While French influence is still undeniable in Tahiti, the modern Pacific island takes great pride in its ancient Polynesian heritage. From island tours to authentic museums, temples to tikis, alluring black pearls to traditional dance shows, here are 10 ways to discover the rich cultural treasures of this jewel of French Polynesia.
Take An Island Tour
Experience everyday Tahitian life and the culture of French Polynesia on a circle-island tour. Nearly every island has a coastal road following the lagoon shores, so you can either drive around in a rental car or take a guided bus tour.
To explore the islands’ villages, go on a four-wheel-drive safari, a guided nature hike or horseback ride, and skim across the lagoons on a motorised canoe, sailboat or powerboat. For dramatic views above the island, take a helicopter tour.
Museum Of Tahiti And The Islands
Located in the village of Punaauia, the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands is a Polynesian ethnographic museum dedicated to conserving the geology, archaeology and history of Tahiti. Visit the museum’s permanent exhibition rooms and learn about Tahiti’s natural environment, settlement, material culture, social and religious life, and history, and admire the Atea’s Gardens.
Black Pearl Museum
Discover all there is to know about pearls at the Black Pearl Museum at Papeete. Learn about the various aspects of art, history, mythology, philosophy and religion that are associated with pearls. As well as technical explanations, browse a collection of pearl-producing oysters and shells, and find stunning pearl jewellery at the gift shop.
While the Polynesians have always revered the sea, there are also many marae on Tahiti that hold great cultural significance. The marae or pagan temples of the ancient Polynesians were built to worship the islands’ gods, with these religious sites containing various structures made from basalt rock, coral slabs and stone.
In Tahiti, marae temples include the Marae Mahaiatea, Arahurahu, Anapua and Farehape. The Aruhurahu marae is one of the island's most significant, having been carefully restored and used for the re-enactment of ancient ceremonies performed during the Heiva Nui dance celebrations.
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Visit The Tikis
Religious Tahitian art, and found in most Polynesian cultures, a Tiki is a large or small wooden or stone carving representing images of anthropomorphic ancestors and often used in ancient Polynesian society to mark the boundaries of sacred or significant sites. Several Tikis are on display at the Museum of Tahiti and the Islands, along with a few stone Tikis at the Paul Gauguin Museum.
Papeete Tahiti Temple
Located in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, the Papeete Temple Tahiti is the 25th operating temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was built with a modern, single-spire design and since its dedication in 1983 it has undergone renovation. Visit the temple and admire its striking blue roof, wander its winding sidewalks and take in its surrounding foliage.
In the centre of Papeete is Le Marche, an extensive indoor marketplace selling tropical fruits and vegetables and fresh fish from the lagoon, and an abundance of Tahitian arts and crafts. Find a large selection of colourful pareus, or sarongs, along with hats, handbags and various souvenir items. Vendors also sell local textiles and handcrafted items such as shell necklaces, providing the perfect opportunity to find special Tahitian gifts for loved ones back home.
Attend A Tahitian Dance Show
Music and dance play an essential role in Tahitian culture, with the enchanting Ori Tahiti an original artistic expression rooted in ancient traditions. Be mesmerised by the Tahitian dance’s characteristic movements, costumes, music and percussions, and ask your hotel or service provider about any Ori Tahiti competitions taking place on the island during your stay.
Visit The Paul Gauguin Museum
Paul Gauguin, a French post-Impressionist artist famous for his experimental use of colour and synthetic style that was distinctly different from Impressionism, spent his final years in Polynesia. His art had a profound influence on the primitive and exotic painters and sculptors of the 20th century, and now visitors to Tahiti can visit the Paul Gauguin Museum, a Japanese-styled art museum dedicated to the life and works of the artist, which includes original documents, photographs, reproductions, sculptures, engravings and gouaches.
Attend A Festival
One of the most authentic ways to experience Tahitian culture is to attend a special event or festival. Music, song and dance have always been integral to the Polynesian way of life, with festivals like Heiva i Tahiti providing the perfect opportunity for visitors to discover the island’s artistic expression. If you’re visiting Tahiti during July, be sure to immerse yourself in this month-long festival of Polynesian culture and dance, set against a backdrop of turquoise waters and magnificent black sand.