The Complete Guide To: Tahiti

Gauguin lost his heart to the languid lifestyle of these Pacific islands. Now, their silky white sands and Parisian-style cafés lure a new breed of visitor, says Cathy Packe


SOUNDS EXOTIC

Yes - and the reality does not disappoint. Tahiti is synonymous with images straight out of the brochures: glistening blue seas, palm-fringed beaches and tropical tiare, or gardenia. You will be met from the plane by groups of smiling Polynesians, wearing garlands of flowers and singing songs of welcome - a far cry from the usual European experience. And yet, despite being nearly 11,000 miles away, Tahiti is an autonomous region of France, which explains the Parisian-style cafés and supplies of French newspapers.

The connection also means that French is one of the island's official languages (English is widely spoken, too) and European Union citizens can visit without a visa. There is a separate currency, however: the French Pacific Franc (CFP), which trades at around 175 to the pound. And the climate is much warmer than in Europe, with temperatures consistently between 20C and 25C. The wettest months are between November and April.

REMIND ME WHERE IT IS

South of the equator, about halfway between the north-east coast of Australia and the west coast of South America. Tahiti is the best-known and largest of the 118 islands that make up French Polynesia. They are scattered over more than 2,000,000 square miles of the southern Pacific Ocean, an area roughly the size of western Europe. The islands are subdivided into five groups, collections of volcanic peaks and low-lying coral atolls, including the Austral Islands, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Gambier Islands. Tahiti is in the fifth group, known collectively as the Society Islands.

The island is shaped curiously like a frying pan with a bulbous handle. The larger part is known as Tahiti Nui, and its main town, Papeete, is the capital of both Tahiti and the Society Islands. The smaller and less developed part is Tahiti Iti. Both parts are volcanic and covered with peaks. The highest mountain is Mount Orohena, roughly in the centre of Tahiti Nui, reaching 7,350 feet.

Because of the volcanic terrain, most settlements are on the coast, although there are the remains of several ancient marae, or traditional villages, in the interior.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The only international airport in French Polynesia is Faa'a, four miles south-west of downtown Papeete. Most connections from the UK are made at Los Angeles, where you can plug into the South Pacific network operated by Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk). It offers flights via Los Angeles on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Return fares for departures in November start at £873, although from April to June they go down to £793. Alternatively, you can build Tahiti in to a trip to New Zealand and back, or a round-the-world itinerary.

If you are heading only for Tahiti, a new route is available via New York. Air Tahiti Nui (0870 066 2050; www.airtahitinui.com) flies non-stop from New York JFK to Tahiti. The route connects with Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) for the Heathrow-New York leg. Return flights during November start at £713 and in January from £773. Stopovers can be made in New York at no extra charge. From the airport in Papeete, a taxi into the town centre will cost around 1,500CFP (£8.60). The Visitors' Bureau in Papeete is in Fare Manihini on Boulevard Pomare (00 689 50 57 10; www.tahiti-manava.com).

SHOULD I SPEND TIME IN PAPEETE?

It's an interesting little town, and also a good base for an exploration of the island. The sheltered entrance to this part of the coast made it attractive to mariners, and the town had developed as a whaling port by the early 19th century. The whalers were followed by British missionaries and Chinese traders, but little is left of the colonial buildings constructed during that time.

Most of the activity in Papeete continues to be around the waterfront, along Boulevard Pomare. At the western end is the Paofai church, on the site of the first Protestant church which was built in the early 19th century but reconstructed in 1981. Even if you are not religious, it is interesting to experience a Sunday service, when a large proportion of the population turns out, dressed in Sunday best and singing with great enthusiasm.

Further east is Bougainville Park, named for Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, an early Pacific explorer who returned from Tahiti to France with tales of the primitive people he had met on the island. The plant, bougainvillea, was also given his name after it was first sighted in Brazil by a botanist travelling with de Bougainville.

A couple of blocks along the Boulevard, in the Vaima centre, is the Pearl Museum on Jeanne d'Arc Street (00 689 45 21 22), an interesting explanation of pearl cultivation, with the inevitable opportunity to buy some black pearls at the end of the visit. It opens 8am-5pm Monday-Saturday, admission 600CFP (£3.40).

