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.
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 is also the urban hub of the region, with the port of Papeete at its very center. It feels a lot more French -- and a 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 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, archaeological sites and caves -- and a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of tourist-heavy Tahiti Nui.
From Tautira, where the main road ends on the north coast, you can walk along the stunning Pari Coast to spy petroglyphs and sacred marae, or temples. Where the road ends on the south coast is Teahupo'o, the surf capital of French Polynesia. Massive waves as high as 25 feet draw competitors for the Billabong Pro Tahiti surfing championship in August.
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.
Cruise ships dock in the heart of Papeete, Tahiti's capital city, alongside a waterfront esplanade. A new, two-story cruise terminal is planned, and completion is expected sometime around 2020. The building will streamline the entry from the ship to the port along Boulevard Pomare.
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. Traffic jams with significant delays around Papeete are common during rush hour because only one road accesses the city.
In Tahiti, few points of interest use a street address. Locals identify the location by the PK, or "point kilometer" on the main road that circles the island. Papeete is at PK 0. The distance marker numbers increase from that point as you drive along either the west or east coast. The PK numbers climb to PK 55 on the west coast road and to PK 60 on the east coast road until they join at the junction of Tahiti Iti. The PK numbering on Tahiti Iti restarts at 0. It then climbs to about PK 18 on the west coast road and PK 19 on the east coast road.
On Foot: 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, EcoCAR, Avis and Hertz have offices in Papeete; economy cars with no air conditioning start from around 4,500 to 6,500 francs per day; expect to pay twice as much for a more luxurious ride. The airport is about 4 miles south of the cruise terminal.
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).
By Taxi: Taxi fares are set by the government and are posted on a board at the Centre Vaima taxi stand on the main boulevard. Make sure you and your cabbie agree on a price before setting off; few have meters.
The local currency in Papeete is the French Pacific franc. A good rule of thumb is that 100 francs equal U.S. $1 -- but you'll want to check XE.com for the latest exchange rates. (Note that on currency exchange sites, it might be referred to as XFP.) In Papeete, vendors in the market and shops generally accept U.S. dollars, but 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. Look for Bank of Tahiti ATMs, which are compatible with the Cirrus and Plus networks used by U.S. banks.
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. Greetings of "bonjour" or "ia ora na" (Tahitian) are usually met with a smile, and thank you ("merci" or the Tahitian "mauruuru") goes a long way in any language.
Tahitian cuisine is a delightful fusion of the French and Polynesian cultures. Restaurants in Papeete and beyond feature market-fresh fish, exotic Polynesian fruits and French breads and pastries. Perch, mahi mahi and tuna are often eaten raw, even at breakfast. You'll find poisson cru -- raw seafood marinated in lime juice and coconut milk -- on most resort buffets. French Polynesian desserts are infused with island-grown vanilla and artfully styled with fresh papaya, pineapple, mango and coconut shavings.
In the Marche, look for stands selling French pastries, bunches of mini-bananas, 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 roulottes, or food carts, which set up on the waterfront street-fair style; hot, fresh crepes are a must.
Notable Papeete restaurants include Le Retro, a Parisian-style sidewalk cafe on the waterfront with good seafood and people-watching. Le Perchoir by Les Reves de Lucie is a favorite for coffee and French pastries. For a romantic dinner splurge, try the InterContinental Hotel's Le Lotus Restaurant in an open-air, thatch-roofed dining room built over the lagoon.
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 de Papeete. You'll find intricate wood carvings, coconut oil, monoi oil, vanilla coffee and polished Tahitian black 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 reasonably priced. Just remember to leave it behind after your voyage as plants can't be brought back into the United States. Unlike many other cruise destinations, passengers boarding in Tahiti are allowed to bring flowers, fruits, handcrafts and vegetables back onboard from land, according to the Tahiti Tourism Board.
Within walking distance of downtown's cruise terminal are several shops that sell Tahitian black pearl jewelry, including the Robert Wan Pearl Museum, where you can purchase and learn about these black beauties. Also nearby are several souvenir shops offering Tahitian pareos (wraparound sarongs) in every color and Polynesian flower pattern imaginable. For a modern four-story mall with shops and restaurants, shoppers can head to Vaima Center (Boulevard Pomare).
Important to note that haggling is considered rude by some.