Tahiti: Going Independent in an Island Paradise

You might think it’d be easy with basic French and an average budget, but Tahiti’s expensive, the capital’s scruffy, and buses virtually non-existent.

If you like independent travel and the idea of a tropical island holiday on a limited budget, you might consider a holiday in Tahiti in French Polynesia, but you’ll need to plan carefully to get the most out of your trip and your finances.

Living on a Tight Budget

A mandolin serenade and a gardenia behind your ear might help you to overlook a ridiculous taxi fare to your hotel, but you’ll soon realise that Tahiti is indeed heaven on earth but hell on the pocket. Hotel breakfasts can be as much as £25 each, but there are plenty of ordinary bars around for a coffee and croissant.

Speaking the Language and Getting Information

Going native is a challenge. The Polynesian language seems to consist mainly of vowels and apostrophes, and most locals have about as much French as contemporaries who dropped it after failing O level. Even in the tourist office they don’t speak much English, but at least they make up for it with lovely smiles and the appearance of wanting to help.

Getting about: in Gauguin’s footsteps

Local buses are unreliable to say the least.

“They leave when they’re full, and don’t always come back,” say the gorgeous girls in the tourist office. Unless you’re determined, these beauties will be the nearest you get to a Gauguin painting instead of visiting his house. However, be alert to lanky men wearing baggy shorts who hang around looking for tourists. You can negotiate a reasonable fee for round island trips taking in the Gauguin Museum.

The landscape is dotted with huts on stilts, provided by the state, in orange groves planted by Captain Cook for his sailors. Most Tahitians do not see the need to work, and live on fish, fruit and wild pigs. We stopped at a waterfall with a deep pool beneath, once a favourite bathing place, but word got round that the syphilitic Gauguin used it, so nobody swims there any more. Hardly anything remains of his house except the view, but the little museum is a treasure trove of mementos.

Papeete, the Capital of Tahiti

Papeete, the shabby capital, is about the size of Green Park. The market is fun, and if your budget extends to back pearls, you can choose your own and even drill them yourself to have jewellery at a fraction of the price at home. Papeete’s port becomes a noisy funfair after dark when roulottes, camper vans equipped with cooking facilities and plastic tables and chairs, create competing food stalls of every nationality. Here at least prices are reasonable, though the Chinese soup with three hen’s feet protruding from it wasn’t the best I’ve eaten.
Sailing to the Island of Moorea

Ships sail daily to Moorea from Papeete, but when they dock there’s nothing on the quayside apart from a little bar (closed) and a sun-bleached illegible notice board. After a while, le truck might appear, a passenger lorry with rows of cinema seats balanced precariously behind the cab. Your conversation with the driver might go something like this.

“When do you leave?”
“Not yet. When I’m ready.”

He pulls his hat over his eyes whilst your boat slips away, not to return for 12 hours.

The tourist office in Papeete will give you the number of a house in Cook’s Bay which serves meals to tourists. The owner will collect you, pleased with the novelty of company. He and his wife used to live in Lyons, but sold up for idyllic island life. Ten years and two children later they’re trapped, hardly making a living from the few tourists who pass by. The traditional house with its roof of palm fronds leaks, and their walls with views of France serve as reminders of the life they left behind.

There’s an independence movement in Tahiti, but reality suggests that it simply wouldn’t work. They’d be totally lost without French support and its bolstering of tourism in the islands. It is indeed a tropical paradise, but a slightly fragile economy. Go there before it changes its charming character!

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