Tahiti from the Air
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Two nearby volcanoes erupting from an emerald sea created Tahiti, the largest and most populated of the Polynesian islands. Tahiti Nui (meaning big) is the largest section of the figure-eight shape, while Tahiti Iti (little) forms the smaller area. Though connected by a narrow strip of land, from the air they almost appear to be two separate islands.
Tahiti serves as the gateway for cruisers traveling to the Society Islands and other South Pacific destinations. Because passengers land at Faa'a International Airport, Tahiti is the jumping-off point for embarkations.
Tahiti is also the urban hub of the region, with the port of Papeete at its very center. It feels a lot more French -- and bit more cosmopolitan -- than the other islands with sidewalk cafes along the main boulevard and a colorful, busy municipal market. The vibe is bustling (and traffic congested), with locals hopping on and off city buses on their way to and from work, and tourists ducking in and out of chic shops selling jewelry, French wines, fabrics and crafts.
That's the atmosphere, at least, on Tahiti Nui. Tahiti Iti is much more rural -- with just a few villages and small beaches -- and sparsely populated. A day's trip along its quiet coastal roads awards views of clear waters, waterfalls, archeological sites and caves -- and a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of tourist-heavy Tahiti Nui. From Tautira, where the main road ends, you can walk along the stunning Pari Coast to spy petroglyphs and sacred marae, or temples.
Ultimately, Tahiti offers more activities, resorts and restaurants than its neighboring islands. Beyond Papeete are museums, beaches and water sports options; even if your ship overnights in Tahiti, it's worth arriving a couple of days early to explore or simply relax at a hotel perched at the edge of the water. After your cruise, if you haven't done everything you intended to do in paradise, you can make up for it here on a post-cruise stay.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Madang • Moorea • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti
Be sure to order an ice cold Hinano beer at your first opportunity. This bitter, golden lager is made right on the island in the Punaruu Valley.
Bring home local products and crafts from the city's famous market, Le Marche du Papeete, such as intricate wood carvings, coconut oil, coffee and mother-of-pearl shells. If you visit the market before your ship sets sail, pick up a gorgeous fresh floral arrangement for your cabin; they're surprisingly reasonable (about 2,000 francs, or $20). Just remember to leave it behind after your voyage as plants can't be brought back into the United States.
Editor's note: Haggling is considered rude.
Although French and Tahitian are the official languages, locals in the touristy areas and shops speak some English. If in doubt, bring an English/French phrase book.
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. In Papeete, vendors in the market and shops generally accept U.S. dollars. Be sure to ask about their exchange rate. There are several banks on the main drag in Papeete with ATMs, and there's also an ATM at the airport.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in the heart of Papeete, Tahiti's capital city, alongside a charming waterfront esplanade reminiscent of the French Riviera.
Numerous shops, attractions and restaurants are within easy walking distance from the cruise ship dock. The municipal market, a post office and a tourist information center are all located in this part of Papeete.
By Car: Europcar, Avis and Hertz have offices in Papeete; economy cars with no air conditioning start from around $75 per day; expect to pay about $100 for a more luxurious ride.
By Bus: A modern (though not air-conditioned) bus system has all but replaced the open-air Le Trucks. During the day you can catch buses about every 20 minutes at official stops (called arret le bus in French). Fares within Papeete are about a dollar and change; you'll pay 600 francs to ride the entire line.
By Taxi: Taxi fares are set by the government and are posted on a board at the Centre Vaima www.centrevaima.com/en taxi stand on the main boulevard. Make sure you and your cabbie agree on a price before setting off; few have meters.
Watch Out For
In Papeete, trying to cross the multiple lanes of traffic can be tricky; there are pedestrian zones and a few traffic lights, but we recommend exercising caution. Just because a car has slowed down or stopped for you does not mean scooters just beyond will.
For local color, nothing beats the Marche du Papeete, Tahiti's main marketplace (located a block behind the waterfront). You can buy everything from flowers to fruit and fish or crafts and gifts. Shoppers can also head to Vaima Center (Boulevard Pomare), a modern four-story mall, complete with a Pearl Museum.
The Museum of Tahiti (near Le Meridien hotel) is located on a site that was once a sacred marae. The museum presents displays about Polynesian history and exhibits of artifacts.
