Part 3: TAHITI
Paradise Lost – and Found
At San Francisco Airport I enjoy a filling lunch at the comfy United Club lounge. Relaxed, I then board a United Airlines nonstop direct flight for my 15th visit to Tahiti since the 1970s. I luckily have an entire aisle to myself and pass the time watching a recruiting poster masquerading as a movie called Top Gun: Maverick and the far better genre-bending Everything Everywhere All at Once. Upon arriving at Tahiti International Airport in Fa’a’?, I am greeted by Tahiti Tourisme and Mana Tang and Vanessa Alvarez, co-owners of Tiurai Tours, and driven to my hotel in French Polynesia’s capital.
Many consider contemporary Tahiti to be a paradise lost. Candidly speaking, the urban/ suburban sprawl of this French colony, stretching roughly northeast from Papeete to Mahina and northwest to Punaauia, does have many of the ailments of “modern times.”
“My mind was soon made up. To leave Papeete as quickly as I could, to get away from the European center.” Paul Gauguin wrote this about Papeete – way back in the 1890s. One could imagine what the painter would make of today’s overcrowded, noisy, commercialized Papeete, with its traffic choked streets, full of eyesores and urban blight.
But it’s unfair to condemn the entire 400-square mile, figure-eight shaped island by the approximately 16 mile-long citified/suburbanized zone located on Tahiti’s northern coast. Travelers don’t go all the way to Tahiti just to experience the same thing they have left behind and are often running away from. If you’re trying to “get away from it all,” don’t stay where “it all” is waiting for you. Like Gauguin 130 years before you, if you want to experience the “true” Tahiti, get out of the most Westernized part of the island and head to parts unknown made known by local guides who grew up in Tahiti and know it from the inside out.
Mana rescues me from Papeete’s squalor for a Tiurai Tours full-day trip to the Tahiti that has enraptured explorers from Captain Wallis in 1767 to a 21-year-old me more than 200 years later. We drive west in his Mercedes van from Papeete through Fa’a’? and Punauia, leaving Tahiti’s most developed districts behind. The countryside starts to open up at Paea, and about 14 miles outside of the capital, Mana off-roads inland to Marae Arahurahu, an ideal introduction to Tahitian culture.
This reconstructed Polynesian temple complex, devoted to the ancient nature worshipping religion, is set in a wide emerald expanse full of plants and trees, beside a rushing river in the valley of Tefa’aiti. There are large carved stone and wooden tiki god figures, raised rocky walls, altars and platforms up to three-stories high, plus exhibit boards explaining the significance of the pre-Christian archaeological site where traditional ceremonies are reenacted every July during the annual Heiva celebrations that roughly coincide with French Bastille Day observances.
Water is the essence of life in Polynesia. A few miles south of the marae are a series of sparkling fern grottos in Paea filled with water flowing from the mountains, called Grotte Teanateatea. Nearby at a rocky wall Papara local residents fill bottles and buckets with treated water. Vaipahi Gardens, 30 miles from Papeete at Mataiea, provides a rural respite for world weary souls tired of cities, from Paris to Papeete. Vaipahi is fed by water flowing from Tahiti’s only fresh water lake Vaihiria, down towards a cascade into a stream and several waterlily and lotus fringed pools. The gardens display a dazzling array of biodiversity that beggars the imagination. Multi-lingual placards name the endemic trees and various plants: Pandanus, ginger, heliconia, mango, hibiscus and more. The ancient Teva tribe regarded the Vaima River as “the path of purification of souls” on their way to receiving their heavenly rewards.
We drive a few miles south to the Harrison Smith Botanical Garden in the district of Teva I Uta, where the eponymous American botanist transplanted flora from Asia, Africa and the Americas. There are more water lily ponds here filled with white and purplish Nymphaeaceae, and the transcendent spellbinding scenery seems at times like a tropical version of Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, France or a Louisiana bayou. Wending one’s way on foot through Smith’s inspired Botanical Garden, past giant bamboo and mangosteen trees is a relaxing experience that revives the soul. The banyan and mape (chestnut) trees have sprawling roots and branches. The grounds perched opposite the now shuttered Musee Gauguin and beside the ocean also include Tahiti’s oldest living animal – a Galapagos tortoise.
