Beyond the Bungalow: Uncovering the Real Tahiti

May 26, 2019

Close your eyes and picture Tahiti. What do you see? Perhaps it’s turquoise waters, tropical fish and vanilla-white sands. Maybe it’s overwater bungalows, coconut-infused cocktails and technicolour sunsets over the Pacific. If you’re imagining any of these things, you’re not wrong. But you’ve only scratched the surface.

Tahiti – or rather, The Islands of Tahiti, since there are 118 of them – are fabulously diverse. You can pick your paradise, go beyond the beaten path and be rewarded with a wealth of cultural experiences that easily rival any postcard-perfect beach. Here’s how.

Stay at a Tahitian guesthouse

Photo by Hélène Havard

Guesthouses are hands down the best way to discover the islands through the lens of a local. The experience you get is largely down to the owner. Some are small affairs – you’ll rent a room and become part of the family. Others are more like B&Bs, offering private rooms or bungalows. In many cases, your hosts can double as guides, taking you out for activities such as hiking and snorkelling. Guesthouses can be uber luxurious, but on the more affordable end of the spectrum they cost the same or less than similar options in Canada.

Tap into mana

Part of any journey to Tahiti is embracing the mindset. Polynesians believe the islands are infused with “mana,” a spiritual energy that exists within people and nature, connecting everything, bringing beauty to the world, bearing strength, but also providing balance.

Open your mind, invite mana into your experience, and ask the islanders to share their interpretations with you. You’ll not just get a window into Polynesian culture, but an opportunity to challenge your own perceptions. Or as the locals might say, perhaps mana will teach you to see things differently.

Get to know the cuisine

Photo by Hélène Havard

After feeding your mind, feed your appetite.

As you might expect from an island nation, fish is popular and often consumed raw. Beachside eats don’t come fresher than Poisson cru à la tahitienne, a dish of cubed perch, mahi-mahi or parrot fish marinated in seawater and topped with lime, thinly-sliced veggies and milk squeezed from fresh coconut shavings. Other classic dishes include chicken fafa (served sautéed and with taro leaves) as well as po’e (a pudding of bananas, papaya or mangoes).

Side note: Did you know that French Vanilla doesn’t come from France but from French Polynesia? Tahiti is responsible for much of the world’s supply, and on the island of Taha’a there are so many vanilla-bearing orchids, their scent is said to permeate the air. Farmers tend to the flowers by hand, which is why vanilla is considered a luxury product.

Hunt for pearls

The waters around Tahiti are like a four million-square-metre natural aquarium. The entire region is a sanctuary teeming with dolphins, sea turtles and manta rays – a haven for diving and snorkelling.

But many visitors are interested in a different type of marine life: Oysters. These are the carriers of Tahitian pearls, known for being shiny, colourful, and sometimes black.

For a guilt-free experience, visit a sustainable pearl farm. A typical day involves travelling out to a platform in the middle of the sea, discovering how oysters are seeded before harvest and learning how to haul in your own mollusc. Some places let you keep your catch – a thrilling “lucky dip,” since the darker the pearl, the more valuable it is.

Get a tattoo

This suggestion may be a little too “permanent” for some. But in Tahiti, tattoos aren’t just decorative – they’ve been rooted in tradition for centuries.

Tohu, the Polynesian god of tatau, is said to have drawn patterns and colours on the ocean’s fish. It’s not known exactly when islanders started replicating the motifs, but tattooing devices have been found in archaeological digs. The English verb “tattoo” was first recorded by Captain Cook, who visited the islands in 1769.

Even if you’d rather not get inked yourself, it’s worth witnessing the ancient practice at work – shops such as Moorea Tattoo still use the traditional techniques.

Chase waterfalls

Set against tropical, mountainous backdrops, Tahiti’s waterfalls seem almost engineered for maximum photogenicity. Many are towering strips of mist that seem to cascade from the sky; at their base, tranquil rock pools are the perfect temperature for swimming. They are a hiker’s reward, and an opportunity to feel truly remote, disconnected and in touch with nature.

The Island of Tahiti alone is home to hundreds of them, and its Papenoo Valley provides ample motivation for jungle treks, 4WD tours, canyoneering and more.

Dance with fire

Polynesian fire dancing is fast-paced, risky and takes years to master -- if you’re even remotely accident prone, it's best left to the pros. Attending a performance, however, is a truly spectacular experience. Fire dancers wear traditional clothing and wield fire knives, a type of machete soaked in alcohol then set alight. Their spinning patterns and fast-paced choreography illuminate the night, with dramatic music lending extra intensity to the proceedings.

Shows occur year round, but if you’re near Papeete in October you can witness Tahiti’s annual fire-dancing championship.

Excited to discover the Islands of Tahiti? The list of experiences doesn’t end here. Get ready to pick your paradise, there are options for every taste.

Prêt à découvrir Tahiti et ses îles? Toutes les informations sont disponibles en français. Apprêtez-vous à choisir votre propre aventure, il y a des options pour tous les goûts.

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