The Best Festival You’ve Never Heard Of: The Heiva In Tahiti

July 7, 2017

 

Every year during the month of July, one of the longest-running festivals in the world kicks off in one of the world’s most stunning destinations. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it, but the Heiva Festival in French Polynesia is a huge deal, in a sleepy island group that rarely stresses over anything. Celebrating the exotic culture of the ancient Polynesians, the Heiva is a month-long colorful celebration that transports spectators to a parallel universe. But this is no ordinary festival, the Heiva has become the symbol of the Polynesian culture and an iconic event for a people proud of their heritage. Let’s see what all the fuss is about and get to know the ins and outs of the Heiva in Tahiti!

What is the Heiva?

Heiva Tahiti - Shigeo_Kobayashi - Exotic women

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Shigeo Kobayashi

Heiva comes from the Tahitian words hei and va, which mean “to assemble” and “community places”. It is a time of celebration, a national get together in a festival which showcases the very best of the Polynesian culture – by far the most exotic I have come across throughout my extensive visit to the South Pacific Islands. It is a month-long celebration of life in paradise, a time to respect the past, and a time to share with the rest of the world the rich Polynesian heritage. And why not add a bit of competition to the flavor?

The Heiva is also a competitive festival, bringing together thousands of singers, artists, dancers, and athletes from all five archipelagos and the 65 inhabited islands of the French Territory who compete as individuals and teams for the ultimate bragging rights. As you might already guess, the festival is a really “big deal”, in a slice of paradise that rarely has any reason to stress.

 

Where does the Heiva take place?

The Heiva is a month-long period of festivities held throughout the five archipelagos of French Polynesia. On every island, there will be celebrations showcasing the culture. However, the official “main” Heiva festival – known as the Heiva i Tahiti – takes place on the main island of Tahiti. The capital city – Papeete – hosts the main song and dance competitions every evening in the “Fare Tahiti Nui” by the cultural center in Place Toata. This is “the main event” and what makes the competitive festival so well known.

Heiva Tahiti - Florian Charreard - women

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Florian Charreard

In parallel, several sites on the island – such as ancient temple complexes – also play hosts to smaller events showcasing the traditional Polynesian culture, as the entire island of Tahiti is enlisted for the festivities. These smaller events are more for “show” and are geared towards spectators.

Heiva-Tahiti-Grégoire-Le-Bacon-O-Tahiti-e-Marae

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Grégoire Le Bacon

Lastly, the Heiva i Tahiti also includes a sports competition which usually takes place in Pointe Venus, the Paofai Gardens in Papeete, and within the grounds of the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands in Punaauia. The canoe races usually take place in the south of the island and in Pira’e.

Heiva-Tahiti-Tatiana-Salmon-Canoe-Race

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Tatiana Salmon

When is the Heiva?

The Heiva has no set dates but usually runs for about two weeks, starting sometime in the first week of July with smaller pre-festival events already commencing at the end of June. Final schedules are usually released to the public by the Maison de la Culture de Tahiti around April-May (follow their Facebook Page for updates and awesome video footage). So if you want to plan your visit to coincide with the Heiva but do not wish to book a last minute trip to French Polynesia (I can certainly understand), aim to be in Tahiti during the first half of July. It’s worth mentioning that Bora Bora’s version of the Heiva – Heiva i Bora Bora – begins slightly sooner in the month of June.

Heiva Tahiti - Cori_Osborne - women dancing in sand

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Cori Osborne

Origins of the Heiva

The Heiva is no ordinary festival, but to fully comprehend its importance in modern Tahitian society, we must take a trip back in time.

When the first Europeans set foot on the Islands of Tahiti, beginning in 1767, their oral and written accounts describe a carefree and sexually-expressive society where emotions were freely (and quickly) expressed and where song, dance, and music played a key part in everyday life. Dancing to the Polynesians – Ori Tahiti – can be equated to an Englishman grabbing pints with the lads – it’s just a part of the culture!

Tahitian ukulele music in Papeete Market Tahiti French Polynesia

With the arrival of the first European explorers (the British were first), adventurers, scientists, and whalers soon followed. With them, came the missionaries – Protestants at first – who were not too happy with the all these erotic dances, lack of clothing, belief in gods, and the list goes on. Moreover, the missionaries arrived at a time when local society was in turmoil due to diseases “imported” by the new “guests” along with the introduction of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms.

