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The West Coast of Tahiti: Between the Lagoon and Mountainous Valleys.

Point Taata overlooking this hotel ©P. Bacchet Beach along the district of Paea’s coast ©P. Bacchet Vaihiria Lake in the heart of the Island of Tahiti. ©P. Bacchet Waterfall in Vaipahi Gardens. ©P. Bacchet Vaihiria Lake in the heart of the Island of Tahiti ©P. BacchetEntrance to Maraa Grotto in Paea. ©P. Bacchet Archeological site in Paea: Arahurahu marae ©P. Bacchet Taina marina in Punaauia ©P. Bacchet Phaeton Bay on Tahiti Iti Penisula in Papeari. ©P. BacchetSale of oranges on the side of the road in Punaauia ©P. Bacchet
The West Coast of Tahiti: Between the Lagoon and Mountainous Valleys.
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The legendary island of Tahiti is renowned as an earthly paradise. Above all, Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia due to its surface area. It also has the highest mountains and is the most populated. Here, we take you on a trip along the west coast.

 

“Each coast has a unique landscape”

 

Tahiti is divided into two geographic sectors, the west coast and the east coast, from the zero kilometer point (known as PK 0) that starts at the foot of the Papeete Cathedral. This division is normal for the island’s residents, who must cross through the capital city in order to pass from one side of the island to the other. These days, “Greater Papeete” extends along both coasts for more than 10 kilometers and includes the neighboring communes. Farther on, and even before attempting to go up the mountains, each coast has a unique landscape. The west coast, not as steep as the eastern side, is for the most part directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean with a vast protective lagoon. Most often, it is sunnier than the east coast. 

These circumstances have boosted urban sprawl in the areas closest to Papeete. The idyllic seascapes offered a good location to build several hotels, tourist organizations and a marina. However, once off the tourist path, the west coast offers a plethora of cultural and natural riches that will delight curious visitors.

Tahiti is divided into two geographic sectors, the west coast and the east coast, from the zero kilometer point (known as PK 0) that starts at the foot of the Papeete Cathedral. This division is normal for the island’s residents, who must cross through the capital city in order to pass from one side of the island to the other. These days, “Greater Papeete” extends along both coasts for more than 10 kilometers and includes the neighboring communes. Farther on, and even before attempting to go up the mountains, each coast has a unique landscape. The west coast, not as steep as the eastern side, is for the most part directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean with a vast protective lagoon. Most often, it is sunnier than the east coast. 

These circumstances have boosted urban sprawl in the areas closest to Papeete. The idyllic seascapes offered a good location to build several hotels, tourist organizations and a marina. However, once off the tourist path, the west coast offers a plethora of cultural and natural riches that will delight curious visitors.

Let us begin with a climb. Mount Marau, located in the most populous commune on the island, Faa’a, reaches a peak of 1,441m/4,727 ft. overlooking the Tahiti-Faa’a International Airport. It is accessible either by 4X4 or on foot for about 10 km/6 mi. on a dirt road while crossing luxurious vegetation and…cabbage plantations. The road ends with TV relay stations and a paragliding platform. A trail then leads to the summit where on a clear day, you have a stunning panoramic view over Papeete. To the northwest, Taata point can be seen along the coast. This wooded hill is hardly visible from the main road. It does not have ancient monuments; however, this important sacred site in Polynesian culture is where departing souls were believed to leave for the mythic Havai’i and the afterworld. A few years ago, the population rose up to protect it from real estate development.

As we continue, we reach Punaauia. Residentially, this commune is the second most-populated after Faa’a. The mountains provide a very desirable area to live due to the magnificent views over the ocean and the majestic silhouette of the sister island of Moorea that slices the horizon.

With hundreds of homes clinging to the slopes, the countryside has very little resemblance to the one Paul Gauguin discovered during his second trip to Tahiti in 1894; however, it still retains a particular charm. Punaruu valley, once an ancient habitat, is now an industrial area. Hikers will want to explore a spectacular site from here: Tamanu plateau. Orange trees planted in the 19th century have turned wild and are now part of a fruit-harvesting festivity held every July that has become a tradition. Fruit carriers descend the mountain carrying up to 50 kg/ 110 lbs. on their backs.

