It’s been more than five years now, at the time of writing this article, that I live on the island of Tahiti, in the middle of Oceania. Time flies. This travel blog started here in the Pacific Ocean, in French Polynesia. After having written about more or less all the Polynesian islands I visited, and after giving advice on many different things to prepare a trip to French Polynesia, I realize now that I had not yet written about the main island, the one that made French Polynesia famous, at least by name: Tahiti. The reason? Unfortunately, we become aware that almost all the travelers visiting French Polynesia do not stay there. Most of the time, people stay just to catch another flight or to adjust to the jet lag. In this article, I’ll present you what to do in Tahiti.
Before that, a little geographical reminder. Tahiti is located in the Society Archipelago, among the Windward Islands (with Moorea and the atoll of Tetiaroa). The other islands of this Polynesian archipelago belong to the Leeward Islands. There are high islands such as Raiatea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Tahaa and four atolls which are not served by Air Tahiti. It is also where the only international airport is located.
If you type this question on Google, the majority of the answers will be itineraries on the islands in French Polynesia, which has nothing to do with it actually, but which proves that people still make the amalgam between French Polynesia and Tahiti. For that matter, very few people take the time to visit the island. Or is it Google that can’t tell the difference either?
I must admit that medias and advertisements have a lot to do with it. If you try to prepare your trip to French Polynesia, chances are you will come across images of beautiful white sandy beaches, generously shaped Vahines, and other clichés about French Polynesia. However, there is much more than that in French Polynesia and Tahiti is a good example. Here, the reality is different and those who are willing to open their eyes will see another side of French Polynesia. This could be the subject of another detailed article about the hidden sides of the territory, the ones that no one sees or wants to see in reality… for now, let’s get back to our topic: what to do during your vacation in Tahiti?
I’ll give you a few things to see or do on the island of Tahiti. Honestly, if you have time during your trip, I advise you to spend two or three full days on the island, time to soak up the local life. I had already written a detailed article on things to do in Papeete, so you’ll find some of the information there too.
For me, in Tahiti, you should first rent a car you can keep being autonomous and visit the island quietly, at your own pace. You should not rely on public transportation as they’re almost non-existent and too unreliable anyway. Afterwards, there are two ways to see it:
- Either you go around the island during one full day, but it may not be the goal to skim over everything quickly, is it?
- Or you rather take your time and you do it in two days, which is I think the best way to visit Tahiti. Take it slowly and enjoy!
A little advice though, when you are looking for a shady parking place, beware of coconut trees and coconut falls – and the same goes for mango trees and breadfruit trees.
Even if the island of Tahiti is not really representative of French Polynesia generally, it is still worth seeing. I will give you all the practical details for your trip at the end of the article. Having done a lot of things on the island since I’ve been living here, here are some ideas on what you can do in Tahiti. However, I haven’t done everything yet. It’s always like that when you live somewhere: you’re not on vacation so you don’t rush to do the “touristy things”.
For those who don’t know and who won’t have internet on their phone (as you’ll need a local sim card), you can download the Maps Me app, which offers very detailed offline maps. You just have to load them in the evening at the guesthouse or hotel when you have Wi-Fi, and you’re good for the day. You only have to activate the GPS of your smartphone to know where you are on the island. By the way, it works very well on all the islands.
In short, after picking up your rental car, ideally early in the morning (or the night before to be ready for the next morning), head out of town towards the east coast. Do not stop for the moment in Papeete as you will have the opportunity to visit it on foot during a day. You don’t need your rental car for that.
On the way, history enthusiasts can stop to visit the tomb of former king Pomaré V. Not extraordinary in itself, but still worth stopping for two minutes. Before passing the Tahara’a hill, you can make a small turn at the Pearl Beach roundabout and go on the way back to the beach on your right. This small beach by the road is the place to be for beginner surfers and it is a nice place to swim. Local atmosphere only.
