A May 2003 trip
to Tahiti by jenandfrank
Quote: The perfect place to stop and relieve jetlag before continuing on to the other French Polynesian islands.
The Polynesian people are so warm and welcoming. From the minute we got on the Air Tahiti flight, I knew we were about to have one of the best trips of our lives. The service on that airline was the best I’ve experienced to date. They distributed flowers to the women and were friendly and upbeat, and the airplane was in brand-new condition. They had freshly squeezed local juice when we boarded, and they were in Tahitian outfits throughout the flight. The airport was filled with men playing ukuleles and women handing out flower necklaces. There were plenty of taxis lined up outside the airport, across the street, and ours was relatively inexpensive (2000 CFP), since our hotel was so close by. There was also Le Truck (their bus) outside the airport, but considering it was our first night there and we had no clue, we didn’t want to take any chances.
The weather is warm and humid, but not like Florida humid. Tahiti is surrounded by coal reefs that break up the large waves so the island is protected from large-scale storms; instead they deal with heavy rain. Our hotel was beautiful and very well located for our needs. We spent one day doing the Circle Line Tour and the last half-day just walking around the marketplace (Le Marche) and soaking it all in. The marketplace is downtown, across the street from the waterfront. The marketplace was on two levels, smelled like vanilla (I believe it was the Manoi oil), and was filled with brightly colored shirts, fruits, black pearls, shells, carvings, etc. As with most marketplaces, the vendors were open to negotiation--even at the black pearl shops. If you like the smell and/or feel of the Manoi oil, buy it while on the islands, because when you get home the price quadruples via the internet. People kept telling us how great it was and we just didn’t get it, now we have a few samples left from Moorea, and we treat it like gold. Supposedly, this is the best place in French Polynesia to buy black pearls because there is so much competition. After having gone to Moorea and Bora Bora, I would say that this is probably true, but the difference is slight (meaning, if you don’t stop in Tahiti or don’t get a chance to shop there, it’s not like you’ll be paying double on another island). There is a huge selection, even for the pickiest of people. We found that platinum was very expensive on the islands, and thus, most of the jewelry was set in white or yellow gold. There were consistently beautiful ships docked in the marina, which gave us something to look at while we waited for the bus or while we ate at Le Roulottes.
The center of Papeete was hotter than the rest of the island. I think that had to do with the fact that there is often bottlenecking going on and a lot of exhausts are being emitted. Le Truck made it very easy for us to get around town and to and from our hotel (there was a bus stop across the street from the Sheraton). Le Truck basically looks like a small pick-up truck with a covering over the back part; they refer to them as "open-air trucks." You have to climb up but lean down to get in. No need for exact change ($1 per person)—the driver or the person driving with him is happy to help you out. The hard part about using Le Truck is that they aren’t tied to a schedule, so if you see one, you have to run for it. Also, if you aren’t sure where your stop is (luckily ours was hard to miss), you could just drive right past where you needed to go. When all is said and done though, still the best way to get around, provided you don’t mind rubbing shoulders with locals and other tourists. Although you will see a ton of taxis in downtown Papeete, good luck trying to hail one.
As far as activities go, there are several things to do, like helicopter rides, water activities, Circle Line tours, and 4x4 trips. We were too chicken to do the helicopter ride and heard the 4x4 was much better (more to see) in Moorea, so we stuck with the Circle Line tour and were happy with our decision. We were able to see such great things on that tour, and I highly recommend going. I believe they offer half-day tours, as well, if you are short on time. The entire island is less than 75 miles around, so even renting a car affords you the chance to have a beautiful day exploring on your own. If you aren’t planning on going to Moorea for a stay, you can also take a day trip from Tahiti. There are charter flights, as well as the ferry that leaves right from the waterfront in downtown. The ferry took us about a half-hour, and it was a great ride. We were able to get some great pictures/views, and there was indoor and outdoor seating. We found a lot of answers to our questions before our trip.
Attraction | "Circle Island Tour - Tahiti"
We stopped at Point Venus, which is the black sand beach that was the landing site for European discoverers (Wallis, Cook, and the Bounty crew). The beach is sort of desolate (no one hanging around or lying out), and that’s because the sand is hard and rocky—not your typical beach—and because the black sand makes it so hot, it’s hard to stay on the actual beach. There are several areas off the beach that are very well shaded for those who are interested in a picnic.