A couple of blocks inland is the market, a lively affair that takes place 5am-5pm every day (except on Sundays, when everyone goes home at 8am). In addition to a colourful selection of tropical fruit, vegetables, fish and other Tahitian foods, it also has a section selling crafts. Cafés and roulettes - mobile restaurants - line the waterfront, making it a good venue to watch the world go by.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

You may want to hire a car, but otherwise there is a public transport system known as le truck, a fleet of converted lorries with a long bench seat down each side. There are a number of routes, within Papeete and down the west coast to the villages beyond. Don't expect to find bus stops: you just flag the truck down if you want to get on. The side of each vehicle is marked with the destination and the flat fare: 200CFP (£1.15) for lines 13, 14 and 17, which run along part of the north coast. More useful, if you want to get out and see something of the island, is line 12, which runs along the coast from Papeete down as far as Taravao. Fares on this line are set at 400CFP (£2.30). There are no tickets; just give your money to the driver.

WHERE DID GAUGUIN PAINT?

Paul Gauguin set off for Tahiti in 1891, and spent a couple of years living and working in Mataiea on the south coast of Tahiti Nui, which is accessible on le truck number 12. Although he returned to Paris for a couple of years to exhibit some of his pictures, he spent most of the last 12 years of his life in French Polynesia, attracted by the bright colours and primitive lifestyle. His bold paintings, with their exotic landscapes and figures, are no doubt responsible for the picture that many of us have of life in the south Pacific.

The house where he lived in Mataiea is no longer standing, but there is an interesting museum in his honour at Papeari (00 689 57 10 58), with a collection of exhibits related to his life and work. It has an attractive location by the water, next to the Botanical Gardens, but all the pictures on display are reproductions. The museum and the gardens both open 9am-5pm daily and admission to each costs 600CFP (£3.40).

Gauguin moved from Tahiti to the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, where he died in 1903. He is buried in the Calvaire Cemetery on Hiva Oa.

WHAT'S THE EASIEST ESCAPE FROM THE URBAN JUNGLE?

Twelve miles from Tahiti, and often visited because it is easy to reach from Papeete, is the lush, green island of Moorea. Air Moorea (00 689 86 41 41; www.airmoorea.com) has 40 departures daily between Tahiti and Moorea, taking under 10 minutes each way. The one-way fare is CFP4200 (£24).

Ferries, with a journey time of 50 minutes, and catamarans which take half an hour, also link Tahiti and Moorea ( www.aremiti.pf). The single fare for each is CFP900 (£5).

North of Moorea is Tetiaroa, a ring of tiny coral islands with an extraordinary range of bird life. Marlon Brando fell in love with Tetiaroa when he was filming Mutiny on the Bounty, and took out a long lease on the island. But since his death, his estate has been in dispute with the government, and it is no longer possible to stay there.

L'Escapade (00 689 77 85 31) runs boat trips to Tetiaroa from Tahiti for 12,000CFP (£68); the journey takes four hours. Stretching out towards the north-west are the other islands: Huahine, with its beautiful lagoon; Raiatea, an important centre of Polynesian culture and the place where the Maoris first landed 1,000 years ago en route to New Zealand; and Tahaa, contained within the same lagoon as Raiatea. A little further west is Bora Bora, often thought of as the loveliest of a string of beautiful islands; and the oldest, Maupiti, which is four million years old.

HOW DO I GET TO THE OTHER ISLANDS?

The easiest way to travel between Tahiti and the other islands in the group is by air. The main inter-island carrier is Air Tahiti (00 689 86 42 42; www.airtahiti.aero), which operates daily services between the main airport on Tahiti and Bora Bora, Huahine, Raiatea as well as Moorea, and twice weekly to Maupita.

If you plan to visit a number of destinations, the airline offers six different air passes, valid for up to four weeks. The cheapest, at 21,000CFP (£120), is a Discovery Pass which will take you from Papeete to Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea. Only one stopover is allowed on each island. Extensions to the passes, enabling you to travel to the Marquesas and Austral Islands, are also available.

Tickets for inter-island flights can be booked online, or through international carriers, including Air Tahiti Nui and Air New Zealand, when you make your international booking.

CAN I TAKE A CRUISE?

