Tahiti West & South Coasts
After Papeete, Tahiti’s west coast is the busiest. The hills are somehow home to expensive neighborhoods, and the coast is dotted with resorts, beaches but also with ancient temples. The south coast is much more relaxed, with lots of natural sites and sleepy villages that seem a world away from the big city.
Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands
The national museum of French Polynesia is located in the affluent suburb of Punaauia on the west coast of the island and it holds exquisite artifacts from all five archipelagoes. Unfortunately, the museum has been closed for a couple of years, pending renovation. However, there are always some exhibitions open to the public so it’s worth checking their website and stopping by if you’re interested in the history of the islands and its people.
Route de Monoi
Monoi is the heavenly scented coconut oil used by Polynesians as a fragrance and as after-sun care. The west coast is dotted with perfumeries that are officially licensed to sell monoi oil under strict standards. You can visit these factory shops along what’s known as the Route de Monoi and learn about this unique local product.
Plage Vaiava – PK 18
Along with Plage de Taharuu, this is the prettiest beach in Tahiti Nui. It’s tough to find parking during weekends and holidays, but it’s well worth the effort. You’ll find here a long stretch of grayish-white sand, a tiny bit of shade, a few topless sunbathers and surprisingly decent snorkeling considering we’re on the big island.
Marae Maraetaata à Paea
Down the road from PK 18 beach and very easy to miss. Take a left and head inland for a few hundred meters until you reach the parking lot. Marae are open-air Polynesian sanctuaries dating back to pre-Christian times. They were used for religious ceremonies, social gatherings, and religious activity. This particular complex is home to three temples, hardly visited by tourists. There’s a good chance you’ll be the only one here.
One of the best-preserved marae in Tahiti, it is here you can finally see a tiki statue, though the original is housed in the Gauguin Museum. What’s makes this marae extra special, is the ahu – the altar that stands high at the very edge of the rectangular temple.
Located on the mountainside of the coastal road. With water trickling down the moss-covered mountain and its two crystal clear cave pools, the Grottes de Maraa make a worthwhile quick stop. It’s a shame you can no longer swim in the pools (at least at the time of writing this guide). Visitors to Samoa will find this place similar to the lovely Piula Cave Pool.
Papara Beach – Plage de Taharuu
Tahiti is known for its black sand beaches and this is the one! Papara beach is long and its black sand fiery hot during the day. There’s plenty of parking and even a small snack if you’re hungry. Along with Plage Vaiava, it’s undoubtedly one of the best beaches in Tahiti.
Bain de Vaima & Vaipahi Gardens
I couldn’t believe this place was free to enter! Roam around the beautiful tropical gardens, so well maintained and feeling like a world away from the big city. There’s even a natural waterfall smack in the middle!
If you’re up for a hike, you have three options here: the great loop 5K ~ 2 hrs, the small loop 2.7K ~ 1 hr or the river trail 2K ~ 45 mins. I chose the small loop, which first ascended to a forest of tall pine trees. You then reach a small clearing, with fine panoramic views of the lagoon and Tahiti Iti in the distance. You then begin to descend back down to the river via a thick mape tree forest. This was my first chance to see this magnificent tree, also known as the Tahitian Chestnut Tree. Its roots are straight out of a fairytale, and you’ll find this tree throughout the tropical rainforests of French Polynesia.
Logistics: if you’ll be hiking here, bring with you: water, hat, shoes (sandals OK) and change of clothes. The gardens have a gift shop, toilets, and even a shower!
Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens
The final stop before crossing over to Tahiti Iti, the Jardins Botaniques are another great place to unwind after a bit of driving. A very well worth 600F will get you in, and you’ll likely start off by visiting the two resident Galapagos turtles (if they’re still around by the time you visit). The female is said to be 185 years old, while the male – Charlie – is about 210!
UPDATES: as of 2017, you can no longer touch, feed or hug the turtles. In January 2018, stray dogs entered the turtles’ enclosure, seriously wounding the two and eventually leading to the death of the male turtle.
