Tahiti has a long and rich history. The islands were first settled by migrating Polynesians as early as 500BC. They were later discovered by European explorers during the 16th century and eventually colonized by France. Now officially known as French Polynesia, Tahiti is an autonomous overseas country of the French Republic.
4000 BC - 1000 AD
The great migration from Southeast Asia began around 4000 BC, in which daring seafarers sailed the open ocean in their large double-hulled canoes—using only the sun, stars, wind, ocean currents, and flight patterns of the birds—to navigate to new islands.
Researchers conclude that Tonga and Samoa were settled as early as 1300 BC. From there, another migratory wave brought these new explorers even farther eastward, reaching the Marquesas around 500 BC.
Over the next several centuries, the voyages continued north to the Hawaiian Islands, east to Easter Island, and south to the Tuamotu Archipelago and the remaining Tahitian Islands. Raiatea, known historically as Hawaiki, eventually became the religious and cultural center. From there, around 1000 AD, the canoes proceeded to the Cook Islands and New Zealand, completing the Polynesian Triangle.
1500 AD - 1900 AD
The era of European exploration began when the mysterious "ships without outriggers" started to arrive. In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan spotted the atoll of Puka Puka in the Tuamotu Archipelago while sailing to the Philippines.
In 1595, Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira was returning to the Solomon Islands and happened upon Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. Then in 1606, Pedro Fernández de Quiros discovered a number of the Tuamotu Atolls. This was the last of the Spanish explorations in the Pacific during that era.
Captain Samuel Wallis was the first documented explorer to discover the island of Tahiti. He anchored the British vessel HMS Dolphin in Matavai Bay on June 23, 1767, and claimed the island in the name of King George III. Soon after, Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville, unaware of Wallis's arrival, landed on the opposite side of Tahiti and claimed the island for France in 1768.
In April 1769, Captain James Cook made his first trip to Tahiti aboard the HMS Endeavor to watch the Transit of Venus. He later returned, visiting Moorea, Raiatea, Taha'a, Huahine, Bora Bora, Tupai and Maupiti, which he named the Society Islands. European fascination with Tahiti and the South Pacific expanded once Cook and his crew brought back the first map of the islands and illustrations of the indigenous flora and fauna.
This intrigue was piqued even further as news spread of the famous mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty, led by Lieutenant Fletcher Christian against Captain William Bligh in 1789. Soon, every country in the Western world wanted to attain paradise. The arrival of British and French missionaries in the 1800s provoked a rivalry between England and France for control over the islands, and this forever changed the way of life in Tahiti.
1900 AD - Present
The native Pomare Family ruled until December 29, 1880, when Tahiti finally became a French colony. In 1957, the islands were reconstituted into a French Overseas Territory and given the official name French Polynesia.
In the early 1960s, a large harbor was built in Papeete, an international airport was built in Faa'a, and a huge crew descended onto the islands to film the movie Mutiny on the Bounty. These rapid changes quickly brought French Polynesia into the modern age.
In 1977, the French government granted autonomy to French Polynesia; then on February 12, 2004, it became an overseas country of the French Republic.
"...but nothing on Tahiti is so majestic as what faces it across the bay, for there lies the island of Moorea. To describe it is impossible. It is a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature."
- James A. Michener
Tahitians inherited a rich and vibrant culture from their ancient ancestors. Polynesian artistry—which includes weaving, woodcarving, and tattooing—is grounded in the mythology of that heritage. Each sacred tradition tells a colorful story about life, love, and their enduring relationship with nature.
Tahitians are the proud guardians of their cultural heritage and therefore represent the beauty of timeless tradition. They love to celebrate their customs through artwork, song, and dance. These warm, welcoming Polynesians possess an innocent and carefree spirit. Their philosophy, aita pea pea, meaning, "not to worry," is truly the Tahitian way of life.
Before the arrival of European missionaries, Polynesian clothing was traditionally made from tapa cloth, which consisted of dried pandanus leaves, coconut fibers, and breadfruit bark. The local women at that time wore one single garment, called a pareo, wrapped around their waist. Today, this colorful article of clothing, like a sarong, is made from two yards of dyed fabric and can be worn by both men and women in a variety of ways.
The missionaries not only introduced fabric to the islands, but also taught the local women the art of patchwork. Today, these matriarchs, affectionately known as Tahitian "mamas," sew colorful quilts known as tifaifai. Each tapestry is unique, made from handmade floral appliqué designs meant to reflect their inherent love of nature. Now a treasured wedding gift, it is wrapped around the couple during a traditional Polynesian wedding ceremony.
Music, along with dance, is an integral part of everyday life in the islands. The instruments are minimal, but the sound is reverberant. Tahitian music can best be identified by the fast tribal rhythms of the wooden drums known as pahu. These drums, traditionally covered in sharkskin, are played alongside the toere, a long cylindrical drum with a split down the side for higher pitched percussion. Other traditional instruments include the pu, or conch shell, the vivo, or nose flute, and the ukulele.
Tahitian dance is the most authentic reflection of Polynesian culture. This extraordinary display of passion and vitality was once linked to all aspects of island life, including prayer, celebration, welcoming and storytelling. The signature tamure, or fast hip shaking motion, has become an unmistakable trademark of this captivating art form, matched only by the resounding rhythms of the Tahitian drums.
