Complete guide to sailing from Papeete, Tahiti, French Polynesia
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Admit it. You’ve dreamed of jetting off to Tahiti to trade in everyday life for a luxury cruise around French Polynesia. You’ve dreamed of visiting Bora Bora, the home of the overwater bungalow, and you’ve heard tales of the wonderful food trucks in and around Papeete that serve incredible local delicacies. You want to go pearl shopping in Taha’a and climb Belvedere Lookoutin Moorea. A variety of cruise lines can help you achieve all of those dreams from the Tahiti cruise terminal.
Being the only international commercial port in French Polynesia, Port Autonome de Papeete on Tahiti accommodates a wide range of vessels, from cruise ships to cargo freighters to luxury yachts. It’s also the largest cruise port in the French overseas territory and serves about 2 million cruisers annually (pre-pandemic).
In addition to multi-night cruises, Papeete port is also the embarkation point for regular ferries to Moorea and Bora Bora.
Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the region is welcoming international visitors. Here’s everything you need to know about French Polynesia’s reopening.
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Port Autonome de Papeete
BP 9164 Motu Uta
Papeete, Tahiti 98714
Tip: If you’re traveling to Papeete from the United States, you’ll fly from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Honolulu. The mainland’s flight duration is about eight hours, while it’s about a six-hour trip from Hawaii. Those are long-haul flights and — especially if you started from the East Coast — you’ll be tired when you land. Be sure to arrive a few days before your cruise embarks so you can enjoy a hotel and get over your jet lag.
Who sails from Papeete?
Two cruise ships — Paul Gauguin Cruises Paul Gauguin and Winstar Cruises’ four-masted luxury motor-sail-yacht Wind Spirit — homeport out of Papeete. Typically, these ships offer seven-night or longer itineraries to neighboring islands in French Polynesia and beyond.
Paul Gauguin Cruises (owned by Ponant) specializes in French Polynesia cruises. It’s all the line offers. Its voyages explore the Society and Cook islands as well as the Marquesas and Tuamotus. The 332-passenger Paul Gauguin also sails to Fiji and Tonga and sometimes calls on Melanesia and Indonesia’s ports.
The seven-night Tahiti and Society Islands itinerary sails round-trip out of Papeete and calls on Huahine, Taha’a and the private Motu Mahana as well as overnights in Bora Bora, Moorea and Papeete.
Windstar’s Wind Spirit is the epitome of small-ship cruising, with just 148 passengers per sailing. Its most popular French Poly itinerary is its seven-night round-trip cruise out of Tahiti that calls on Moorea, an overnight in Raiatea, Taha’a and the private Motu Mahana, an overnight in Bora Bora and a day in Huahine.
In 2022, Windstar’s Star Breeze yacht will also sail more than a dozen seven-, 10-, 11- and 18-night voyages from Papeete.
Aranui 5, a mixed cargo (passenger/freight) ship, also homeports in Tahiti and takes passengers from Papeete to the Marquesas archipelago, Tuamotu Islands and Bora Bora in the Society Islands.
Ferries are also available at the Tahiti cruise port and they regularly carry passengers to neighboring Moorea and Bora Bora.
Despite the few ships that homeport here, Papeete can get busy, as it is a port of call for ships of many cruise lines. In 2022, for example, the following lines plan to call on Tahiti: Carnival, Cunard, Holland America, MSC Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Princess, Royal Caribbean Seabourn and Silversea.
Related: Finding award availability to Tahiti
Faa’a International Airport (PPT)
The Port Autonome de Papeete lies roughly 3 miles east (about 15 to 20 minutes) of the Tahiti-Faa’a International Airport (PPT), which is the only international airport in French Polynesia.
Five airlines fly out of U.S. airports, including:
- Air France from Los Angeles (LAX) — Book with cash or Flying Blue miles or miles from any SkyTeam partner.
- Air Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles (LAX) — Book with cash or American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
- French Bee from San Francisco (SFO) — Book with cash.
- Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu (HNL) — Book with cash or Hawaiian Airlines or American AAdvantage miles.
- United from San Francisco (SFO) — Book with cash or United MileagePlus miles or miles from any Star Alliance partner.
Air Tahiti Nui, Air France and French Bee also fly out of Vancouver (YVR), Canada.
Related: Best airline credit cards
Cruise line transfers
As Paul Gauguin cruises are all-inclusive, prices already include a flight from LAX to Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui round-trip airport/pier transfers. (Note: If you prefer to book your own flights, ask for the cruise-only fare.)
