Exploring Papeete

French Polynesia's private pearl

By: Maryann Hammers

Visitors to French Polynesia often compare it to Hawaii 50 years ago. The air is warm and sultry year round, the landscaping is lush and the pace is slow. But the islands are still pristine and unspoiled, receiving only about 200,000 tourists per year. By contrast, Hawaii welcomes that number of visitors every 10 days.

“We think of Hawaii as the rat race,” said Lionel Philipp, operations manager for Marama Tours Tahiti, a local tour operator in Papeete, Tahiti.

The capital of French Polynesia, Papeete serves as the starting point for romantic cruises. It’s also a shopper’s paradise. In Papeete’s Vaima Center, black pearls are the object of desire for most visitors. French Polynesia is the world’s largest exporter of black pearls which also come in pale gray, bronze and purple. With prices ranging from $100 to $1,000 or more for a single gem, it’s a good idea to visit the Black Pearl Museum Le Musee de la Perle on Rue Jeanne d’Arc to learn the essentials before making a purchase.

At Le Marche, the open marketplace, colorful stalls display fresh fruits, flowers, puka-shell necklaces and hand-dyed pareus (the colorful sarong-like pieces of fabric can be worn in countless ways). It’s hard to leave the marketplace without some type of souvenir in hand, and of course, the fragrant white tiare flower Tahiti’s welcome symbol in one’s hair.

Marama Tours and several other companies offer “Circle Island” tours that provide the lay of the land, as well as great insights into Tahitian culture and history. Fruit stands dot the road, and wild chickens amble about. Empty coconuts litter the ground locals buy or pick the fruits and drink the water straight from the shell. “Mailboxes” in front of colorful houses aren’t for mail at all. They are bread boxes as fresh baguette loaves are delivered twice daily.

At Point Venus on the north shore, a white lighthouse made of coral has been in operation since 1866. Its architect was Robert Louis Stevenson’s father. This marks the spot where captains Cook and Bligh landed after anchoring their ships at the Bay of Matavai, and it was the setting for the 1961 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

With the Bounty’s story and Capt. Bligh playing such pivotal roles in Tahitian lore, the James Norman Hall home/museum is a must-see. Rooms are filled with original furnishings, and walls are lined with “Mutiny on the Bounty” memorabilia. The tour also includes stops at Faarumai Waterfalls and the Tomb of Pomare V, a coral mausoleum that houses the remains of Tahiti’s last monarch who died in 1891. Most poignant of all is the Gauguin Museum, a tribute to the French painter who fell in love with Tahiti and immortalized it for the rest of us.


Has the beauty of French Polynesia enthralled your clients? Below are some pre- or post-cruise lodging options:

Sheraton Hotel Tahiti
Completed six years ago in the same style and on the same site as the island’s first hotel, this 200-room lagoon front property has an open lobby, eye-popping chandeliers made entirely of mother-of-pearl, a small white-sand beach, Wi-Fi and a stone Jacuzzi with views of the surrounding islands.
From $289 per night (10 percent commission).

Sofitel Maeva Beach
After extensive renovations, this 218-room hotel reopened in September with new guestrooms, a new lobby, new restaurant and a new pool. The hotel sits five minutes from the airport, 15 minutes from the wharf and 10 minutes from town. From $263 per night (10 percent commission).

Intercontinental Resort Tahiti
A low-rise, Polynesian-style resort located in a 30-acre tropical park with more than 230 rooms, plus several thatched-roof, overwater bungalows. Its Le Lotus restaurant is one of the best in Papeete. From $321 per night (10 percent commission).