From its beaches and waterfalls to its markets, gardens and museums – including the Musée Gauguin – Culture Trip guides you around the wonders of Tahiti.
Long before the Maldives became the tropical idyll du jour, the South Pacific islands were offering cinematic scenes of turquoise ocean, rustic-luxe suites on stilts and a unique culture. The most famous name – and largest island – in the archipelago is Tahiti, part of French Polynesia. Shaped like a figure of eight, it comprises Tahiti Nui (the bulging, western section) and Tahiti Iti (the lesser eastern peninsula). We’ve listed the 20 must-visit attractions here – but you’re bound to discover more when you start exploring.
Tahiti’s first overwater bungalows were built back in the 1960s to provide access to the lagoon where sandy beaches were lacking. Fast-forward to 2021, and they’re considered the highest echelon of tropical luxury for the rich and famous, or honeymooners, or both. French Polynesia is famous for these idyllic ocean huts, particularly in Moorea and Bora Bora.
Tahiti is well blessed with scenic waterfalls, but by far the most popular are The Three Waterfalls, known locally as Les Trois Cascades or the Faarumai Waterfalls, a series of falls in Tahiti Nui in the island’s north-western sector. The first is reached easily, the second and third waterfalls are yours to savour following a hike through lush rainforest. The third one is the most splendid – a 40m (131ft) stunner with a refreshing swimming basin at the bottom.
Most of Tahiti’s beaches are blackly volcanic, but La Plage de Maui, or Maui’s Beach, is composed of pure-white sand – the only stretch of its kind on Tahiti Iti, the island’s south-eastern bulge. Situated on the southern coastal road, it’s a destination to allow a whole day for, sinking your toes into the powdery sand between dips. There’s a beachside cafe where you can order Polynesian plates of steamed fish, as well as local produce such breadfruit, as you watch the fish dart about in the bluest of waters.
As the name implies, The Huahine Natural Aquarium, just off Mahuti Bay at the south of the island, is a place where you can mingle with the marine life in the shallows of a natural lagoon. Stand on the platforms and watch from above, or dive into the water to get a closer look at neon-yellow double-saddle butterflyfish and (harmless) black-tip reef sharks.
This agreeable and absorbing museum, in the small surfing town of Puna’auia, is divided into four sections: geography and natural history; pre-European culture; the European era; and outdoor exhibits. The most awesome element is the collection of tiki, which are timber- or stone-carved statues representing various divinities. It’s set in large coastal grounds, so wander out afterwards to watch the surfers at one of Tahiti’s most popular breaks.
As a nod to the Japanese influence on French post-impressionism, this collection of Paul Gauguin’s original works and prints is contained in a Japanese-informed building. Within the lovely Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens, it is dedicated to his life and achievements during the years he spent in Tahiti and in the Marquesas. Among the many fascinating exhibits and memorabilia are sketches, copies of documents, block prints and reproductions of many of his most famous paintings.
Nicknamed “The End of the Road,” Teahupo‘o is the home of surf brand Billabong’s annual Pro Championships – which makes sense, given the six- to 25-foot waves. Teahupo’o is respected by big-wave surfers like nowhere else. Widely known for having some of the heaviest waves in the world, Tahiti is also celebrated as the birthplace of the sport. There are also spots to suit less experienced surfers. And there’s a sightseeing boat tour for those who want to see what Teahupo’o village itself is all about.
In the suburbs of the capital, Papeete, The James Norman Hall House is a tribute to the American author (1887-1951) who spent much of his life in Tahiti after World War I. Best-known for the world-famous Bounty Trilogy (co-written with Charles Nordhoff), he lived in the low-roofed property that now houses this modest but captivating museum. It contains more than 3,000 books, while curious exhibits include the author’s typewriter and a model of the Bounty. There’s also a terrace-cum-tea room where you can stay around and have lunch.
Set behind the cathedral a couple of blocks back from the sea, Marché Papeete, or Papeete Market, is must-visit while you’re in the capital of Tahiti. Spread over two stories, it attracts masses of local residents for fruit, vegetables, fish, oils and handicrafts. Vendors also sell tifaifai (Tahitian quilts), pareos (wraps) and handcrafted items such as shell necklaces as well as highly coveted (and fairly priced) black pearl jewellery. Stock up on gifts for your nearest and dearest.
This buttercup-yellow church, with its cheery red roof and tall steeple, is the oldest Catholic example in Tahiti, displaying the merging of colonial architecture with the island’s own distinct DNA. The altar is decorated with tropical flower arrangements and the church fills with light from a dozen stained-glass windows. Choirs sing in the upstairs area under a pitched timber ceiling adorned with cast-iron chandeliers. Look for the clam shell used to hold the holy water.
