Souvenir Shopping in Tahiti and French Polynesia

The Tahiti Black Pearl Museum, myriad small pearl farms, and Papeete’s Central Market offer a starting point for French Polynesia shopping excursions.

South Seas breezes, the paintings of Gauguin, the legends of Captain Cook, blacks pearls, and mouthwatering images of over-water Tahitian bungalows: The sights and sounds of Tahiti make this South Pacific destination a “bucket list” trip for many international travelers. Once there, tourists will find plenty of souvenirs that will enable them to bring a bit of French Polynesia back home with them.

Make your first stop the Marche Central in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital city, to get a sense of what is on offer. Then peruse the higher-end shops along the seafront to get an idea of the upper range. With some planning and a bit of room in your luggage, you can bring home the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of
Tahitian Black Pearls

French Polynesia may be among the best places in the world to buy black pearls. Black pearls are cultivated here on pearl farms, many of which offer tours to both cruise ship passengers on shore excursions and to land-based tourists. The farms offer good prices.

In Papeete, the Black Pearl Museum has fabulous exhibits of the history and culture of black pearls, along with some for sale. For cheap souvenirs, you can try the stands and souvenir shacks along the docks in Bora Bora, Moorea, Raitea, and other islands where cruise ships dock. Irregularly shaped pearl pendants are not highly valued by pearl experts, but have their own beauty and make interesting souvenirs and gifts at low prices. You can pay anywhere from a dollar to hundreds of dollars for a pearl (multiple those numbers for strand, some of which can cost as much as a North American house!). So there’s a black pearl for everfy budget.

Mother of pearl and seashell jewelry is also widely available, especially at the Papeete Central Market and in tourist shops.

Tahitian Pareos and Woven Hats

Pareo’s are the ubiquitous South Seas beach wraps. They are available almost everywhere, with beautiful colors and patterns. On your trip, use them as beach wear and a cover-up around a hotel or a spa; At home they make wonderful gifts, and can be used as wraps and shawls, or as tablecloths. Expect to spend $10 – $30 depending on the fabric and the shop.

Woven hats are useful on the islands as sun protection, but unless you’re swilling to wear it home on the plane, these quintessential Tahitian mementos are hard to travel with.

Masks and Carvings

Wood carvings are also available, particularly at the Central Market (Le Marche) in Papette. Be sure that what you buy is Tahitian (if that matters to you). Wood carvings decorated with bright beads tend to be Indonesian, not Polynesian. Squarish unpainted wooden masks and statuettes of tiki gods are (probably) Polynesian (be sure to ask!).

Other wood crafts include bowls and utensils, but here again, check where they are made.

Tahitian Music Souvenirs

Tahitian music sounds a lot like Hawaiian music, with a similar combination of guitars and ukeleles, although the Tahitian ukelele is not quite the same instrument as its Hawaiian cousin. Tahitian ukeleles are double-strung with four courses of strings (eight strings total) and are more like a mandolin than the better known Hawaiian ukelele.

If you’re a guitarist or mandolin player, you might check out buying a Tahitian ukelele. Tourist-grade ukeleles are available in markets for about $40. Musician-grade instruments can cost quit a bit more — as much as $600 for a beautifully crafted one that is as much an object d’art as it is an instrument. A good one is a unique souvenir, easily playable by a guitarist or mandolin player. Interestingly, the strings are made of 15-kilo fishing line. They are remarkably hardy, and can survive years of playing before breaking or needing to be changed.. And the instrument, un-miked, can cut through an entire amplified rock band.

Tahitian Herb and Spice Products

You can also bring back the scent of French Polynesia. Vanilla is grown throughout the islands, and some island tours stop at farms where vanilla is sold direct from the grower. To get it through customs, you’ll need to buy dried vanilla, not fresh pods.

Soaps are another souvenir, particularly those made from coconut oil. Tiare flower soap and jasmine scented soaps are other unique gifts, available in Papette for a few dollars.

A note of warning: Tahitian and other French Polynesian markets are filled with souvenirs that look suitably exotic, but aren’t necessarily native to Tahiti and French Polynesia. Souvenirs made in Indonesia and China, abound, so ask the sellers where something was made if it matters to you. Phrasing the question neutrally usually elicits a truthful answer.

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