Then, go back to Mahina, passing through the small Tahara’a pass. At the roundabout, at the top of the hill, you will have to go back down the road to turn around and park on the parking lot located on your right. Walk for two minutes towards the small spot offering a splendid view over the bay below and the island of Moorea in the background.
You then enter Mahina, a small peaceful commune on the border of the east coast. Depending on the season, you will find many mango and pineapple vendors at the entrance of the town. This is the time to fill up for the day or for the days to come. Keep going towards Pointe Venus, a beautiful black sand beach with a breathtaking view of Moorea and the mountains of Tahiti’s interior. This is such a peaceful area, very local and not usually visited by tourists. The beautiful black sand beach is perfect for swimming and having a good time. I often come there, almost every weekend in the late afternoon to watch the sunset. If you started your tour of the island in the morning, you’d have a beautiful light, but you can also consider coming back one evening with your rental car to admire one of the most beautiful sunsets of the island in my opinion. Stopping for 1/2 hour will never be a bad idea. The site has recently been refurbished with some info about the history of the place that you can read around the imposing lighthouse.
As you continue by the east coast, you drive along the jagged rocky coastline where waves hit the shoreline. On the road, there is a nice little viewpoint (Tapahi place) which offers a beautiful view of motu Martin, a small rocky islet lost in the open sea. Photographers will be able to come back there at sunset for some nice pictures.
The road continues towards the east. You will pass the largest valley of the island, the Papenoo, which you cannot really drive into anyway with your small rental car. I advise you to come back for a whole day to cross the valley, but we’ll talk about it below in the activities.
The next stop is just after the tunnel on your left. The “trou du Souffleur” is a small obligatory stop, especially by bad weather. The ocean comes to strike the rock at this place, and water comes out by a hole on the spot, the blow making a rather strong noise. If there is no swell, you won’t see or hear much. Note that you can swim on a nice black sand beach on the right side of the site. A few hundred meters later, on your right, on the mountain side, you can enter the valley of the 3 waterfalls of Faarumai. The site has been recently restored and it is an opportunity to easily see some beautiful waterfalls, lost in the interior of the island.
The rest of the road to the isthmus of Taravao is overall of limited interest (in the sense of “things to do”) even though you can enjoy some beautiful views of the interior of the island. However, you’ll be able to see small traditional villages along the way. This is time to discover the less developed coast of the island, which is also the greener one (it rains much more there). Just before you arrive in Taravao, a short stop at the waterfalls of Pape’Ana’ane and Vaihi is a nice thing to do. If you started your trip early in the morning, lunch time is not far away. You can eat at the edge of these waterfalls or keep driving further, especially to the Taravao lookout. You’ll find things to eat in Taravao (snack bar, restaurant and others).
You then arrive on Tahiti Iti, literally the little Tahiti, the peninsula. The village of Taravao itself is not extraordinary and there is nothing special to see there. One of the interesting things to do in the area is to go up to the Taravao Plateau, although I have to admit that it is not so easy to find the road up there. Nothing is really indicated. The road winds along beautiful fields with cows. Yes, you read it right. We could almost feel like we are in Normandy at times – in the north-west of France, if we ignore the 29°C and the lagoon below! The ride allows to cool off quite a lot since we go up in altitude. At the top, you’ll have a breathtaking view (if weather is on your side, which is not always the case) on the main island of Tahiti and the beautiful lagoon. It’s a perfect place to eat if you haven’t already done so. It can even be cool in winter… The only problem is that you are not often alone to enjoy your lunch, and I prefer more and more eating at the black sand beach of Tautira (but you will have to drive 15km more).
The particularity of the peninsula is that the main road does not go around it. To visit the area, you will then have to go back and forth on each side, on the east and west coast. On the east coast of the peninsula, you can drive to the end of the road to Tautira, a small peaceful village in the area. There is nothing special to do there except strolling along the waterfront and admiring the beautiful views of the surrounding hills. The place is great to eat as I said, with a large park on the edge of the square and tables available (beware of the coconuts!).
