No matter what hour of the night they arrive in Papeete’s airport, passengers are welcomed by smiling girls in colorful sarongs who drape necklaces of fresh flowers around visitors’ necks in welcome.
Fragrant tropical blossoms are a good introduction to the island group officially known as the Society Islands. Tahiti and its neighboring islands are more commonly referred to simply as Tahiti. And the name has become a synonym for paradise.
Tahiti itself is the largest island, with 60% of the population. Actually two islands connected by a narrow isthmus, Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti are surprisingly different in appearance.
Tahiti Iti, much smaller than the main island (Tahiti Nui) and lacks the expected volcanic cone in its center. A drive up to its spectacular central viewpoint reveals a pastoral landscape of meadows and forests that could be England, complete with cows munching the tall grass. The far end of Tahiti Iti rises to cliffs so steep and jagged that no road extends around it.
Tahiti Nui, looks more like everyone pictures a South Pacific island, its center rising to steep volcanoes. While a trip around the shore gives views of these at every turn, the highlight of our stay in Tahiti was a safari by 4-wheel-drive vehicle up into their midst.
Most of the island’s attractions are along the coastal road that circles the island. Signage is poor, so a copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook is a good traveling companion. Highlights, along with a jeep trip into the interior, are the Musee de Tahiti et des Iles, the Faarumai Waterfall and the ancient marae – stone sites that were used as places of worship. We found the museum outstanding, even though it is not huge it is filled with cultural, historical and natural exhibits and artifacts that give an excellent background for understanding the islands.
Unless shopping is their main interest, most visitors find little of interest in Papeete itself. The market is a good place to buy souvenirs and the famed Tahitian vanilla beans.
Renting a car to tour the rest of the island is easy, although cars should be reserved in advance. Surprisingly, Tahiti is not ringed in beaches – these are on the motus, tiny sandy islands that lie along the ancient volcanic rim that circles Tahiti’s lagoon. The few natural beaches are not the idyllic white sands, and are very crowded.
In fact, tourist facilities outside the resorts are quite limited. While there are some nice little private home guest houses, experiences with these are mixed. Despite their advertising, they are not allowed to meet guests at the airport (only taxis and registered shuttle services can do this), and most of them are quite some distance from town, requiring long, expensive taxi rides.
And although they advertise as B&Bs, many do not serve breakfast, so again, a long trip to the nearest restaurant is necessary at mealtimes. Staying in one of these really requires having a car.
Luckily for the luxury traveler, the island is ringed by beautiful resorts, which have created their own beaches, have water sports equipment, and either have shuttles or are on public bus lines.
For the best views of Morea – which was Michener’s inspiration for Bali Hai – as well as a good location on a bus line and not too far from the airport in Papeete, we liked the Intercontinental Resort Tahiti. Ask for a room in the upper level for the best views. The décor is based in local folklore, using Polynesian designs in the wood-carving and stone work, and the public areas are spacious and attractive. Rooms are large, and guests are welcomed with wreaths of fresh, fragrant tropical flowers decorating their beds.
Closer to town and also with nice views and a similar level of comfort, is the Sheraton Hotel Tahiti.
Be aware that breakfast prices are outrageous in most resorts (about $30 flat rate is the minimum for coffee, juice and a roll), so stop at a bakery or grocery store for provisions the night before unless your hotel is close to town. (One of the luxuries brought by the French was the appreciation for good baked goods, so flaky croissants and crisp baguettes are commonplace in bakeries.)
The same goes for drinks. A bottle of rum and delicious fruit juices are quite cheap on the islands, and most of the travelers we met enjoyed mixing their own and drinking them on their balconies overlooking the sea.
We never said paradise was cheap, but there are ways to economize without giving up the luxuries.
Air tahiti Nui flies directly to Papete from New York and the west coast; watch for occasional specials that cut this flight to the price of a ticket to Europe.