Picture this: In Papeete, my wife and I walked up to the crosswalk, ready to play Frogger and secretly wondered how long it might take to cross the road. Cars stopped... They stopped! What’s more, they kept doing it every time we crossed. This was no accident; we were in a land of courteous and polite people.
I was totally unprepared for this act of civility in the capital of French Polynesia. Little did I know this was only the beginning; wherever we went, people in Papeete (the name means "water from basket") were overly nice and helpful all day. We wandered all over the city with not even a menacing or suspicious look from the locals.
My favorite part of the day though was heading down to the Central Market (Marché de Papeete) in the morning and filling up our water bottles with fresh coconut water. One of the best ways to experience a culture is through their food and in Papeete that means the Central Market. If you enjoy cooking, take home some ingredients you can use to relive your vacation. My wife used the huge Tahitian vanilla beans she brought home to make vanilla extract, which I then used with cacao nibs from Nicaragua to make chocolate chip cookies. Instantly, all of those wonderful vacation memories came flooding back with one bite of the dessert.
The pace in Papeete is what you would expect from a tropical island – slow and relaxed. Early to rise, the local shops open around 8 a.m., and rarely will you find anything but the larger stores open past 4:30 p.m. Given the short hours, plan your snack and activity options ahead of time. After dark, the sidewalks are relatively empty, with more vehicle traffic than foot traffic. Expect to see the flower vendors at the town market hard at work after dusk, sleeping outside the market to watch over their stands.
Each night, the roulottes (food trucks) pull into Place Va’ete and fire up their generators to create a charming, mobile food court by the pier. Here you will find the best-priced, most widely varied choice of cuisine in one place. Pull up a plastic chair as you watch the chef prepare a fusion of French, Asian, and island cuisine. If you’re not the adventurous eater, you’ll also find one or two American-themed trucks serving burgers and other mainland classics.
Explore the Region
Papeete is a great launch point for a day trip around the island of Tahiti; explore the scenery, waterfalls, grottoes and visit the Museum of Tahiti. If you do, I recommend renting a four-wheel drive vehicle or find a guide who has one to take you through the many gorgeous areas of the island. The city itself merits a day or so to explore the various streets and cute shops.
Other fun things to know about Papeete
- Pearl shops are ubiquitous. Shop around for a good deal; do some research before buying to know what you’re getting.
- Tattooed bodies and faces are a cultural norm here. As you explore, you will find a tattoo shop on every corner. Fancy getting some ink yourself? Many of the tattoo shops in Papeete will accept walk-ins. Most shops are modern in their sterilization policies, but you should verify before you schedule a sitting.
- Papeete is the largest port in the Windward Islands, so expect a random flow of tourists to descend on the city, taking the atmosphere from calm and sleepy to suddenly energetic and bustling. Adding to that is a special, impromptu market that opens up by the port when cruise ships dock for the day.
- If you’re heading to other islands within French Polynesia, you will most likely transit through Papeete. Island weather can be unpredictable, make sure to cover your trip with travel insurance in the event of a delayed flight, ferry or other transport. While you’re in Papeete, take a day or two to explore the city and the island before you continue on your way; it is definitely worth the layover.
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