It’s time for you to get away and plan a vacation to an island paradise. You could want to go for any number of reasons, Maybe it’s your honeymoon, maybe you’re sick of winter and want to get away, maybe you murdered somebody and need a place to hide where the Feds won’t come snooping around. No matter what your reason, Tahiti is the best place you’re going to find.
Traveling to Tahiti turned out to be a 29-hour nightmare that left me half-dead. The first 48 hours were rough ,but once I got in the water, I never wanted to leave.
The island and the local inhabitants are nearly identical to what you’ll find in Hawaii. If you put photos of the two places side by side it’d be hard for most people to tell them apart. But where Hawaii has been overrun with tourists and outside investors, Tahiti has remained mostly untouched and tranquil.
Part of that has to do with the fact that you literally can’t buy property on the islands unless you’re a French citizen or of Tahitian descent. Also, their ocean protection laws are not fucking around. It’s clear they want to keep this place pristine and you can see the success of their efforts all around you.
I loved everything about this place. It was like somebody took Hawaii, threw all the homeless people in the ocean, and left this unblemished, untouched version for French people to enjoy.
Tahiti urned out to be my second favorite place on my four month trip. It’s not perfect. The island can be boring as hell and absurdly expensive but it more than makes up for it with humpback whales swimming 5 ft. from your face.
Tahiti lets you experience the ocean in its purest form. It’s a sublime feeling. The energy of this place is overwhelmingly positive. If I had the funds, I would be going back sooner rather than later.
General Advice for Tahiti
It’s REALLY Expensive
There’s no “budget” way to do Tahiti unless you figure out how to steal a hotel room. It’s Hawaii without Costco, there is no relief from the ghastly prices.
I ate exclusively at McDonald’s for the first 2 days and my wallet was still hurting. Be prepared to pay no less than $20 a meal if you’re eating out, even if you get a salad. If you opt to go the grocery route know that the portions are tiny and the prices are astronomical.
Unless you’re going to Bora Bora for your honeymoon, go with a group of friends. The cost is manageable when you split an AirBnB, food, and alcohol.
This is NOT an ideal place for solo travelers. Most of the activities and hostels are prohibitively expensive. It’s possible but you’ll be broke when you leave.
It’s REALLY French
I know, my ignorance knows no bounds. You’d think after seeing Tahiti was located in FRENCH Polynesia I would have taken a hint but I’m not a smart man.
If you’re coming here expecting it to be as tourist-friendly or English-friendly as Hawaii you’re in for a rude awakening. This place is really french. Beret wearing, baguette loving, thin cigarette smoking french. The only difference is that the locals are nice to tourists. Tahitian culture overrides the assholery of French culture.
It felt eerily similar to Hawaii until I heard a giant, tattooed Samoan speak French. I thought I was having a stroke. It’s like when you hear a gangster-looking dude from the UK speak for the first time. That accent is too ridiculous for me to be afraid.
What to do in Tahiti
Charter a Boat and Become Aquaman
Even if Tahiti was a lawless dystopia, the ocean would make the trip worth it. It’s hard to put into words just how life-changing my snorkeling adventure was but I’ll give it a shot.
We ferried over to Moorea and rented a boat for 3 days through Moorea Ocean Adventures who showed us an incredible time. They told us they were going to take us to snorkel with wildlife but left the other details of the trip a mystery. We told them we wanted humpback whales and while they couldn’t promise that we would, whales aren’t exactly on a schedule, they said they’d do their best.
We begin our ocean adventure boarding the boat at 6 AM and are met by Vincent who looked like the French version of Ryan Gosling. I mean Jesus Christ, this mysterious son of a bitch was beautiful. The next day was with Trevor who was even better looking than Vincent. I know how gay this paragraph sounds but I’m being honest. It’s not my fault that everybody who works at this company are such gorgeous hunks.
We all hop into the boat and start looking for wildlife. It doesn’t take long before we see a blowhole spraying water into the air. They told us we “might” see whales and it was literally the first thing we saw.
There are strict rules in Tahiti and Moorea for swimming with wildlife. We had to swim quite a bit because our boat needed to be at least 200 meters from the whales at all times. The ocean is pretty cold but tolerable once you start moving.
Vincent leads us to where he thinks the whales are and we wait for them to surface. We’re not allowed to free dive down (for safety) and it’s impossible to see where they are just beneath the surface. It feels like swimming around blindly. It’s our first snorkeling session of the day so I wasn’t going to be impatient.
Right as I’m thinking we scared the whales off, Vincent makes a high pitched noise behind me and as I turn around I see two MASSIVE humpback 15 ft. from me.