Calvaire Cemetery Hiva Oa Marquesas Islands French Polynesia

Through a “deal” struck with King Pomare II of Tahiti in the early 19th century, missionaries were able to gain extraordinary levels of influence. They harnessed this power for good acts such as curbing alcoholism, introducing literacy and banning cannibalism, but they also forbid the old religion, encouraged the destruction of stone temples and erased the very same art forms that were the pillars of the old society such as dance, costume-making, and tattooing. It was church time for Tahitians!

Things started to change when Tahiti was annexed by France in 1881. In an effort to further erase any Protestant influence (the French were Catholic), the French permitted Tahitians to celebrate their culture through song, dance and sporting competitions but only during one day of the year – the July 14 Bastille Day (the de facto French independence day celebration), so that there wouldn’t be any mistake with regards to who needs to be thanked for this “act of generosity”. Voila, the Tiurai festival was born, the early version of the Heiva!

Fast forward to 1977. Tahitians in French Polynesia now have a greater level of autonomy and it is decided to fully revive the festivities of old (autre fois). In 1985, the Heiva as we now know it is born, replacing the Tiurai festival and officially symbolizing the comeback of traditional Polynesian culture!

Heiva-Tahiti-Grégoire-Le-Bacon-O-Tahiti-e-women-in-marae

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Grégoire Le Bacon

What to see?

As you would expect from a festival lasting for a few weeks, there’s lots to see during the Heiva festival. I’ll list here the main attractions of the Heiva i Tahiti, but keep in mind that all islands will have some form of celebrations and the more visited the island is, the bigger the show that it will put on!

Ceremonial Performances

The ceremonial performances are not part of the official competition but are nonetheless a rare opportunity to peer into the mysterious past and feel what early Tahitian life may have looked like. Think of it as a grand show, complete with costumes, chants and close ties with the way things may have been done in the past when these magical islands were isolated from the outside world.

Marking the official start of the Heiva, the fire walking ceremony is a much-anticipated event. Think of it as the lighting of the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies of the summer games. In this case, an umu (earth oven) is prepared with rocks from the Papenoo Valley (salty rocks from the beach will crack under the pressure of heat) and other local ingredients. As evening falls, mesmerized spectators gather to watch as brave volunteers follow the Heiva’s “Great Priest” on the super-heated rocks! Since Polynesians walk barefoot from an early age, the bottom of their feet are stone-like, however, this is impressive on a whole other level!

Tiki Village Moorea fire show licking fire

Over at the ancient temple complex of Marae Arahurahu in the town of Paea, carefully chosen groups perform religious and social ceremonies in the most well-preserved temple (marae) in Tahiti. Not much is known about the ancient ways since legend and history were orally passed and then erased for decades by the missionaries. So this is a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of how things may have looked like in ancient times, a meticulously researched and rehearsed spectacle that takes place several times during the Heiva.

Marae in Tahiti French Polynesia

Heiva-Tahiti-Grégoire-Le-Bacon-O-Tahiti-e-Marae-ceremony

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Grégoire Le Bacon

Artists Festival

French Polynesia is well known throughout the Pacific for its exquisite artwork, especially artists from the remote archipelago of the Marquesas Islands. Prior to and during the Heiva, artists from all five archipelagos descend on Papeete and display their work of art, with each archipelago having its own area of expertise. This is a unique opportunity to not only see but also to interact with the artists and to purchase authentic souvenirs that are 100% Made in Fenua (Fenua literally means “the land” and is the local affectionate name for the islands).

Tahuata Day Trip Hiva Oa Marquesas Islands French Polynesia Hapatoni village artist

The Dance & Song Competition

This is the absolute main event of the Heiva, with a dozen or more teams in each category who qualified for the main competition – a series of evening shows comprised of several song and dance “heats”. Competitors practice for as long as six months in preparation for the Heiva, with the same auditions and cuts you would expect from a professional New York dance group. If you visit the islands in the months leading up to the festival, it isn’t uncommon to see teams rehearsing in soccer fields and by the beach. Performing in the Heiva is a H-U-G-E deal for locals!

