I was told more than once not to spend any time on Tahiti. Rather, leave as quickly as possible to get to the island of Mo’orea. Here I am going to tell you why to ignore that advice because Tahiti is a paradise even in the main town Pape’ete. Over New Years myself and two others spent a week in French Polynesia first visiting the islands of Tahiti followed by Mo’orea. Leaving from Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines currently has one nonstop flight departing and returning weekly on Saturdays. If you are coming from the mainland or another destination you will have more options for travel arrangements, but personally I don’t think I could have handled more than a week there. Unlike destinations in Southeast Asia where I could see myself living there for months on end because of the low cost of living, French Polynesia is the exact opposite. You can save money by buying groceries and cooking your own food, but even AirB&B accommodations were roughly $70 - $90 dollars per night at the cheapest. Since Tahiti has so much to see and do, I am going to highlight the things we were able to do with our limited time (about 3 days) before we took the ferry over to Mo’orea. All the things I’ve included in this post you can easily do without a guide, but I included a list of adventures at the end that I would love to do coming back to the island which would require booking a local guide.
Starting right up the hill from the ferry terminal in Pape’ete, is one of the most accessible breathtaking hikes you can find on Tahiti. I say this and I didn’t even make it to the summit because I was running out of daylight. If you have a clear day while you’re on island I would highly recommend dedicating a full day to this hike. First of all you don’t need a guide if you find the right trailhead beginning behind the O Belvédère Restaurant. Be careful to follow the parking signs, and don’t take your car on the 4WD road at the very end if it isn’t meant for it. There is a large grass parking area adjacent to the restaurant, but that would require driving on the rough road. I would highly recommend finding a parking spot before the restaurant on the side of the road if your car doesn’t have 4WD. It’s no more than a minute of extra walking if you decide to play it safe.
Aorai can be hiked in a single day, but more comfortably in two. Thinking back I would have prepared differently and gotten a much earlier start. By this I mean at least an hour before sunrise because it is just that long! Aorai will take you a full day if your goal is the summit. However, if you don’t want to summit Aorai, getting to the view just past the second cabin is a must, and I wish I could have seen the summit myself.
What you should know
The hike can be broken up in three sections that will take you a similar amount of time to complete each. The first being the trailhead to the first cabin. Then the first cabin to the second cabin and finishing with the second cabin to the summit. Don’t think you are close when you have reached the first cabin as there is many false summits, and you won’t even see the summit until you are past the second cabin. Overall, the trail isn’t difficult to follow just extremely long with a few washed out tricky sections.
DON’T listen to the map on Alltrails like we did and think you are close to the summit because the distance posted is very wrong. This is a long grueling hike but one that is a must do because of the view I mentioned earlier.
If you are going to start in the dark I would recommend driving up the day before to find the trailhead so you can hit the trail as soon as possible on the day of your hike. The whole hike is an out and back trail, and if you plan on making the summit and back in one day, you will most likely start and end in the dark. Personally, I would take the single day option over spending the night in one of the cabins just to make the most of my trip.
If you are heading for the summit don’t go without a working headlamp, 3+ liters of water, and food for more than one meal because I can guarantee you will need almost all of it.
Much easier than the above Mont Aorai, this valley is definitely more on track for those looking for a leisurely adventure. I say waterfalls because while other websites will point out the popular Faarumai Falls, you only have to walk a little further to easily find two more. Faarumai is located just down the road from the popular Papeno’o Valley, and can easily be found on any Google Maps. Once you drive past a few houses into the valley there will be a marked parking lot and a few signs. Just 5 minutes or less over the bridge from the parking lot is the popular Faarumai Falls. This is where you will find most people enjoying the falls, but don’t forget to bring bug spray because the mosquitos are terrible! As you walk back toward the parking lot you might notice a more faint trail on the right side with a sign telling you it’s closed. You can probably guess, but this is where the two other less popular waterfalls can be found. It’s no more than a 10-15 minute walk depending on your pace to the split of two different waterfalls that you will most likely have all to yourselves. I would say the risk is minimal for not following the rules, but I may be bias because there was no one to enforce the sign when I was visiting.
This is one of those places where the exploring here can be too much to see it all for the first time visitor. I can only tell you about my adventure back here, but if you do to visit you might decide to make one different turn and have a completely different better/ worse adventure. Although the waterfall we found was absolutely incredible and I don’t see what could top it, I’m very sure we didn’t find the main falls based on our decisions because it was nothing that we saw in pictures when reading other blogs. I would recommend starting early in the day so if you do want to see more than one waterfall you’ll have the time.
Fautaua Valley is located right in backdrop of Pape’ete at the end of Avenue Pierre Loti. You are required to obtain a permit to do the hike, but being that we were visiting over New Years the town hall was closed so we decided to go without and said we would figure it out when we got there. Fortunately for us, when we were ready to go the gate to the dirt road opened so we could walk right through. If it hadn’t we were going to have to swing around the left side to get past it. I started to think that if we did have a permit there would have been gate codes so we could have driven a little further, but even then the dirt road wasn’t great for our little car so it was probably better we walked the extra mile.
At first you will walk past an area of buildings on the left which I was guessing is for their water supply or something similar. It isn’t until you come up to the first trail sign that you are going to have to make your first decision. Since none of us could read French we decided to continue on the main path, but there is a bridge at this point that crosses the river. I couldn’t tell you what’s over that way but, I’d love to know from someone that could tell me. I actually think the waterfall we found by going straight was better when comparing photos to what we expected to see. If you do continue straight you are still on path for a massive possibly lesser known waterfall as seen in the picture above. After a little while it turns into a normal stream hike with a few crossings. If you come to a set of stairs on the right side of the stream then you are on the same path that we took. A short while after this you might start seeing some different side trails. At one point the stream splits to the left, but we still stayed with the main stream. I would have also liked to know what was that way as well, but based on the stream flow the route we took was far bigger. After the split on the left there shouldn’t be anymore before you reach the main falls. Once you come up to a bigger than normal rock you are about two minutes away and should start seeing the waterfall. When we visited we spent somewhere between 2-3 hours here soaking in the sun and going for a swim in the big pool below because there was no other people around.
