Tahiti & French Polynesia
Reading all of the laudatory accounts by explorers, artists and writers that have visited these shores in centuries past, we wondered what was it about these islands that so enthralled its foreign visitors? Furthermore, we wondered, do these islands still hold that exotic feel we had only dreamed about? What we discovered is that though it may take a little exploring, this idealized beauty does still exist. While we wouldn't exactly call modern-day Tahiti a "Garden of Eden," we can imagine the inherent beauty Captain Cook encountered when he arrived here in the 18th century. Tahiti itself is a bit developed for our tastes; we prefer Bora Bora and Moorea for a true get-away.
French Polynesia is made up of 118 islands spread across nearly a million square miles of ocean. Dotting the South Pacific, and equidistant from South America and Australia, the islands are divided into five groups: the Society Islands (including Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea), the Marquesas, the Australs, the Gambiers and the Tuamotus. Most of the islands are quite small, with only six larger than 62 square miles (100 sq km). Geographically, the islands are stunning, as they are either volcanic in origin with dramatic volcanic tips poking out of the ocean or coral atolls with giant lagoons inside.
Tahiti is the largest and most populated of the islands and being home to the international airport, is the major port of call. While the island has some beautiful black sand beaches and attractions, most visitors prefer some of the other islands, particularly Moorea and Bora Bora. Moorea is Tahiti's sister island, located about ten miles northwest of Papeete, Tahiti's capital city. Its mountain ridges and lush vegetation remind us of a prehistoric lost world and the resorts on the island combine high-class comfort with natural exoticism. Bora Bora is further northwest and is home to mountains and a coral atoll. Author James Michener once proclaimed Bora Bora the most beautiful island in the world. With surreal mountain peaks, sugary white sandy beaches and multi-colored lagoons, these islands epitomize the South Pacific, just as we imagined. A visit to one of the coral atolls is a must as well. The Tuamotu Archipelago is 720 miles (1,159 km) long and famous for its shipwrecks and black pearls, $100 million of which are exported annually. These atolls also happen to be the best place for snorkeling or scuba diving in all of Polynesia.
The Tahitians are a multi-racial mix of Polynesians descended from the Maori people, with European and Asian blood thrown in the mix. Renowned for their deep hospitality, they live with an effervescence conducive to smiling. Though most speak French and Tahitian, English is spoken in hotels and restaurants and among most working with tourism. So come see what Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin were raving about and experience a true tropical island paradise.
Bora Bora is for many the quintessential South Pacific wonderland. The island is small, with only 19 miles (32km) of road, but its beaches and stunning natural beauty have turned it into an elite destination. In the center of the island are the remnants of an extinct volcano rising to two peaks, Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu. The island is surrounded by a fabulous ringlet of islets called "Motus" and a scintillating lagoon. The vibe is laid-back and some of the premier resorts of the French Polynesia are located here.
Located 12 miles (20 km) west of Tahiti, this heart-shaped island was once a giant volcano that eroded forming jagged peaks. The deep blue lagoons, the swaying palms and the magnificent Mount Mauaroa (also called Bali Hai) create a postcard-like setting. The lagoons and coral reefs here make this island ideal for water sports.
For those that want a more authentic feel for Polynesian culture combined with unspoiled natural beauty Huahine is the place to visit. Besides the small village of Fare, the island is one of the most important architectural sites in Polynesia, with pre-European marae temples that have been restored into museums. Huahine is actually made up of two islands, Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) which are adjoined by a narrow isthmus and encircled by a coral reef necklace.
Part of the Tuamotu Atolls, Rangiroa is actually a series of thin islets which encloses the world's second largest lagoon. With a length of 43 miles (70 km) and a width of 16 miles (26 km), the entire island of Tahiti would fit inside this expansive lagoon. The islets that ring the lagoon reach no more than 10 feet in height and the waters within are chock full of marine life. Dolphins are commonly seen swimming near the entrances to the lagoon and the crystal-clear waters inside make for an optimal spot to drop anchor or snorkel for hours.