On the seaside at PK 15, there is Fisherman’s Point (La Pointe des Pêcheurs). Nowadays, a beautiful large park is situated along the coastline on the spot where the Musée de Tahiti et des îles was built around 40 years ago. It replaced Punaauia’s first Protestant temple constructed during the 19th century on a group of marae (sacred sites of worship) dedicated to Oro, ancient Polynesia’s god of war and fertility. This is the site where the battle of Fe’i Pei took place in 1815. Pomare II, who converted to Christianity, went to battle with followers of the ancient religion and emerged victorious. Of course, the museum is a mandatory stop. There is an entire collection of ancient artifacts, one of the most extensive in the Pacific (see table).

About 20 kilometers from Papeete, the commune of Paea has two marae. Ta’ata marae was restored in several phases. Perhaps it is here that the famous English explorer and navigator Captain Cook witnessed a human sacrifice in 1777. Arahurahu marae was completely rebuilt during the 1950s. Performances that reenact ancient rites often take place here: wedding ceremonies, coronations of arii (chiefs), dances, music and singing.

An Exploration of Tahiti’s Western “Sector”

Paea is a quiet small town nestled at the feet of the imposing mountains that are in the heart of the island. The town is referred to as being in the “sector,” a term that designates any of the communes in Tahiti outside of Arue-Pirae-Papeete-Faa’a-Punaauia. Here and there along the road, houses are surrounded by fa’a’apu (gardens in Tahitian). The imposing presence of Protestant temples and Catholic churches is sprinkled in between the fa’a’apu. There are also the shops where families hang out and chat. Life takes its time here, far from the hustle and bustle of Papeete.

Let’s continue our drive, which little by little, starts to follow the lagoon and offer a gorgeous view. In the distance, a mountain ridge with cliffs sliced in close proximity to the coast indicates a climatic barrier. There is increased rainfall beyond this point, but it is also the door to a more preserved and wilder Tahiti. At the foot of this imposing cliff (PK 28), a grotto shelters a basin of clear water that comes from a source. This is Maraa Grotto. According to legend, the bottom gets deeper the closer one tries to get to it…

 

Farther, in the commune of Papara at PK 39.5, a black sand beach located at the mouth of the Taharuu River welcomes surfers who take advantage of spectacular, regular swells from May through October. This spot is one of the most reputable in all of French Polynesia. Expert surfers and body boarders—young and not-so-young—put on a wonderful show for spectators who lazily sunbathe on the black sand. On weekends, Tahitian families from the area scurry here in joyous disorder to enjoy the sea and the coolness of the river.

Not far from here—and unfortunately, barely recognizable— is Maha’i-atea marae. This was Tahiti’s largest marae before the arrival of the Europeans. The marae was built quite recently, between 1766-1768, and according to Captain Cook who saw it in 1769, it was “incredible” due to its dimensions. Shaped like a terraced pyramid, it was more than 13 m/42 ft. high and measured 81 X 26.5 m (266 ft. X 87 ft.). The marae was contained within a paved space of more than 860 sq. ft. A hundred years later, the site was turned into a quarry.

A little farther than PK 40 on the mountain side, you’ll see the 3,000 acre Atimaono Golf Course. It was built on a former cotton, coffee and sugar cane plantation established by the Englishman William Stewart. This venture, which ended in bankruptcy, was made possible due to importing “Coolie” labor which initiated the Polynesian Chinese community that is present today. This immense plain is the largest on the entire island. At one time, it was considered as a site to build French Polynesia’s international airport instead of in its current location, which is a little cramped between the lagoon and the city. This project idea fell into oblivion, leaving this spectacular site intact, much to the delight of golfers and farmers.

We are now at PK 45. The commune of Mataiea once welcomed painter Paul Gauguin from 1891 to 1893 during his first stay in Tahiti. He created famous works of art in Mataiea, such as Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) and Femme au Mango. Two kilometers away, you’ll come across Vaipahi gardens and a waterfall. This is a refreshing place highlighted with the opulent colors of flowers. This 2.5 acre delightful haven invites a peaceful stroll throughout its natural riches. This is a necessary stop on the way.