If you booked your cruise with Windstar Cruises, ask about buying transportation from the airport or hotel to the port unless you booked your pre-cruise hotel through Windstar Easy Stays, which takes care of your transfers to and from the ship terminal.
If you’re sailing on Aranui 5, you can arrange to get to the port via taxi.
Paul Gauguin’s Extend Your Trip program includes a pre-/post-cruise hotel stay as well as transfers from the airport to the hotel and from the hotel to the cruise port. Aside from that and Windstar’s Easy Stays program, you’re hard-pressed to find hotels offering shuttle service to the pier unless you’re willing to pay for private or group transfers.
If you like to explore on your own, you can rent a car, SUV or scooter on Tahiti from a local agency like Ecocar Ecoscoot Tahiti Aeroport.
Daily rental rate starts from around $40 for an “economic” car, such as the Fiat Panda, which seats four people. Rate includes insurance, unlimited mileage, an infant or child seat and even free delivery during limited hours (subject to availability).
Independent van and car services
It’s also possible to book a private car or van for your transportation needs on Tahiti. Marama Transports Touristiques is a good choice since its vehicles can accommodate groups of eight or more. Its fleet consists of Hyundai and Mercedes minivans, Porsche SUVs, Land Rover 4WD vehicles, Mazda 4x4s and Chrysler 300 sedans.
Taxi and ride-hailing services
If you’re not traveling by rental car or van in Papeete, your best alternative would be a taxi; ride-hailing services aren’t available here yet. What’s good about taxis in Tahiti, and even in neighboring Moorea, is that the rates are regulated (warning: PDF link) by the government, so you’ll know what the trip should cost before you even get into the taxi.
Taxis charge a minimum of 1,000 XPF (about $10) any time of day. The per kilometer price during the day (6 a.m. to 8 p.m.) is 130 XPF (about $1.50); at night (8 p.m. to 6 a.m.), it’s 230 XPF (around $2.50).
Additional charges may apply for luggage, uphill rides and long waiting times.
Tahiti has a bus service called “Le truck.” It operates on a regular schedule on a route that mainly follows the coastline. Buses operate from Mondays to Saturdays only, so if you arrive on a Sunday or during public holidays, you’ll have to arrange alternate transport in advance.
With a mostly local clientele, the buses only take CFP francs, so make sure to have enough cash to pay for your fare beforehand.
Where to stay
With Tahiti’s interior being a mountainous paradise, tourists should seek accommodations along the coastline. You’ll find hotels from Mahina to Pa’ae, but most congregate in and around Papeete’s downtown area, which is conveniently near the cruise port.
One hotel, the InterContinental Resort Tahiti, even offers airport views for you AvGeeks!
Inexpensive hotel near the port
Tahiti Airport Motel (98702 Faa’a): From about $105–$135 per night (about 5 miles from the port).
InterContinental Resort Tahiti (B.P 6014, 98702 Tahiti): From 50,000 IHG Rewards Club points, though we do not see any availability in 2021. When award bookings are open, use your IHG points or transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to your IHG account.
Manava Suite Resort Tahiti (P.K 10.5 Côté Mer 98703 Puna’auia): From about $235 per night.
Le Tahiti by Pearl Resorts (Lafayette Beach PK 7, 98701 Arue): From about $290 per night.
Sofitel Tahiti la Ora Beach Resort (Tamanu P.O. Box 380595, 98718 Punaauia): This hotel is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. From about 10,000 Accor Live Limitless points.
Where to shop near the port
The cruise port in Motu Uta doesn’t have any shops on its premises, so you’ll have to visit nearby establishments. Fortunately, there are many shops close by.
Marche de Papeete (Papeete Market)
Just a stone’s throw away from the waterfront stands Marche de Papeete (BP4588, Papeete), the local public market that has been selling an assortment of local Tahitian products and produce for more than 150 years. Also serving as a cultural center of sorts, the Papeete Market provides an inside look into the Polynesian islands within its two levels.
On the ground floor, vendors sell fresh fruits, local vegetables and flowers, handcrafted items and more. Be on the lookout for vanilla beans, black pearls and monoi products (soaps, shampoos, creams and oils), which are made from a mixture of gardenia tahitensis and Nucifera coconut oils. If you arrive around 4 p.m., you should spot some colorful fish being brought in from fishing boats.
The second floor is reserved for artisans selling tifaifai wall hangings or quilts, pareos, carvings, embroidered items and other handicrafts. There are also vendors hawking their products, such as leis and Tiare Tahiti flower crowns, outside the market.
