Tahiti may seem like one of the least urban places to visit, but amid the pristine beaches, whispering palms and famous over-the-water bungalows is a real city.
Papeete, the administrative capital, is a thriving seaport and a business hub for the nearly 300,000 people who inhabit the five archipelagos and surrounding islands that make up Tahiti.
Recently, I enjoyed a few days in Papeete as a jumping off point before heading to French Polynesia’s less crowded spots. I made my base the Manava Suite Resort Tahiti, an upscale property situated just ten minutes from the center of town.
Although dodging traffic to cross Papeete’s congested four-lane main avenue didn’t exactly fit with my idea of a beach getaway, I found plenty of rewards for my effort, namely great shopping, interesting museums and affordable outdoor dining.
The best shopping in all of French Polynesia can be found at Le Marché, a sprawling two-story open market whose booths and tables overflow with fruits and vegetables, flip flops and other island necessities, and coconut oil, Tahitian vanilla and other local products. Prices generally seemed much more reasonable than in Bora Bora, Moorea or other more remote resort locations.
I could have spent hours sifting through the buckets of dazzling Tahitian pearls of all sizes and colors. Once purchased, these prized pearls can be strung into a necklace or bracelet. Or if you would rather not DIY, you can choose from among the many existing designs sold in jewelry stores.
The nearby Black Pearl Museum offers more information on these beauties. On display are actual oysters, while exhibits help to separate fact from myth and provide an overview of the history and science behind the pearls.
Papeete also boasts several other museums of note, including the James Norman Hall Museum, which celebrates the life of the author best known for co-writing the novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, and the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, which features exhibits on everything from sea life and horticultural techniques to traditional weaving and body art.
For dinner, I headed to the waterfront for some of the city’s most affordable dining. The roulottes are a group of food trucks that set up each evening alongside picnic tables and plastic chairs. I loved the casual, relaxed atmosphere, live music and street entertainers.
The food also ranked among the best I sampled in the islands. But I had difficulty choosing from among crepes (both savory and sweet), Asian cuisine, all types of burgers, and a variety of grilled meats, as well as local favorites like poisson cru, chunks of raw fish marinated in lemon juice served with a mandatory pile of crispy frites.
Well-fed, I contemplated another day in this (urban) paradise.