 

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Tatiana Salmon

Heiva Tahiti - Florian Charreard - man and woman 2

Image via Tahiti Tourisme by: Florian Charreard

Teams must perform original dances whose music and choreography highlight a traditional theme usually revolving some kind of ancestral story, legend or myth. But that’s not all, the elaborate outfits and costumes used must not only win the hearts of judges and spectators but also be handcrafted from materials indigenous to the islands. Lastly, it’s no surprise that playback is not really “kosher” in this festival. Oh no. Each number is accompanied by a live orchestra made up of up to fifty musicians! And no electric guitars are to be found here as well, just island instruments such as ukuleles and thunderous drums.

Heiva-Tahiti-T.-Mc-Kenna-drums

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: T. McKenna

The Sports Competition

Aside from the singing and dancing, the Heiva is also a show of strength. Think of it as the “Polynesian Olympics”, where the gold-medal winner is crowned “Mr. Tahiti”. I actually went on a guided tour of the Papenoo Valley in Tahiti with a former two-time Heiva winner and I must tell you – this guy sure was strong even when pushing 50!

Papenoo valley tahiti lunch

Competitions are obviously kept true with tradition, with events held in “normal” sports such as outrigger canoe racing (va’a) and javelin throwing, but also in fields that were probably popular back in the days before any Polynesian knew about the existence of soccer. These include the likes of heavy stone lifting, fruit-carrying, and “coconutting” (climbing, picking, cracking, and scraping).

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Thierry Zysman

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Thierry Zysman

Heiva Tahiti - Tahiti Tourisme Raymond Sahuquet - Canoe Race

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Raymond Sahuquet

Heiva Tahiti - Florian Charreard - Speer competition

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Florian Charreard

Heiva Tahiti - Tatiana Salmon - stone lifting

Image via GIE Tahiti Tourisme by: Tatiana Salmon

Getting Tickets to the Heiva

Tickets to the Heiva go on sale a few months prior to the start of the July festival, usually around April-May. The best way to secure your tickets is in-person or online via the Maison de la Culture de Tahiti. Adult tickets start at around $30 per evening show but they do sell out fast. If you’re visiting French Polynesia, consider planning your trip with a destination expert, who can help in securing tickets for the exotic festival.

Where to Stay?

Since most of the action takes place in the capital city – Papeete, it is best to stay in the city or not too far away. Usually, visitors tend to stay in Tahiti’s waterfront resorts which are either north or south of the city. These tend to be more luxurious and quiet than the hotels within Papeete which is a noisy place that I personally love for its dilapidated-yet-charming colonial vibe by the waterfront. If you plan on visiting Tahiti during the Heiva, book as far in advance as possible!

Resorts

The best such resort is the InterContinental Tahiti Resort which is not too far from the airport in Fa’a. The resort might offer free shuttles to and from Papeete during the Heiva, but in any case, a taxi should set you back 2,500-4,000F (approx €20-35). Other solid options include the Pearl Beach Resort by Pointe Venus (canoe race venue) and Le Meridien in Punaauia (close to a sports competition venue).  

overwater bungalows deck at le tahaa luxury resort french polynesia

Hotels

Within Papeete, I recommend staying at either the Sarah Nui Hotel or the Tahiti Nui Hotel. The former is a 3-star hotel that is approx. a 20-minute pleasant walk from Place Toata (evening song and dance venue), while the latter is the best “business hotel” that is slightly closer to the center of town and the Papeete market.

Budget

Budget travelers and even backpackers will actually find a lot of good options in Tahiti, primarily in Papeete. The name of the game is to book in advance. I personally LOVED Fare Rea Rea and stayed here three times! Owner Luc and his lovely wife have created a secluded haven for backpackers and budget travelers. Choose from either shared or private rooms and enjoy air conditioning, a swimming pool, communal kitchen and a lot of love from the hosts!

What’s Next?

Do you want to experience the magic of the Heiva and the Islands of Tahiti? Get in touch and let’s plan your once-in-a-lifetime trip to paradise! And here’s a little secret… you don’t have to win the lottery.

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