If you’re feeling hungry, an on-site cafeteria serves local dishes. Early Sunday mornings are a great time to grab breakfast here. That could include some coconut-flavored donuts called firi firi, pua’a roti (roasted pork) and chao pao, which are stuffed steamed buns.
The Papeete Market is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and until 9 a.m. on Sundays, which can get a bit busy as Tahitian families drop by the market to shop ingredients for their Sunday feast.
Vaima Shopping Center
Vaima Shopping Center on Avenue du Marechal Foch, about 2 miles away, is a Tahitian mall where you can find various goods (including pearls) and services at reasonable prices. (You can see the mall from the cruise terminal and it’s about a 30-minute walk.) The mall also features Le Kiosk Tahiti (Papeete 98714), which sells atlases, stamps, tourist maps and souvenir cards.
A little further away but still within a 10-minute drive is Champion at Rue du General de Gaulle, behind the Temple Protestant de Paofai. The Champion Supermarket sells fresh pastries if you’re feeling peckish, as well as spices and other products; plus, it has longer operating hours — until 7:30 p.m. Also, there are three Carrefour supermarkets in Tahiti: Carrefour Arue, Carrefour Faa’a – Pacific Plaza and Oasis Carrefour Arue.
Where to Tahitian buy pearls
If you’re on the hunt for pearls, try Tahia Exquisite Pearls at Boulevard de la Reine Pomare IV (about 1.5 miles from the cruise port). The store features jewelry adorned with Tahitian pearls, 18-karat gold and pave diamonds. The Tahiti Pearl Market (Rue Colette, BP3396 PPT, Papeete), about 1.5 miles from the port, is another good spot to find some pearls. The family-owned establishment allows you to pick your pearls and the design you want, with the final product available within a few hours.
For any drugstore-related purchases, you can head to Pharmacie du port (1 Rue Paul Gauguin), Pharmacie Prince Hinoi Papeete (Avenue Prince Hinoi Papeete) and Pharmacie Fariipiti (Papeete 98714). All are within 2 miles of the port.
Where to eat
Tahiti’s cuisine highlights the fresh seafood and produce that are abundant on the island. Fish, such as mahi mahi, tuna and grouper, are mainstays in restaurant menus. In addition, Tahitian cuisine also features French and Asian influences.
One of Tahiti’s top restaurants is Le Lotus at the InterContinental Tahiti Resort, 6 miles from the cruise port. Set in an over-the-water building, Le Lotus serves French and Polynesian cuisine, featuring freshly caught seafood (catch of the day), meat dishes and a selection of French wines. The romantic ambiance, one filled with candlelight, live piano music and spectacular sunset views, is perfect for a night out — especially if you’ve got something to celebrate.
Another restaurant that combines good food with an amazing sunset view is O Belvedere. From its perch some 2,000 feet above Papeete, take in the city’s sunset views below and even Moorea beyond. The restaurant has a treehouse ambiance, with its outdoor terrace even built around a tree trunk. A “must-order” is the house specialty: fondue Bourguignonne served with six sauces. With its location in Pira’e about 4 miles from the port, it’s nice that the restaurant provides round-trip transportation from hotels and back, or to the airport if you have a flight to catch.
You don’t need to go far to eat good food, though. Come evening, head to Place Vai’ete (369 Boulevard de la Reine Pomare IV), a portside plaza about 2 miles from the port, to take part in perhaps the most popular ritual of Papeete: roulettes or food trucks. At 6 p.m., colorful food trucks start rolling in and, within a few minutes, vendors start whipping up big portions of dishes from fresh ingredients for the crowds, locals and tourists alike, which have started to gather.
You’ll find all sorts of food here at affordable prices, from fresh Polynesian fish dishes to French classics, as well as pizza and burgers, Thai curries and Chinese stir-fries, such as “chao mein.” Must-tries include the poisson cru, a Tahitian specialty of fresh raw fish with coconut milk and cold vegetables similar to poke or ceviche; brochettes or kebabs; and steak frites and poulet frites—charbroiled steak and chicken, respectively— with french fries. If you’re not here for a meal, grab a crepe or waffle and enjoy the sunset.
To order, simply go up to the truck and once your food is ready, take it to one of the plastic tables. Don’t forget to bring cash (the local currency is Pacific Francs), as the roulettes don’t accept credit cards.