I’ve seen photos and videos of whales but it didn’t prepare me AT ALL for the size of these creatures. They’re larger than a city bus but they move so gracefully. When you’re up close it looks like they’re in slow motion. They swim with careful intention, and they actually look at you and in some cases acknowledge your existence. I had a similar feeling when I saw elephants for the first time but I have to say whales were a lot more breathtaking and majestic. Seeing an animal that large be that gentle and graceful and move so deliberately was mesmerizing.
The whales came up, got their air, and dove back down to get the fuck away from us. We were all literally speechless for a minute or two before we started reacting like little kids. There are very few times in my life where I have been this excited.
But that was just a warm-up. We saw MANY more whales, they got even closer, we saw juvenile whales swimming with dolphins, manta rays, three types of sharks, turtles, and everything in between.
I came into this thinking it would be a fairly predictable ocean excursion. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.
It seemed like I had made a mistake at first. I missed Asia and all of my travel friends I had made along the way, I missed the backpacker camaraderie and meeting new people and the dirt-cheap cost of living.
Right when I saw that humpback whale, I knew I had made the right choice. Thank you to my friends Meaghan and John for inviting me and showing me something that changed my life for the better.
All of the things from above but you can actually stay underwater. We didn’t see whales but we went to a spot with unlimited turtles and another spot with unlimited sharks.
I used Moorea Blue Diving and highly recommend them. Knowledgeable, English-friendly guides at a reasonable price ($125 for 2 dives).
I had to work the day the group went to see the famous waves at Teahupo’o so I didn’t get to partake. I’m not the biggest surfing enthusiast so I could care less about that experience.
My travel friends absolutely loved it though. They were there during the Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing so the waves were firing and it was a big party on the island of Tahiti. According to them, there are plenty of boat captains looking to make a few extra bucks that will take you to the best vantage points. Bring some beer and watch the best surfers in the world charge these giant, glassy bastards.
Things to Avoid
Oceanic White Tip Sharks
Day 2, our impossibly handsome guide Trevor gets word from the consortium of french boats that there are some pilot whales off the coast near us. We drive out there to investigate, strap on our snorkels and fins and hit the water.
We get to where we need to be and, sure enough, there’s a school of 4 pilot whales swimming in formation. Pilot whales look like dolphins if they were drawn by a 5-year-old.
Vincent warned us that there would probably be a white tip ocean reef shark behind them. Apparently, the sharks follow the whales so they can literally eat their shit as they go in some human centipede-esque survival technique. As long as we don’t get his attention we should be OK.
What I didn’t know was Vincent was TRYING to get their attention by making a clicking sound underwater. The sharks think it sounds like an injured fish. His clicking attracts not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 OF THESE THINGS. We huddle around Stefan so we don’t get eaten.
What I didn’t know at the time and what you may not know is that these creatures are the 4th most dangerous shark in the world to humans. Jacques Cousteau once described the oceanic whitetip as “the most dangerous of all sharks”. The list goes bull sharks, great white sharks, tiger sharks, then oceanic whitetips.
In World War II a Nova Scotia steamship was sunk by torpedoes from a German submarine off the coast of South Africa, close to 1,000 men were on board. As the men waded through the water, a school of whitetips saw this buffet had just fallen out of the sky and a “feeding frenzy” erupted. 1,000 men hit the water, 192 made it back to shore. It’s considered the worst shark attack in history.
I didn’t know any of this at the time and I was still terrified. There was a tension that had my internal alarms blaring. I saw his eyes go wide when he realized one of the sharks was sneaking up on me from the rear and whatever confidence I had left quickly drained from my body. Vincent finally said “let’s go back to the boat” and I was beyond relieved.
I scrambled up on the boat like the shark was an inch away from attacking me. The rest of the group made fun of me but I know they were just as terrified. I legitimately thought I was going to die.
If you watch the video above, you can see them circling us looking for weaknesses, ready to straight fuck us up if we break apart.
Avoid them if possible.
Anything on Land – Especially Papeete
You really only need to spend one night in Papeete. There is nothing to miss out on. The town is more of a landing place than a destination.
The town of Papeete is one of those cruise destinations where you get of the ship and are inundated with jewelry stores and tourist traps trying to take as much of your money as possible during your 4-6 hour stop. There’s nothing to do but eat, buy overpriced souvenirs, and get drunk. But only until 9 PM which is when every single restaurant and bar closes. It’s not worth exploring.
There’s even less to do in Moorea. The islands are meant for you to wake up at 6 AM, play in the ocean for 7 hours, eat dinner, go to sleep at 9 PM and do it all again the next day. Don’t come here looking for a party scene or a local bar to hang out at, you won’t find it.
