Soak up some tropical sunshine in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Photo by Jo Percival.

Tahiti: short, sweet and sticky


Tahiti is hot. A syrupy, clinging heat that sits close and consistent no matter what time of day or night. I’m in Papeete, the gateway to the numerous archipelagos of French Polynesia, for just a couple of days before setting off on other adventures.

Tahiti is a bountiful island with volcanic mountains, coral reefs and unlike many of the other atolls, beaches of black sand, volcanic and silky soft. Walking along the shoreline at Le Tahiti Resort, I sink up to my ankles, it’s like treading in dense sponge cake.

Inside the resort there’s a pick n’ mix of languages and accents from around the world. I spin the roulette of morning greetings – will it be French, Tahitian or English today? After a breakfast of vibrant fruits, warm, buttery croissants and dense baguette, I claim my spot poolside.

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Poolside at Le Tahiti Resort, Papeete. Photo by Jo Percival.

The sway of Polynesian music seems to be what’s rustling the trees because there’s no breeze to speak of. Offshore, the spikes of Moorea create an intriguing silhouette on the horizon. Reclining in the shade of a cherry-red umbrella, my muscles begin to unclench in the balmy warmth.

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In the afternoon, the beach fills with local teenagers. They frolic in the surf that sounds like a freshly poured glass of champagne. Boys whoop and wrestle in the waves, girls in barely-there bikinis are dusted in fine black sand. Groups lie in the shade snacking on chunks of coconut and papaya.

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A black sand beach in Papeete. Photo by Jo Percival.

That night, the ocean does a good job of mimicking a thunderstorm. The sheen of moonlight reflected in a cresting wave crackles silver like lightning. Then, the thunderous boom of surf crashes and fizzes onto the obsidian-coloured beach.

From the coast, the mountainous peaks of Tahiti appear impenetrable.

In fact, there is only one road across the centre of the island and only one hand-dug tunnel that provides access to the southern coast. Today, I am travelling there. On board a 4x4 safari with Marama Tours, I join a family from California and a woman from Toronto on the back of a converted open-air ute to head into the hinterland.

The tour takes us into the Papenoo Valley, lush with greenery and flowing with a multitude of rain-fed waterfalls. Our guide, Manua, stops to show us things of interest along the way – like noni fruit, which Tahitian lore says can be used to cure cancer or, more likely, as an insect repellent. I’m tempted to pick some; the mosquitos are ferocious and my all-natural bug spray is less than effective.

We pull up at a ford over the river and Manua whips out a tin of mackerel and a sharp knife. He drops chunks of pungent fish onto a rock and soon a writhing knot of eels, or puhi as they’re known in Tahitian, emerges from the water to snatch at the snack.

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River swims in the Papenoo Valley. Photo by Jo Percival.

By mid-morning my skin is coated in a paste of off-road dust, sweat and sunscreen and the prospect of a dip in the river is beyond appealing. I hobble over smooth boulders and plunge into the deep green water of the swimming hole. The Californian kids eventually work up the courage to leap off the high rocks on the opposite bank.

Lunch is at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Well, a former hotel. The ramshackle restaurant sits adjacent to a long-abandoned accommodation complex; industrious locals have taken over the site to cater tour groups like ours. Views stretch up and down the length of the valley where just a couple of roofs punctuate the expanse of green. We’re delivered plates with simple poisson cru (raw fish in coconut milk) and chicken with locally grown spinach-like api leaves. It’s delicious.

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Lunch is at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, with Mount Orohena in the distance. Photo by Jo Percival.

Our postprandial journey takes on a road signposted ‘piste dangereuse.’ As we climb higher the road gets narrower and the jungle gets junglier. In the distance, Mount Orohena, Tahiti’s highest mountain pokes like a snaggletooth through a wreath of clouds.  

The landscapes are different on the southern side of the island. Big burgundy-backed broad leaf miconia trees sit alongside red, orange, yellow and pink hibiscus flowers. Giant bunches of green bananas hang next to oversized stands of bamboo.

Emerging from the mouth of the Papenoo Valley we head back around the coast, past sorbet-coloured houses, where people sweep and chickens scratch. Tethered dogs lie in the dusty shade. I smell bonfire smoke and freshly cut grass. Along the main highway, we pass roadside stalls with strings of enormous, freshly caught tuna. Shirtless men play pétanque.

After a day in the jungle, I’m keen to get out on the water. The Moana Explorer is a triple-hulled va’a or sailing canoe built from fibreglass to traditional design; I wade out to clamber onto the stretch of mesh strung between its hulls. My guide, Steve, assumes his paddling position in the central hull and we set off, skirting the edge of the reef to head for the open ocean. Steve has studied Polynesian navigation and teaches kids how to sail va’a in between excursions like these. He’s proud to be Polynesian, he says, and was glad to return home to Papeete after many years spent studying in France. It was far too cold there.

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Setting sail on a traditional va'a triple-hulled canoe in Papeete. Photo by Jo Percival.

Tempting as it would be to trail my feet in the water, Steve advises against it. This part of the bay is home to a big mama Tiger Shark, almost as long as the va’a, Steve says. He has seen her.

Once we’re clear of the headland the breeze picks up. Flying fish break the surface and skitter in front of our bow. Tahiti grows smaller behind us and clouds shift to reveal the peaks I’d been amongst the day before. Steve explains the predictable patterns of the evening sea breeze: just after sunset, as the land cools, air currents shift over the relatively warmer ocean. It happens right on cue and the va’a gets another boost of speed.

It's lucky Steve is so familiar with this stretch of coastline as by the time we return to shore it’s properly dark. He carefully navigates in between the surf breaks, nudging the va’a ashore from black ocean to equally dark sand.

After remote jungle and empty ocean, the city of Papeete is a sensory onslaught.

The humidity is like soup and the traffic is thick with the drone of scooters and the off-key lament of ambulances. Tinny Tahitian pop music blares from shops and mingles over cracked footpaths with exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. Sweat trickles down my back, though everyone else ­– locals and tourists alike ­– is also blotchy with perspiration.

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Bright pareos for sale at the Papeete Market. Photo by Jo Percival.

The Papeete Market is the nexus of souvenir-ville in the centre of town. Acres of brightly-coloured pareo, or sarongs, hang next to shell necklaces, Tahitian coffee, vanilla pods and an array of black pearls of dubious quality. In the produce section I wander past piles of bananas in varying shades of ripeness, chunks of ruby tuna, spiky rambutans, baguettes and cling-filmed cakes.

The air-conditioned Intercontinental Resort provides a welcome respite. Spacious and sprawling on the Faa’a shoreline, the resort is studded with aquamarine swimming pools of numerous configurations – tiled, sandy-bottomed, with a swim-up bar – but the most interesting addition is the lagoon. Here, guests can snorkel over a human-made coral reef with a myriad of fish species and also sea turtles, recuperating as part of a conservation programme. I watch, mesmerised, as one glides lazily alongside the boardwalk.

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Relaxing at the Intercontinental Resort on the Faa'a coastline. Photo by Jo Percival.

From my poolside position I get into a staring competition with Moorea who chokes with shyness and hides behind clouds. But the dark shape of the offshore island is enticing, a setting for many more Polynesian adventures still to come.


Story by Jo Percival for the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Jo Percival is the Digital Editor of AA Directions magazine. 

AA Directions has a trip for two to Tahiti to give away.
To find out more and be in to win, enter here! 

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