Ever since the famous French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin painted the Tahitian maidens, Tahiti has always had a mysterious allure. Officially known as French Polynesia, it consists of 118 islands spread over four million square kilometres of ocean in the eastern South Pacific.
Grouped into five archipelagos, they are the Society Islands, Austral Islands, Marquesas Islands, Tuamotu Atolls and the Gambier Islands. The main islands are Tahiti (Papeete), Moorea and Bora Bora. Well worth a visit also are the Outer Islands.
CAPITAL AND MAJOR CENTRES
Papeete is the capital of Tahiti, the largest island, nicknamed "the island of love". It is a visitor's first port of call because of the International Airport which is located here. Moorea is the sister island some seventeen kilometres north west of Papeete. Here the tranquil of Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay lap at its majestic volcanic peaks which thrust into the sky. Bora Bora is 240 kilometres north-west of Tahiti and is in the Society Islands, as is Huahine Island, which comprises two islands joined by a narrow isthmus and enclosed by a protective necklace of coral.
Rangiroa with its 42 mile long turquoise lagoon in the largest atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago, and Tikehau atoll in the same archipelago is an almost circular atoll with an interior lagoon, twenty-six kilometres across and a safe pass for small boats through the coral reef.
Tahiti is a multi-racial mix of Polynesians of Maohi (Maori) extraction, Europeans, Asians and mixed races. A handsome people, they are noted for their hospitality, friendliness and easy going nature. They speak French and Tahitians which are the two official languages, but English is spoken in the hotels and shops.
Hundreds of years after the ancient Polynesians created a Pacific base for their huge voyaging canoes, explorers like Mendana, Quiros, Le Maire, Schouten, Roggeveen and Byron made brief unplanned visits to the Tuamotu atolls and the Marquesas islands in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Later in the 18th century, explorers such as Bougainville, Wallis, Vancouver and Cook "discovered" Tahiti and called it the "Garden of Eden". Captain Cook returned three times to study the transition of Venus, Captain Bligh came to collect seedlings from the breadfruit tree and insubordinate Fletcher Christian returned to the island that caused the Mutiny on the Bounty.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the islands were divided into districts each governed by a chief when Pomare V abdicated in 1880 the islands, previously a protectorate of France, became a French Colony, and in 1957 French Polynesia became a French Overseas Territory.
Professional Tahiti dancers performing traditional dance, Tahiti
Lush vegetation grows high above the lagoons and bays and floral scents permeate the tropical air. A myriad of tropical flowers grow throughout the Tahitian islands. The national flower is the Tiare, a heavily scented gardenia which forms the basis of the traditional lei necklaces.
You can visit Point Venus where Captain Cook camped to observe the transit of the Planet Venus in 1769, visit the Faarumai waterfalls, and at Taravao on the strategic isthmus joining the two Tahitis, wander through an old fort built by the French in 1844. Don't miss the Gauguin Museum which is set in exotic botanical gardens and the fruit, vegetable and flower market in central Papeete.
One of the three Faarumai waterfalls
WHERE TO STAY
International resorts and hotels rest alongside motels, lodges, small pensions and for the budget conscious, rooms for rent in a family home. There are also huge hostels and camp sites with cooking facilities.
Le Truk is Tahiti's public bus service. The destination is posted on top of each le Truk, which always begins and ends its round trips at the public market in the centre of Papeete. It is possible to travel between islands not only by plane, but by high speed ferry, the Ono Ono. It takes approximately six and a half hours to get to Bora Bora from Papeete.
FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT
Tahitian 'tamaraa' or feasts can be arranged through local tour operators. Most hotels offer regular Tahitian entertainment and there are nightclubs, bars, and sidewalk cafes open all hours.
Diving, snorkelling, windsurfing, sailing, deep sea fishing and surfing are available throughout Tahiti. Tennis is played at many resorts and at the country club. There is also squash, golf and bowls, bush walking, horse riding and mountain climbing. Speed boats are available for water skiing and there are glass-bottom boats for viewing the coral reefs.
Bright 'pareus' or T-shirts are popular souvenirs, and also Polynesian fashion, shell jewellery, the famous black pearls, French perfume and handicraft.
Images of Tahiti
An early image of Haapu, the village on stilts, Huahine Island
Dwellings over water, Tahiti
Tahiti, the largest of the isles in French Polynesia is a place for beginners or rusty divers who wish to brush up on their skills. Tahiti's dive sites offer an average of 30 metres visibility along with masses of coloured fish life, canyons and caves. Hand feed the moray eels or even dive the wrecks of an ocean schooner or seaplane. Dive operators here are Tahiti Plongee, Yacht Club of Tahiti Diving Centre, Tahiti Aquatique and Ta'itua.
MOOREA, the perfect South Sea Island is ten minutes by air or 30 minutes by luxury catamaran from Papeete. Moorea is probably best known for its fish and shark feeding. During feeding time, the marine life is so dense that the view of your dive guide can become somewhat obscured. Dive sites include the blue island, Napoleon Plateau offering large 80lb Napoleon fish plus sharks, the Canyon, and Shark Dining Room where you will be pleased to know that they are on the menu - but the shark and eel feeding is quite exciting. Taoiaha Pass, Atiha, Bathy's Club, M.U.S.T. and Scuba Piti are your operators here.
BORA BORA, the jewel of the Pacific, is a central emerald island surrounded by a myriad of islets. The colours of the lagoon vary from pale turquoise to deepest cobalt, and the range of depth almost assures you of sighting the gentle manta rays. The reefs are home to a great deal of smaller lagoon dwelling species, and locals can introduce you to the 1.5 metre barracuda named Romeo. Operators are Calypso Club and Bora Bora Diving Centre.
RAIATEA-TAHAA, the two sister islands, attract large schools of pelagic fish. Dog-toothed Tuna, Barracuda, Leopard Rays and sometimes Manta Rays when in season. Divers can assist with shark feeding - a hair-raising experience! The operator here is Raiatea Plongee.
HUAHINE, the garden island, is where Pacific Blue Adventure can take you to see Avafehia Pass, Coral City notable for formations rising 3 metres off the bottom and the 7kg red snapper. Yellow Valley rich in multi-coloured fish, the aquarium for beginners and the dive school. At Huahine you can see giant Jewish or Black Sea Bass weighing in at 180kgs.
RANGIROA is the place where drift diving or shooting the pass can be done any day. The steady five knot current offers an exhilarating dive and the regular scheduled dives are run on a 12 hour cycle so as to get the slack water. This cycle advances 45 minutes each day. Rangiroa dive sites include Napoleon Manta Point, Motu Fara Pass, Mahuta, The Avatoru, Tiputa Aquariums and Tiputa Shark Cave. All of these sites and more are offered by Scuba Diving Centre, Raie Manta Club and Paradive.
TIKEHAU was declared to contain the most fish by Jacques Cousteau in 1987. Raie Manta Club - Tikehau, can show you those along with providing night diving, photo and video services.
HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Qantas, Hawaiian Airlines, Air New Zealand, Air France, Lan Chile (via Easter Island).
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