You can then walk along the paths which snake their way around the large perimeter. First up is the beautiful mape forest. You’ll probably feel like you’re in one of the Harry Potter movies, and the fact that you might be all alone here will further add to that. The forest is also dotted with a few wild lotuses and giant bamboo.
The section closer to the beach is scattered with a few lily ponds that wouldn’t shame the Claude Monet Garden in France, and hundreds of wild palm trees – which I personally can’t get enough of!
Tahiti East Coast
The east coast is the wildest and least populated part of Tahiti Nui. The coastal road is squeezed by the giant mountains on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. It resembles in part the legendary Pacific Coast Highway of California, and looks like one giant nightmare for road engineers to construct (and maintain with all the fallen rocks). For the most part, there is no protective reef out here, making any beach off the side of the road a perfect spot for some after-work surfing.
What do the French do when there’s a beautiful panoramic view on the top of a mountain? They construct a restaurant, of course. At the end of a road which snakes its way through a thick pine forest, you’ll find the Belvedere Restaurant (they even do pickups from Papeete). Aside from the restaurant, you can enjoy the breathtaking (and free) panoramic views of Papeete, Moorea Island and the lush volcanic peaks that Tahiti is famous for. The Belvedere is also the starting point for the challenging Mount Aorai hike (see ‘hiking in Tahiti’).
Logistics: it takes about 30 minutes to reach the Belvedere from Papeete and you can theoretically walk up there from the city. The mountain road is very popular with local residents on their morning hikes and cyclists practicing for the tropical version of the Tour de France – so drive with extra care!
James Norman Hall Museum
Located just outside Papeete in the district of Arue, the museum is the actual former home of American novelist James Norman Hall who, best known for publishing the Bounty trilogy together with Charles Nordhoff. The museum is open every day except Sunday, Monday and holiday (8am-4pm), entrance costs 800 XPF for adults and 400 XPF for children.
Pointe Venus & Matavai Bay
Matavai Bay was the scene of many key events in Tahiti’s history. It is here that Tahitians and Europeans first met in the 18th century, where Captain James Cook set up an observatory to track the movement of Venus across the sky, where missionaries first landed and where the infamous mutineers from the Bounty landed after parting ways with Captain Bligh.
The first point of interest as you park the car is the lighthouse. Completed in 1867, it makes for a popular spot for local playing petanque and for various souvenir stalls selling pareo.
Past the lighthouse, there’s a walking path towards the beach. Along the way are memorials to Captain Cook’s mission and to the missionaries.
If you couldn’t make it to Papara Beach on the south coast, you have a chance to see a black sand beach over here. The beach is very popular with locals and children getting their first surf lessons – kind of a must for anyone living in Tahiti!
Hitimahana Beach & Papenoo
Two popular surf spots for experienced surfers. Perfect waves break really close to shore and at about 4 pm, locals start heading here after work for some pre-dinner exercise. Papenoo is also the starting point for the highly recommend Papenoo Valley 4X4 inland route (see ‘excursions in Tahiti’).
Just after the tunnel on the ocean side of the road, park the car in the small carpark and walk a few meters towards the water. You’ll already hear the whistle of the water moving underground in the lava tube. As you reach the fence, wait a few minutes for the gush of water bursting right in front of you. The degree of impressiveness will obviously vary with the tide and the swell. If you’ve been to the Alofaaga Blowholes in Samoa’s Savaii island, this will likely look like child’s play.
The Three Waterfalls
You can’t visit Tahiti without seeing a few huge waterfalls! Known locally as les trois cascades or Faarumai Waterfalls, to get to three waterfalls – turn right (towards the mountains) just meters after the Arahoho Blowhole. After passing the bridge and the tiny village, park the car and walk to the first waterfall. You should be able to walk all the way to its base, but when I visited – the whole place was destroyed after a major storm (UPDATE: the “Three Waterfalls” were officially reopened in September 2017). There should be a path that takes you along the river to the second and third waterfalls – assuming this place has been restored. More majestic waterfalls can be seen in the Papenoo Valley 4X4 excursion (see ‘excursions in Tahiti’).
