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Huahine, pronounced wah-ee-nee by the French and who-a-hee-nay by Tahitians, is rugged and isolated and offers a taste of old Polynesia. Historically, the island is one of the three most important Polynesian archeological sites, along with Easter Island and Raiatea; ruins in the form of stone and coral temples remain from the days of royal rule -- as do 400-year-old stone fish traps that are still in use.
Intriguing as is its history, what Huahine does best is force visitors to kick back and relax. With only about 5,000 inhabitants (compared to Tahiti's 170,000), police officers double as mailmen, and tourist infrastructure is purposely kept to a minimum. The pace of life -- even in the main village of Fare -- will slow down even the slickest city slicker. Trust me when I say it takes time for us city types to adjust; early on in my visit I waited impatiently for my meal at a waterfront cafe and change in a boutique selling vanilla beans and colorful pareos (silk wraps); later on I finally gave in to "island time" -- and it felt great!
Like Tahiti, Huahine is actually made up of two smaller islands -- Huahine Nui (big) and Huahine Iti (small) -- separated by bright blue Maroe Bay where cruise ships anchor. Polynesian legend has it that the god Hiro split the landmass in two by plowing into it with a canoe. The mountains are lush and green, and roadways are lined with coconut and banana trees, vines of vanilla, and wild hibiscus that scents the air and adds splashes of tropical color to the landscape.
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Fresh fruit is abundant on the island so be sure to sample local libations like the "Huahine Cocktail," which is made of pineapple and orange juice blended with chucks of watermelon and strawberries.
There is a pearl farm on Huahine where you can purchase Tahitian black pearl jewelry. Another take-home idea is vanilla, which is grown at roadside plantations; $10 will get you 10 to 15 beans (more or less depending on length).
Tahitian and French, though tourist officials and many folks in town can communicate in English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the French Pacific franc. A good rule of thumb is that 100 francs equal $1 -- but you'll want to check XE.com for the latest exchange rates. Though some shops accept U.S. dollars, including the supermarket in Fare, you may want to keep a few francs on hand for the smaller boutiques. There's an ATM at the Banque de Tahiti; it's the furthest bank from the pavilion.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor between Huahine Iti and Huahine Nui in Maroe Bay; the tender dock is in the village of Maroe on Huahine Iti.
Aside from a restroom and one small shack containing a snack bar and some handicrafts, there's nothing at the tender dock. If you are exploring independently of a shore excursion, shopping, dining and activities are centered in the village of Fare on Huahine Nui.
By Shuttle: You might find an occasional taxi chugging along, but there's an extreme shortage of public transportation so don't rely on it to get around. Cruise lines operate a shuttle across the bridge (between Iti and Nui) and into Fare, utilizing open-air, wooden bench wagons known throughout French Polynesia as the Le Truck.
Editor's note: The Le Trucks are sensitive to every bump in the road and can be hard on the back; bring a towel to sit on if you need extra support as the ride lasts about 20 minutes.
By Car or Scooter: Avis, Hertz and Europcar rent vehicles right at the tender dock; expect to pay about $100 for the day for a four-door sedan with air conditioning. Scooters start from about $50.
On Foot: Once in Fare, the going is easy; the main waterfront road is only a block or so long and extremely walkable. When you exit Le Truck, if you are standing at the pavilion facing the water, the town's boutiques, banks and Internet cafes are to your left; a five-minute walk to the right along the waterfront is a pretty, free, public beach (the lagoon is clear for independent snorkeling).
Watch Out For
Bring an umbrella: Rain showers are common in Huahine, and while they don't usually last long, they're often intense. If wet weather occurs during your visit, look for the pretty rainbows that form over Maroe Bay.
Itty-bitty Fare is Huahine's main village. There's not a lot to do, but that's part of its charm. The main drag along the waterfront is lined with small boutiques, a jewelry store, a few banks, a bustling supermarket stocked with everything from food to furniture, and Internet cafes. The warm breeze off Haamene Bay carries the delicious scent of fried food, and locals in straw hats are sure to smile and say hello.
There are plenty of ways to get in the water on Huahine, both on shore excursions and via local operators located in Fare. To explore on your own, Huahine Lagoon in downtown Fare rents out bikes, boats and kayaks, though there are no set hours and no guarantees they'll be open. For divers, Mahana Dive and Pacific Blue Adventures operate scuba trips.
Belvedere Point, which translates loosely to "lookout point," is exactly that and a must-stop for photographers. The summit awards stunning panoramic views of Maroe Bay and a clear view of the ship at anchor. You can reach Belvedere Point by car or on select shore excursions.
