Dancer
Family friend Naiki Barrier struts her stuff at the 40th anniversary of the Tahiti Museum fete. Dance is an integral part of local culture and you’ll want to see a good show during your visit.

by Rob Kay & Philippe Guesdon

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Tahiti. 

As veteran journalists who have worked in French Polynesia for decades, we’re often asked by friends and family for travel advice. Sometimes answers are not always available.

Like any destination, change in Tahiti is a constant. New hotels, restaurants, cafes and other attractions constantly spring up or disappear. A restaurant that may have great service or food one day may inexplicably go downhill next month.

Guidebooks are not necessarily the best source of information.

For answers to questions we grilled our friends who live in Tahiti for updates.

We learned quite a bit.  The goal for this two-part series is to pass that information on to ensure visitors experience the best that Tahiti has to offer.

Here’s what we’ve discovered…

Hit the duty free store when arriving or departing if you want to buy a good, inexpensive bottle of French wine

Duty free 2
Tahiti Duty Free is a new addition to the airport scene. Its got all the usual luxury items but I’d head straight to the liquor shelves–especially if you’re in- bound. You can save about 50% on wine and other spirits compared to what you’d pay in town.

We’ve never been big fans of duty free stores. Often the merchandise in these shops is was not appealing and the “special” prices were not all that special. However, that attitude changed after this last visit to French Polynesia.

A brand new and quite unpretentious looking store called, Tahiti Duty Free has recently opened at Faaa Papeete Airport. There are two “branches”. The modest section for “inbound” or arriving passengers is located  little right outside the immigration lounge. A larger store (pictured at left) is situated inside the debarkation area.  Both have a variety of luxury items such as but what caught our eye were the wine and liquor shelves.

Like all imported goods, booze in French Polynesia is taxed to the hilt so at this shop you really do notice the difference between duty free priced liquor.

We purchased a few bottles of excellent Bordeaux (Chateaux Vieux Chevrol 2009) for 2100 cfp per bottle, the equivalent of about US$21. At a grocery store in Papeete, this item would be roughly double the price thanks taxes on important spirits. (In the US the price would be closer to $25–if you can get it at all).

The wine makes a nice gift for a local or a money saver for your own picnic. You’re allowed to purchase up to two bottles of wine and two bottles of spirits upon arrival. You can bring in two bottles of wine or spirits duty free to the US.

Eat a pizza! Tahiti has some of the best you’ll ever sink your teeth into

Pizzeria (2)
You can get world class pizza in Tahiti. Our favorite restaurant was L’Apizzeria, located right on the waterfront.

French Polynesia is famous for its cuisine but pizza is usually not synonymous with Tahiti. Think again. The pizza in French Polynesia is in our opinion unequivocally better than 99% of what is offered in the states. The crust is generally thinner, the toppings are tastier and in essence the product hews more closely to the dish’s Italian origins. It’s a little more laden with olive oil, but heck that’s healthy stuff.

We went to a couple of places in Papeete and the conclusion of our star-studded panel was the L’Apizzeria (42 98 30) located front de mer (on Pomare Blvd) is still the best. The setting is informal with a classic mural of a street scene in Italy. Service is surprising fast for Tahiti and very friendly. You can also get excellent salads, fish, and meat dishes as well but pizza is definitely the main attraction. Price for a pizza is about 2500 cfp (around $25) which is moderate by Tahiti standards. We had the Quatre Saisons (Four Seasons) and Trois Fromages (Three Cheese) which hit the spot. We washed down the pizzas with a bottle of Bordeaux and walked out quite satisfied. It’s also one of the few restaurants in town that’s open past 9 pm.

Bring back a locally grown black pearl for someone special

black pearls
Black pearls are a bargain in Tahiti. They come in a variety of settings or you can purchase them loose–which is probably the best deal. Pearly Shell, right off of the waterfront, is a good place start looking.

Black pearls are one of the few products actually “made” in French Polynesia and are in fact the biggest source of revenue after the tourism industry. They are cultivated in great abundance, mostly in the nearby Tuamotu Islands. Only 20% of the oysters harvested bear salable pearls and only 5% of the crop harvested bear pearls that are up to exacting industry standards.

Value is determined by size, luster sheen, color and lack of defects such as bumps, dents or scratches. You can purchase them in dozens of stores around town and even at market stalls. Some are surprisingly quite inexpensive.

But what quality of pearl are you getting?

A low price does not insure a good deal. Caveat emptor is the rule. In researching this story we spoke to officials from the Tahiti Tourism office who said there were fake pearls in circulation. Knowing your source is crucial if you want to be certain your buying good quality. Best bet is to go to a reputable store. Two came highly recommended, especially if you want to purchase “unmounted” (loose) pearls.