The small sister of Tahiti Nui, this end of Tahiti offer visitors a more authentic Polynesian feel – away from the crowds and in touch with nature. With a rugged southern coast, it is not possible to circle Tahiti Iti by car. Roads will take you to parts of the south and north coasts before meeting the open ocean.
It’s a large town with a strategic position right at the seam of Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti – but there is little to do here for tourists other than to get gas, buy some food and groceries.
Plateau de Taravao
Head up the road to the well-maintained lookout point. It’s tricky to find and I asked for directions a few times, but you once you start feeling the car working hard – you’ll know you took the right turn. At first, the narrow road passes fields of grazing cows, before entering a pine forest that eventually emerges to the lookout point. From here, enjoy the views down to Taravao and Tahiti Nui. If the mountains are free from clouds (and they hardly ever are in the afternoon), you’ll never forget the view from up here! This is a good picnic spot.
Pueu & Tautira
Small and very laid back villages with hardly any tourists. There are a few black sand beaches that are popular with junior surfers and bathers alike.
A picturesque sliver of white sand and palm trees in a world of black sand beaches. The small beach is very popular with locals and is good for just a quick stop to stretch out.
The surfing capital of French Polynesia and one of the top surf spots in the entire world. The village of Teahupo’o marks the end of the southern coast road, so you cannot miss it. Every year, the world’s top surfers and their groupies camp out here for the Billabong Pro. From the carpark, cross the metal bridge by foot and head down to the beach. It’s a popular spot for the villagers, who splash along with the eels in the river or head out to surf in the ocean.
Walk along the footpath through the row of houses shaded by the forest, and you’ll make it to another beach. From here, admire the waves and the gorgeous black sand beach backed by the lush volcanic mountains. Out here, waves are some of the biggest in the world, but this obviously depends on the season and your degree of luck. There are a number of hikes which start from here, going all the way around to the north coast. Ask around before heading out – a guide is highly recommended.
Hiking In Tahiti
Tahiti may not have the prettiest beaches in French Polynesia, but it does have some of the best hikes in the country and perhaps in the entire South Pacific Islands. Aside from Mount Aorai & Fautaua Valley, hiring a certified guide is highly recommended. I recommend hiking with Teuai Olivier Lenoir from ‘Ia ora na Tahiti Expeditions’. He’s the closest thing I’ve found to a real Tahitian: in touch with nature, super knowledgeable about Tahitian culture and never wearing any shoes (plus he speaks excellent English). He is a two-time Mr. Tahiti champion, winning the coveted Heiva festival (this is hardly a beauty pageant). If he’s not available or busy with 4X4 tours into the Papenoo Valley, contact Aito Rando – a father-and-son company specializing in hikes throughout Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti.
Hiking Mount Aorai
When you picture Tahiti, you probably imagine giant mountains stretching high into the clouds covered with lush tropical rainforests. If you hike Mount Aorai, the third highest peak in Tahiti (2066m) – this image will become a reality! It’s one of the most challenging, demanding and dangerous hikes in the South Pacific – but also one of the most rewarding. Here’s a good resource to help you out.
- You can hike Mount Aorai on your own, but it’s better to go with at least another person.
- Check weather conditions and avoid hiking if it has been raining the days before. The trail is well marked but slippery and narrow. Pretty much every move could be your last.
- During the wet season, it is strongly advised to avoid summiting the mountain. I recommend hiking only to the first refuge hut. Between the huts is the infamous Devil’s Peak Pass – a sliver of trail along the ridge with nothing but thousands of meters below.
- Hiking alone? Tell someone at the hotel reception and consider turning back at the first refuge hut (like I did).
- The trail starts from the Belvedere restaurant. You can safely leave your car there, just don’t leave anything visible inside.
- If you are not staying overnight in one of the two huts – start hiking very early, at around 5:30 am (that’s right). The reason for this is that the clouds move in at about 10 am, covering the peaks (and the jagged spikes of Mont Te Tara o Maiao – Diadème).