The tattoo, derived from the Tahitian word tatau, is an ancient art form used to express identity and personality. Nearly everyone in ancient Polynesia was marked by the tattoo, indicating one's genealogy and rank within society. For young men in this culture, each tattoo was a badge of honor, a sign of courage, and a testament of manhood—since they endured months of agony to complete their mark. The process is now more streamlined, but the designs and their significance remain the same.
"All the time our visits to the islands have been more like dreams than realities: the people, the life, the beachcombers, the old stories and the songs I have picked up..."
- Robert Louis Stevenson
Fresh Market Foods
In Tahiti, an abundance of fresh seafood, tropical fruits, and organic vegetables are treated to the culinary talents of international chefs. The cuisine is usually French with Polynesian influence, providing a fusion of gourmet flavors prepared with locally sourced ingredients.
The public marketplace in Papeete, Le Marché, is where the locals find the freshest fare, including vegetables, fruit, vanilla, and brightly colored fish. This vibrant marketplace is best on Sunday mornings, but well worth a visit any day of the week. In addition to food and floral arrangements, artists sell woven baskets, woodcarvings, and Tahitian textiles.
Across the boulevard from Le Marché is the waterfront promenade, Vai'ete Square, where the famous food trucks known as Les Roulottes open nightly to serve a range of affordable meals. Snacks include Chinese food, French crepes, steak sandwiches, pommes frites, fresh fish, and pizza. The food and atmosphere are both excellent.
The signature dish in Tahiti is poisson cru, or raw fish. The flavor defines the essence of the destination—sweet, tender, refreshing, and exotic. It consists of raw tuna marinated in lime juice and mixed with a delicious blend of diced vegetables and coconut milk.
The islands of Tahiti are a geographical marvel. Believed to have formed from a series of underwater volcanic eruptions, they emerged millions of years ago from the depths of the ocean. Seemingly untouched by time, the islands today are still as beautiful as ever.
Island or Atoll?
The archipelagos consist of high volcanic islands and low coral atolls. Over time, volcanic islands start to sink below the surface. The surrounding coral, which needs light to survive, grows upward and gradually separates from the subsiding island. Eventually the volcano disappears, leaving behind the inner lagoon within a string of coral islets known as an atoll. Rangiroa is an example of this phenomenon, while Bora Bora could be considered a partial atoll since the center of the island is still above water.
The inner valleys are also brimming with hidden waterfalls, natural pools, and winding rivers. The island of Tahiti is especially aqueous, from the cascading Fautaua Falls to the streaming Papenoo Valley and the vast Lake Vaihiria. These interiors are ideal for island exploration, whether by hike, Jeep Safari, or even canoe. The Faaroa River on Raiatea, for instance, is the only navigable river in French Polynesia and therefore accessible by canoe, kayak, or motorboat.
On the volcanic islands, high jagged peaks rise dramatically from lush interiors. The panoramic views from these vantage points are well worth the trek. These iconic hillsides played an important role in ancient Polynesian culture. Many myths and legends are used to explain their shape, whether describing the hole in Mount Mouaputa on Moorea, or the silhouette of a pregnant woman on the fertile island of Huahine.
The bird population is the most noteworthy in French Polynesia, with over one hundred species among the islands. The coastal birds, such as boobies, tropicbirds, and terns, feed from the lagoon but roost on land. The shore birds, such as Pacific heron, golden plovers, and tattlers, are seasonal migratory species. The land birds include the reed warbler, the rare Marquesas kingfisher, and the colorful ultramarine lorikeet. Tikehau is home to the largest colony of sea birds, providing a natural aviary on its aptly named Bird Island.
The calm lagoon waters of French Polynesia are home to countless species of fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and sea turtles. Encounters include tuna, snapper, parrotfish, angelfish, clown fish, butterfly fish, and triggerfish, as well as manta rays, moray eel, and reef sharks. For this reason, the islands of Tahiti are the ultimate locale for snorkeling and scuba diving.
"With wide open eyes I would plunge under the transparent water that is green as absinthe in its depths."
- Henri Matisse
Exotic plants and flowers flourish in the rich tropical soil surrounding French Polynesia. Varieties include bird of paradise, hibiscus, red and pink ginger, orchids, and roses. Floral adornment is anchored in Polynesian culture; thus flowers are often worn or gifted in the form of decorative leis and heis (crowns).
The Tiare, or Tahitian gardenia, is the national emblem of French Polynesia. When placed behind the left ear, the flower signifies the person is taken; when placed behind the right ear, it signifies the person is romantically available. One variation of this flower, the Tiare Apetahi, is so rare and delicate that it cannot be grown anywhere else in the world.
The islands' signature scent, monoï oil, is made from coconut oil infused with the fragrant Tiare flower. Used in every spa in Tahiti, this hydrating oil promotes smooth, healthy skin and serves as the base for an entire range of soaps, lotions, and cosmetics.
The vanilla in Tahiti is exceptionally rich and fragrant. Grown from an orchid plant, the Tahitian variety is a rare species with an incredible aroma and international acclaim. The beans are more supple and richer in oil than many species, making them highly desirable among connoisseurs. The islands of Huahine and Taha'a are most famous for their vanilla plantations.
The warm Tahitian lagoons are also ideal for the cultivation of the exquisite and highly prized black pearl. The distant Tuamotu Atolls are blessed with an abundant population of the Pinctada margaritifera, the only oyster in the world capable of producing the rich hues characteristic of these unique island gems—from light silver to the darkest of grey with shimmering tones of pink and green.