The Arahoho blowhole was next, where the sea smacks up against an old lava tube and explodes upwards, creating a noise and a large slash. This blowhole is right off the main "highway". There is a small area for parking and a viewing platform. The water is incredible, and sometimes, if you’re not careful, you can take quite a bath from the spray.
We then headed to the Faaruumai waterfalls: three huge waterfalls surrounded by a beautiful, lush landscape. It’s a short hike to get close enough to see them/get good pictures. Legend says that they exist due to an impossible love between a common man who lived in this valley and a princess.
The Paul Gauguin Museum, located on PK51.2 in Papeari Village, was next. It’s considered the best museum in the South Pacific. I must be honest—though beautiful and very interesting, we probably would have missed it if we were not on this tour. That would have been a shame. Paul Gauguin, born in Paris in the mid-1800s, moved to Tahiti 50 years later in search of inspiration for more exotic subject matters. He was known during his life as an outcast, and after his death as a leading post-Impressionist painter due to his bold use of color. The museum is located about a half-hour from the center of Papeete. There was a $7 per person charge for entrance (not included in our Circle Tour). Showcased are 25 original works and several films on his life and work. The only other museum that contains more of Gauguin's work is the Orsay Museum in Paris. That said, if you are interested in art, this should not be missed. The museum is equipped with a large gift shop, facilities, and a beautiful backyard on the water, where people sat and had picnics and where some vendors sold local goods.
Next door is the Harrison W. Smith Botanical Garden. We stopped to look around but did not take a tour. That was fine by me, since the last thing I felt like doing in the 95-degree heat was walking around to look at plants. It is a 340-acre tropical garden/park with a huge showing of trees, plants, and flowers. The gardens are open every day from 9am to 5pm, and admission is free.
Lunch was at a local restaurant on the water, with beautiful views of water crashing against the rocks. Odd that, again, it was right off the highway—how convenient. Our lunch included a basic sandwich platter with a pickle and chips. The staff was very specific as to where we could and could not sit (because we were part of a tour), and we were not allowed to order anything additional—which made no sense to me, if we were willing to pay for it. This was the fastest service we received while in all of French Polynesia—they actually could not wait to get rid of us. The trip wrapped up with a visit to the Grotto of Mara'a. This was three different-sized caves right in the middle of a mountain. Each cave contained a pool of black (not dirty) water and was a cool place to rest or swim. Overall, it was a very interesting and educational trip. We got the opportunity to see some Tahitian homes, which are painted every color imaginable. This trip was definitely a day well spent. Highly Recommended.
Circle Island Tour
+689 56 12 86
The hotel tries to keep you in a tropical mood, despite the fact you are just outside of a small city. Thatched roofs everywhere, lots of palm trees, the entire staff dressed in native attire, and beautiful blue-water views from just about everywhere is what you can expect here. The walls have beautiful local art, and there are carved wooden statues everywhere as well. This hotel is the perfect place for people using Tahiti as a stop-over before continuing on to other islands. I say that because there are more luxurious hotels in the area. We just felt it was silly to pay for a five-star resort when we were only going there to sleep and tour the city for a day and a half. Regardless, the hotel was beautiful (you are in Tahiti—how bad can it be?), and there were several great areas to sit and relax, read, or just to gaze off.
The staff was excellent, as was our mini-suite that we were upgraded to. Rooms were air-conditioned and always kept immaculate by housekeeping with a minimalist, but very Tahitian theme. All rooms were equipped with the basics: iron, hair dryer, coffee maker, satellite television, safe, and minibar. I know sometimes the hotels say satellite TV, and what you get is CNN, and that’s it. To be honest, we just flew 16½ hours, and the last thing either of us were thinking about was TV. That said, they said they have it–-how extensive it is, I haven’t the first clue. They had a computer with Internet access off the main lobby, which was done on the honor system.
After checking in, we were greeted with a container of Tahitian vanilla, fresh flower leis, and a wrapped and engraved shell. We found the concierge to be very helpful, and she spoke perfect English, which made our lives much easier. She suggested going to dinner at Le Roulottes, which turned out to be the best meal we had in town, and she also showed us how to catch Le Truck, which cut our transportation cost down to almost nothing. There was a beauty salon off the lobby and an activities desk right next to the concierge. This hotel also offers nice meeting facilities and plenty of outdoor function space. Overall, we had a great experience at the Sheraton, and it’s a place I would definitely go back to if put in the same situation. Side note: While we were there, the "Miss French Polynesia" beauty contest was in town AND the event was being held at the Sheraton—of course.