So far, this excursion has gone to sites located only in the larger portion of the figure-eight shaped island, on “Tahiti Nui” – “Big Tahiti” – but now we cross the isthmus of Taravao, which connects the two volcano-formed parts of the island to less populated, less visited but far more wild Tahiti Iti. In English this is “Little Tahiti,” a special treat included in Tiurai Tours’ full-day outing. Here, guide Mana Tang, who was born and raised in Tahiti, really shines, revealing a rarely glimpsed realm where tourists are much less likely to tread.
There are no high rises at Tahti Iti, where a riot of waterfalls leaps off jade mountains behind sparsely populated villages. Untrammeled, beautiful black sand beaches are found at Tahiti Iti, notably Teahupo’o, a renowned surf site marked by a Roy Lichtenstein-like gigantic sculpted monument of a wave’s blue curl with surfboards. Surfers flock from around the globe to Teahupo’o to ride the wild surf there for the annual Billabong Pro tournament every August. The 2024 Summer Olympics’ surf competition is scheduled to take place at Teahupo’o and surfing is now taught as an accredited sport in Tahiti’s schools. Surf’s up!
From Tahiti Iti’s southern coast, we retrace our tracks on the narrow road (there is no complete circle island route) then drive along Tahiti Iti’s northern shoreline to Tautira. Jaw-dropping views of dramatic inland mountains are visible from this black sand beach. Far from the madding crowd, undeveloped, pristine Tahiti Iti displays Tahiti’s fabled, exquisite scenic extravagance, simply taking one’s breath away.
Returning to Tahiti Nui and driving up its northeastern coast, Mana’s expedition discloses even more of the island’s Polynesian pulchritude. Off the main road of Faaone are the twin 30-plus foot high Vaihi waterfalls, which plummet into a pool lush with luxuriant greenery.
Continuing northwards is an even more spectacular array of cascades at Faarumai in Papeno’o Valley. We walk on easily accessible paths to three splendid waterfalls, including Vaimahuta, which Mana says is about 260-plus feet high. The triple cascade is a majestic sight, as well as a cooling, refreshing experience, especially if it is one of those hot, tropical days, and a visit here is invigorating. As at Vaihi, there are hiking trails at the falls.
Back in the saddle we drive north past Arohoho, the blowhole where, depending on any given day’s surf, surging ocean water can spout geyser-like from a hole in the rocks. Mana points out that on this northeastern stretch there is no coral barrier reef, and numerous surfers hit the waves at Papeno’o. In the distance I glimpse the lighthouse at historically significant Point Venus in Mahina, where Captain Cook, naturalists and an astronomer observed the Transit of Venus in 1769. Today beachgoers can observe a different type of heavenly bodies at Point Venus, barely clad in sarongs, bikinis and thongs.
As the day-long expedition of discovery winds down, we head back to Papeete, driving around Tahara’a Cliff, above Matavai Bay, where the Bounty dropped anchor in 1789. Tiurai Tours’ full day exploration unfolds the bountiful breathtaking paradisiacal beauty of Tahiti beyond the capital, an island so optically opulent that experiencing it enhances one’s understanding of what could have inspired the Bounty mutineers to seize their ship and instead of sailing back towards England, change course and sail back to this exceptional isle. As Tiurai Tours’ trip beyond Papeete vividly reminds me, to paraphrase Paul Simon, Tahiti’s “still paradise, after all these years.” And tomorrow this Bounty hunter will board the Aranui 5 passenger/freighter bound for the mutineers’ final refuge, Pitcairn Island.
When you go:
Aranui: www.aranui.com/en (800)972-7268
United Airlines: www.united.com (800)864-8331
TIURAI TOURS: Vanessa Alvarez Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89513222 Vanessa@tiuraitours.com
Mana Tang Tel/WhatsApps: (+689)89527377 email@example.com.
Hilton Hotel Tahiti: (689) 40 86 48 48; 1-800-HILTONS
Hilton San Francisco Union Square: (415)771-1400 1-800-HILTONS.
Beacon Grand, A Union Square Hotel: www.beacongrand.com (866)377-9412.
Written by: Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E — The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. Rampell was interviewed in Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours, and National Public Radio’s Savvy Traveler interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production Hula Girls, which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell’s Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.