Papeete Municipal Market
Smack in the middle of Tahiti's capital is this century old central market, which buzzes with activity. Fruits, vegetables, vanilla, oils, flowers and handicrafts are on display, as well as fish meats and other local products. It's best to visit early mornings, especially on Sunday when traders come from all over the island. Nearby is the newly-refurbished waterfront area, which is home to wonderful restaurants and seaside bars.
Paul Gauguin Museum and Harrison Smith Botanical Gardens
This museum honoring the famous French impressionist has some wonderful sculptures and paintings on display and also explains the artist's experiences while he lived in Tahiti. Best of all, the museum is located within this exotic tropical garden founded by American Harrison Smith, who came here to create his own Garden of Eden. The 137 hectares are home to everything from hibiscus to bamboo to bananas and the mape trees with their hanging roots.
On the tip of a peninsula with black sand beaches lies this famous spot where Captain Cook camped to observe the path of the Planet Venus on his first Tahitian visit in 1769. This is also where English Captain William Bligh touched ground as well. This is a great place to soak up a little history and reflect what these islands would be like if the explorers never arrived on these shores. Also located in Point Venus is the Phare de Pointe Vénus, Tahiti's only traditional lighthouse built in 1867.
For those that aren't ready for the all-day hike to the dramatic 985 foot Fautaura Waterfall, this series of Tahitian cascades will suffice. On the way to the falls is the blowhole of Arahoho which cased a geyser-like fountain when the waves force water through a hole in the rocks. Vaimahuta is the first waterfall, but for those with more endurance, there are two more beyond.
Museum of Tahiti and her Islands
The Musée de Tahiti et Des Iles is probably the best cultural museum in the South Pacific. It's exhibits trace the geological history, the human migration to the islands and the ethnology of the native cultures. Set next to a beautiful lagoon and coconut grove with views of Moorea, this is the perfect spot for an introduction to Polynesian culture.
Arahurahu Marae Marae
This marae is the only fully-restored temple on Tahiti and now functions as a museum, with displays explaining the traditional Polynesian religion. Restored over fifty years ago, this temple is often used to re-enact traditional ceremonies as well. There are plenty of other maraes on other islands as well, such as Huahine.
Tahitian People and Culture
Ever since early explorers reported back to Europe with accounts of the rich local tradition, the outside world has been fascinated with Polynesian culture. We can imagine the interest sparked when Bougainville returned to France in the 17th century raving about the erotic style of dance in Tahiti. The letters of Paul Gauguin to his artist friends back in Europe reflect a similar fascination with the local beauty (and local beauties) centuries later… Unfortunately, the pagan religion and eroticism also caught the attention of the missionaries, who came over to spoil all the fun. The marae—which were the native open-air temples—were destroyed, religious carvings were chopped to pieces and the tattoos and dancing that had garnered so much attention were banned.
Christianity replaced the local religion and today Protestants and Roman Catholics are the major sects. But in recent years, Polynesian culture has experienced a rebirth, as many are turning back to the traditions of the past, forming cultural links with their Maohi heritage. Traditional dance, tamure, has returned to the forefront, accompanied by the old-fashioned instruments such as conch shells, nose flutes and huge pahu and to'ere drums.
Another cultural artifact is the art of the tattoo, which were carried out in ceremonies and used to symbolize tribal rank or denote a girl's sexual maturity. Traditionally, tattoos were made using bone and a pigment made from the black soot of burnt candlenut mixed with oil. Each tribe had different symbols that they tattooed to differentiate their group from the others, using designs reflecting natural patterns also found in traditional wood carvings. The art of Tattooing was nearly extinct due to strict prohibition by Christian missionaries who labeled it as a "sinful glorification of the flesh". It was only in the late 20th century that local artists were able to resurrect this art and its traditional designs by researching journals and illustrations of early European explorers.
