Overwater bungalows, first invented in the islands of Tahiti 45 years ago and is now the quintessential icon of paradise. For travelers looking for the perfect South Pacific escape, staying in an overwater bungalow is a “can’t miss experience.” From direct access from a private deck into the world-renown Tahitian lagoons or lounging on the balcony of a thatched-roof hideaway with all the amenities and service of a first class hotel room, the overwater bungalow is the symbol of the ultimate private getaway. The overwater bungalow was first conceived and built in the lagoon of Raiatea in 1967 by three American hotel owners know as “The Bali Hai Boys.” They took the traditional local Polynesian grass huts, and set them on concrete stilts over the water’s edge. Soon after, Hotel Bora Bora was the first luxury resort on the island of Bora Bora to build overwater bungalows. Today, most resorts on all the frequently visited islands throughout Tahiti feature luxurious bungalows, suites and villas perched over calm and mesmerizing lagoons.
Tahitian Cultured Pearls are Tahiti’s largest export and a local specialty and are found only in French Polynesia. Visitors can explore Tahitian cultured black pearl farms in the Tuamotu atolls Manihi, Rangiroa and on the islands of Raiatea, Taha’a, and Huahine, and can watch the grafting of the blacked-lipped oysters that create these exotic and highly prized pearls. Before buying pearls, stop by the Tahiti Black Pearl Museum in Papeete to learn how to judge the value based on size, color, luster, and shape.
Shark feeding is a popular and memorable experience in which visitors watch a guide carefully hand-feed docile reef sharks. The guide strings a rope to hold onto, and participants just don a mask and snorkel toand watch the magnificent creatures feed.
The Cuisine of Tahiti is a delectable array of fresh fish, exotic tropical fruits, and vegetables, with a Polynesian influence and unmistakable French flair. Not to be missed is poisson cru – fresh fish marinated with lime and coconut, mixed with vegetables. Parrot fish, ahi, mahi-mahi and other fresh fish are divine in a light sauce made from vanilla beans and coconut milk.
Stop by the roulottes, or “food trucks,” that gather at the wharf in downtown Papeete each evening. Hungry visitors can wander among the dozens of roulottes to choose local fare. Unbelievably delicious meals – including stir fry, curry, roast pig, pizza, and flaming crêpes – can be had at bargain prices in a fun, local atmosphere.
The Hawaiki Nui Va’a could best be described as the Super Bowl of outrigger canoe races. It’s the world’s largest, longest, and most exhilarating international open ocean outrigger canoe event, and is the ultimate test of strength and endurance for both men and women. Six-person crews race 72 miles from the island of Huahine to Raiatea, then to Taha’a and finally to Bora Bora. An entourage of avid fans follow by canoes and boats, creating a colorful regatta throughout the week in mid-October.
The Island of Tahiti are best known as a romantic paradise. Honeymooners and couples of all ages rekindle their love and rediscover each other in the seclusion of the islands. More and more couples are getting married or renewing their marriage vows in a traditional Tahitian wedding ceremony. The ritual is deep and meaningful, where couples are bedecked in pareus, flowers, shells, and feathers. The groom approaches the beach in an outrigger canoe. His bride, who was carried in on a rattan throne, awaits him on the white- sand beach. A spectacular sunset and lapping lagoon create a stunning backdrop. Tahitian music and dancers add to the ambiance. A Tahitian priest “marries” the couple and gives them their Tahitian names and the Tahitian name of their first-born.
Stone fishing tournaments are an exciting spectacle on the island of Taha’a. In the method of their ancestors, the villagers wade into the lagoon, beating the water with stones tied to ropes. The frenzy frightens schools of fish, driving them ashore, where they are easily collected with nets for a feast.
Celestial navigation is tied to the ancient Polynesians who settled the South Pacific islands. These early settlers were adept at guiding their way using only the stars, waves, currents, bird flights, sun, and wind. A visit to the museum on the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands on the island of Tahiti is a good way to explore this amazing bit of history.
Rangiroa, also known as “The Endless Lagoon,” is home to one of the world’s greatest shark dives. In Tiputa pass, literally hundreds of these creatures create a shark wall. Travelers are often intrigued by the sharks in Tahiti, which are non-aggressive. Divers who swim with a variety of species are amazed that they can get so close without being harmed.
“Tattoo” is one of the few Polynesian words that has worked its way into our language (“taboo” is another). This ancient Polynesian custom dates back to the days of warring between neighboring tribes. Full of symbolism, often done without anesthetic, and using and often done with traditional instruments, tattoos this remains an important part of Tahitian tradition culture.
The rare tiare apetahi flower can only be found in one place in the entire world, on a mountain peak on the sacred island of Raiatea. Botanists have tried to grow it elsewhere without luck. It has a wonderful Tahitian legend tied to it and is prized by all Tahitians. Legend says the delicate petals of the tiare apetahi represent the five fingers of a lovely Tahitian girl who fell in love with the son of a king and died of a broken heart because she could not hope to marry him. The petals close at night, and at daybreak they open with a slight crackling sound – thought to be the sound of her heart breaking. Reaching the peak is a couple hours’ hike up the mountain, but worth every minute.
In the spirit of their ancient ancestors, Tahitian sporting events include stone lifting, fruit carrying, grueling canoe races between the islands, and javelin throwing, where contestants aim at a single coconut, 60 feet away. Visitors can see these events during the seven-week long Heiva I Tahiti celebration in June and July.
Marae, or religious stone temples, are found throughout the Society Islands of Tahiti. These sites were sacred and very important places of political and social gathering in ancient Polynesia. Experts are learning more and more about the early Polynesians as they restore and uncover the marae.
Tamure means “dance” in Tahitian, and it’s done with an energy and passion that is unsurpassed. From slow, graceful dances to fast, rhythmic movement, visitors must see this demonstration of native culture. Even years after visiting, travelers find that the mere sound of Tahitian music evokes powerful memories of the fervent tamure.
Pareus are seen just about everywhere. These colorful pieces of fabric are worn as a cover-up, a dress, shorts, a shawl, or can be spread out as a picnic cloth or beach towel. Created with traditional designs and bright tropical colors, pareus are inexpensive and make the perfect souvenir. Visitors can find pareus throughout the islands, but the largest selection is at Le Marché, the downtown market in Papeete. Many are hand- painted by local artists. Men and women alike consider cool and colorful pareus to be the ultimate island garb.
How are the Tahitians keeping their culture alive? Although 75 percent of the population is of Polynesian decent, the French influence is profound. In the past few years, Tahitians have made a dedicated effort to keep their culture alive by teaching the Tahitian language in school, encouraging traditional sports, arts, and crafts, and keeping Tahitian dance and music alive.
Hospitality is a Tahitian way of life. Tahitians are proud of their islands and want to share the beauty with visitors. Even tipping is contrary to their beliefs – it’s simply not expected. Every visitor to Tahiti should take the time to chat with locals and learn about their culture and lifestyle. It can make the experience of this beautiful paradise even richer.