Papeete, Tahiti’s capital and gateway to many South Pacific voyages, has a cosmopolitan French/Polynesian ambiance and many natural and cultural attractions. And chances are good that travelers who go to Papeete to embark on a cruise to the Society Islands and other isles of the South Pacific, will have more than a day to enjoy the city and surrounding areas. Flights typically arrive at Tahiti-Faa’a International Airport in the evening from the west coast of the U.S. and cruise ships generally dock overnight there before setting sail in late afternoon, and on the return, vessels usually also overnight in Papeete and flights back to the U.S. depart in the evening the next day.
Since there is so much to enjoy in Papeete and sorrounding areas, planning a program of sightseeing pre- or post-cruise or even if Papeete is just a port of call your ship visits in French Polynesia, is important to make the most of your time there.
Papeete is cruise-passenger friendly with many attractions, shopping and dining within walking distance of the pier. For venturing farther a field, cruise lines offer a good selection of guided tours, and independents can make use of public transportation, hire taxis or rent cars. Public bus stops are marked with signs with pictures of a bus.
Shaped like a figure eight that is lying on its side, as a swimmer floating on a mat in the water, Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia (651 square miles), has two main round-ish portions –the bigger, westernmost one is Tahiti Nui, where Papeete is located, and the smaller, easternmost one is the more rural Tahiti Iti. The narrow Isthmus of Taravao connects the two round portions of the island.
The island’s highest peaks, Mount Orohena (elevation: 7,334 feet) and Mount Aorai (6,738 feet) can be seen from downtown Papeete and are an open invitation to mountain climbers. A third peak, known as the Diademe (4,291 feet) and looking like a huge crown – Diademe means tiara in French – can best be seen from the eastern town of Pirae.
Papeete is more cosmopolitan, more bustling and congested than the other Society Islands. Tahiti, which accounts for one-fourth of the landmass of French Polynesia (118 islands scattered over an area as large as Europe), has about 180,000 residents or approximately two-thirds of the islands’ population. Papeete must have been the place Oscar Hammerstein II was thinking of when he wrote the lyrics for the song Some Enchanted Evening (for the 1949 Broadway show and 1958 film, South Pacific based on the James Michener novel Tales of the South Pacific): “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger…across a crowded room.”
Another Papeete characteristic: it has more of a French ambiance than the other Society Islands. To begin with, the cruise ship pier is alongside a waterfront promenade that recalls the French Riviera, and it is fun to people-watch from one of the sidewalk cafes while enjoying a coffee or local Hinano beer. Along the promenade, visitors also find chic boutiques selling French imports including wines and perfumes. Centre Vaima on Boulevard Pomare, within walking distance of the pier, is a four-level mall filled with fashionable shops and a Pearl Museum
A must-see in Papeete is within walking distance of the cruise pier – and this one affords a big dose of local Polynesian color –Le Marché Municipale, or municipal market. Located one block from Boulevard Pomare, between rue du 22 Septembre and rue Francois Cardella, this huge market covers 75,350 square feet. It is busiest in the early mornings, when vendors come from all over Tahiti, and sometimes other islands as well, to sell their products. Flowers, including the sweet-smelling Tiare Tahiti (that visitors are given by ladies in colorful costumes when they arrive at the airport in Papeete); black pearls; carvings; shells; coffee; produce, including traditional vegetables like taro and breadfruit; meats and baked goods are among the myriad offerings. Grabbing an ice-cold coconut to sip while browsing is a pleasure, as is buying a bouquet of fresh flowers to decorate your stateroom! The U.S. dollar, incidentally, is generally accepted in the municipal market and shops. A Tahitian band typically entertains during lunch at the market’s upstairs snack bar.
Another highlight, also within walking distance of the port, is the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Papeete. Consecrated in 1875 and restored in the 20th century, it is a Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral located on the Place Notre Dame, on rue Jeanne d’Arc and rue General de Gaulle. A quiet, lovely spot to stop for a rest while touring, the cathedral, which boasts a blend of modern and ancient images decorating its windows, reportedly has survived a tidal wave in 1906, a bombing of the city by the Germans in 1914, a cyclone in 1983 and riots in 1987.
Popular excursions sold onboard ships Popular shore excursions sold onboard ships include the Musée Gauguin (Gauguin Museum). This museum is a memorial to French artist Paul Gauguin, who lived in the Mataiea district of Tahiti, 32 miles west of Papeete (where the museum stands) from 1891 to 1893. The museum has exhibits about Gauguin’s life and his years on the island. During a recent visit, it did not have any original Gauguins on exhibit as it was under renovation, but it owns some of the famous post-Impressionist’s work including drawings, sculptures and engravings. It also seeks to borrow his major works from other collections. Sharing the same entrance road to the museum is the Harrison W. Smith Botanical Garden (Smith was an American who came to live in Tahiti and created the garden) with tropical plants and trees.
Passengers ready for a beach and water sports break, can check out the Sofitel Maeva Beach near Papeete. Kayaks and jet-skis are available for rent there. Other beaches to try include the InterContinental Resort Tahiti’s where a watersports concession offers snorkel gear and diving equipment rental as well as kayaks (and visitors do not need to be guests of the hotel to rent equipment); the public beach in front of Le Royal Tahitien Hotel in Pirae (it has black sand, like many beaches on Tahiti); and the Plage de Maui in Tahiti Iti. Surfers should head out to the beaches of Papenoo on Tahiti Nui and Teuhupo’o on Tahiti Iti.
Those who would like to acquaint themselves with the region’s abundant marine life –without getting wet – may wish to check out the Lagoonarium in Punaauia, seven miles west of Papeete. This aquarium, part of the Captain Bligh Restaurant and Bar, features reef sharks, tropical fish and sea turtles.
La Maison James Norman Hall (the James Norman Hall house) is a replica of the home overlooking Matavai Bay of the author of such novels as Mutiny on the Bounty, Pitcairn’s Island, and Hurricane (all written along with Charles Nordhoff). The house, in Arue, about three miles east of Papeete, has Hall’s typewriter, original manuscripts, photographs and other memorabilia. Ships offer tours to this house museum and combine it with other island points of interest including the Monument to Captain Bligh, erected by the National Geographic Society in the 1960s in honor of Bligh’s naval feats (a breadfruit tree in the site is an offshoot of one of the original trees that Bligh introduced to the Caribbean in 1793).
To learn about, and appreciate, Tahiti’s culture and history, there are various options. A popular one is a visit to the Musée de Tahiti Et Ses Isles (The Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands). Located in Punaauia, about nine miles west from Papeete, and set in a coconut grove next to a lagoon with gorgeous views of Moorea, it offers historical and cultural exhibits including the geological history of the island. The museum also has displays of early tools and artifacts, tapa cloth making, weaving, tattooing and more.
Other historical/cultural options include the Arahurahu Marae, a restored Polynesian temple that is maintained like a museum in Paea, 14 miles west of Papeete, with boards that explain its significance; and King Pomare V’s tomb (he was the last king of Tahiti, who abdicated to the French in 1880) on Point Outuaiai in Arue, off the coastal road. Additionally, some hotels, including the InterContinental Resort Tahiti, feature Polynesian buffets with Tahitian music and dances.
For a comprehensive island experience while in Papeete, take in Tahiti Iti, the more rural side of the island of Tahiti, with its villages, beaches and coastal road an open invitation to exploration and offering such rewards as waterfalls, marae (temples), archaeological sites and caves with petroglyphs. Many ships offer circle-island tours taking in the highlights of both Tahiti Iti and Tahiti Nui including the Arahoho Blowhole; waterfalls; a fern grotto; and Point Venus, where explorers Cook, Bligh and Wallis landed in the 18th century, where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus for longitudinal studies in 1769, and where a 110-foot tall lighthouse built in 1867 is still operational. Another site associated with Capt. Cook is One Tree Hill, so named because it has only one tree on it, and used by Cook as a landmark.
Local flavors not to be missed include French and Polynesian culinary specialties. French dishes are served at many Papeete restaurants – some quite convenient to the cruise port, like La Corbeille d’Eau (The Basket of Water, so named because “Papeete” means Basket of Water in the native Tahitian language). La Corbeille d’Eau, on Boulevard Pomare, like some other restaurants, sometimes offers coconut crab as the catch of the day; if so, try it –it is a rich dish that tastes like foie gras and mixes the salty taste of the seafood with the sweetness of the coconut.
A fun and inexpensive way to sample Polynesian cuisine for dinner is to head to Place Vaiete where Les Roulottes (food vending trucks) set up shop on the waterfront every evening offering such Polynesian delights as poisson cru (raw tuna with coconut milk, lime juice, peppers and green onions) as well as French crepes and dishes from other cuisines.
Good souvenirs include black pearls and local handicrafts.
Cruise lines that sail from and/or visit Papeete include Crystal, Holland America, Paul Gauguin, Princess, and Silversea.