If you’re like me, your bucket list is not so much a list, but rather an old Encyclopedia Britannica. And Tahiti—where you can relax on a breezy spit of white sand surrounded by the bluest water you’ll ever see, and where “no shoes, no shirt” still gets you a cold Hinano beer—is the stuff of bucket lists. So pack your sunscreen, because it’s never too soon to cross off that next line item.
Tahiti is part of the Society Islands, the Leeward Islands to be specific, and at 16 degrees south latitude, it’s just about in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from anywhere. It’s a place for all the senses: the sight of aquamarine water and swaying palm trees, the sound of Polynesian music and crashing surf, the smell of myriad tropical flowers, and the feel of the sun tingling on your skin while your toes dig into sand the color and texture of sugar.
The temperature here hangs around 85 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and the tide is about a foot, which is huge if you’ve got a keel stuck on a reef. The people are friendly and let you get away with English or mangled French (Tahitian isn’t necessary, but is appreciated), and you can’t beat the view, so bring your camera and your Visa card, because the only thing free in Tahiti is the incredible scenery.
If you sail to Tahiti on your own boat, you’re not only in paradise, you can take pride in having gotten yourself there and the opportunity to stay as long as you like. If you’re like the rest of us mere mortals, you can book a charter, hop a 747 and arrive in a world so different it’s as if you’ve been pulled through the looking glass.
Whether you fly or sail from the United States, you’ll most likely land first on Tahiti proper, which is actually two islands: Tahiti Nui (big) and Tahiti Iti (little). Tahiti itself is not the highlight of the region, but you’ll find there is much to see in one long day, and it’s a great way to start your language lessons.
Ia ora na (hello). That’s what you’ll hear in every shop, restaurant, beach shack and bar, so it’s good to start brushing up on your new musical Tahitian vocabulary. Rent a car at Papeete’s Faa’a Airport and head to the municipal market for a breakfast of fruit, pastries, fish or curry. This two-story, open-air wonder has it all, from fish and flowers to souvenirs and soap. There’s even a Tahitian version of a food court with kiosks selling baguette sandwiches, prepared curries, poisson cru (marinated fish much like ceviche) and French pastries. Tahitian cuisine is extraordinary in how it marries fresh island fare like mangos and mahi-mahi with exotic spices brought by Asian settlers. Add to it some French flair with great wine, cheese and abundant fresh baguettes, and your taste buds will never want to go home.
I like to drive the perimeter of the island to the Paul Gauguin museum and Venus Point, where Capt. Cook observed the planet in transit across the sun in 1769. A leisurely circumnavigation brings you back downtown by evening to the rebuilt Gare Maritime (ferry dock) on Boulevard Pomare, where les roulottes (food trucks) pull in every night for an evening of food and fun. Each truck has a specialty, from Chinese to fish, crépes to pizzas. No alcohol is served, but it’s the cheapest dinner you’ll find, and the atmosphere is a welcoming mix of sunburned cruisers and locals who come with the whole family.
The next day, it’s time for the maeva (welcome) to your yacht charter, which will start on Raiatea, the “Sacred Island,” a 45-minute flight from Papeete. Apooiti Marina is home to both Sunsail and Tahiti Yacht Charter, while The Moorings and Dream Yacht Charter are at docks around the corner. Provisioning is done in Uturoa, Raiatea’s main town, a 10-minute taxi ride away. I opt for a catamaran because the water is skinny, especially around the motus (islands of the fringing reefs) and an extra foot of clearance under your keels will do wonders for your confidence. Take a good look at the charts: this is marker-to-marker navigation, and in French Polynesia it’s not red-right-returning.
The islands of Raiatea and Taha’a are inside the same reef, so it’s easy to stay in protected waters for the first day. Head north two hours from the base to Hurepiti Bay on Taha’a, the “Vanilla Island.” Here, Alain and Christina Plantier give great tours ashore aboard a 4×4 truck. They sailed their 32ft plywood boat to Tahiti from France 40 years ago and built a Robinson Crusoe-like homestead where they raised their kids before sending them back to Paris for an education. Alain’s four-hour tour includes a stop to feed coconuts to chickens (they’re crazy for the stuff) and an extensive lesson on vanilla pollination. In season, Alain also provides noni juice, the fruit of a tree in the coffee family, which is purported to be a miracle cure and a fountain of youth. But before you drink up, understand that the stuff tastes like a mix of laundry water and spoiled milk. Ahh, the price of vitality.
Taha’a is also black pearl central, so a visit to a “farm” like Champon is a must. Nobody gets away from a display case without ending up a few Polynesian francs lighter. These little round wonders are hypnotic and unique to this part of the world—how could you possibly leave without one?
If you have more than a week, or if you’re feeling masochistic, make a run to the island of Huahine first. Exit Taha’a’s reef via one of the well-marked passes like Toahotu and make the 22-mile run, which is likely to be an upwind bash for four to five hours. It’s a worthwhile trip, however, because Huahine is one of the least inhabited islands in the archipeloago, and the color of the water defies description. You can enter through either Avamoa or Avapehi passes and anchor near the town of Fare. A great way to see the island is to rent a bike and ride to the northern tip to visit the stone fish traps in Lac Maeva, the manymaraes (religious sites) and the sacred blue-eyed eels in the fresh-water river, which untangle their six-foot bodies and chase down any canned tuna you’re willing to drop overboard.