- The complete hike is 10.6km (one way) but you should not attempt to summit the mountain and return in one day. Instead, use one of the refuge huts (one at 7.5k and one at 8.5k) and summit early in the morning.
- Bring with you 3L of water per person (there are taps in the refuge huts), good hiking shoes (even waterproof shoes will get completely wet), light rain jacket, long pants, food, first aid kit, overnight gear (if sleeping) and a change of clothes and socks – because you’ll smell like hell back in the carpark.
The trail itself is very well marked – in fact, it’s simply carved into the mountain somehow. Since you’re starting the hike in the morning hours, you get completely wet right from the start, as the dew from the knee-high shrubs soaks your shoes and pants.
In the first section of the hike, there are excellent views of the curving mountains, Papeete and Moorea. Very quickly though, you enter the thick rainforest for kilometer after kilometer of slow ascent. You’ll hear birds starting out their day, see moss covered rotting tree trunks and pass an occasional freshwater stream. This is a proper rainforest!
The hike starts to get tough as you continue climbing along the super narrow trail. You really need to concentrate on your every move since it’s very slippery out here and there isn’t much room for error.
After about 2.5 hours of climbing, the views reach a climax and you should aim to be here before 9 am. You’ll be pinching yourself as you see breathtaking panoramic views just across the deep valley. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll see the jagged successive peaks of the Mont Te Tara o Maiao (a.k.a Diadème). I’m pretty sure it’s possible to hike there too but that’s a whole other story.
It’s another few kilometers to the first refuge hut (3 hours of hiking so far). There’s some collected rainwater, a toilet you don’t really want to use and wooden bunk beds to pass the night. From here, it’s another 2 km’s to the second hut via the Devil’s Ridge Pass. I turned around here, along with a few fit locals – as the clouds completely engulfed us.
From The first hut, it was about 6 km’s and 90 minutes back down to the carpark – basically walking through the clouds for the most part.
This is another walk that you can do on your own, starting just outside Papeete. There are two trails to choose from: one that will take you to the top of waterfalls, and one that will lead to the base of the waterfalls. Note that technically, you need a permit to hike in the valley. The permit can be purchased for 600F in one of the offices of the Papeete Town Hall. Access to hikes in the valley was restricted following heavy rains in January of 2016 but maintenance work is scheduled to be completed by May 19, 2017.
Bain de Vaima & Vaipahi Spring Gardens
There are three short walks to choose from, with either river or lagoon views. See ‘Tahiti south coast’ section.
Hikes In Tahiti Iti
A hike starting in Teahupoo will lead you along cliffs and passed caves.
Recommended Excursions In Tahiti
Heading into the uninhabited interior of Tahiti Nui in the Papenoo Valley is a day I guarantee you’ll never forget. If you’ve ever seen pictures of Tahiti with massive green mountains and fresh waterfalls as tall as a skyscraper – they were probably taken here. The 32-kilometer track is only accessible with a 4X4 or on an excursion and you can extend your visit to a full-day tour that includes exiting on the west coast of Tahiti via the dreamy Lake Vahiria.
My guide on this magical day was Teuai Olivier Lenoir, who now runs ‘Ia ora na Tahiti Expeditions’. He’s the closest thing I’ve found to a real Tahitian: in touch with nature, super knowledgeable about Tahitian culture and never wearing any shoes (plus he speaks excellent English). He is a two-time Mr. Tahiti champion, winning the coveted Heiva festival for his weight class (this is hardly a beauty pageant).
If you book your tour with Teuai, be sure to let him you came through Avi from XDAYSINY.COM (that’s me) and he’ll take extra good care of you.
The valley is defined by the Papenoo River, the largest in Tahiti that drains a large percentage of Tahiti’s rainfall into the Pacific Ocean. The 4X4 road snakes its way along the river, crossing it a few times before rising back into the lush hills. In the past, the valley was home to warriors and Tahitians who refused to convert to Christianity. It was even used as a place of refuge during the Franco-Tahitian war (1844-1846). Past dwellers left their marks in the form of ancient temples and fruit trees, all of which are to be seen on this magical day in Tahiti’s rugged interior.
Our first stop was the Topatari Waterfall. It required a bit of walking and crossing a river to get to its base – but it’s well worth the effort.
The Papenoo River is a prime source of hydroelectric power, supplying 45% of Tahiti’s power. At one point, you’ll be driving over the dam. Look on your left to catch a glimpse of Puraha Waterfall. If you’re in luck, you should also be able to spot rare ducks that live in the valley (non-native).
The road then climbs to a breathtaking panoramic vista. This is Tahiti as you imagined it to be! Look around you – there’s a good chance of spotting a distant waterfall splashing thousands of feet from some giant mountain!
After lunch in the middle of nowhere, we hiked down to the prettiest waterfall in Tahiti – Te Pape o Teura Vahine, also known as Maroto Waterfall. Look at the color of the swimming pool, and may I just add that we were the only ones here!
From here we climbed up to the Relais de la Maroto. Surprisingly enough, there’s a hotel with a restaurant all the way out here. Needless to say, the views are worth a million dollars. The hotel was originally built to house the workers who constructed the dam but these days, rooms are looking quite inviting for curious tourists.
After a quick cup of coffee, we descended to check out one of the many marae (ancient Polynesian temples) that are found in the Papenoo Valley. The most impressive is the marae Farehape. Teuai explained the history of the marae and how each section was used back in the day. Interesting enough, the valley served as the last refuge for Tahitians opposing Christianity and French rule back in the 19th century. Aside from the temple, there are lots of tropical fruits and medicinal trees growing out here. It’s very interesting to learn what you can and can’t eat, and which plant can cure which illness.
Other ancient temples can also be visited in the Papenoo Valley and it is quite evident that Tahitians still frequent these sites. Local belief is that “mana” (a Polynesian word for supernatural powers) can still be felt in the marae while lost spirits that did not make it to the underworld are believed to visit the sites at night.
From the Relais de Maroto, full-day tours should continue the climb to the top of the caldera of the ancient volcano. From up here, the views are sensational and on a clear day you should be able to spot to Ocean and even the highest peak in Tahiti – Mount Orohena (2,241m).
It’s now time to exit to the west coast of the island and you’ll start the return leg by going through a tunnel that runs right beneath the highest section of the area. Afterward, you’ll begin the plunge to Lake Vahiria (473m) and continue through a section of an extremely lush rainforest before reaching the highway on the west coast.
Here’s what the entire day looked like in this time-lapse video
Logistics: depart Papeete at 9:30 am and return at 4:30 pm, half-day tours are available, bring at least 2L of water, sandals, comfortable shoes, swimsuit, towel and change of clothes. Note that there’s a minimum number of people required for a tour to take place and that excursions may be canceled after heavy rain. I highly recommend the full-day option but be sure it also includes a visit to Lake Vaihiria.
Tetiaroa is known as the island that Marlon Brando bought. These days, it’s also famous for the luxury ‘eco’ resort that has been built here (anyone got $3,000 per night?). The island is only about 60 kilometers north of Tahiti, but it takes a good few hours to get there on an excursion from Papeete. A good way to visit the island is on a day trip from Papeete aboard the Ohana catamaran. You’ll meet the crew and guests at 5:45 am and return before 6 pm. Once you near Tetiaroa, you’ll be transported by small groups to the island on a tiny speedboat, where you’ll have time to snorkel, wander around and admire the bird colonies that make Tetiaroa so famous. It costs about 15,000F for a day trip to Tetiaroa, breakfast, lunch and snacks are served on board. Note that cruises are often canceled to bad weather. Don’t be disappointed (like I was) if you wake up super early only to find the weather is just not right… It’s really a hit or miss – especially during the wet season (November to April).
Moorea Day Trip
The magical island of Moorea is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Tahiti. It totally deserves a few days on its own, but if you haven’t got the time – it is possible to join an excursion for the day and visit its lagoon.
Now It’s Your Turn
I hope you’ve found this Tahiti Travel Guide useful. If you have any questions or your own Tahiti travel tips, leave a comment below and let’s get the conversation started!