Farther still, there is a cross trail only accessible by 4X4 (see table, “Hikes”) that leads into the heart of the island and that which—via a mountain pass and a tunnel—meets up with the east coast and Papenoo valley, the largest valley on the island. Lake Vaihiria is located half-way at the bottom of a volcanic crater. 19th century French writer Pierre Loti described the lake as, “A dead sea lost in the central mountains surrounded by steep, craggy hills that carve their sharp silhouettes through the night sky. The water is cold and deep and nothing moves it. Not a breeze, no noise, no living things, not so much as a fish…”

Before arriving at the isthmus of Taravao and Tahiti’s peninsula, you will finally get to the Jardin botanique created in 1919 by the American Harrison Smith. Unfortunately, the adjoining Gauguin Museum has been closed for the past two years awaiting an eventual renovation. There is a spectacular view over another volcanic shield, Tahiti Iti (Small Tahiti) from the beach at the end of the garden. It may entice travelers to contemplate the thousands of miles of ocean on the other side that connects them to…South America!

Tahiti and its islands Museum – Te Fare Manaha

Also called Te Fare Manaha, the mission of the museum is to collect, preserve, restore, reproduce and provide public presentations of collections related to the heritage of Oceania, particularly Polynesia. Four departments display different aspects of this part of the world: Nature and settlement, Pre-European culture, Post-European culture and an exhibition of ancient canoes. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits. The original botanical collection in the garden is well worth a look.

The Monoï Road

The Monoï Institute has designed a tour of the island with the goal of creating awareness and promoting Monoï de Tahiti©, which is a Protected Designation of Origin (appellation contrôlée). This is an opportunity to discover coconut and tiare Tahiti plantations (the flowers used as an ingredient in this world famous beauty product). This is also a chance to visit the factories that make this coconut oil, such as the Laboratoire cosmétologique du Pacifique Sud in Papara. A map of the Monoï Road that indicates all the possible stops is available at the Tourism Office (Office du Tourisme). 

Hikes

Hiking enthusiasts can take trails to discover the valleys on the west coast. Beyond the industrial zone, Punaruu valley leads to the Plateau des Oranges at an altitude of 800m/2625 ft. It is nestled within the depths of an impressive crater dominated by the distant silhouette of Mount Orohena (2241m/7352 ft.).

Vaihiria valley leads to the lake with the same name. Located at 473m/1551 ft. above sea level, this vast, deep lake is surrounded by rocky walls that reach 700 m high (2300 ft.). Access to the lake from the west entry of the trail through Mataiea is temporarily closed, but it is still accessible from the east coast of Tahiti through Papenoo valley. There are two detailed publications available in local bookstores that describe available hikes, trail locations and level of difficulty.

La Montagne: histoire, nature & randonnées by Paule Laudon (Au Vent des Îles) and Balades en montagne: Tahiti-Moorea by Jean-Louis Saquet (Les éditions Barthémy). It is highly recommended that occasional visitors enlist a guide.

Atimaono Golf Course

This 18-hole golf course, built in 1970, is great for beginners and pros alike. Atimaono Golf Course is internationally renowned for its stunning location and the quality of its fairways and greens. At 72 par and 5,950 m long (6,507 yds.), Atimaono is registered with the French Golf Federation. Every year, the golf course hosts numerous international players during the Tahiti International Golf Open, which is part of the PGA circuit and the French Polynesian Golf Federation.  

A Lagoon of Several Dozen Square Kilometers

Ocean enthusiasts can also explore beautiful white sand beaches and scuba diving sites, such as White Valley (la Vallée blanche), one of the most reputed areas to view white-tipped and black-tipped sharks. From 35m/115 ft., you’ll see grey sharks, shoals of silver jacks, trigger fish and all kids of tropical fish. Drift fiving is especially recommended.

 

Harrison Smith Botanical Garden

There are different varieties of beautiful exotic plants imported from America, Asia and Africa here. There is also a Banyan tree that Harrison Smith planted in 1936. Today, it has a diameter of more than 70 meters/230 ft. The garden is also home to two giant Galapagos tortoises that are over a hundred years old.

The West Coast: Between the Lagoon and Mountainous Valleys.
The West Coast: Between the Lagoon and Mountainous Valleys.
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The legendary island of Tahiti is renowned as an earthly paradise. Above all, Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia due to its surface area. It also has the highest mountains and is the most populated. Here, we take you on a trip along the west coast.
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Welcome Tahiti
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