Like any self-respecting Shangri-La, Tahiti isn’t all that easy to get to. In fact, this island of enchantment is pretty far away from most mortal kingdoms—the closest being New Zealand—and it’s even farther away from the squalid, freezing hellhole where you probably live. Yet, for as difficult as Tahiti is to get to, it’s even harder to leave.
Tahiti lies smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
There’s an unmarked triangle in the South Pacific Ocean known as Polynesia—meaning “many nations”—which stretches from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. This Polynesian Triangle encompasses over 1,000 South Sea Islands and, right in the middle of it is the sun-drenched, chain of islands of French Polynesia and Tahiti. The nearest neighboring island is 12 miles away, so even if Moo’rea has a lot of loud parties late at night, you probably won’t need to call the cops on them.
The first Tahitians had cojones the size of coconuts.
The island of Tahiti—which means “rising sun”—was originally settled sometime between 300-800 AD by early Polynesians, a race of sea-faring folks thought to have come from East Asia. These badass mariners set off paddling 60-foot long outrigger canoes into hundreds of miles of open ocean without any idea of where they were going, or if they’d ever find land. By way of comparison, I won’t even drive to Home Depot® without using the GPS.
Polynesians don’t need no e-stinkin’ GPS!
When your people’s territory is a thousand tiny islands scattered over hundreds of miles of featureless ocean, you get good at navigating open water, or you get good and dead. Traditionally, the Polynesians navigated using the stars and other way-finding techniques—including cloud, fish, bird, and wave behaviors. Older navigators passed their knowledge down through the oral tradition, often in the form of songs like “Red Skies at Night” and the always memorable, “Ekewaka, follow that seagull!” These navigation skills are still being taught today to bored Tahitian teens staring into their GPS-enabled mobile phones.
Most Tahitians are actually ex-Samoans.
Today’s Tahitians mostly hail from Samoa (the island chain, not the cookie). These South Seas islands are 1,500-miles west of Tahiti, a short paddle by Polynesian standards. That proximity is why Samoans currently represent about 70% of the population. The other 30% of Tahitians are composed of people who, not surprisingly, left China, Europe, and other countries that have cold and/or shitty weather most of the year.
Ancient Polynesian religious beliefs weirdly line-up with modern alien conspiracies.
Out with the old Polynesian gods, in with the new Christian one.
Unbidden and unwanted (as usual), Christian missionaries washed up on Tahiti’s idyllic shores in the 1800s. They had the unenviable task of spreading the good word about “God’s paradise” to a bunch of folk who already lived there. Frankly, the missionaries would’ve had an easier time trying to foist psychiatry on Scientologists).
Blissfully unaware of Jesus and his growing fan-base, the Tahitians lived long, happy lives and died unsaved for almost 1400 years without seeming worse off for the wear. Yet by 1850, these Catholic and Protestant missionaries had accomplished one of their primary goals—convincing the locals to stop human-sacrificing Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
After a period of Polynesian civil war and the return of exiled chief Pomare II (Tahiti’s own Constantine-wannabe), most Polynesians abandoned their festive Tahitian gods in favor of Christianity’s dour one, presumably after learning that He allowed believers to keep slaves, sleep with their dead brother’s wife, tell women to shut up, and just generally stone people for no reason. I suspect this all appealed to locals who—living on such a small island—were always looking for new things to do.
The island of Tahiti is more of a concept than a reality.
When the island of Tahiti comes up in conversation or in a game of Trivial Pursuit,® most people don’t imagine a real island, they imagine a fantasy island. A place straight out of the musical “South Pacific,” or one of those pulp magazine stories from the ’50s where American soldiers fell in love with beautiful island girls and gave them gonorrhea.
And they’re not wrong—Tahiti is that fantasy place. The sun shines 3,000 hours per year, the water is freakishly blue, and waterfalls abound down its mountains. To the locals, Tahiti may be a tiny rock with over 40% unemployment and limited economic opportunity, but to tourists, it’s as close to nirvana as most of them are likely ever to get.
Tahiti will change you beyond just making your skin all dark and leathery.
Visiting this tropical paradise, even for a short time, will make you rethink any dreams for the future you had planned for yourself. Suddenly, the American Dream of “a big house, 2.5 kids, and a white picket fence” doesn’t hold a candle to the Tahitian Dream of “lounging in a beach hammock, drinking a Hinana Lager while watching pelicans procreate.”