Much of the local culture is being kept alive by the mamas, matriarchs who guard the cultural traditions of Polynesia. Artisans continue to produce the handicrafts of eras past, such as drums, sculptures, wood carvings and weaving. Surfing, which was the sport of kings, has never fallen from popularity here and the traditional tipairua outrigger canoe races are still celebrated in colorful races and local festivals. The annual Heiva festival in July is the most important event and Polynesians from all over convene in Tahiti to celebrate their rich cultural heritage.
Though these South Pacific islands carry the name of French Polynesia, their settlement predated the arrival of the French by over two thousand years. Although there still exists some debate over the original dates, the inhabitation of these islands was the result of a migratory flow from Southeast Asia around 3000 BC. It is assumed that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa were settled first—around 1300 BC—and from there, successive waves of migrations sent colonization missions to the Cook islands, Tahiti, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas around 300 BC. The islands developed societies based on fishing and farming, with authority coming from local chieftains of powerful families that had large fleets of outrigger canoes at their command. Native religions worshipped land-based deities and often included human sacrifice.
The first Europeans to arrive in these distant waters were explorers like Portuguese navigator Magellan, who passed through the Tuamotus in 1521. A few decades later in 1595 Spanish Alvaro de Mendana discovered the Marquesas but it was only in 1722 with the arrival of Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen that Europeans started visiting these islands with more frequency. British Captain Wallis landed on Tahiti in 1767 and named the island after his financial sponsor King George III. A year later, completely unaware of the British proclamation, French navigator Bougainville claimed the land for the King of France. Shortly after, in 1769 captain James Cook visited Tahiti on his mission to record the transit of Venus. Though the initial European contact was not nearly as apocalyptic as it was in many parts of the Americas, tales of paradise on earth, "noble savages" and beautiful sexually-liberated women enchanted Europeans for centuries to come. Another event that called attention to the islands was the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, when the British crew tossed their captain and superiors in a life boat and sought refuge on these tropical islands. Having encountered the beauty described, it's hard to blame them… Soon, these mutineers offered their services and weapons to the Pomares, one of the powerful families competing for power, that went on to create a dynasty throughout the region.
Over time, more Europeans arrived, many of them whalers and traders who also introduced European weapons, diseases and a penchant for prostitution—hardly the proudest cultural contributions… Meanwhile, the local culture—with its sexual liberation and pagan worship—was transformed by British Protestant missionaries. After their arrival in 1797, they quickly destroyed the traditional Polynesian culture, laying to waste the marae temples and outlawing traditional dance and music.
Back in Europe, an intense rivalry over the islands was developing between the French and English, but by 1842, the French had assumed control of Tahiti and Moorea, bringing down the Pomare Dynasty and ousting the queen. With the local monarchs as little more than figureheads, King Pomare V was forced to hand over the islands to France. The French Pacific Settlements, as the colony was called, consisted of a variety of Pacific islands. With the arrival of the twentieth century, the French imported workers from China to work the burgeoning cotton and vanilla plantations; mother-of-pearl was another lucrative trade in this epoch. Though the colony sent a thousand troops to fight the Germans in World War II, the islands' pivotal location convinced the Americans to occupy Bora Bora in order to slow the Japanese advance through the Pacific. Meanwhile, local soldiers that had served in the war under the French returned home with an enlightened world view and after fighting for freedom in Europe, they demanded more liberties at home. Under pressure, the French extended citizenship to all islanders and granted them representation in the French Assembly. The islands were renamed the Territory of French Polynesia in 1957 and were represented by a high commissioner appointed by France. The local government was allowed autonomy on socioeconomic policy, but matters of defense were restricted to the federal government. One issue that inflamed local opinion was the testing of atomic weapons on small atolls in the region starting in 1963. Under pressure from the local community and the international community as a whole, testing was moved underground but when President Jacques Chirac announced he would begin a new series of underground nuclear testing, riots broke out in Papeete and a year later the government admitted such testing had come to an end.
