Tahiti is the island most wide-eyed tourists who oohh and aahh over the beauty of French Polynesia skip in exchange for exploring the more well known, and to be honest ritzier, islands of French Polynesia. The small airport in the capital city of Papeete generally serves tourists only as a place to pass through customs before boarding another flight bound for paradise. However, many people don’t realize Tahiti is paradise.
The large island and its smaller counterpart, Tahiti I’ti, offer both relaxation and adventure as well as shopping, nightlife and a satisfactory culinary scene. No, the island doesn’t boast a laundry list of high-priced resorts with over-water bungalows. In fact, the number of places to stay reflects the very sentiment of travelers who skip the island as only a handful of international resorts have set up shop on Tahiti. Of those that have, the amenities and services are not up to par with what you’d find on other islands in French Polynesia. But, don’t let that worry you. You most likely didn’t come to Tahiti to spend your days within the walls of the resort, did you?
If you want to experience the island itself and not its deep blue waters, renting a car is most likely your best option as a main road circles the island. Without accounting for stops, the drive around will take about three hours, but allowing an entire day is best. The average car rental costs about $80.00 XPF, which is give or take about $90.00 US.
Before you set out, make sure to put your inner rebellious tourist aside and stop first at the tourist information center just off the port in downtown Papeete. That’s where you will find a great map of the islands’ marked sites. Each is listed by exactly how many kilometers it is from a specific starting point. Still, be careful as many of the site markers are hidden behind vegetation or sit just beyond a sharp curve.
The highlights include browsing shops and stopping at juice and snack bars in downtown Papeete, the Fa’auruma’i waterfalls, the Arapahoe Blow hole, the botanical gardens and much more. We only stopped a handful of times, mostly because despite the map the two of us would pass up or miscalculate the distance to certain sites. Either way, the drive definitely paid off.
There is a single road the cuts the islands in half, but it’s not recommended for cars and is mainly passible only by 4X4 vehicles. Still, we decided to put that theory to rest only to turn back not even a third of the way down the road when our little rental car was nearly swallowed by a “puddle”. If you do have the right equipment to make the pass, you’ll find stunning views, to-die-for swimming holes and several ancient Polynesian sites.
If time allows, make sure your trip around the island includes the much smaller outcropping of Tahiti I’ti. While you can’t completely circumnavigate Tahiti Iti, you can drive nearly half way to the end on one side, circle back and continue half way down the other side.
A fabulous lookout tops the front face of Tahiti I’ti offering great views of both the North and South coasts of Tahiti Nui. The drive up the often single-lane roadway is steep, but it leads you through rare, lush fields filled with grazing cattle.
While there are a number of options for the eager Tahiti tourist, it doesn’t take more than a day, maybe two, to explore the entire island. Of course, like any ocean-front destination, there are offerings of sailing, snorkeling, fishing and jet ski tours to help fill time and your sense for adventure. If you include a day or two for relaxation in your itinerary, you won’t need more than four or five days max to enjoy the island of Tahiti.