We Explore Tahiti

October 29th, 2007 at 3:44 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 4 of our Pacific Journey

With trips of any length, one of the general planning rules The Traveling Richters follow is to assume that misconnections and other travel delays may occur, and thus build in extra time (usually a day or two) into our travel schedules to give us ample leeway to make corrections. However, when flights and other things go as planned, this tends to give us some time for further exploration and activities.

In Los Angeles we therefore had a chance to see the Dali exhibit by happenstance, and now in Tahiti, we had a full day to explore the island. Granted, one day might not be enough to see the entire island, but we were willing to give it a try.


It should be noted that Tahiti actually has two parts to it: Tahiti Nui (“Nui”, pronounced “New-ee”, means “great”), upon which Papeete is located on the northwestern corner, and Tahiti Iti (“Iti” is pronounced “eat-ee”, and means small). The two are joined by a few kilometer long land area, with Tahiti Iti at the lower east end of Tahiti. Tahiti Iti is less developed than Tahiti Nui, to the extent that there’s no paved road around the circumference of Tahiti Iti. The circumference of Tahiti Nui itself is approximately 120 kilometers, and that was the part we were going to try and explore.

In any event, we visited the tour desk at the hotel after a reasonable but very expensive buffet breakfast (which fortunately was included in our room package as part of the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts program under which we booked the rooms), and reviewed our options to see more of Tahiti. We didn’t want to do a large group tour on a bus with human tourist bovines, and while a helicopter tour sounded interesting, it would only last about 20 minutes. I could also not get the other Richters to go diving with me. So we opted to rent a car and do our own tour. And I booked a one tank dive the following morning for myself as well.

One of the things we noticed upon getting out of our rooms in the morning, incidentally, was the smell of something burning. As it turns out, because things grow so quickly in Tahiti due to the fertile soil and precipitation, the only way the local population has found to get rid of excess foliage after cutting it down, is to burn it. And as everything is so green (and damp), there’s very little chance of a fire spreading. The result is that there are fires going regularly most everywhere on the island, which in turn produces this burning smell wherever one goes, and in some places, even a smoky haze.

Anyhow, we ended up renting a 5-door Peugeot 107 from a local car rental agency – Tahiti Auto Center (recommended). The proprietor spoke enough English for us to be able to communicate – a good thing because my French is limited to saying hello, good-bye, ordering food, and miming a request for directions to the bathroom.

Another segue here. As one might imagine, French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is the main island, as well as the most populated, is, in fact, French. French in nationality, French in language (although a Polynesian language is prevalent too), French in custom (many people on bicycles with baguettes under their arms or across their handlebars), French in price, and French in policing (the “Gendarmerie”). This is a good thing when you speak French and are familiar with the way the French do things, but a little challenging if you do not. That said, we managed all right in most situations, and in those where communications just did not work out we smiled, said thank you and were on our way.

However, one of the things I felt as a loss at this French-ness of everything in Tahiti was that there was no true sense of the underlying Polynesian culture as it had been before the white man came in and changed it all. And no, I’m not saying that because I feel that Tahitian women should be walking around bare breasted (not that I would mind in some cases), nor because some Polynesian tribes were cannibals (just read that in a Jack London book about the South Seas), but because I think that some of the cultural innocence and freedom that existed pre-“discovery” has forever vanished, to be replaced by traffic, pollution, work schedules, commerce, and alien societal mores.

Okay – back to our story…

After picking up our cute and petite (a French word, incidentally) rental car, we headed back up north past our hotel, exchanged U.S. Dollars for the local currency, the French Polynesian Franc, abbreviated CFP or XPF. For $400 I received about 33,000 XPF in return. After buying some bottled water and snacks nearby, we stopped in at the Musee de Tahiti et des Isles (Museum of Tahiti and the Islands), which documents the history of French Polynesia in terms of cultural and geographical matters.

At the museum, where almost all the placards were written in French, of course (and not any other language – that’s another French thing to do, by the way), we learned how atolls are created by nature, what sort of tools and weapons native Polynesians made and used, how volcanic rock was put to use in tribal environs, how outrigger canoes were made and paddled, as well as what art and religion consisted of in the times prior to European domination. We also saw representations of what early interactions between European explorer/traders and Polynesians was like, but did not get a whole lot of the historical details because of the lack of English placards. And before you start implying that I am an Anglo-centric xenophobe, let me gently point out that in the latest entry we found in the guest book at the museum, a couple from Denmark also made the request for signage in English. I personally would have been content with signage in German or Dutch as well, but those would be even less likely for the French to post than English.

The Tahitian museum also featured a nice botanical display between the several outbuildings comprising the museum.

Starting the Exploration of Tahiti

After the Tahiti and Islands Museum, we finally set forth on our island exploration. The interior of Tahiti is not populated because it is so mountainous. Instead, a majority of the population lives near the main road which circles Tahiti Nui. And to designate the location of business and sites along this road, the Tahitians use a kilometer number as measured from Papeete. So, for example, the Le Meridien Hotel has an address of PK15.3, indicating it is 15.3 kilometers from Papeete, and located between the kilometer markers for 15 and 16km. And you have to know it’s on the south road, instead of the north road (which also has markers for 15 and 16km from Papeete).

Our first stop on the south-bound road was at the Grotte de Maraa (PK28,5), the first of a set of three grottos or caverns in the cliff side, draped by heavy, lush green vegetation and occasional small water falls, water features, and ponds. Alas, local officials had blocked off access to the caverns and we were not able to get closer (without violating some sort of ordinances) than about 40 feet to the openings.