Where to Eat
Aside from the Poke, food in Hawaii sucks. I expected more of the same in Tahiti and justifiably so. It’s essentially the same place but French. I forgot that French people are really fucking good at cooking.
I had my first non-McDonalds meal on my second day in Tahiti and was blown away. It was this French-style baked tuna casserole that was good enough to be served at a Michelin star restaurant. From the point on, I endeavored to try only local food and stop being a cheapskate. This trip is already going to drain my bank account so why half-ass it? Plus I was 40% diarrhea because of all the McDonald’s.
None of the local snack bars or tiny restaurants look very appealing from the outside but they are phenomenal. I’m talking mouth-watering Poisson cru (french poke), fresh grilled fish, perfectly cooked fries, and steak. One of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten was at a tiny shack on the side of the road.
My favorite spots were Snack Didier and Carameline. I wish I could remember the name of the other waterside restaurants but I can’t. And it doesn’t matter, you can’t go wrong. Literally every place I tried was delicious.
The only meal I didn’t like was from a fancy resort. Stick to the local snack and coffee shops and enjoy 5-star food without the stuffy atmosphere and crazy markups.
Where to Stay
I only stayed in Papeete for three days and Mo’orea for seven. There are (checks notes) 113 islands in French Polynesia so this is nowhere near an exhaustive list.
This is your best option. Our AirBnB cost us $500 each for the week and it was a god damn palace. Just look at this fucking place.
Mo’orea also has those really dope bungalows on the water where you can jump out of your front door into the ocean. I didn’t check the prices on them but it’s safe to assume they are insanely expensive.
Again, if you’re here to splooge and splurge then who cares? Book the bungalow at the Resort Le Douche. But if you want your savings account to survive the trip I recommend going with friends and splitting the cost.
I stayed at Maison PAOFAI while I was suffering from a bout of travel fatigue and wanting to die yet I was still able to appreciate how nice this spot was. It’s a big house with a number of private rooms that you can rent on a night by night basis. The rooms are spacious and clean, the WiFi is fast, and the kitchen and shared spaces give you lots of room to stretch out and meet people.
And it’s cheap. Shockingly cheap. I got a discount on the room from Agoda but even at regular prices, this place is a steal. The main downside is its tucked away in the hills away from the beaches but nothing a 5-minute cab can’t fix. If you’re on a budget this is your best bet.
Mahana Lodge Hostel & Backpacker
Mahana is a pretty basic but clean hostel that costs $35 per night and comes with baguettes for breakfast. It’s right in the center of Papeete so you can explore the town and its 2,000 jewelry stores and coffee shops.
The A/C is freezing and the bunk beds are actually pretty comfortable. Also, it’s not packed like most Asia hostels are so you’ll probably only be sharing your room with 1-2 other people.
How to Get Around
There is no uber or Lyft on the island so you’re relegated to actually calling cabs like it’s 2005. Talk to your AirBnB host or a cab driver when you get off the ferry and get a phone number so you can call when you need it.
The ultimate inter-island transport. There are two companies that have ferries going to the various islands of French Polynesia., Aremiti (which is the one I used) and Terevau. I’ve read they’re both essentially the same price and amenity wise so don’t worry about picking the “right one”.
The ferries are HUGE and have comfortable seats and even tables you can sit at with your groups. The snack bar has all sorts of croissants and baguette sandwiches and french bullshit to eat along with beer and wine.
You can sit on the top of the boat and take in the pristine scenery while you sunburn your face as you travel from island to island.
Where to Drink
This is the best and most cost-friendly option.
Look for a Bar with Live Music
If you absolutely must go to a bar in Papeete, walk around until you find one with live music. There were a lot of local Tahitians playing island music with acoustic guitars in and around the bars downtown. Follow your ears and you may find a chill place to grab a few beers.
If You Have the Money, Book Your Trip to Tahiti Right Now
I can’t recommend Tahiti for backpackers or solo travelers due to how remote and expensive it is but if you have a group of friends or cash to burn then book your trip immediately.
If I got to swim with whales for 10 minutes it would’ve been worth it. But I got to see them for two days straight and a juvenile humpback basically high fived me. The feeling of seeing these majestic, almost mythical animals up close is one of the top 3 experiences of my life. It’s pure, unadulterated bliss. The feeling you get as a kid when you go to the zoo for the first time.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful and tranquil, it’ll force you to bond with your friends and forget your phone, and you get to interact with animals that you’ve only seen on TV shows.
If you have the means, I highly recommend it.