Exploring Tahiti From a Cruise Ship On Your Own
P&O Arcadia arrived in Papeete, Tahiti of the windward islands in French Polynesia on a rainy February day. We hadn’t made any specific plans for this port stop. We knew we could find a few things to see within walking distance of the ship if nothing else came up including an old cathedral, a municipal market, a pearl museum, or the ferry to Moorea Island. Exiting the ship we were handed a map highlighting a nearby pearl market so anyone looking for Tahitian pearls would not have far to go.
Tahiti is the largest of the 118 islands that make up French Polynesia. While before this trip I would look at the word Papeete and think it rhymed with Tahiti, all the ship’s announcements pronounced it as paw-pay-eh-tee. Whether that is how the locals and French say it or a British pronunciation I have no clue. Papeete is the capital of Tahiti. The two islands of Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti connect by a narrow isthmus to make the whole of Tahiti, an island created by volcanoes. Most of the towns and houses sit in an often narrow strip of lowlands ringing the jungle-covered mountainous interior. The larger cities sit in areas with a broader expanse of lowlands and sprawl up into the highlands as well.
We were not sure if Tahiti would have the random local excursions you can get as you get off the ship like the Caribbean ports have, but sure enough there were a line of taxis and several people rounding up passengers for island tours. One outfit wanted $50 each for an open truck. We had heard of the local LeTruck busses. This was the same sort of bus on a flatbed truck type vehicle, but it was for cruise ship passengers only and not public transportation. It did have a cover over the top, but the next guy down the line had an enclosed and air conditioned bus and was offering tours for $40, both a better deal and a better option for a day with heavy showers on and off. We bargained him down to $35 each. Still more than these tours cost on most Caribbean islands, but things are expensive in Tahiti and the tour went around the entire big island and lasted over 4 hours.
French is the official language of Tahiti and some of the natives speak Tahitian as well. We had a guide who spoke perfect English, having lived in the USA for 10 years. Besides telling us about the things we saw along the way she also talked about different plants used for native medicines and the different fruits growing there. She said at one time everything including their homes had been made from coconut palms, but none of those houses are still around. She also said people get a longer jail sentence for selling drugs than for murder, although neither was all that long at 4 years for murder and 5 for selling marijuana. She spoke wistfully of living off the land as she grew up and sadly added that her grandchildren prefer McDonalds over native foods and store-bought skin care products over the homemade ones that she said work much better.
While rain beat down on the roof of the bus our guide said that the rainy season was over. It’s not supposed to rain that time of year, but the climate has changed. Something we’ve heard over and over on many tours all over the world in the last few years. Whatever the current weather is doing is not supposed to happen at that season or time of the year.
First we stopped at Point Venus, so named because Captain Cook went there to study the movements of the planet Venus in hopes of gaining better knowledge of the earth’s distance from the sun. Point Venus was where all the early European ships landed including Louis de Bougainville who claimed Tahiti for France and Captain Bligh with the HMS Bounty of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. The mutiny happened not long after leaving Tahiti. Point Venus has the only lighthouse on Tahiti, built out of coral in 1867.
Then we made a quick stop at a local grocery store where people could pick up drinks and snacks. Local currency is the French Pacific Frank, but most places are happy to accept American dollars or credit cards.
The island has a lot of chickens running around and we saw a couple random dogs as well. Anytime we walked through a forested area John said he was under attack from biting bugs, but I had a bounce dryer sheet in my pocket. Not one bug bothered me all day and normally I’m the one with the most bites. Dryer sheets really do make great bug repellent. Bonus – no chemical bug spray and you can still use it in the dryer. I’m not sure if one kind works any better than another, but I had a Bounce Free unscented.
Next we stopped at the Ara Ahoaho blow holes, something we had wanted to see. I saw a photo on the internet before we came that showed the blow hole spewing seawater across a road, but apparently that was an old picture. Now a tunnel bypasses that road and the blow holes have their own tourist stop with a pathway where the road was and a lookout to another blow hole next to the sea.
There’s a bit of the old road remaining beyond a fence. The hole makes a bit of noise before it sprays. Now and then it sprayed a decent amount, but most of its efforts during our brief stop were rather pathetic.
Stormy seas or perhaps a higher tide would make a far more impressive show, although there was enough wave action that day to have surfers out on every beach we saw. After viewing the blowholes with dry skies a downpour came just in time to soak everyone before getting back on the bus.
Luckily it stopped raining by the time we got to our next stop at a Botanical Garden. It is home to the Gaugin museum, but the museum is closed for renovations and has been for about 3 years. Our guide said they ran out of money to finish and reopen. The garden is still open and has a pretty sizeable waterfall and lots of pretty flowers. An eel swam about near a bridge by the waterfall.
Next we visited the water caves. These are high-ceilinged grottos in the side of a mountain with water at the bottom. Water also dripped from the top, but it was a rainy day so that may not always be the case. The largest one had its own mist emanating from the dark depths of its water-filled floor. Actually I have no idea whether it is deep or not, but definitely dark.
Our last stop brought us to the site of an ancient Polynesian temple made from lava stones. It is mostly platforms now, many of the stones having been carted off to build a cotton plantation nearby. It’s still an impressive site though. The stone platforms cover quite a large area. One had a short wall from what may once have been a room and another had one pyramid-like wall still standing.
Carved statues sat at the entrance, and another much smaller one on a pole by the last platform with the pyramid wall. Our guide mentioned the islander’s original religion having a god of war to whom they made human sacrifices, a god of peace to whom they gave animals and produce, and a goddess of fertility. Probably why there were three platforms. Missionaries of the 1800’s came to convert the islanders to Christianity and now churches from a variety of denominations dot the island.
The guide warned us to mind our valuables should we decide to stroll through town because unemployment is about 10% and thieves will sometimes go by on bicycles and grab purses and things right off of people.
Things To Do When Visiting Tahiti as a Cruise Port
The excursions offered through our ship were: Tahiti Sightseeing tour by bus, Tahiti Sightseeing tour by helicopter, Dolphin Watch, and Mountain Safari by Jeep.
On Your Own
Things within walking distance of the cruise ship dock: Black Pearl Museum, Ferry to Moorea, Bougainville Park, Place Tarahoi government buildings, Cathedrale de L’Immaculee Conception (Tahiti’s oldest Catholic church), Marché Municipale (public market), City Hall, Shops, Restaurants.
Taxi or bus tour, Visit the tourist information booth at the port for current options, Travel the Island by local bus. Privately Arranged tours pre-booked on the internet.