“I could live here,” you’ll think, entirely forgetting that you have a job, spouse, and 2.5 kids back home. “I don’t need much to be happy, I could just weave a hut out of palm fronds, build a car out of bamboo, panhandle for beer money, and eat coconut cream pie all day,” you confidently tell a nearby palm tree because you’re hallucinating from full-blown heat exhaustion.
The kind of climate you can generally expect on Tahiti.
Though most people think Tahiti has perfect weather all the time, temperatures in the South Pacific can diverge wildly from a brain-melting 88°F all the way down to a bone-chilling 70°F. You simply never know whether you’ll need to wear winter- or summer-shorts at any given moment, so pack both kind—you don’t want to get caught in corduroy shorts during the summer.
Tahiti experiences very little seasonal variation during the year, but November through April is facetiously called “the rainy season.” That’s when storm clouds often gather ominously around Tahiti’s high volcanic peaks, threatening to wash away lives, homes, and businesses in violent torrential downpours. More commonly, the clouds unleash for, at most, 30 minutes and, if it weren’t for the resulting waterfalls and rainbows, you’d be mildly annoyed by it.
If you like sunshine but hate animals, Tahiti is the place for you.
Much like the Big Island of Hawai’i, which imported non-native mongooses to unsuccessfully do battle with its non-native rat infestation, Tahiti has almost no indigenous wildlife besides birds. If an animal didn’t fly there on its own, or stowaway on a passing ship, the Tahitians don’t have it.
The island is pleasantly devoid of spiders, bats, and snakes, but also deer, cats, lions, tigers, and even bears. I can only assume the Tahiti Zoo is just a bunch of rats and maybe a Myna bird trained to swear in Reo Mā’ ohi. But I’d still pay to see that.
Even though it’s paradise, Tahiti isn’t all sunshine and mango-pops.
There are a few dark secrets about this “island” paradise the locals don’t want to tell you. For starters, Tahiti isn’t an island. What?!? That’s right, you’ve been lied to! It’s actually two extinct volcanos—Mont Orohena and Mount Ronui—connected by an isthmus. A freaking isthmus…yeah, can you believe it?!? Such a rip-off.
What’s an isthmus, you ask? Well, it’s a “narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across an expanse of water.” And believe me, I didn’t fly halfway across the Pacific Ocean to drink fruity cocktails on a tropical isthmus! If I’d wanted an “Isthmus Vacation,” I could’ve gone to Santa Catalina or someplace. All things considered, though, I suppose it could’ve been worse—at least, Tahiti isn’t a tombolo.
Here’s something else you don’t know about Tahiti.
You’re saying it wrong. Huh?!? That’s right, you’ve been lied to…again! Tahiti is pronounced Ta-HAY-tee, not Ta-HEE-tee like everyone you’ve ever known pronounces it. I’ll be honest, when I first learned that fact, it was more than a little surprising. It kinda messed me up for a while.
It was like finding out that Detroit is actually pronounced Dey-twah. Or that Constantinople is pronounced Istanbul. Next, you’re going to tell me “tattoo” is pronounced tat-tau, or some crazy shit like that. (What’s that? It is? FML.)
Ranking Tahiti against other tropical islands I’ve visited thus far.
Comparing beautiful, tropical islands is like comparing beautiful tropical women–it’s crass, disrespectful, and will likely get you slapped. Pitting natural beauty against itself as a list, simply for the sake of better Google rankings, is despicable and something that I’d never do unless someone had a gun to my head. However, gun to my head, here’s how I’d rank the tropical islands I’ve been to.
- Bora Bora
- Caye Caulker
- St. Martin
- Cancún’s Isla Mujeres
- Hawai‘i’s Big Island
- Puerto Rico
Over-looking the whole “not technically an island” isthmus debacle, Tahiti ranks near the middle of my list for one simple reason—it’s a large, well-developed island, like Puerto Rico. Tahiti is so big, it has an international airport, shopping malls, and three McDonald’s. No, Tahiti is just too civilized to give you the full “remote island getaway” experience, even though it is legit very remote.
To provide a more authentic experience, an island should only be accessible by small boat, outrigger canoe, or rickety, WWI-era biplane that barely looks capable of flight. Then, once you’re on the island, electricity should be sketchy, the water barely drinkable, and the beaches deserted except for a single tiki bar. The ideal remote tropical island should be a place where you go to relax and unwind, write a novel, or escape extradition and, regrettably, Tahiti is not that kind of place. Now, Bora Bora on the other hand…