Several companies offer inter-island cruises, providing an easy and relaxing way to visit all the Society Islands. These include Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (001 877 505 5370; www.rssc.com), which operates short cruises on the MS Paul Gauguin, departing from Papeete in the early hours of Sunday morning and stopping at Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora and Moorea, before returning to Papeete the following Friday morning. Prices start at US$2,195 (£1,240) per person, based on two people sharing a cabin, but don't include transport to or from Tahiti. Bora Bora Cruises (00 689 544 505; www.boraboracruises.com), meanwhile, offers something approximating to a boutique hotel experience on cruise-yachts, with sailings from Bora Bora that visit Tahaa, Raiatea and Huahine.

The yachts have 35 well-appointed cabins. Copious amounts of food are included, and the six-night cruise costs €3,270 (£2,228) per person, based on two people sharing. If you prefer to sail yourself around the islands, Sunsail (0870 777 0313; www.sunsail.com) has boats that will accommodate anything from two to 12 people. Prices start at £1,365 for the boat, excluding fuel, provisions or travel to Raiatea, where the company is based.

CAN I GO BENEATH THE WATER?

Yes. Tahiti is a year-round diving destination - and, with more than 800 species of fish in the waters around the Society Islands, there is always something to see. There are several diving companies on Tahiti. The nearest to Papeete is Aquatica (00 689 53 34 96; www.aquatica-dive.com), located inside the Intercontinental Beachcomber Resort (00 689 86 51 10; www.tahiti.interconti.com) at Tata'a Point.

You can choose from a wide range of sites, including diving among wrecks or in a coral garden - and because the island is small, it is always possible to move to where the best conditions are. The cost of a dive, including equipment, starts at CFP7,000 (£40). Snorkelling, water skiing and other water activities are also on offer at Aquatica.

Other centres that offer instruction to beginners include Mahana Dive (00 689 68 76 32; www.mahanadive.com), which is located at the Hotel Relais Mahana on the southern tip of the island of Huahine. A lesson here costs CFP5,900 (£34).

If you hope to see whales while beneath or above the water, the season lasts from July to October.

ANY OTHER SPORTS I SHOULD TRY?

All sorts of activities are available on the island, but surfing is one of the most popular, and many international competitions are held in Tahiti. Some of the best waves are found in Teahupoo, at the end of the southern coast road on Tahiti Iti. The season here is from April to October, as it is along the west coast of Tahiti Nui. For the rest of the year, surfers head to the east coast to places like Venus Point. In general, the surf is good on the north and east coasts in winter, and the south and west coasts in summer. Moorea and Huahine are also good surfing destinations with year-round surf.

On land, hiking is extremely popular. Short walks are possible on all the islands, but serious hikers will want to concentrate their efforts on Tahiti and Moorea. Trails are often difficult to negotiate - or downright dangerous - during the rainy season, from November to March. Unfortunately there are no proper maps available for walkers, but if you want advice on where to walk, or a guide to show you the path, contact the Visitors' Bureau in Papeete (00 689 50 57 10; www.tahiti-manava.com).

WHERE CAN I STAY?

With the exception of Tetiaroa, all the islands have a variety of accommodation, from international chains to smaller, family-run hotels and guesthouses. Resort hotels, like the Moorea Pearl (00 689 55 17 50; www.pearlresorts.com) and its sister resorts on Bora Bora, Tahaa and Raiatea, usually offer accommodation in individual bungalows, built on stilts over the water.

Companies such as Kuoni (01306 741111; www.kuoni.co.uk) and Elegant Resorts (01244 897555; www.elegantresorts.co.uk) offer tailor-made packages to Tahiti.

A WEDDING IN PARADISE

To be legally eligible to marry in Tahiti you must work through a prodigious amount of paperwork, and be resident in French Polynesia for a month before the wedding. That is why most people prefer to honeymoon on the island rather than marry there - or to stage a Tahitian "wedding celebration". This ceremony has no legal status but is a wonderfully romantic way to celebrate a marriage or anniversary. The choice of event ranges from a simple ceremony on the beach at sunset to an elaborate production, involving lots of flowers and traditional music, with the bride being carried in on a throne while the groom arrives by canoe. This type of ceremony can be organised by a number of the larger hotels, or by the Tiki Village Theatre on Moorea (00 689 55 02 50; www.tikivillage.pf).

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