Tahiti. The word evokes visions of an island paradise. There are a total of 118 islands and atolls that comprise this South Pacific country. Below you will find a description of the most popular destinations.
Tahiti, known as “The Queen of the Pacific,” is the largest and most populated island, and is the starting point for all international travelers. International flights land at Faa’a Airport in the capital city of Papeete. Upon arrival, visitors receive a typical Tahitian display of hospitality – a friendly welcome with fragrant Tiare flowers and Tahitian music. Tahiti is a figure-eight shaped island divided into a larger part, known as Tahiti Nui (“Big Tahiti”) and a smaller peninsula called Tahiti Iti (‘Little Tahiti”). With lush green peaks reaching more than 7,300 feet, its scenery is dramatic. Cascading waterfalls and rippling pools in the jungle-like interior provide a striking contrast to the black- and white-sand beaches and turquoise lagoons of the island’s perimeter. A circle island tour (about 70 miles) is a great way to get acquainted with the island. Highlights include the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, the Paul Gauguin Museum, the Harrison W. Smith Botanical Gardens, and the Marae Arahurahu (an ancient Tahitian outdoor temple). In the center of town, Le Marché, the municipal market, is not to be missed. The first floor of this indoor market has an abundant supply of tropical fruits and vegetables and fresh fish from the lagoon. The second floor is dedicated to Tahitian art and crafts, and boasts the largest selection of colorful pareus (sarongs) anywhere.
Moorea, “The Magical Island,” is said to be the inspiration for James Michener’s mythical island of Bali Hai, and has been the location for many motion pictures, including Mutiny on the Bounty and Love Affair. It is just 11 miles across the Sea of the Moon from Tahiti, but seems a world away. To fully appreciate the dramatic appearance of this heart-shaped island, drive to Belvedere Lookout, which affords breathtaking views of Moorea’s twin bays, Cook’s and Opunohu. Moorea makes for a wonderful day trip for Tahiti visitors – it’s just a 30-minute catamaran ride from Tahiti to the dock in Moorea. For many visitors, a couple of days exploring Moorea’s treasures and meeting some of its 15,000 residents pass too quickly. Moorea has bountiful harvests of pineapples, which can be seen growing on its slopes. One popular activity is to tour a local distillery and sample exotic liqueurs from pineapple, mango, coconut, vanilla and other Tahitian staples.
Huahine, nicknamed the “Garden of Eden,” is located 110 miles northwest of Tahiti and is just a short plane ride away on Air Tahiti, Tahiti’s inter-island carrier. Actually consisting of two islands joined by a bridge, the magic of Huahine can be felt instantly upon arrival, and the proud locals do their best to make all visitors feel welcome. (The main town is Maeva – which means welcome in Tahitian!) A 20-mile road winds through the island, passing through small villages and climbing high into the hills for spectacular views of the white-sand beaches and brilliant turquoise lagoons. Restored Tahitian marae (temples) and centuries-old stone fish traps reflect the island’s ancient culture and proud descendants who still reside in this magnificent paradise. Huahine is an agricultural island, rich with watermelons and cantaloupes. Vanilla, coffee and taro plantations are plentiful, as are groves of breadfruit, mango, banana, papaya and flowers. International surfing champions seek the world-class waves at Avamoa Pass, and the world’s largest outrigger canoe race, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a, begins here each October. Huahine is sparsely populated, and visitors will fall in love with the private, unspoiled scenery and relaxed pace of this island.
Raiatea and Taha’a, about 120 miles northwest of Tahiti, are two islands that are encircled by the same barrier reef. Raiatea, called “The Sacred Island,” may be the most revered island in all the South Pacific. Historically, kings from the neighboring islands would gather at Marae Taputapuatea for important ceremonies and negotiations. Re-enactments of these ceremonies on the restored marae help visitors discover the Tahitian culture. Raiatea has the only navigable river in the islands, the Fa’aroa, and popular excursions include exploring its cool, green waters in an outrigger canoe. Yachting and sailing enthusiasts gather in Raiatea, Tahiti’s nautical base and home to such charter companies as the Moorings and Stardust Marine. Experienced sailors and novices alike (captains can be provided) can experience world-class sailing in the Leeward Islands. The Pacific breezes and calm lagoons provide ideal conditions year-round for sailing and deep-sea fishing. On the slopes of Mt. Temehani, visitors can discover the Tiare Apetahi, a rare flower that is found only on this particular mountain in Raiatea. Botanists have unsuccessfully tried to grow it elsewhere. Legend says that there was once a lovely Tahitian girl who fell in love with the son of a Tahitian king. She died of a broken heart, because she could never marry him. The five delicate petals of the flower represent her hand. Those who climb the mountain early in the morning will see the Tiare Apetahi open at dawn, with a slight crackling sound – the sound of her heart breaking.