By the time we had finished wandering about, it was lunch time, so we made our way south to the Restaurant/Bar of the Gauguin Museum, which was actually located one kilometer north of the museum, and not connected to it in any way we could discern. One of the attractions of this restaurant, other than the fact that it sat on the water, was that there were several large penned off areas in back, along a pier, filled with a type of jack, some surgeonfish (the largest we have ever seen), and a few pufferfish. As it turns out, these fish are fed table scraps, and respond to feedings like a blend of aquatic dog and piranha. One would not want to fall into the fish pens by accident, as the water boils from frenzied action even at the drop of the smallest French fry.

The food at the restaurant, as well as the service, was passable, and not worth the high price. While portions were large, several of our dishes were overcooked and chewy. They did serve an excellent tuna tartare, and one of the fish dishes, featuring an over-baked Mahi-Mahi, was made very edible via a delicious vanilla-based sauce. A tour group arrived by bus shortly after we placed our order, and that delayed our meal quite a bit as well. Our advice – find someplace else to eat, but do check out the fish pens.

We headed onward to the actual Gauguin Museum, which, much to our pleasant surprise, featured many placards in English, detailed the life and times of famed artist Paul Gauguin and his love affair with Polynesia. We learned that many of Gauguin’s paintings were either staged or fabricated based on real people Gauguin had sketched, but put into more “native”-like settings. That was a bit of a disappointment, as his images of Polynesia served as the bases of many a fantasy about life in the tropics. One thing, however, that Gauguin lamented about in his correspondence with associates in Europe was the very same thing I touched upon earlier in this post, namely a concern that Polynesia’s culture and way of life would be irreversibly changed for the worse as a result of French (and European) influence. His idyllic paintings were an effort to preserve some of that culture.

The Gauguin Museum, while being rather informative, was sadly shabby and run-down, mostly because it was open to wind and reflected sunlight, and all the reproductions of Gauguin’s works had faded and in some cases browned, losing the colors one can see in the originals. If a visitor did not know what the originals looked like (fortunately there were reasonable reproductions in the gift shop at the museum), the faded images would give them serious pause about the quality of Gauguin’s works.

Tahiti Botanical Garden

Once we finished our visit, we went across the parking lot to the Tahiti Botanical Garden, primarily to see the Galapagos Tortoises we had read were there. However, the tortoises were a bit of a let down, or more accurately, the muddy conditions the Botanical Garden staff had them living in were. As far as we know, Galapagos Tortoises are more used to drier climates, and to us the pair of tortoises just seemed miserable.

Having paid our 1500 XPF (US$17.50) admission however, we decided to check out the rest of the Botanical Garden, and were happy we did. The vegetation was lush and huge, with a blend of dry and wet lands. There were also few other visitors. The only odd thing we noticed (other than a bit of disrepair in the man-made walkways) was a dearth of birds and insects. We would have assumed that tropical plants and wetlands would have attracted both, but instead, the only living things we encountered were plants.

By the time we concluded our visit at the Botanical Garden, it was close to 5pm. We continued our drive south, around Tahiti Nui, ending up on the north road as we passed the road to Tahiti Iti. We intended to stop at the Arahoho Blowhole, but managed to miss it as a result of road construction and a resulting lack of parking and signage.

We also discovered where people go to surf on Tahiti (which we’ve been told is the home of wave surfing, not Hawaii as people might think) – namely around PK15 on the north part of Tahiti Nui. Dozens upon dozens of surfers were out in the water enjoying the large waves.


We had originally intended to visit Papeete and check out the shopping, but by the time we finally made our way through the city, everything was closed, traffic was horrific, and the general ambiance uninviting. Papeete was gray and dingy – a stark contrast to the green beauty of other parts of the island. We were glad in retrospect to not have wasted our time by starting our day in Papeete.

Winding Down

We got back to the hotel a bit after 6pm, and Linda, Bas, and I headed down to check out the cool-looking pool at the Le Meridien. From the photos you can see in our gallery (see link below), it appears the pool has a sand beach around it, and in fact it does. And, in fact, the sand is actually spread throughout the pool too. It’s effectively a fresh water (chlorinated) sandy beach area, and the water was comfortable, even for thin blooded islanders like ourselves.

After a proper soak we got Bas back to the room, ordered him and Krystyana room service, and then had a date night at Le Carre, the in-hotel “restaurant gourmetique” (as our driver, Center Lily, had referred to it the prior evening when she delivered us from the airport). We had the eight-course Chef’s tasting menu, which was interesting and tasty, but lacked inspiration. There were also no suggested wine pairings, so we had to come up with our own – a thing that surprised us at a French restaurant. The desserts were excellent, as one would expect as part of a French dining experience, however.

We came back to our rooms to find a rather severe squabble had ensued among our offspring. No need to go into details, other than to say that no blood was shed, and no bones were broken. Fences were mended by the following day.


We all decided at the end of our day in Tahiti that the island was far too busy and congested for us. The traffic was non-stop (probably because there was only one main road), and while the island was not remotely dirty compared to other tropical islands we’ve visited (although Bonaire, where we live is a true gem of cleanliness), the perpetual odor of burning plants was off-putting, ruining the natural beauty and ambiance that one would expect from some place as lush as Tahiti. And our brief driving tour of Papeete left us underwhelmed – it was dirty and sullied, and yes, clogged up with automobile traffic. It was good to have visited Tahiti to see what it was like, but we would be hard pressed to come back again other than in transit to some other more desirable location.


Photos of Day 4 of our Pacific Journey can be found here.


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One Response to “We Explore Tahiti”

  1. Mercy Says:

    I wish you guys had gone snorkeling….have always wanted to know what that is like there. How the waters are. Maybe we’ll hear a bit about it when you go diving?? The rest seems a bit disappointing. Pics were beautiful.