French Polynesia has attained more autonomy in recent years; one result of their increased self-governing powers is their ability to negotiate international agreements. But despite repeated calls for true independence—from islanders and French alike—the islands remain an overseas territory of France. Despite this political link, native culture has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, as the Tahitian language is regaining popularity and the dances of the past—that were prohibited by the missionaries—are being embraced once again.
The natural make-up of each of the 118 islands in French Polynesia is dependent on its location, geological origin and size, as some are small low-lying coral atolls while others are volcanic islands with big mountains. As can be expected, these higher altitude regions have richer soil and more of a lush floral selection than the atolls. In these verdant hills the famous Tiare flowers grow wild. These sweet-smelling gardenias are the nation's national flower and the ones usually seen woven into decorative lei necklaces.
Any food buff will find the region's culinary history quite fascinating, as the only vegetation here before the polynesians had grown from seeds that had arrived from the sea, the wind or the birds. But with human settlement came a wide variety of foods from Polynesia, including yams, coconuts, bananas and breadfruit. Being here today, it's hard to imagine that these islands were once devoid of bananas or coconuts.
Any study of French Polynesian flora would be incomplete without mentioning Edouard Raoul, a French botanist who brought over 1,500 varieties of plants to Tahiti. Ten years after his arrival, Raoul started donating seedlings to local farmers; many of the islands' present-day fruit trees are leftovers from his original cargo. Twenty years later in 1919, Harrison Smith, an American botanist followed in his footsteps, cultivating and distributing hundreds of plant species he had collected around the world. The wealth of fruits on the islands is due in part to these two pioneering botanists. Today, the most popular fruits are mangoes, papayas, avocados, bananas, apples, orange pineapple, grapefruit and its cousin, the pamplemousse.
In fact, much of the local plant life—such as bougainvillea—was introduced from abroad, which is also the case with all of the terrestrial animals. The Polynesians brought most of the animals, such as dogs and chickens, while Europeans were responsible for the introduction of cattle and cats. The only "wild" animals here are pigs that have escaped from their pens. There are over a hundred bird species found in the region, but the islands are so far from any land masses they only attract the longer-range migratory birds, such as terns. The real wealth of wildlife here resides in the surrounding seas. Being located in the "Cradle of Indo-Pacific Marine Life" these islands are home to a wide variety of marine habitats that have maintained their natural state for epochs of time. In fact, it was from this "cradle" that most of the marine life throughout the Pacific originated. Today, these waters are endowed with angelfish, bonito, stingray, sharks, parrotfish, mahimahi, jacks, harpfish, swordfish, eels, groupers, tuna and trumpetfish. Any visit to this underwater world will certainly drive the point home: these waters are teeming with life!
Climate and Weather
It's only fitting that French Polynsesia has such a paradisical climate—after all, the "Garden of Eden" tag wouldn't fit if it was always cold and overcast. The average annual temperature in these parts is a balmy 77°F (25°C). The weather here is quintessentially tropical, with a distinct wet and dry season. The rains arrive between November and April, which dump 75% of the annual rainfall in torrential storms. But, we still find the islands quite pleasant during these months as days often pass without rain and storms. Besides, when they do hit, they usually only last an hour or two.
During these months, temperatures remain warm, hovering between 80-86°F (27-30°C). The dry season, which lasts from May and October, is a bit cooler, due to prevailing winds that blow off the ocean. These winds, such as the maraamu from the southeast and the toerau from the northeast keep humidity low as well. In general, the higher islands are a little more humid than the atolls, which are more exposed to the cool trade winds. Cyclones are very rare in this region.
Map and Location
Location: Oceania, South Pacific; the archipelagoes lie about halfway between South America and Australia
Geographic coordinates: 15 00 S, 140 00 W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -10
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