Turn back afterwards towards the west coast of the peninsula. This small piece of land appears very different. You follow some beautiful small white sandy beaches all along to end your road at the famous surf spot of Teahupoo (some swimming spots on the road). There, you will easily find local fishermen and some service providers who will take you to see the famous wave. At the water’s edge, the kids of the village are already training in the waves from a very young age… Probably future professional surfers among them!
If you have done the 2-day trip around the island, you can very well go and have a picnic at noon at the tip of Teahupoo. To go there, you have to cross the wooden bridge. The area is very nice, the river is very beautiful and you will often see eels on the ocean floor. Continue your way to the point. The area is really beautiful, and you will pass by small local houses and some guesthouses for tourists. I have never slept there but it is clearly something to do if you are looking for peace and quiet. At the point, you can admire the lagoon and the place while sitting quietly in the grass, perfect for a picnic.
Then, go up the west coast of Tahiti, while making sure to stop at the Harrisson Smith Botanical Garden. We had the opportunity to visit it very recently (early 2021, it was a first time) and honestly, it is very pleasant. If you like to take your time and take pictures, you can definitely spend 2/3 hours there. You can then go and eat at the restaurant of the Paul Gauguin museum. We loved it: local atmosphere, great welcome, beautiful setting – in short, we do recommend it. On Sunday morning, they offer a local buffet (Ma’a Tahiti) for 4500 Xpf/person. And it’s a treat: banana, manioc, taro, fafa chicken, various fish, fafaru, beef with vegetables, Poe for dessert, and many others.
Just after Harrison Smith’s garden, there is the Vaipahi botanical garden. I have just published a complete article on the Vaipahi garden, detailing the walks you can do on the mountain part along with the stroll in the botanical garden, at the foot of the mountain. For those who like taking their time, you should plan a morning for the whole thing.
You can then continue your way to the beautiful surfing beach of Papara. The area is very nice and there is even a small snack bar for those who want to eat. Go back up to the Maraa cave (30 minutes) for a little walk in the vegetation. Finally, take a little cultural bath by stopping at Marae Arahuahu, one of the most important archaeological sites in French Polynesia, in Paea.
For the end of the afternoon, you can end your trip by stopping for a last sunset swim on one of the west coast beaches. Rohotu beach in Paea is very nice and local. Otherwise, there are the classic Mahana Park and PK 18 (white sand beach), the place to be for all the popa’a (expatriates) of the island (this is not a pejorative term, it’s just a “reality”). Here you can snorkel and get a glimpse of the ocean underwater world.
Depending on the time you have and what you desire, I think you can spread the trip over 2 days. Impossible to do everything in one day in a quiet way in any case. Take advantage of your tour of the island to buy tropical fruits and vegetables at the roadside, it makes direct and local trade work rather than giving money to the big supermarkets… If you ask me, I would say that two days is great.
Here is a summary of all the possible activities in Tahiti. I am far from having done everything, but it will give you some ideas.
- Scuba diving: even if French Polynesia is a reference in this category, you won’t find the most beautiful diving spots of the territory in Tahiti. That said, it all depends on where you used to dive. About diversity, Tahiti is still quite poor when it comes to corals. As a general rule, we come here to see the big ones. Many people advise to dive at the peninsula, the coral is nicer and there are two diving clubs there. Divers will sit it out and keep their money for the Tuamotu!
- Take a trip on the lagoon: it can be an interesting thing to do since you might see dolphins, but I would advise especially the dry season, between July and October, so you’ll be able to swim with whales. The lagoon of Tahiti is very beautiful in some places, but if you have to choose, I advise you to do a lagoon trip in the islands, for example in Maupiti, Huahine, Tahaa and even in all the Tuamotu. Again, in many tourist places, the rays and sharks feeding is clearly there… In general, the outings are always more or less the same, so you might as well do it in a beautiful lagoon.