Sights to see
While a known honeymoon destination, Tahiti’s sights and attractions also welcome the entire family. Cruise passengers passing through the island have plenty of options, from shopping and dining to sightseeing and outdoor activities. Here’s what we recommend.
Point Venus (lighthouse and beach)
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in Tahiti, Point Venus wasn’t named after the Roman goddess but after a historic event that transpired in 1769, when Captain James Cook and the rest of the crew of Bounty observed the transit of the planet Venus — a once-in-a-century happening — from the site.
However, the lighthouse, Phare de la Pointe Venus, wasn’t built until about a hundred years later and remains to be Tahiti’s sole lighthouse. It stands several feet away from Pointe Venus Beach, whose black sand is a popular setting for picnics. If you’d like to have a memento of your visit, take a look at the on-site souvenir shop, and grab a bite to eat at the snack bar if you’re feeling peckish. Point Venus is at the northernmost part of the island, more than 8 miles from the cruise port.
A hiking and sightseeing trip in one, the journey to Faarumai Waterfall takes you through the village of Tiare on Tahiti’s north coast. Roughly 15 miles from the cruise port, Faarumai Waterfall actually consists of three cascades (Faarumai Waterfall is also known as The Three Cascades).
To see the first one, Vaimahutu, you’ll have to hike through a mape (a type of chestnut) forest for about 325 feet. The second and third falls, Haamarere It and Haamarere Rahi, respectively, are almost side by side and can be accessed after a 20-minute walk. Parking and admission are free. However, swimming is prohibited so just enjoy the view. Don’t forget to bring insect repellent to avoid stinging mosquito bites.
There are many lovely gardens to explore when on the island, including:
Water Gardens Vaipahi
Perhaps the best place to enjoy the island’s tropical flora is at the Water Gardens of Vaipahi (Teva I Uta), along the southern coast of Mataiea, roughly 30 miles from the cruise port. The garden features more than 75 tropical plant species, including exotic flowers, from around the world, as well as winding streams, springs, pools, waterfalls and a lily pad. The plants are marked with signs in both English and French.
This tranquil place is also sacred to Tahiti’s Great Teva clan, who believe their deceased souls must be purified by the waters of Vaipahi. The well-maintained and quiet environment is a good place to meditate or simply relax amid nature. A walk along one of its three paths, ranging from a 1.2 mile/one-hour walk to a 3.1 mile/two-hour walk, will be invigorating. Admission is free and there is parking available on site.
If you’d rather stay close to Papeete and the cruise port, head out to Paofai Gardens instead. It’s by the boulevard, so there will still be traffic noises, but it’s a peaceful enough place for a stroll along the waterfront. There are paved walking paths, and the area features planter boxes with some blooms and several trees. Along the shore, you might find some pirogues (outrigger canoes), and if you’re timing is right, i.e., afternoons and Sunday mornings, you might catch local teams practicing racing on them.
There are also some very interesting museums on Tahiti.
Museum of Tahiti and The Islands
If you want to learn more about Tahiti and French Polynesia, in general, the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands (Musee de Tahiti et des Iles) in Puna’auia is a good place to do so. Here, concise and easy-to-understand exhibits explore Tahiti’s geography and natural history, its pre-European culture, the effects of colonization and its natural wonders. There are displays in English, too. Must-sees include its collection of ritual items, canoes, tattooing equipment and statues of wood or stone depicting various divinities called tiki.
After you visit the museum, step outside to observe surfers on the water or Moorea beyond. Or, peruse the gift shop, which other visitors said was excellent.
Robert Wan Pearl Museum
Pearl pioneer Robert Wan’s Pearl Museum (56 Avenue du Commandant Destremau, Papeete 98713) isn’t only a place to learn about pearls. Here, you can buy them too.
The museum features myriad treasures, such as a copy of the rosary beads with 57 pearls that were presented to Pope John Paul II in 1987 and Charles II of France’s pearl-encrusted prayer book. Meanwhile, the retail section offers jewelry, single pearls and, of course, Tahitian black pearls of the highest quality and original designs. It also sells skin products with extracts of nacre, the mother-of-pearl shell. The museum provides free tours for groups of two or more. Let them know of your visit at least five days in advance.
With a paradise island setting, Tahiti is the perfect place to relax and unwind, albeit for just a little bit. Cruisers who stopover here may want to stay closer to Papeete due to time constraints, but those who’d like to extend their stay will have the rest of the island to explore. And, for the uninitiated, Tahiti is a great place to learn more about Polynesian culture.
Featured image by NAPA/Shutterstock
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