Country 5: French Polynesia | This post is part of my 30×30 series (read more here!).
Plenty of people visit French Polynesia to appreciate the postcard-perfect beaches, lush mountains, and crystal clear waters. But to me, the most beautiful thing about Tahiti and her islands isn’t the scenery—it’s the people.
I’ve been lucky to see Tahiti in a different way than most people. Not as a typical tourist, but as a member of a Polynesian dance company. My halau, or dance school, practiced both Hawaiian hula and Ori Tahiti, the dance form of Tahiti. My kumu, Mahea Uchiyama, placed particular emphasis on cultural sensitivity, respectful representation, and holistic dance study. In other words, it wasn’t enough just to know the movements that accompanied a song. We knew the words themselves and the meaning behind them. For most of my teens, weekends were spent in dance rehearsals or stomach-down on my bedroom floor, translating lyrics from Olelo Hawai’i (Hawaiian language) or Reo Mā’ohi (Tahitian language) while Hapa or Nā Palapalai played in the background.
With Ka Ua Tuahine, I made my first visit to Tahiti. We danced in different heivas, or dance festivals, around the island, as well as shows at the Radisson hotel. A few years later, I came back to do research for my Bachelor’s thesis. And a few years after that, my whole family came back to visit our Tahitian host family. With each trip, I got to know the island, culture, and dynamic better, and each time, my heart ached to leave. There are places you can never get full of—for me, that’s Tahiti.
A lot of people don’t get to see this version, so I’ve made a list of my favorite ways to see Tahiti and engage with the people and culture. When you plan your trip to this island paradise, instead of heading straight for the resort, or the cruise terminal, or the next flight to Bora Bora, make you also spend some time to experience the real Tahiti.
7 Ways to Experience the Real Tahiti
Meet and Greet
I always like to learn at least hello and thank you in the language of where I’m visiting. Technically, as a French colony, the language of French Polynesia is French. Tahitians learn it in school and it’s the language of signage and government. While fewer Tahitians speak Reo Mā’ohi fluently, all Tahitians know at least some basics. If you can add in at least hello and thank you, it goes a long way.
Ia’orana (pronounced yo-rahn-uh) is used as a greeting. It means welcome, or good day.
Ma’ruu’ruu (pronounced mah-roo-roo) is used for thanks.
Eat like a local at Les Roulottes
Located at the Papeete waterfront, les Roulottes are definitely a way to experience the real Tahiti. They’ve been popular long before food trucks were a trend, and serve a variety of common foods. Heaps of steak frites, poisson cru (a Tahitian specialty of fish and coconut milk), Chinese-island fusion, piping hot crepes and gauffres. Wash it all down with an ice-cold Hinaano beer.
Visit the Museum of Tahiti
While it’s not as updated or interactive as the Te Papa Tongarewa, the Museum of Tahiti offers a fascinating collection of Tahitian history. From the pre-colonial days of outrigger exploration and groundbreaking navigation, through the colonial takeover, to present day contemporary works of art. I highly recommend taking an hour or two to explore it. If you don’t speak French, it’s best to bring a guidebook with you to offer additional context, as the signage was only in French and Tahitian last I visited.
Explore the ‘Ārahurahu Marae
You can visit many picturesque churches and cathedrals in Papeete, but if you want to see how the old Tahitians worshiped, take a drive out to Paea to see the ‘Ārahurahu marae. The marae is an ancient temple or meeting place. Multi-lingual (English included) placards explain how Tahitians used the site, which has been fully restored and now serves as an open-air museum.
Shop at Le Marche
Papeete’s Municipal Market, affectionately called Le Marche, is a two-story complex used by locals and visitors alike. The lower floor hosts a fish market on one side and woven crafts on the other. Upstairs, stalls range in offerings from black pearl necklaces to colorful pareaus, wooden carvings, and Tahitian vanilla. I never leave without stocking up on a multi-pack of Manoi Oil, which is wonderful for hair, skin, and tanning. Keep in mind that wooden and woven purchases may have to be fumigated before you depart.
Join in singing
There’s no better way to experience the real Tahiti than through music. Music is a huge part of Tahitian culture, and nothing bridges a language gap faster than a voice raised in song. If you can sing, sing out! Whether you’re trying out a Tahitian banjo in the Marché, listening to a small group of musicians play at a local venue, or sitting in a crowded bar. It’s a fast and easy way to make some friends and join in.
Return your leis to the sea
If you purchase or receive a flower garland or lei, you likely can’t take it back with you on the plane. Traditionally, you cast leis into the ocean, as a promise that you will one day return. If you don’t have time for a last run down to the beach, you can also hang the lei in a tree or leave it somewhere in nature. For example, in a garden or in a park. Never, ever, throw your lei in the trash or garbage.