Truth be told, I never really expected to find myself travelling Tahiti. Of course I’ve dreamed of Tahiti – who hasn’t?! – it’s just that when the travel bug bites, Greg and I prefer to visit more far-flung, less developed countries while we’re “young”. You know, chickens-on-the-roof-of-the-bus type places. Not coincidentally, these destinations also tend to be easier on the wallet. (See what we did there?) It just makes sense that we’ll travel spendy countries with better infrastructure (Europe, Oceania, USA) when we have kids (hey Hank!), fatter bank accounts or in our golden years. Tahiti isn’t traditionally backpacker-friendly nor thrifty to travel, so it never floated to the top of our bucket list. (Revelation: you can travel Tahiti with a Champagne-on-a-beer budget – I reveal how here.) But when the invitation to visit French Polynesia crossed my desk, of course I jumped all over it; no one says “no” to Tahiti.
French Polynesia is widely considered a dream trip for many: turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, lush jungle and overwater bungalows are the stuff of fantasies. Yet few travellers will make it to Tahiti. The exact number? 200,000 annually. Does that sound like a lot? Compare it to Hawaii, which greets the same number in just 10 days. With “so few” travellers experiencing Tahiti – I’m certainly the only person in my circle who has been – you might wonder, “What is Tahiti really like? And is it the paradise it’s hyped up to be?”
I’m so glad you asked! Let me dish…
Is Tahiti paradise on Earth?
Tahiti is picture-perfect: glimmering aquamarine waters, lush, verdant jungle, course white sand beaches and bungalows perched over the water. Humpback whales cruise the coast, friendly manta rays flit around the lagoon shallows and “schools” of reef sharks circle hypnotically. Palms sway in a gentle ocean breeze and after the sun sets, the Milky Way is painted across the sky.
What is Tahiti really like?
First, I should clarify that Tahiti is a collection of 118 islands clustered into five archipelagos. Tahiti is the main island where you’ll find the capital, Papeete, and the nation’s international airport. You won’t likely want to spend the duration of your trip on Tahiti. You’ve come all this way so why not island-hop into some smaller enclaves of this paradise?
First impressions of Tahiti
Stepping off the plane at midnight I’m enveloped by stale, warm night air. Making our way to arrivals, we’re greeted by two Polynesian natives strumming a gay tune on ukuleles. The smell of tiaré flowers perfumes the air. We collect our luggage and search out our airport transfer. The driver welcomes me to Tahiti by draping a garland of fragrant blooms around my neck. It might be cliché but I eat it right up.
The next morning we’re back at the airport for our short flight to Raiatea island. The islands of French Polynesia are well connected by Air Tahiti, the local airline. Propeller planes shuttle visitors from island to island as nonchalantly as a bus service.
From the air, I get a bird’s eye view of the postcard-perfect islands. In the Society Island archipelago, the islands have green interiors ringed with white beaches, which are enveloped by aquamarine lagoons that are protected by barrier reefs. In the Tuamotu Archipelago, the islands are more of a curiosity: pencil-thin tracts of land are shaped like Cheerios, afloat in the great blue expanse.
Give it to me straight: Tahiti, the real deal
Here are some observations I made about French Polynesia during my nine-day visit. *Please keep in mind they are made with my Millennial lens.
Who you’re likely to meet
Honeymooners, boomers (ie: those who can truly afford to spend $1,500+ per night on an overwater bungalow) and Americans. If you stay in a budget hotel or pension you’re more likely to encounter younger couples or families with children – probably European.
From what I gather, the Tahiti traveller routine goes: wake up, perhaps take in a spa treatment, breakfast, excursion (into nature, shopping or on the water), return to the hotel/pension, dinner and call it a night. I would not describe Tahiti as a party destination in the least. What gives? First, getting around is not so easy. The transportation networks on the islands are informal – in that, there’s no culture of scooter rentals or public transportation. Take for example that most tour operators will fetch you from your hotel. You could call for a taxi (depending where you are) but it’d likely be abhorrently expensive. And second, unless you’re packing duty free, you’re not likely to booze it up unless you’ve got deep pockets for the resort bar. If you’re staying at a guesthouse, most pensions close their dining salon once dinner is cleared.
Bottom line, be prepared for some serious down time. Bring a book. Bring five…ten if you’re venturing into the outlying archipelagos.
It’s ALL about the nature
Maybe I wasn’t exposed to the arts or cultural performances, but the big draw here seems to be unspoiled nature. Come to Tahiti to hike to incredible viewpoints through leafy jungle, to swim with humpback whales, sharks and rays, to snorkel coral gardens, lounge on idyllic motus (islets) and sail through pristine waters.
Swimming with a humpback whale and her calf is one of my top travel moments, ever.
The cuisine will blow you away
For some reason I had low expectations of the dining in Tahiti. I imagined it would be a lot of grilled fish and vegetables. What I was oblivious to is the French influence. (French Polynesia, duh!)
Poisson cru, or raw fish, is the “national dish” of Tahiti and despite being five months pregnant when I visited, I couldn’t get enough. You can think of poisson cru as akin to ceviche or poke, and you’ll find it on most menus. Fleshy chunks of pulled-fresh-from-the-ocean tuna are soaked in coconut milk and lime juice. It’s divine. Other culinary staples include tropical fruits, breadfruit, taro, parrot fish, and mahi mahi. And flan. Way too much flan.
I always imagined Tahiti was so far away that it was inaccessible. Not so. While it’s just 8 hours 10 minutes from Los Angeles, it’s the cost of the flight that might have you eyeballing Hawaii instead. At best, you might spend $1,300 CAD round-trip from Vancouver. At worst, $2,500+. Add a few extra Benjamin Franklins for inter-island hopper flights. Lodging will run you $100 USD per night for a threadbare shack in remote Fakarava, $250+ for a pension on Taha’a, $400+ for a hotel room on Tahiti and $800-$1,400+ for a Mo’orea overwater bungalow. Excursions are a comparative steal at $100+ for a half-day. A three-course set menu will likely run you $35-$50 USD+ at a mid-range restaurant. Most pensions/guesthouses offer half-board because again, getting around the islands isn’t exactly easy.
My overall impression
There’s nothing I love more than when a destination lives up to its reputation. Tahiti is absolutely swoon-worthy; the food and nature – outstanding! It was a shame I couldn’t enjoy it with my beloved. My only concession: I travelled to Tahiti at the invitation of Tourisme Tahiti on an itinerary that focused on pension/fare (guesthouse) accommodations. While some were awesome (here’s looking at you Fare Pea Iti), the better ones book out well in advance, leaving slim pickings for the last-minute traveller. They’re a good option for those who would not be able to otherwise afford French Polynesia, but frankly, my personal feeling is that if you’re going to venture as far, you may as well splurge; Tahiti is designed and best experienced as a luxury product.
My French Polynesia Itinerary
Have you ever been to Tahiti? Do you share my impressions?
Let me know – comment below!