This memorable site is an important part of Tahiti’s history, acknowledging the nuclear tests which were carried out in the Pacific. The park, also known as July 2, 1966, after the islands’ first nuclear test, stands in protest against France’s thirty years of nuclear testing, from 1966 to 1996, and pays tribute to victims of nuclear incidents around the world. Official memorial services are held in the park and local artists have created works to honour those who’ve lost their lives as a result of nuclear explosions.
Head east and south around the coast from Papeete on the RT2 road and after 24km (15mi) you’ll find this thrilling natural phenomenon. When the swell in the ocean is big enough, huge sprays of water shoot out from the blowhole (trou du souffleur in French), bordered by a black-sand beach. Honed by aeons of coastal erosion – those monstrous Pacific waves slam in relentlessly – the blowhole is right under the coastal road. Every time there’s a significant pulse, it forces seawater up through the aperture in the rocks, creating a huge spurt of Instagrammable drama.
As the name suggests, you come here to admire the largest collection of Tahiti’s black pearls – a cultural one-off. The museum presents a detailed insight into the social significance as well as the history and secrets of creating this rare gem. Spoiler alert: its colour comes from the black-lipped oyster that produces it. While you’re here, keep a lookout for the largest round pearl in Tahiti, weighing more than 8.6g and measuring 26mm in diameter. That’s slightly more than a UK 10p coin
It’s easy to forget that Tahiti is actually urban and built-up – which makes finding a green oasis quite a relief. Stretching from Boulevard Pomare to Rue du General de Gaulle in Papeete, Parc Bougainville was named after French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811) – look for the statue – and lulls visitors with its tranquil stream, koi carp-filled pond, tropical vegetation and enormous shade-giving banyan tree. Since it’s by the waterfront, it’s a dreamy spot that’s just perfect for sitting on a bench, people-watching.
Tahiti’s interior lays on some of the most breathtaking – and demanding– hikes in French Polynesia. The third-highest peak on the island, at 2,066m (6,778ft), is Mt Aorai – it takes around five hours to reach the peak if you’re in good shape. To make the most of it, you should aim to be up at the crack of dawn as the mountain tends become swathed in cloud cover after 11am. Some hikers choose to spend the night in one of two simple shelters (free of charge) on the route. Whichever you decide, it’s a good idea to hire a guide for safety reasons.
Down on the south coast of Tahiti Nui, 48km (30mi) from Papeete, is this fine little Eden, inaugurated in 2007 after restoration work. It’s a treat for hikers – trails lead everywhere among the burbling, meandering springs and streams. It suits laid-back visitors, too, happier to inch their way among lush tropical plants such as the giant elephant-ear plants, pagoda trees, and the blowzy red flowers of a Pride of Burma. There are picnic areas with views over the lagoon, so settle in. You can buy fruit and snacks from the vendors at the entrance.
Just off the coastal road in Aure, a residential suburb of Papeete, you’ll find the tomb of Tahiti’s last king, who died in 1891. It’s located by the water’s edge, made from coral stones in the shape of a small lighthouse with a red door and topped with a red Grecian urn. It was originally built for his mother, Queen Pomare IV. But Pomare V had her remains exhumed and his were interred instead when he died a few years later from the excesses of alcohol.
Captain James Cook recorded planet Venus transiting the sun in 1769 on this windswept corner of northernmost Tahiti, approximately 8km (5mi) from Papeete. Captains Wallis, Cook, and Bligh landed here after anchoring their ships offshore, before Cook made his observations. Modernity has made its mark and today you’ll find a snack bar, a souvenir and handicrafts shop, and toilets. But it’s very much a place of contemplation and tranquillity. The lighthouse, Phare de la Pointe Vénus, was built in 1868, 99 years after Cook’s visit.
You’ll need a guide to find Tahiti’s best-preserved petroglyphs, which aren’t easy to find: Te Pari is a wild, rugged coastline on the southern side of Tahiti Nui, accessible only on foot or by boat. It’s worth pulling out the stops to reach this atmospheric, intriguing sight. By roping in a knowledgeable guide, you’ll be able to spot the petroglyphs, as well as hidden caves, and rock formations created by the pounding surf.
The sprawling Jardin Botanique Harrison Smith are conveniently next to the Musée Gauguin if you’re in the area. They are named after an American, Harrison W. Smith, who was passionate about botany and created them in 1919 using 450 species flowers and trees from Africa, Asia and America. He tended this tropical marvel until he died (he is buried here). Paths wind their way through the gardens, among towering bamboo, mangosteen and teak trees and cooling ponds and palms. The enormous banyan tree was planted in 1936.
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