These include Tahiti Pearl Market (25 rue Colette) and Pearly Shell (rue Paul Gauguin) just off Boulevard Pomare.

What impressed us about Pearly Shell is that they have an x-ray machine that will allow you to determine the thickness of the “nacre” or outer layer of the pearl—a crucial component when it comes to determination of quality.

How much should you have to spend on a decent, individual pearl?

This varies according to quality but figure on dropping at least $100-200. You can purchase a pearl in a setting (a pendant) starting at about $170 in silver and $220 in gold. Pearly Shell has the option of buying ten or more loose pearls, tax free, if you spend at least 10,000 cfp, roughly $100. The good news is that in Tahiti black pearls are a good deal.

James Norman Hall Home in Tahiti
James Norman Hall, the co-author of Mutiney on the Bounty and other works, lived in Tahiti. You can visit his home, which has been converted into a museum, in Arue, outside of Papeete. They serve food but call ahead for a reservation.

To educate yourself on black pearls a visit to the Musee de la perle (Pearl Museum) on rue du Commandant Destremeau is in order. Not coincidentally, the “museum” is also very upscale retailer, so acquiring a $20,000 necklace for a special friend here is do-able.

Visit James Norman Hall’s Home, Tahiti’s best hidden museum

Located on PK 5.4 on the mountainside in the Arue district (about 15 minutes by car from Papeete) the museum is actually the rebuilt home of the late American writer, James Norman Hall.

Hall and his writing partner, Charles Nordoff, are no longer household names but their best known work, Mutiny on the Bounty (which spawned several blockbuster movies including a version with Marlon Brando) probably did more to immortalize Tahiti than anyone other than Paul Gauguin.

Hall, a celebrated WWI pilot, who volunteered to fly with the French even before the United States entered the conflict, made his way to Tahiti after the Great War and built a home where most of works were penned. He died in 1951 but his late son Conrad (who received an Oscar for his videography in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and daughter Nancy (a part time Honolulu resident) completely reconstructed the house and turned it into a museum. Inside visitors can view artifacts from Hall’s life including his typewriter, gramophone, personal papers and over 3000 books spanning seven generations of American literature.

It’s also great place for an outdoor lunch. For about $25 (they serve fish) but be sure and reserve the day before. You can contact them at 50 01 61 or jamesnormanhall@mail.pf.

Visit Moorea on a day trip via “fast” ferry.

Boarding Moorea Ferry1 (1)
A day trip (or even a few days) on Moorea is obligatory. Take the fast ferry, which will get you there under an hour.

Visiting Moorea via ferry is inexpensive and fun. You can simply jump on a ferry à pied but it’s best done if you have a rental car, scooter or even a bicycle with you. The local Moorea bus service will easily take you anywhere on the island upon arrival but the getting back to the terminal can be problematic.

Having your own transportation means you can spend the day leisurely stopping at local restaurants, cafes, beaches or attractions such as the Belvedere Lookout or the local marae, the oldest Polynesian temple in the Islands and the place where King Pomare I accepted Christianity. A visit to Moorea is well worth the effort. The island is dramatically beautiful, with sharp serrated peaks that command deep cleft valleys.

The pace is slower than Tahiti and it’s less congested with cars. It has an abundance of good beaches—many more than Tahiti. Tourism development on the island has increased considerably over the past few years —more than I’d like to see—but the island still retains its charm and friendliness.

The Moorea ferry services are operated by two companies and include two “fast ferries”, which travel at around 34 knots, and two conventional ferries which cruise from 14 to 18 knots. The largest fast ferry is the Aremiti V, a catamaran that at 56 meters (just under 184 feet). The ferries are a key economic link to Moorea, not only because they transport people but because there is no barge service akin to Long Brothers in Hawaii. The upshot is that everything—food, gasoline, building materials, medical supplies, etc., is transported via ferry.

The new ferry terminal is located in Papeete Harbor, a few hundred meters from the tourism office on Boulevard Pomare, opposite the Royal Papeete Hotel. If you traveling sans auto there’s no need to reserve a ticket but if you plan take a car, particularly over a weekend or a holiday, it’s best to reserve a place or better yet, purchase a ticket ahead of time at the Aremiti (50-57-57 www.aremiti.pf) or Moorea Ferry (82-47-47 www.mooreaferry.pf) with offices right on the dock.

Catching some rays on the deck of the Moorea Ferry. Great place meet locals.
Catching some rays on the deck of the Moorea Ferry. Great place meet locals.

