Island Time in Tahiti

Tips for the first-time visitor to Tahiti

By: Kevin Brass

PAPEETE, Tahiti Soon after arriving in Tahiti for the first time, most travelers hear the popular phrase “aita e peapea,” which, loosely translated, means “no worries.” It’s used by Polynesians for everything from “sorry about that” to “your bag may be here tomorrow.”

There is such a thing as “Polynesian time.” No one is in a hurry. Travelers new to Polynesia soon learn it is best to simply say “aita e peapea” (pronounced, “I-ta pay-a pay-a”).

Understanding and implementing the concept is the first step in becoming acclimated to Polynesia, which first-timers will quickly learn is not Hawaii or Mexico.

Claude Pilet, the assistant general manager of the Tahiti Beachcomber InterContinental, carefully explained the situation to me when I arrived, just like the old Papeete hand has done for other newcomers over the last 23 years.

For example, guests often ask Pilet why the InterContinental’s well-respected restaurant is not air-conditioned. (It’s cooled by the afternoon trade winds.)

“You just have to explain to people that there is a reason it is not air-conditioned,” Pilet said with a shrug. “That is just the way it is.”

For first-timers unschooled in South Pacific colonialism, the pervasiveness of French culture may be something of a surprise. The food is French. The attitude is French.

And the hotel televisions carry French-language TV channels, which means it might be easier to learn the soccer scores in Cannes than the weather in Denver.

Veteran travel agents say that managing expectations is a key part of planning a Polynesian vacation, which is often a dream destination for clients. They try to show people other islands, but the lure of the romantic postcard images of Bora Bora and Tahiti is too strong.

Their advice: Don’t fight it.

After a few days living the dream, first-timers will soon be impressed by the efficiencies of Air Tahiti, which can whisk them away to a new paradise in 45 minutes.

While first-timers will want to spend as much time as possible enjoying the clear waters, the cultural aspects of Polynesia shouldn’t be overlooked.

Polynesians are fiercely proud of their warrior and trader ancestors, and archaeological sites dot many of the islands. But the ruins are often remote and it’s essential to hire a guide knowledgeable in local history.

As one hotel manager noted, “If you don’t learn what’s behind it, all you’ve got is a nice pile of stones.”

Getting It Right From the Start

Learn a few words: And, if you’re really scrapped for time, make the words Polynesian. Everyone speaks French, but the Polynesians have their own culture and language, and they appreciate travelers who recognize that.

Avoid money-changing machines: ATMs are rare on the outer islands, which increases the temptation to use money-changing machines found in many hotel lobbies. But the transaction fee can be as high as $5.

Figure out the wave: Sticking out your thumb and pinky and waggling your hand means, basically, “hang loose” or “have a good one,” much like the Hawaiian shaka.

There’s no disco night: Travelers accustomed to the raucous resorts of Cancun and the Caribbean will be in for a shock. Outside Tahiti and Bora Bora, there is little night life on the islands, which is one reason Polynesia is beloved by so many. But first-timers might need a warning, especially if they’re traveling alone.

Never go alone: Agents say that anyone who insists Polynesia is horrible usually was traveling alone. Polynesia is a place of romance, where couples can enjoy quiet sunsets and gaze into each other’s eyes. For single travelers, it’s no place to find a date.

Don’t overstay: Islands such as Manihi and Fakarava are not meant for weeklong visits. A couple of nights on some of the small islands is plenty, especially considering the main “town” may consist of little more than one small market and a few huts.