Hiking out is the same as hiking in, and make sure you find the trail on the left side that will take you back down the steps that I mentioned earlier. Overall, it should be easily less than 2 hours for the average hiker to make it to the waterfall we found. If you attempt any other trail I honestly couldn’t tell you what to expect, and I would read up on other blogs to see what you might find. if you want certainty though go straight the whole way, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. When you make it to the dirt road in the beginning on your way out be on the lookout for mango and avocado trees lining the road because they are everywhere.
Ten Minute Roadside Waterfall
Every adventure that I’ve named so far requires at least some level of minimal hiking, but here’s one waterfall you can actually see from the road. Once you’re parked the whole thing will take you about ten minutes to reach the waterfall. I don’t know the name for it so I’m going to do my very best to describe where it is. Make sure you have the Google Maps app and island pre-downloaded because it’s not on Apple Maps. Drive to the Tahiti Glace Papara. From here facing the mountains take the road almost directly across, but the one to the right that leads into the valley. On Google Maps it will be the longest of the three roads that go back into the valley. If you take the wrong road go back and find the longer one. There’s no point in making the walk harder for yourself when it is a very easy trail to follow. Most cars should be able to make it to the start of the trail, but be careful so you don’t bottom out or something worse. Park before you start driving through the canopy of trees. The road gets much worse after this point.
To get there just follow the road upstream until you reach the waterfall. In all it should take almost no time at all, and when we visited we were the only ones there. The residents back there were very nice to us and even told us where to park so we didn’t damage our car. You will want bug spray because if you are not in the water the mosquitos can get very bad. For a quick adventure and a very beautiful waterfall don’t overlook this stop.
Being that we spent most of our time on island adventuring, we weren’t relaxing on the beaches as much as you’d might expect for a Tahiti vacation. However, we did drive around the whole island checking out most of the coastline with the exception of the north side of Tahiti-iti. Below is my list of must see beaches from what we did find.
Plagu Vaiava was recommended in another blog to be a great beach for snorkeling/ diving, and I agree! Once you get past the initial drop off the experience is incredible. Personally, I think it is no match for Mo’orea diving, but if you aren’t going there later on in your trip be sure to dive here. You also have a high chance of seeing sharks in the water like we did. If you aren’t aware the majority of the sharks you might encounter will be reef sharks. If you mind your business and keep your distance they should too.
Plage de Taharuu
Plage de Taharuu is a black sand beach on Tahiti’s south shore that makes a great spot for swimming and sunset. This is one of the few spots with waves that make it past outer reef, and you might even see some surfers and body boarders here. The sand can get very hot midday, but the shore break is mild and the waves are fun which makes this a perfect spot to spend the last few hours of daylight catching the sunset.
There is an unnamed beach at the mouth of the stream for the Faarumai Waterfalls (description above) that looked amazing from the few minutes we spent there. If you’re looking for it on Google Maps it’s adjacent to the Arahoho Blowhole. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time on our trip to stay too long, but this black sand beach can be the perfect place to sit all day because you most likely you won’t see other tourists.
At the end of the main road driving toward Teahupo'o on Tahiti-iti’s southeast side is the world famous surf break and black sand beach. You will know you’re here when you reach a roundabout with a giant model wave in the middle for taking pictures. Unfortunately, to reach the break surfers need to catch a ride from a boat, but this can still be a great beach to spend the day.
Being that Tahiti is surrounded by beaches, you could listen to none of my recommendations, and still have fun finding your own favorites. We even had a blast pulling over to the side of the road after the Faarumai waterfalls to watch sunset on the south shore right around the Tahiti isthmus. Keep looking out as you make your way around the island, and I’m sure you’ll find beautiful spots too that we didn’t even see ourselves.
Things I would do going back
The number one thing I would do going back would be to summit Aorai. After having done that I would book a guide for a few adventures I couldn’t do on my own. My two highest priority are listed below not in any particular order. There are numerous outdoor guides for these types of adventures; one of the highly recommended by Lonely Planet was Tahiti Reva Trek. We were trying to find availability through all the ones we could find when we were on island, but unfortunately this is something you need to plan ahead at least 2 weeks in advance to secure your spot.
Hitiaa Lava Tubes
Treating Tahiti like the mainland or even like Hawaii is not a good idea. Keep in mind the mountains are steeper, the heat is muggier during their summer, and mosquitos seem worse than Hawaii in every way. Always be prepared with sunscreen, plenty of water at all times, and bug spray. I promise you will need all three. Don’t take sunscreen lightly. The last thing you want is putting aloe on yourself the rest of the trip after the first day like me, and I even was coming from a tropical island. Overall be prepared and know your limits. When I mention Aorai is hard, it really is. Even for the average hiker! Overall, the Tahitians were very nice and we had no negative encounters with anyone. That comes with being respectful, cautious, and aware of your surroundings at all times like any smart traveler should be.
Moreover, the purpose of this post was so that you could read this as a one stop shop for most first time vacationers visiting the island. Granted this post may be be bias for the more adventurous type, but there’s countless places I didn’t even touch on because this is one of those places that would take a life time to explore and experience. If you follow the recommendations in this post you will be sure to have a great trip filled with adventures for most people’s ability!