Taha’a, just two miles north of Raiatea, offers a glimpse of the traditional, tranquil life of Tahitians. The 4,000 residents fish from the lagoon and raise livestock. Taha’a is called “The Vanilla Island” for its many plantations of this sought-after spice, which sweetens the island air with its rich aroma. Each November, Taha’a comes alive with a Stone Fishing tournament. In the method of their ancestors, the villagers wade into the lagoon, beating the water with stones tied to ropes. The frenzy frightens the schools of fish, driving them ashore, where they are easily collected for a feast.
Bora Bora, “The Romantic Island,” is often called the most beautiful island in the world. This tiny island – just 18 miles in circumference – is encircled by a protective necklace of coral. Lush mountains provide a dramatic backdrop for the indescribable turquoise, lapis and aquamarine of the sheltered lagoon. Arriving by air is a unique experience, landing on the airstrip that was built by U.S. troops during World War II. The runway is on a motu (small islet), and visitors must travel by boat to reach the main island. It’s no surprise that most of the island’s activities center around the spectacular lagoon. The popular shark-feeding excursion puts visitors in the water and within safe view of reef sharks as they’re being fed by guides. Additionally, visitors can enjoy the Lagoonarium, a marine exhibit in the lagoon where the adventurous can swim with sting rays, huge sea turtles and reef sharks. For a half-day journey of exploration, nothing beats a Jeep tour through the interior of this wondrous island. Bora Bora is home to world-class resorts and quaint French-inspired restaurants, and is known for its jet-setting celebrity visitors who relax anonymously on its secluded beaches.
The Tuamotu Atolls: Tahiti’s Strand of Pearls The Tuamotu atolls, the largest of the Polynesian archipelagos, are located northeast of Tahiti and include 76 islands and atolls spread over more than 7500 square miles. Four of these atolls – Rangiroa, Manihi, Tikehau, Fakarava – offer a host of lodging options and exciting activities, including world-class scuba diving, horseback riding, shark feeding and deep-sea fishing.
Rangiroa, a one-hour flight from Tahiti, is the world’s second largest atoll. From the air it appears as a large pearl necklace gently placed on the water. Known as “The Infinite Lagoon,” Rangiroa’s coral ring creates a seemingly endless display of deep turquoise and lapis blue. Because there’s no island runoff, the visibility in the lagoon is over 150 feet and the temperature a constant 80 degrees. The famous Tiputa Pass, which provides an opening to the ocean, is rich with sea life. It’s known as one of the world’s greatest shark dives, and those who “shoot the pass” find themselves in the deep blue with literally scores of gray, black-tip, white-tip, lemon and nurse sharks. Non-divers can try some world-class snorkeling and see schools of dolphins that gather in the pass. For the true adventurer, a two-hour boat ride across the lagoon leads to the Kia Ora Sauvage, a luxurious way to “rough it.” There’s no electricity at this remote property, but it offers spectacular scenery and complete solitude. Torchlit nights add to its exotic and romantic appeal.
Manihi is a small atoll with less than 1,000 residents. Called “The Pearl Island,” this atoll was the site of the first pearl farm that helped pave the way for pearl faming throughout the Tuamotu atolls. The black-lipped oysters, found only in Tahiti, are cultivated for their prized black pearls. Visitors can enjoy lagoon activities while exploring the many black pearl farms for which the island is known.
Located about 10 miles from Rangiroa is the secluded island of Tikehau. Known as “The Pink Sand Island,” this oval-shaped atoll is an important supplier of fresh fish and copra. Tikehau boasts exotic pink sand beaches and an abundance of sea life that make it a must for scuba divers. In Tuheiava pass, diving enthusiasts can closely observe manta rays, barracuda, tuna, sea turtles, and gray and white-tipped sharks. This diverse island is also home to a number of bird colonies that have sought refuge on the aptly named “Isle of Birds” motu. This protected islet is well-known for its red-footed gannets and brown noddies.
Fakarava, “The Dream Island,” is the second largest atoll in Tahiti after Rangiroa. This protected atoll, along with its six neighboring islands, is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The delicate ecosystem supports especially rare flora and fauna, including the hunting kingfisher, the Tuamotu palm, and sea life such as squills and sea cicadas. Fakarava also contains one of the first Catholic churches constructed in Tahiti. Located in the ancient village of Tetamanu, this structure is built primarily of coral and dates back to 1862.
The Marquesas Islands, known as "The Mysterious Islands" are located about 930 miles northeast of Tahiti. About a 3.5-hour flight from the capital city of Papeete. The 12 islands (six inhabited, six unpopulated) offer some of Tahiti’s most dramatic scenery and authentic experiences. These islands have no lagoons and feature dense jungles with 1,100-foot-high waterfalls and sheer cliffs. There are only five flights a week from Papeete to the Marquesas. Some visitors opt to arrive via the Aranui 3, a working cargo/copra ship that accommodates 200 passengers. The Marquesas is where Herman Melville jumped ship, and where Paul Gauguin came to paint and retire. The most populated islands, Nuku Hiva and Hiva Oa, offer lodging in small hotels and pensions.