Marche de Papeete is open daily. // © 2018 Tahiti Tourisme
Feature image (above): Low-grade Tahitian pearls are sold on the bottom floor, while more high-grade options are available upstairs. // © 2018 Tahiti Tourisme
Most visitors to Papeete, the capital city of the island of Tahiti, will eventually make their way to Marche de Papeete.
Located at the heart of Papeete, the city’s municipal market encompasses an entire city block. The very essence of island life seems to pulse here. Vendors wearing straw hats are often seen standing sentry over tables full of local goods while enjoying a hearty gossip with neighboring marketers and local passersby.
The commercial center has occupied the same location in French Polynesia since 1869 and is a must-see for every visitor. Here’s how to best explore it.
Know Before You Go
Travelers can visit the market every day. On Monday, it opens at 5:00 a.m. and closes at 6:00 p.m. Business commences an hour earlier Tuesday through Saturday, while Sunday — when local residents rush to provision for Sunday feasts before heading off to church services — swings short and early; it’s open at 3:00 a.m. and then completely buttoned up by 9:00 a.m. Visitors arriving Sunday morning from an overnight flight can dive right into the island’s rhythms by going straight to the market upon arrival, although the wares on Sunday mornings are usually grocery-only.
English is generally spoken and understood; however, knowing basic numbers in French never hurts. Prices are quoted in French Polynesian francs and will likely be in “cents” (hundreds) or “milles” (thousands). As in France, both labeled and verbal prices are inclusive of tax.
Many woodcarvings marketed as Marquesan are imported. Marquesan wood carvers always etch a signature on the bottom of their work, so be sure to check for authenticity before buying.
Most resort hotels are outside of Papeete, but some offer shuttles to and from the city center at set schedules. The easiest way to tool around the island, and the city of Papeete in particular, is with rented cars, which are available at the airport or via an arrangement with resort concierges.
There’s street parking around the market, but stay out of the gated lot immediately next door; it’s for vendors only. If street parking utterly fails, as it tends to do during office hours on weekdays, there’s a cash-only parking garage at Centre Vaima. (The entrance is located on Promenade de Nice.)
In the Market
Each vendor seems to have a little bit of everything, but about half of the first floor (under the two-story roof) is dedicated to fruit, flowers and dry goods such as trinkets, textiles, wood carvings and bath products including Monoi oil and soap. The other half of the market, under the mezzanine, is primarily used to sell fresh seafood and produce. In between the two are snack vendors who provide quick takeaway meals.
Upstairs, shoppers will find Manava Cafe, which serves a wide selection of meals, coffees, smoothies, juices and soft drinks. Here, clients will also find enclosed, air-conditioned shops that sell higher-end items geared toward visitors. Travelers will also find larger retailers selling Tahitian pearls.
Cash is king on the first floor; second-floor vendors selling bigger ticket items will typically accept credit or debit cards.
Keep Etiquette in Mind
Similar to France, a seller’s stall or shop is likened to their home. When approaching or entering, it’s considered quite rude not to announce yourself with a greeting: either “ia orana” or “bonjour” (I say both).
Note: Negotiating prices isn’t common here, except for when purchasing pearls.
Buying Tahitian pearls at or near the market will generally offer a good value, as Papeete tends to be less popular with tourists than its neighboring islands. Virtually every vendor will be selling pearls, ranging from low-grade pearls sold for a few dollars at some of the downstairs vendors to brilliant, lustrous strands sold by the larger commercial sellers upstairs.
At minimum, a seller should be able to provide where the pearl was cultured, its size, its shape and its grade (all of which goes on the authenticity certificate). Pearl culture and export is closely monitored in French Polynesia, so buyers can purchase with confidence. Pearls can be hand-selected, drilled and set on site (there’s a limit on unset pearl exports) or already set in a variety of types of jewelry to suit most budgets.
Pearl sellers may be more willing to offer discounts if they know buyers are comparison shopping. If clients are not ready to commit, tell them to ask the seller to write down a description of the pearls they’ve discussed to ensure the seller is comparing like with like; they may find the price drops on the spot. Each pearl is natural and unique.
Set pearls leaving the country aren’t subject to local taxes; most printed labels have two prices: TTC (all taxes included) and HT (without taxes). Sellers will provide customs forms to be stamped at the airport. Be sure to have clients mail these forms back to the seller, or the taxes will be charged to the credit card used at the time of the purchase.
The City of Papeete