Paul Gauguin came to Tahiti, and so did the likes of James Michener and Herman Melville, among others. It’s easy to see why: the beauty of the island with its green-clad mountains, rainforests and waterfalls and its Polynesian- and French-accented- ambiance and joie de vivre lure one and all. We have been lured a half dozen times, the latest aboard the current 2020 World Cruise of Holland America’s Amsterdam and we received a lovely port welcome: a local band entertained by the gangway, dancers executed traditional dances to the music of another band, and ladies in colorful costumes gave us each a fragrant tiare flower as we disembarked in Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.
The weather was balmy and a bit humid as we disembarked, and some passengers were complaining it was too hot –they were some of the same ones that were complaining it was too cold a couple of weeks ago when we were in Antarctica. We were delighted to have had calm seas during our Pacific crossing and excited to be here.
Shaped like a figure eight lying on its side, as a swimmer floating on a mat in the water, Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia (651 square miles), and it has two main roundish 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 portions. 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, Diademe (4,291 feet), looks like a huge crown – Diademe means tiara in French – and can best be seen from the eastern town of Pirae.
Papeete is more cosmopolitan and bustling than other French Polynesian islands. It accounts for one-fourth of the landmass of French Polynesia (118 islands scattered over an area as large as Europe) and has about 189,000 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 “Some Enchanted Evening” (for the 1949 Broadway show and 1958 film “South Pacific” based on James Michener’s novel Tales of the South Pacific): “Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger…across a crowded room.”
Another Papeete characteristic: it has more French ambiance than other Society Islands such as Bora Bora and Moorea. The cruise pier is alongside a waterfront promenade that recalls the French Riviera with views of luxury yachts and bobbing sailboats, and it is fun to people-watch from a cafe while enjoying a coffee or local Hinano beer. We went for a stroll along the promenade, across from 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 shops and a Pearl Museum.
A must-see, Le Marché Municipale (municipal market) is within walking distance of the cruise pier and affords a big dose of local Polynesian color. Located one block from Boulevard Pomare, between rue du 22 Septembre and rue Francois Cardella, this huge market covers 75,350 square feet. Vendors come here from all over Tahiti, and sometimes other islands as well, to sell their products. Flowers, including the sweet-smelling Tiare Tahiti; black pearls; carvings; shells; coffee; produce, including traditional vegetables like taro and breadfruit; meats and baked goods are among the offerings. We polished our “bonjours”and “mercis” (although all the vendors we talked to spoke English) and looked for monoi oil (coconut oil with tiare flowers) which Polynesian women credit for their lovely skin and lustrous hair. Grabbing a 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 market and shops.
Another highlight, also within walking distance of the port, is the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Papeete. Consecrated in 1875 and restored in the 20thcentury, 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 spot to stop for a rest and contemplation 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. It has lovely stained glass and a beautiful wood carving of the Madonna and Child near the entrance.
Cultural attractions include the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, located in Punaauia, nine miles west of Papeete, set in a coconut grove next to a lagoon with views of Moorea, and displaying historical and cultural exhibits. 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; and King Pomare V’s tomb (last king of Tahiti, who abdicated to the French in 1880) on Point Outuaiai in Arue. 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 and photographs. Ships offer tours to this 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.
If time permits, it’s good to take in Tahiti Iti, the more rural side of the island, with its villages, beaches, waterfalls, marae (temples), archaeological sites and caves with petroglyphs. Ships offer circle-island tours taking in both sides and including the Arahoho Blowhole and Point Venus, where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus for longitudinal studies in 1769, and with a 110-foot-tall 19th century lighthouse.
If your ship stays late or overnights in Papeete (ours did not this time, but ships we have been on in the past, have), you can sample Polynesian cuisine, at Place Vaiete where Les Roulottes (food trucks) set up on the waterfront near the pier every evening, offering such Polynesian delights as poisson cru (raw tuna with coconut milk, lime juice, peppers and green onions), French crepes and other treats.
For a beach break –and most visitors do go to a beach or sign up for a snorkeling tour—we have enjoyed a day pass one year on a previous world cruise, and an overnight stay on another voyage at the InterContinental Tahiti, a short cab ride from the pier. The hotel has beautiful landscaped grounds, beach with crystalline waters, pool and iconic overwater bungalows.
Some quick superlatives on our way to a Maori cultural feast in New Zealand:
- Most delightful: The Papeete port welcome by local dancers and two bands.
- Most fun: Shopping at Le Marche in Papeete and finding out that it is good to price items at various kiosks – we found the same monoi oil with tiare at $5 a bottle in one stand and at $4.50 in another –we were buying 10 bottles so a nice savings and the vendor threw in a sample bottle of monoi oil vanilla as a gift.
- Best beach break: A day pass at the InterContinental Resort Tahiti.
- Most festive: The Tropical Dinner on the Amsterdam with a “forest of palm trees” adorning the dining room, wait staff in Polynesian shirts, hats for each diner and dishes like a fruit medley appetizer with pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi and other fruits with cinnamon-dusted goat cheese.
- Most insistent: Rumors are rampant that there will be changes to our world cruise itinerary, probably affecting Asian ports, but we have not had any official word.