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Tahiti is a place of transition, the doorway to French Polynesia for visitors taking cruises to the Marquesas Islands, or heading onward to Moorea and Bora Bora. But, if you choose to spend time on this, the largest of the archipelago’s islands, you’ll find a more nuanced French Polynesia.

Tahiti’s interior is a barely trodden Arcadia of waterfalls, fern gullies, deep valleys, grottos, mountains and wild, untrammelled jungle. Sitting slightly awkwardly alongside such natural beauty is the working port city of Papeete, a slightly raggedy mix of French bureaucratic gloss, colonial leftovers, and earthy, everyday Polynesian living.

Papeete occupies the northwest corner of Tahiti Nui (‘Large Tahiti’ — the island we call ‘Tahiti’ is actually a bivalve construct, connected to Tahiti Iti, or ‘Small Tahiti’, by an isthmus). Concrete and industrial, stacked with tower blocks and offices, and bulging from 20th-century expansion, central Papeete has a hard-nosed, mercantile edge coupled with a more ebullient side.

You’ll find markets selling everything from fruit and vegetables to pearl necklaces. There’s a waterfront lined with hibiscus, and a packed calendar of festivals. For a visceral glimpse of real-life Polynesian traditions, walk east of Papeete’s candy-pink evangelical church (founded by French missionaries) to see rows of pirogues (racing canoes) docked under the trees. At weekends, you can often watch French Polynesia’s flagship sport in action, as local teams take to the waves off Papeete to perfect their technique and build their stamina.

Tahiti is known for its elegant bars and its dining scene, thanks in no small part to its being under the culinary protectorate of France. Many restaurants and hotels offer French classics (including delightfully fluffy, buttery croissants), catering to Tahiti’s large population of bureaucrats and executives from the mainland. Even the waiters here have achieved the surly Gallic shrug.

But, you’ll find that Polynesian-influenced cuisine is alive and well, too: poisson cru (raw, marinated fish, similar to ceviche) is available everywhere. For a truly local experience, visit les roulottes (food trucks). In the evenings, they set up shop on Papeete’s quaysides and serve steak-frites, crêpes, and many Asian dishes (as well as the ubiquitous poisson cru) through their small illuminated hatches.

Outside Papeete, in Punaauia, you can go to the excellent Musée de Tahiti et des îles (Museum of Tahiti and the Isles). It’s a cross-disciplinary archive, combining ethnographic relics with displays about French Polynesia’s fauna and botany. 

You have many options for exploring Tahiti’s interior and the peaks that rise to its pronged crown, Mont Orohena. You can embark on 4x4 tours and hikes into the valleys that crease the isle, taking in sights like the multi-drop Faarumai Waterfalls. Rock-climbing is popular, but you can also go on sedate drives along the island’s coastal ring road, stopping off to admire blowholes, black-sand beaches, botanical gardens, surf breaks, and lighthouses.

Best time to visit Tahiti

June into September is traditionally the best time to go to Tahiti, as this is the driest and coolest time of year. However, it’s also the busiest. April to May, or the end of September into November can be an even better time to visit Tahiti. It’s more humid but it’s also quieter. Plus, the weather on the outlying islands, such as the Marquesas, also outshines the preceding time of year — ideal if you wish to tour more widely in French Polynesia.

Tahiti is known for its bars and its dining scene.

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Audley Travel specialist Esther

Start planning your tailor-made trip to Tahiti by calling one of our French Polynesia specialists on 01993 838 815

Suggested itineraries featuring Tahiti

Our itineraries will give you suggestions for what is possible when you travel in Tahiti, and they showcase routes we know work particularly well. Treat them as inspiration, because your trip will be created uniquely by one of our specialists.

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    Our specialists seek out authentic ways to get to know the places that could feature in your trip. These activities reflect some of the experiences they've most enjoyed while visiting Tahiti, and which use the best local guides.