The trip back to Raiatea is usually much more pleasant, sometimes even a downright wing-on-wing romp. In Faaroa Bay on the east side, you can dinghy or stand-up-paddleboard on a river between taro fields, surrounded by bushes of exotic flowers, their scent hanging heavy in the still air. At times, the river gets so narrow and shallow you may have to “get out and walk,” pulling your dink or board behind you.
Nearby, three miles south in Onoa Bay, is Marea Taputapuatea, one of the largest spiritual sites in French Polynesia. Many of the stone temple outlines have been rebuilt to give an idea of the civilization that presided here a thousand years ago. Next continue down below the island and anchor behind Naonao motu, which you can circumnavigate on a kayak. Be sure to bring your waterproof camera. The views are fantastic, but the surf can kick up over the outer reef, making it a bumpy ride. Anchoring here will keep you close to Paipai Pass, where you can exit and set sail for Bora Bora the next morning.
According to ancient Tahitians, Raiatea is the mother island and Bora Bora is her firstborn. Bora Bora is very camera-friendly and looks exactly like the pictures in brochures you’ve been ogling for so many years. You can see Otemanu, the great peak that juts out from the center of Bora Bora’s lagoon, from miles away. During the four-hour downwind sail, imagine the song “Bali Hai” from the musical South Pacific playing in your ears as the tradewinds push you toward this mystical island.
But beware: Bora Bora is a deceptive siren. The only way to enter is via Teavanui pass on the west side, so you have to sail halfway around the island to avoid her treacherous reef where there’s breaking white water pounding day and night. Once inside the reef, I usually head to the dock in the village of Vaitape for some ice and Hinano beer at Chin’s market and, of course, for more black pearls in case anyone was slow pulling out their wallet before. From here there are two choices: a cheeseburger in paradise at the Bora Bora Yacht Club or a mooring for the night at Bloody Mary’s, a palapa-style restaurant with great fish and sand floors where, again, shoes are optional.
Moorings here are like gold, so do not hesitate to grab an empty one. The anchorage is deep, and the last time I was here one of our boats fouled its anchor on the lost anchor chain of some vessel that might have paid visit a century ago. There’s an optional anchorage out on the reef around the corner, but it’s a long dinghy ride so check your outboard’s fuel supply. If you ask nicely (when you come in for dinner) Bloody Mary’s staff may let you leave your trash and get water at their small dock— if they do, make sure to say mauruuru (thank you)!
In the morning, it’s time for the 90-minute trek to the back of the lagoon. Go while the sun is high in the sky and study your charts. Regardless of the direction you’re going, keep green markers toward the reef and red markers to the island, and watch for the numerous doglegs that can confuse the unsuspecting charterer. Your binoculars and depthsounder will be your new best friends, and be sure to drop your hook before the sun gets too low to read depth from color of the water. Also, it’s easy to become obsessed with Otemanu, Bora Bora’s 2,300 foot peak, which dominates every postcard, so be sure to keep a camera on deck.
Tahiti is not known for its wild nightlife. For entertainment, including colorful Tahitian dances, I call one of the hotels and make reservations. Some, like the Hilton, will even send a water taxi, so you needn’t worry about drinking and driving. These may be the best evenings of your life, but be ready to pay $25 for umbrella drinks, because nothing in Tahiti is cheap.
Few people know about the drift snorkel at the southeastern tip of Bora Bora’s fringing motus. I like to pull the dinghy onto the broken coral beach and walk (wearing water shoes) to the windward edge of the reef and then drift back with the strong current. Hundreds of fish dart around in the nooks and crannies of this underwater garden, but the star attractions are the clams with their multi-colored iridescent mantles that burrow and live in the coral heads.
Here on the back side, anchoring is easy in 10 to 30 feet of water over a sand bottom. I love it when a local tells me: “The best anchorage is by the five tall coconut palms on the white sand beach.” Swinging to a hook with your cockpit facing west with Otemanu towering overhead, you’ll know this is why you came. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy sundowners in the waters of Tahiti five times, and somehow I still I haven’t crossed it off my bucket list. Maybe next time is the charm.
A One-Week Itinerary
A guide to week’s charter: Raiatea, Taha’a and Bora Bora
1200 Apoiiti base, Uturoa provisioning and check out
Depart Marina Apoiiti and head for Tau Tau on the west side of Taha’a to anchor, kayak and snorkel.
Taha’a to Bora Bora
Exit Pai Pai Pass, make the crossing and anchor behind Topua motu, snorkel and kayak.
Transit to Bora Bora’s back side
Anchor in front of the hotels, the Four Seasons or St. Regis and call for evening dinner and dance schedule.
Bora Bora’s back side at leisure
Snorkel Lagoonarium, walk along the beach, look for rays.
Bora Bora back side to front side
Make transit to front side, re-provision at the village of Vaitape. Have dinner at Bloody Mary’s.
Bora Bora to Taha’a
Transit upwind from Bora Bora to Taha’a. Catch a mooring in Hurepiti Bay and schedule next day’s land tour.
Rise and shine for an 0800 land tour and vanilla plantation visit with Vanilla Tours, then circumnavigate Tahaa counterclockwise to Ceran motu for afternoon snorkeling and kayaking.
Taha’a to Base
Visit Champon pearl farm in early morning and return to Apooiti marina.