The food was okay. The sunset dinner includes a "special menu," which is a green salad, French-fried potatoes, an entree, house wine, coffee, and dessert. The entree choices were also limited (another thing the concierge neglected to mention): mahimahi, meat fondue, pepper steak, steak Marchand, and beef shishkebobs. As a non-meat-eater, my choice was clear. I had that "mediocre" feeling about the food on Tahiti overall (with the exception of the Roulottes). When all was said and done, I felt we spent a lot of money ($100) on a below-average meal, so we basically chalked it up to the view. I am torn about how to rate this, so I have decided to put "somewhat recommended" because it was romantic. American Express cards are not accepted.
Le Roulottes - downtown Papetee (waterfront - Vai'ete Square)
Although Le Roulottes is not a restaurant, it is the best food we had while in Tahiti, and I felt it had to be mentioned. Le Roulettes are a large group of food trucks (traveling kitchens), all lined up in an area off the main road by the waterfront in downtown Papeete. The trucks are set up nightly around 6pm and remain open until the wee hours of the night. Each truck serves a different type of food (with a full menu of options), and each has either a small outdoor table and chair set up or a "bar" (off the side of their truck) for their patrons. There must be at least 20 trucks--and they are all licensed with the city. Food ranges in price, but we ate like kings for less than $10 each. It’s also interesting to note that the area was packed, so we were lucky to get seats!
The food is fresh and prepared when you order. The service was great, super-friendly, and fast. They even had ice cream and crepes! While there, we had local pizza, which was very tasty and very different than your typical NY pizza. We tried some Chinese because, hey, we were in Tahiti—why not? I even got a Greek salad and a waffle! There is a pavilion (with a gazebo) setup that has local performers playing live music. If it sounds funny, it's because it's scary that the city's best food is served out of a truck (what we would call roach-coach dining). But it's the truth, and such a great experience, as you will find that most of the locals flock here for dinner as well. Definitely a different experience and a great place to go with an appetite and an open mind.
Note: Alcohol is not served, so if that is something you need, the bar is across the street. Save your money for the other islands and eat here every night–-you won’t be disappointed. Highly Recommended.
The phrase "Tahiti Cultured Pearl" is used exclusively when a pearl has been grafted and cultivated by man. In ’93, the FP government created the GIE (almost like the GIA for diamonds). The Groupement d’Interet Economique Perles de Tahiti was formed to promote Tahitian pearls overseas. Although many tourists will complain that the GIE certificate that accompanies most pearls is bogus, the nonprofit organization tries to streamline what they believe to be quality and different grades of pearls. Many shops will use the GIE as a guideline, but at the end of the day, they are trying to make the sale, and if the pearl looks good and someone is in the market to bargain, they will bend the truth a bit. The GIE certificate does not hold the same weight (or formality) that a GIA does. Pearls average in price from $100 to $10,000. There are so many factors involved. I would definitely recommend shopping around before buying anything. The majority of what you will see are pearls that range from 8 to 14 millimeters. Generally speaking, the darker the pearl and the more luster and cleaner surface it has, the more expensive. If the pearl is so dark that it has almost a navy-blue shine, it is very rare. Another thing to note is the shape. Most people believe if the pearl is not completely round, it is a defect and cheaper… NOT the case. In fact, you will find that many of the oblong or odd-shaped pearls are more expensive and harder to come by. Another thing to note is that many people think they can come here and buy a cheap black-pearl necklace. Not the case. In fact, we found that black pearls were cheaper in Maui than here – of course, with a smaller selection. If you are looking for a black pearl mounted on platinum, you will be disappointed. Platinum here is very hard to come by, and therefore, you will find most jewelry is set in yellow or white gold (if not silver).
Overall, the experience of shopping for the pearls is very interesting and could easily pass a day. If you really want these pearls but find that they are too expensive or can’t find it set in something you like, buy the pearls loose and have it set at home. It is a much cheaper option, especially if you have a jeweler at home you know or have done business with. As a general rule of thumb, bargaining is "allowed" and encouraged while shopping for pearls (only). This is recommended if you have time to spare or if you are in the market for Tahitian pearls.
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