- Surfari: I did not personally test it, but I booked the trip for some friends. They really enjoyed it. It is a day trip (on the peninsula) half sea / half land with a walk on the lagoon, in the paths of the seaside, in fresh or saltwater basins, swimming in the waterfalls.
- Crossing the island by 4×4 through Papenoo: if there is one activity to do in Tahiti, it is this one, I think. You have 2 solutions. You can either decide to rent a 4×4 and do it by yourself or cross with a service provider which could be even better and more relaxing. On the program: discovery of the largest valley of the island, explanation on the fauna, swimming in the river and waterfalls. In short, a great day,
- Hiking: Tahiti would clearly have the potential to become a “great destination” for hiking thanks to its relief and its playground. However, it must be said that this is clearly not the priority of the country, which is always more focused on the luxury hotel industry. Even if things might be changing, it is still not easy to go hiking in Tahiti without a guide. Paying to walk, I personally find it quite ridiculous… Despite that, there are quite a few accessible places. You just have to know them. If you want to be autonomous, I invite you to register (it’s free) on the wikilocs website, which locates all possible activities all over the world, including hikes. I know people who walk a lot here in Tahiti and who have added GPS tracks of their walks on the island as well as on the others. Use it to plan some hikes in the interior of the island. Tahiti is clearly more sea-oriented than land, so this is your chance.
- You can also consider a day trip around the island of Tahiti on a catamaran with one of the many service providers offering it. A small feeling of the world’s end while observing this island and its luxuriant vegetation seen from the sea. It can be done in one or two days.
- Finally, among the other activities to consider on the island, we could mention taking a surfing course, going on a microlight trip, a day at the Lavatubes on the east coast of the island, renting paddles at the snack bar on the beach of PK18, or kayaks on the beach of PK15, and the bravest will go to the coral reef.
Finally, even if it is not a real activity on the island of Tahiti, I really invite you to plan a day trip to the atoll of Tetiaroa. A beautiful day with a sweet mix of sun, turquoise water, great food and a bit of sailing, all in a feeling of earthly paradise. The access to the atoll is usually from Tahiti, that’s why I’m talking about it here. I recommend Poe Charter with whom I have already been out several times. In the article above, you will find a promo code to save 10% on your trip (for tourists).
I had not mentioned the visit of the city of Papeete in the itinerary at the beginning of the article. I have already written a complete article about it, which you can refer to. Among the must-sees: the Papeete market on Sunday morning for food and during the week for handicrafts, buying monoi with tiare perfume and vanilla for example, a little stroll downtown to soak up the little Pacific capital, visit the pearl museum or the new pearl farm at the peninsula – where you can even go pearl fishing, the Cathedral, or go for a walk along the seafront on the harbor and up to Paofai Park, where you can watch the pirogues (called Va’a). One day will be enough.
A few personal additions:
- Eating at the “roulottes” is an institution in French Polynesia. Most tourists go to Vaiate place, but you will find them all around the island. Raw fish with coconut milk is often the order of the day.
- Have a drink at the Belvedere in Arue. A winding road goes up through the woods to a high-altitude restaurant (if I may say so) and offers a beautiful panorama of the city of Papeete. It is the occasion to have a drink while enjoying the sunset… Don’t forget your sweater, it can be very cool up there.
if you go to Papenoo alone with your rental car, you must stop at the relay of Maroto. The setting is splendid to have a drink too. Different atmosphere, in the middle of the rain forest.
- Having breakfast on the weekend at the Intercontinental is a very nice thing to do. Enjoy a big all-you-can-eat buffet to taste local specialties, all in a splendid setting of a 5-star hotel.
- For happy hours, turn to the Casablanca at the Taina marina, in Punauiaa, or even better the Manava in Punaauia (on the ring road) for its superb cocktails, facing the island of Moorea…
- Hotels often offer evening shows with Polynesian dances. So don’t hesitate.