A free ferry departs from the village of Fare to Huahine Nui Pearls & Pottery (689-78-30-20) every 15 minutes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. The owner is a potter and a pearl farmer, and his studio is on his pearl farm in the middle of the lagoon. After a demonstration of pearl farming there of course will be an opportunity to browse his shop and purchase jewelry.
Been There, Done That
Near the village of Faie, on the opposite coast from Fare, live Huahine's sacred eels. The freshwater eels measure three to five ft. in length and jump out of the water to be hand-fed by locals who stop by with cans of mackerel. Here, eels are treated almost as family pets and are considered sacred because of local mythology; the legend states that the first eel to crawl across the mountain married a beautiful maiden from Mataiea, Tahiti -- and that present day inhabitants descended from the unlikely couple.
The sleepy village of Maeva was once the seat of royal power on the island; scattered along the waterfront and in the mountains are the ruins of maraes, or temples, which belonged to chiefs and priests. As you cruise through town, look for the stone fish traps that are unique to Huahine. These date back 400 years and are still used today; groups of stones are arranged in the water; when the fish swim in, they are scooped up with nets.
For a little bit more history, stop by the open-air Fare Potee archeological museum, a small hut over the water with a woven floor (shoes must be removed, a respectful tradition in Polynesian culture). Objects of interest include tools used to build houses and carry water (hollowed coconut shells, for example), and fabrics such as the fibrous purau that were used to create early dance costumes and baskets. There's no gift shop, but a handful of silk pareos and small wooden canoes made by local school children are available for purchase.
Fresh fish and locally grown fruits are the cornerstones of French and international cuisine on Huahine. French bread is also an island staple, and one bakery on the island supplies baguettes to every restaurant -- and resident (you can actually have bread delivered fresh daily to your mailbox!). In Fare, locals operate produce stands and crepe trucks.
In Fare: Te Marara, right next to the pavilion where the Le Trucks drop off and pick up passengers, is a casual, open-air eatery overlooking the beach. But don't let the plastic chairs fool you -- there's a wine menu, beer on tap and in bottles, and excellent eats. Enjoy a simple fish burger (fresh catch of the day on a seeded bun with tarter sauce, cucumber, lettuce and onion) or a more substantial entree; mahi mahi, tuna and shrimp are available in dishes utilizing local ingredients like vanilla and coconut. Beef burgers and steaks are available for land lovers. Visa cards are accepted on bills that exceed 2,000 francs, about $20.
Another option for a light snack is Chez Guynette (689-68-83-75), a seven-room inn popular with backpackers that offers breakfast and lunch on an open-air terrace facing the water. Menu items include fruit smoothies, salads and burgers.
In Maroe: Rauheama Snack Restaurant (689-68-78-41), across the street from the tender dock, is a Polynesian hut where you can sit down for a cold drink, or grilled snacks with vegetables and fries.
Luxe Lunch: Splurge on local delicacies at Restaurant Mauarii (689-68-86-49) on Huahine Iti. The restaurant, part of beachfront hotel Pension Mauarii, is located in a reed hut overlooking the sea and serves up fish, pork and chicken with taro leaves. Fat sandwiches and burgers go easier on the wallet.
Editor's note: Princess, a regular in Huahine, advises exercising caution when eating and drinking ashore as passengers have become ill after consuming uncooked food and coconut products. You may want to avoid sushi and drink bottled water.
Staying in Touch
There are several Internet cafes on the waterfront in Fare. Ao Api New World cafe (689-68-70-99) is located next door to the tourist office; farther down the road, near Banque de Tahiti, is Hime PC (689-68-75-81).
Best Overall Tour: To get a feel for the entire island, take a tour, often in an open-air vehicle or van, that hits all the highlights. "Huahine Island Highlights" includes stops at a vanilla plantation, marae temples (plus the archeological museum), fish traps, a stream where you can watch the sacred eels be fed, and Belevedere Lookout. About 1.5 to 2 hours.
Best for a Mellow Day: Visit a secluded motu (small island) and enjoy a picnic lunch in the water on a "Lagoon, Beach and Motu Picnic" tour. Tables are set up in shallow water along the beach for a Polynesian-style barbeque with juice and beer. There's also time for swimming or simply relaxing on the beach, and a pareo show. About 3.5 hours.
Best for Active Travelers: Explore the beach along Huahine's north shore by horseback on an aptly named "Huahine on Horseback" tour. The Marquesan horses are suitable for both inexperienced and expert riders, but participants mustn't exceed 180 pounds. About 2.5 hours.
For More Information
On the Web: Tahiti Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Pacific Islands
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Pacific Islands
--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor; updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor