The Best Things to Do in Tahiti

Although many travelers see Tahiti as an entry point to French Polynesia, it really is a destination in its own right. It’s different from the other islands, with a bustling capital, a lush, waterfall-studded interior that is perfect for hiking, and the best surfing in French Polynesia—possibly the world. It is also more affordable to plan a vacation to Tahiti than outer islands like Bora Bora. And you can always pop over to Moorea on the ferry for a day trip.

Captain James Cook set up his observatory at Point Venus, one of the loveliest spots on the island. The transit of Venus, which happens maybe once a century, lets observers here see the planet move across the sun. (That’s the official reason for the name, but there’s no doubt Cook’s crew, after months at sea, had a different Venus in mind when they saw Tahitian women.) Now the point’s a windswept corner of the island that feels like there’s nothing between you and another world but the sea. The lighthouse here, Phare de la Pointe Vénus, was built in 1868, 99 years after Cook’s visit.
Hitia'a, French Polynesia
On Tahiti’s rocky east coast, the volcanic Lava Tubes of Hitiaa are underground channels and eroded sections of rock in caves that have been penetrated by water. Although you can visit solo, it is really best to visit with a guided 4WD tour. Check with Marama Tours, which also does a range of other island tours from encounters with dolphins to 4WD trips across the Papenoo valley that is rich in waterfalls and archeological sites.
The right swell conditions produce a geyser-like fountain of water that looks very impressive coming up from what is known as the trou du souffleur (blowhole). Located by the road just before Tiarei at PK22 -- if you’re coming from Papeete, the blowhole is where the road bends around a corner and you’ll see a parking area just beyond it. Just past the blowhole there’s a beautiful black-sand beach sliver that makes a great place for a picnic. You’ll sometimes even find vendors selling fruit here.
Pape'ete, French Polynesia
You can drive the 71-mile circular road around Tahiti Nui in a day, either by renting a car for a day or by joining a guided tour (your hotel will have info for either). Either way, the loop road takes you along the wild and rocky east coast, where you will see spectacular black sand beaches, many hosting excellent surf breaks. By contrast, the island’s west coast is tamer and features peaceful lagoons for swimming and even a few white sand beaches, like popular Maui Beach. Extend the drive by continuing into Tahiti Iti, the smaller section of the island at the south end, and forming a figure eight loop to return to Papeete.
To see how one family worked out their idea of living in paradise, head to the James Norman Hall Museum (La Maison de James Norman Hall). Hall was the coauthor of the book Mutiny on the Bounty, and with the book’s bounty, he bought a swath of Tahitian beach and built his dream house. Captain Bligh had been sent to Tahiti to collect breadfruit to be transplanted in the West Indies where it was hoped it would prosper as a food source for sugar plantation workers, so don’t miss the breadfruit trees planted here. (If you’ve not tried the fruit, it tastes like a cross between a grapefruit and a pineapple. Delicious.)
Papeari, French Polynesia
At the beginning of the 20th century, a physics professor in Massachusetts inherited a ton of money. He promptly headed for the South Pacific, settling there and founding what’s now the Harrison Smith Botanical Garden. Maybe Smith had a slight Noah complex: He brought in plants from around the world, which means an African flower might sit next to a South American fern. The problem is that he inadvertently killed off the native plants with his imports. Still, the garden is a lovely spot to wander around, a sampler box of world botany.
Unnamed Road
It’s sort of an unwritten rule: All movies filmed in the Pacific have to include at least one seriously dramatic steep waterfall with quiet pools to cool off in. So odds are good that somewhere on late-night TV you’ve come across Tahiti’s Vaipahi Waterfall, because they don’t get much more perfect. Surrounded by hanging vines, the pool is cool and refreshing, and at its best when there’s a slight breeze to keep the bugs away.
Pā'ea, French Polynesia
Life across Polynesia was once defined by ritual power. In many places, chiefs were too sacred to actually look at, and if you helped bury a chief, you’d not be allowed to utilize your hands for nine months or more. The 'Ārahurahu Marae, a sacred structure of black stone, was built solely for rituals. Nicely restored, the 'Ārahurahu is set at the foot of a cliff, surrounded by jungle. A trail lined with tikis leads to the three-story marae, which is still in use, revived as part of the Polynesian Renaissance. The marae is worth a visit: Soak up the place to get a feel for a time when this was the island’s heartbeat.
Pā'ea, French Polynesia
If you need to hone your surfing skills, no worries, Tahiti has some fabulous beginner breaks plus warm water! Tura’i Mataare Surf School offers private and small group surf lessons to anyone over the age of 5-years. The 3 hour and 30 minute lesson aims to help you master the basic techniques before you venture to multiple surfing spots along the western coast of the island. The company picks up from all the hotels, and rates include transport. If you already know what you’re doing and just want to ride the best waves for when you’re visiting Moana Surf Tours in Punaauia can provide guides or put together any combination of surfing, lodging and boat.
PK7, Fa'a'ā 98702, French Polynesia
Tahitian dancers, known the world over for their passion and energy, are mesmerizing to watch whether the dance is slow and graceful or fast and rhythmic. Though dancing is a national pastime in Tahiti, the many dance schools rarely take drop-in students. Don’t let that stop you. Traditional Polynesian dance performances are fantastic. Te Tiare Restaurant, at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort & Spa, offers Tahitian dance performances during dinner service on Friday nights. (If you catch the Tahitian dance fever, make plans to come back for the weeklong dance festival Heiva I Tahiti, held every July.
Teahupo'o, French Polynesia
Tahiti Iti, Tahiti‘s smaller sister island that’s connected to the main island at the southeast coast, is home to one of the most famous surfing waves in the Pacific, Teahupoo. This powerful reef break most certainly should not be attempted by anyone but the best surfers—a fall means being dragged by the current across the sharp coral right below the surface. That edge of drama makes for a tense but enjoyable afternoon of observation (from the beach). The left break is best between April and October. The Billabong Pro competition is held here August.
Ha'apūpuni, French Polynesia
Tahiti is home to some of the most beautiful hiking trails in Polynesia. Stops can include spectacular waterfalls and natural pools, panoramic views, grottos, archeological sites and lava tubes. A favorite hike is to the three Faarumai waterfalls. From the car park it is a quick scramble through a forest of chestnut trees to the first waterfall, Vaimahutu. Continue on for another 20 minutes or so to reach the other to falls Haamarere Iti and Haamarere Rahi, which are almost side-by-side. With hundreds of varieties of tropical trees, plants and flowers, Tahiti also has some of the world’s most beautiful gardens. Visit the water gardens of Vaipahi to experience the abundant flora and waterfalls that flow directly into Lake Vaihiria.
The perfect place to shop for anything and everything from all the islands is the 155-year-old public market called Le Marché. Located two blocks from the waterfront in the heart of Papeete, the market covers two stories. The lower level is filled with hundreds of stands offering Tahitian-made crafts, oils, vanilla, fruits, and flowers. Upstairs is reserved for artisans selling pareos, carvings, Tifaifai wall hangings and quilts, embroidered cushion covers, and other handicrafts. You’ll also find a few good shops for purchasing unique black pearl jewelry at fair prices. An on-site cafeteria serves local dishes. Le Marché is not just a tourist attraction, however—it’s a proper market where locals come to shop for meat, fish, fresh flowers, and produce and to chat with friends over coffee at one of the patisseries.
Teahupo'o, French Polynesia
Tahiti is the birthplace of surfing, and the island offers a few excellent beginner breaks as well as one of the world’s most powerful waves, Teahupo’o. To hone your surfing skills, visit the Tura’I Mataare Surf School in Paea, which offers both single and multi-day lessons by qualified instructors that include equipment rentals in the fee. Located on the southern half of the island, known as Tahiti Iti, the monster wave at Havae Pass, also known as Teahupoo, is the wave that experts make pilgrimages to ride – please don’t attempt unless you know what you are doing. This is where the Billabong Pro Championships are held each year over a week in August.
Motu 'Au, Māhina, French Polynesia
The small “motu” islets surrounding many of the islands are the perfect spots to enjoy an al fresco island feast. These miniature, palm-covered paradises offer a get-away from the big island and you’ll get a taste for paradise in the buff. You won’t find roads, cars, markets or restaurants, just secluded atmosphere, pristine surroundings and a romantic ambience. Plus you get a unique view perspective of the Pacific Ocean and the lush mountains of mainland Tahiti. Motu Martin (Motu Au’) is the only private island in the North East Coast of Tahiti. The departure is from Venus Point Lighthouse.
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