- For lovers of beautiful jewelry, this is an opportunity to indulge yourself in one of Papeete’s jewelry stores. You can either buy pearls individually and have them mounted or buy a ready-made jewel. It makes a nice souvenir gift!
Recently, with the arrival of low-cost airlines (Frenchbee and United), prices have really dropped. If you are flexible on the dates of your trip or if you buy them at the last minute, you can find flights from Paris to Papeete around 950/1000€ (or even less), with a mandatory stopover in San Francisco (except during the Covid, via Vancouver, Canada). The cheapest flight prices from the US are here.
Of course, if you are on a world trip, you can also fly from Chile, Easter Island, Hawaii, New Zealand or New Caledonia. Even if at the time of publishing this article, all these flights are unavailable due to the Covid19 situation.
For practical reasons, if you are in the midst of preparation, don’t hesitate to read our article to know when to go to Polynesia!
There are a few ways to get around Tahiti, but overall, you will have no choice but to rent a car or a scooter. You can use this great car rental comparator to compare prices of different rental companies on the island. To go around the island, I honestly don’t recommend a scooter.
Another solution, that I don’t recommend during the rainy season, is to rent a scooter for a few days. It is more economical, and the roads are generally in good condition.
For the more adventurous ones, you can try hitchhiking, that works quite well.
In Tahiti, as in many places, there is something for everyone.
For those on a budget, you will find snack bars all around the island offering snacks or small dishes to take away. Count from 400/500 Cfp for a snack to 600/800 Cfp for a takeaway.
The “roulottes” offer many dishes, either local, Chinese, or French cuisine. Count usually between 1000 and 1500 Cfp for a dish.
For restaurant lovers, you will easily find what you are looking for, especially in the city. To name only a few of the good restaurants: the Grillardin, L’o à la bouche, Le Soufflet, etc. Note that there is a new restaurant on the seafront, the Meherio, which is really nice. Not to be confused with the Moana just next door, which I would not recommend at all for the moment (go read the reviews).
Just like for food, you can find everything in Tahiti.
For those on a budget, there is couchsurfing between Mahina and Papeete. For people who would be tempted to contact people for the sole reason of sleeping for free, I remind you that this is not the purpose. This is the main reason why I stopped it. Unscrupulous people who just come to enjoy a free night or even a meal and WIFI without taking their eyes off their phone.
One thing that works well in Tahiti though, and is reasonable in terms of price, is Airbnb, sleeping at the home of a local, or even renting out entire homes. You can find rooms for 30/50€ a night, which is frankly not expensive for French Polynesia. There are also discounts for weekly stays, for example.
There are also guesthouses in Tahiti, with variable prices. You can ask for information on Facebook groups too. Some individuals offer a room sometimes at very low prices, especially on the peninsula. As far as I know, there is no official campsite on the island of Tahiti, but I know that some people offer to pitch your tent in their garden for a small fee. Check also on Facebook groups.
Of course, those who are looking for beautiful hotels will be served. To name but a few: The intercontinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, the Manava Suite Resort and Spa (excellent for the happy hours too) or the Tahiti Ia Ora Beach Resort (which I still appreciate less compared to the first two). By the way, I invite you to read our review of the Manava resort of Tahiti, which is great for a few days!
That’s it, I’m coming to the end! The island of Tahiti remains unfortunately a Pacific island often forgotten by tourists. Most of them come for the turquoise Polynesian waters and the white sandy beaches of Bora Bora, Moorea and the Tuamotus. However, I hope I have convinced you to spend a few days there! You have everything you need to have a good time on the island. Especially enjoy the land, the valleys and the beauty of the island’s interior. You can then enjoy the heavenly images you had in mind when you came, just by taking the ferry to Moorea Island.
Have a good trip and see you soon,
Sylvain & Mel