On both fast ferries you can sit or stand outside the top deck which affords a 360 degree view. Departure times are posted on the ferry landing or check the websites. The Moorea ferry terminus is at the Vaiare Wharf. Local buses are available at the dock for a flat 300 CFP fee. Round trip fare for an auto on the ferry is under $50 and about $20 for a scooter.

What to bring when visiting Tahiti? Start with insect repellent…

Tahiti is a warm, humid place so the obvious items such as sunblock and insect repellent are musts. Visitors should also be aware that Tahiti is currently experiencing an outbreak of chikugunya, a mosquito-borne viral disease with flu-like symptoms. Keep slathered with repellent and wear long pants if possible. The CDC website has good information.

Other obvious must-haves are a good pair of sunglasses and light clothing. I also like to bring an electrical converter so that I can charge my electric toothbrush and the battery charger for my camera. Of course bring your tablet and/or smart phone. Many Tahiti hotels have wi-fi but generally, even at the really expensive properties, you’ll have to pay extra for it. You can purchase a Skype phone number with a US area code for $18 which helps reduce the tariff for incoming calls. (I’ll have more what to bring suggestions in Part II of this article).

camelbak tahiti 1
The Urban Assault pack from Camelbak works great for daily carry or even as an overnight travel pack. A great asset to have in Tahiti. (Co-author, Rob Kay, is standing in front of a WWII vintage Jeep pride of journalist, Alex du Prel).

Don’t skimp on a good backpack

A good backpack is essential in a place like Tahiti where we use it to schlep cameras, laptop and other computer gear around the islands. Just as important is being able to stow that pack in the overhead bin on the plane. (There’s no way you want to cameras, laptop and other sensitive gear in the luggage compartment).

Our solution is the Camelbak Urban Assault XL. You can get all your gear stowed safely in the plane and if need be, comfortably carry it on your back for miles. The configuration is well thought out, and the capacity works perfect as a daily carry pack or even as an overnight travel pack as well. It has both a shoulder harness and a a removable waist belt, which is a nice option to have. There are several fleece lined pockets for sunglasses, smart phone and the like and a 10 mm EVA foam padded laptop compartment that doubles as a reservoir pocket.  (The pack includes a 75L CamelBak bottle, which comes in handy).

There are so many nice touches with the pack. For example, the zipper pulls have little anodized aluminum tubes that add a neat flair. The adjustment straps have Velcro keepers that keep things from flopping around. One tip—don’t overstuff it. When the bag is tightly packed with lenses and cables bulging out of every pocket, it’s a chore to pull out the laptop when you go through the TSA checks. MSRP is $185 but you can get it on Amazon for $165. Not inexpensive but you get what you pay for.

Getting There

HA shot interior
Hawaiian flies you to Tahiti in style and safety on a brand new Airbus A330-200.

Hawaiian Airlines flies to Tahiti weekly, departing Saturdays at 3.30 p.m which gets you into Tahiti around 9.30 or shortly before. The return flight departs Papeete around 11.30 p.m. and gets to Honolulu Sunday around 5.30 a.m. The route is extremely popular with Tahitians who come in large numbers to Hawaii primarily to shop. They love our brands and they love Costco.

Other than Tahitians, inbound passengers appeared to be a mixture of Mainland people, Europeans and Hawaii residents. Hawaiian’s service was excellent. The vibe on the airplane, (a brand spanking new Airbus A330-200) felt very “local”.

All the flight attendants are Honolulu-based. There were a few nice extra touches such as a free glass of wine–even in coach class.

Given the cultural similarities and long affinity between French Polynesia and the Aloha State, we believe Hawaii people would feel exceedingly comfortable visiting Tahiti. Tahitians are welcoming and Hawaii residents are in a position to understand the Mahoi culture in a way that Mainlanders would probably not.

It’s also easy to adjust to Tahiti. The climate is almost the same as Hawaii (although it’s a bit more humid in Tahiti) and French Polynesia shares our time zone. My advice to Hawaii residents is to take advantage of the service!

Price for round trip fares out of Honolulu begin at $697.

Photos by Rob Kay and Philippe Guesdon

Rob Kay is the author of Lonely Planet’s Tahiti and French Polynesia, a Travel Survival Kit and Hidden Tahiti pubiished by Ulysses Press. For questions or comments contact him at rkay@lava.net.

Philippe Guesdon, former editor of Les Novelles de Tahiti and Tahiti correspondent for Le Monde, has been a resident of French Polynesia for 40 years. He can be reached at flip@mail.pf.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series in coming weeks. 

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