Around Tahiti in five days
My Papeete taxi driver is disgruntled.
"People ignore Tahiti. They're in such a rush to get to Moorea and Bora Bora, but this island has everything they do and more besides. It would take five days to see it all."
He's right. Here is five days' worth:
Though it's hardly the Paris of the Pacific — crowded, tatty and littered, and you may have to hold your nose from time to time — Tahiti's capital still has charm.
Being French but also friendly earns immediate points.
And then there's the covered market, which is busy and authentic, selling fresh fish and produce as well as touristy items.
The Robert Wan Pearl Museum is very thorough, and if you want to try their recipe for combating the ageing process by drinking a pearl dissolved in vinegar, you can buy a black beauty there or at the Pearl Market.
If it's a Sunday, go to the pink Protestant church Paofai and enjoy the relaxed ambience and stirring singing. The gardens opposite are well worth a wander, too, as is the elegant Government district. Finish the day by eating at the roulottes — food trucks on the waterfront: delicious, cheap, popular with locals and often with some sort of live music nearby.
2. Round Island tour
There are several options, but Dave's VIP Tour is a good one. He's an American from Hawaii and has lived in Tahiti for 27 years; friendly and chatty, he's full of information and happy to supply special requests. It takes around five hours to circumnavigate the island's 120km ring road, with a number of stops.
Arahurahu Marae is the first, where the low black basalt platforms look sinister and rightly so as Dave explains the human sacrifices that literally underpin them. More welcoming is the Maraa Grotto where water drips into the cool pool beneath, appreciated by wallowing locals.
There's gossip and history on the way to Vaipahi Spring Garden and waterfall, and Dave knows all about the flowers and trees that look so classically tropical. Round the end of the island, the next stop is the Arahoto Blowhole, which is small but very loud and guaranteed to make you jump. Finally, there's Point Venus with its lovely lighthouse, Captain Cook and Bounty memorials, and black sand beach.
3. Interior tour
On Dave's circle island drive, you get glimpses of Tahiti's green and dramatic heart but on this tour you get up close. An open 4WD takes you into the interior, along rough roads and over makeshift bridges, splashing through fords and teetering along the edge of precipitous cliffs.
This is the volcanic crater where shattered remnants reach up to 2200 metres and lush tropical vegetation softens the sharp edges. Towering waterfalls plunge so far and so fast that they literally suck the breath from your lungs. There's a marae tucked into a secret valley with an uncomfortable history of cannibalism and circumcision — and also a civilised relais restaurant with spectacular views, serving a delicious lunch. You can swim in a mountain stream, try a bit of canyoning, and then drive through a tunnel on the other side of the island to visit the blowholes before cruising back to town past black sand beaches where surfers ride the waves like seals. maramatours.com and others
Get properly active and hands-on by taking a guided tour through the Hitiaa lava tubes. There will be hiking, climbing, abseiling, canyoning, wading, crawling and lots and lots of sweat — but also plenty of dips to freshen up, and the satisfaction of knowing you're seeing a side of Tahiti that few tourists do.
There are bright flowers, lush vegetation, ragged rocks, tall waterfalls, caves, pools and rushing streams, and even orange eels to hand-feed. Darkness and sunshine, soft moss and sculpted basalt, apprehension and exhilaration, eagerness and honest tiredness — a day in Tahiti's secret places is full of unforgettable moments. tahitirevatrek.com
5. Get arty
The Paul Gauguin museum is currently closed for renovations, and you won't be able to view its exhibits and memorabilia from the artist's time on Tahiti and in the Marquesas (though Dave is very forthcoming about Gauguin's insouciant paedophilia). Instead, you can get arty yourself and spend a day in the tutelage of one of a variety of artists at L'Atelier at Le Meridien Tahiti. In this gallery and workshop on the shady top floor, the work of local and international artists is displayed; and in the window overlooking the pond, garden, pool and lagoon, you can stand at the easel and try your hand at your own masterpiece… Let your imagination go wild! For that you would need to be a guest, though — hardly a penance at this lovely resort. lemeridientahiti.com
Getting there: Air Tahiti Nui flies three times weekly from Auckland to Papeete airtahitinui.com
Staying there Le Meridien Tahiti has both over-water bungalows and ocean-view rooms, two restaurants and offers a spa, cultural and cooking activities lemeridien-tahiti.com
More information: tahiti-tourisme.co.nz