Paul Gauguin aficionados can check out the Gauguin Museum, a fascinating portrayal of the artist's life and works. Just getting there is a scenic adventure, as the museum is located about an hour away from Papeete. An important note: There are only a few original woodcarvings and minor prints by Gauguin. All the paintings are copies displayed in open-air buildings, hardly the place to preserve priceless originals. Just opposite the Gauguin Museum in Papeari is the Harrison W. Smith Botanical Garden, established in 1919.
Visit the Lagoonarium, an aquarium for those who want to see tropical fish without getting wet. A shark-feeding show takes place daily at noon. The Lagoonarium is located about six miles southwest of Papeete.
Been There, Done That
Tahiti Iti, the smaller section of the island, is connected to the main island by an isthmus. A good option for a day's driving trip, it is lush, mountainous and verdant.
Check out the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Papeete, which was consecrated in 1875 and restored in 1987. Nearby, the Protestant Temple de Paofai was built in 1873.
Dive "The Wreck" and see colorful fish swim alongside a long-sunk cargo ship and a Catalina flying boat airplane.
If your ship isn't calling at Moorea, it's only a 30-minute ferry ride away and a world apart. Snorkeling in the encircling lagoon makes for a delightful day trip.
Play golf at Papara. The Olivier Breaud course (689-57-40-32) is set in the Atimaono complex, once a sugarcane plantation with a rum factory attached.
Nearest to Papeete: At the Sofitel Maeva Beach, you can rent kayaks and jet skis from watersports operators, and the Sofitel has restaurants and bars.
Beach as Destination: Mahana Park, Paea, has a gorgeous white sand beach and all manner of watersports operators, as well as a restaurant.
Best for Surfers: Taharuu is a black sand beach popular with local surfers.
In the Marche, look for stands selling French pastries, sandwiches and rice plates (with chicken or fish). The prices can't be beat, and it's a genuine local experience. If you are in town in the evening, don't miss the roulettes, or food carts, that set up on the waterfront street-fair style; hot, fresh crepes are a must.
Local Favorite: Locals and tourists alike hit Jack Lobster, atop the Centre Vaima directly across from the pier, for seafood. Shrimp, mahi mahi and other varieties of fish are served in sauces spiked with curry, herbs or local fruits. There are also steak entrees, and fresh, light desserts like passion fruit cake and pistachio ice cream.
Casual, In-Town Joint: Le Retro, on Boulevard Pomare, is a Parisian-style sidewalk cafe fronting the Centre Vaima on the waterfront. It's a great spot for people watching and gobbling up salads, sandwiches, pizzas and pasta. Open daily 6 a.m. until midnight.
Staying for Supper: A romantic dinner for couples staying in Tahiti unfolds at the InterContinental's Le Lotus Restaurant. The open-air, thatch-roofed dining room is built over the water on the lagoon. Bring your credit card. This is a big splurge; you'll drop less cash if you decide to come for lunch instead. Open seven days a week.
Ultra Deluxe: The InterContinental Resort Tahiti (800-496-7621, from $175) is close to the airport (west) and offers two lovely infinity pools as well as a protected lagoon for swimming. It's also one of two pre-/post-cruise hotel options for travelers on Paul Gauguin.
Deluxe: Le Meridien (800-543-4300, from $195) is farther west than the InterContinental, but close to a supermarket, so you can buy snacks and avoid the high price of always eating at the hotel.
Moderate/Deluxe: Radisson Plaza (800-395-7046, from $185) is on the beach east of Papeete and is also a pre-cruise option for Paul Gauguin cruisers.
Moderate: Le Mandarin (689-50-33-50, from $160) may not have all the perks, but it's right in downtown Papeete. You can walk everywhere.
Staying in Touch
To make a long-distance call from Tahiti, you must purchase a phone card. They come in a variety of increments. There is an Internet cafe at Vaima Center, directly opposite the cruise ship pier in Papeete; we were also able to pick up a Wi-Fi signal from our portside cabin.
Best Overall Tour: A single loop road connects Tahiti's rugged, rocky east coast to the gentler west coast and its lagoons. A circle island trip is the quickest, easiest way to see what the island of Tahiti is all about. Many of these bus tours also include lunch and a stop at the Gauguin Museum.
Best for Active Travelers: "Papenoo Valley and Waterfall by 4WD" visits Tahiti's most scenic areas in a more off-road, dusty fashion. The tour includes stops at One Tree Hill, for a fabulous view of Matavai Bay, and photo ops of numerous waterfalls.
For More Information
On the Web: Tahiti Tourist Board
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Pacific Islands
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Pacific Islands
--by Ginger Dingus, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor