of octogenarians – nothing against them but I just prefer less crowded sightseeing – on your adventure. Whether that means taking a tour or self driving, I think the real adventure lies in the center.
All that said, there are so many islands in French Polynesia, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t explore them. If you’re like me, the farthest and more most rural ones are going to be your favorites. I can’t wait to go back and explore more of French Polynesia, the friendliness and natural beauty are hard to beat.