bb8404_064, Motu Tapu, Bora Bora, French Polynesia

Tahiti is the gateway to French Polynesia and the largest of the islands. It consists of two volcanic mountain ranges, Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti) and Tahiti Iti (Little Tahiti), that are joined by the isthmus of Taravao with its black beaches on both sides. While the coastlines are rugged, towering over the island are a number of mountain peaks, the interiors of which are home to deep valleys, high waterfalls, tropical flowers, and streaming waters. More than 80% of the residents are Polynesian. With a population of 130,000 and a flourish of recent developments, the island has become a bit of a traffic-clogged nightmare. Suburbs are sprawling all along the coast and inching closer to the mountains and away from the capital, Papeete.

Tahiti is full of endless tropical activities. You can explore the interior landscapes of Tahiti Nui on a rented or tour-operated 4×4 safari, on a helicopter tour, or on a hike or guided tour. By doing so, you’ll get to see Tahiti’s beautiful waterfalls, valleys, lakes, peaks, lava tubes, natural pools, grottos, and archaeological sites. You could also do the popular “circle-island” tour by driving or cycling on the 70-mile road that circles the island. The road passes through villages, ancient temples, forests, plantations, botanical gardens, cliffs, beautiful beaches, waterfalls like the Faaruumai, and the rugged mountains of Arahoho.

With its turquoise lagoons and coral reefs, Tahiti is also a great place to swim, dive, snorkel, surf, sail, canoe, kayak, and deep-sea fish. You can also golf at the Oliver Breaud International or horse-back ride up the mountains on a Marquesan or New Zealand horse. And then after a long day, you can unwind with a therapeutic massage at the many spas in Papeete.

The shops, restaurants, and nightlife in Tahiti are a treat as well. The public markets of Papeete like Le Marché are lined with stands selling Tahitian clothes and handcrafts. You’ll also find many chic, boutique French stores at the Vaima Center where you can lay your hands on trendier clothes and fine jewelry. Some of the best restaurants are located at Vai’ete Square by the waterfront. You can eat from the roulottes (or food wagons), sample unique Tahitian cuisine (and its seafood varieties), and enjoy the live lagoon-side performance shows involving traditional Polynesian dance and music.

Among the traditional touristy spots includes Point Venus, the peninsula where Captain James Cook landed. There is a popular park here where many community events and festivals take place. The Gauguin Museum and the Museum of Tahiti & Her Islands are additional touristy sites. The former traces the life and works of the famous Gauguin while the latter has an impressive collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts.