Shore leave! Even though my navy reservist training had mostly been onshore, I still associate trips to land from a boat as ‘shore leave’. On my second day on the catamaran, Felix suggested I check out Teahupo’o beach at the southern tip of the island. He was planning to go visit his friend anyway, and I could hitch a ride to shore. From there, the beach was a walkable distance.

Looking up at the clouds sweeping the sky, I figured it was as good a time as any. By this time, I had learned enough about Tahiti to regret not having more time to explore the island. This way, I would at least have one other location that I would have visited, aside from Pape’ete itself.

Going onshore to Teahupo’o

Dropping lightly into the dinghy, I took my seat as we shoved off. The clouds overhead rendered the water more opaque. As we neared the shore it turned teal and eventually green, reflecting the verdant hills.

Dinghy heading to Tahiti island from the lagoon
Tahiti’s green hills

Felix came alongside a little jetty, alighting to secure the dinghy as I watched. In the days after I’d be helping with the task, while my host dealt with fresh water re-supply.

During my stay in the lagoon, I went ashore twice to Teahupo’o. I could have gone more frequently had I wished, and from the way my host spoke about it, I guessed that most of his Airbnb guests typically went ashore often. However, to be honest, for the life of me I don’t understand why. I mean, why would you book a stay on a boat in the lagoon, if you’re constantly going back to shore? Landlubbers.

That said, I was glad that I did go to Teahupo’o. I discovered, to my surprise, that it was actually Tahiti’s most interesting beach!

The famous surf beach of Teahupo’o

Felix told me was that Teahupo’o is a popular local beach, but he didn’t say why. I wondered at this, because from the bus rides around the island, and my hike with Jon to Faarumai waterfall, I gathered that Tahiti has beaches typical of volcanic islands: dark sand, not too fine, and none too flat. I assumed Teahupo’o would be the same, in which case I didn’t see why it would be popular.

Indeed, my assumptions were confirmed when I arrived. But I quickly saw that Teahupo’o has a very specific claim to fame, that has nothing to do with stereotypically powdery white beaches. In fact, the beach has a world-class fame – at least in the sporting world of surfing!

Teahupo’o is a freak of nature. It’s almost like God’s gift to surfing. The light is generally perfect from dawn to dusk, the wave is incredibly powerful and then there’s this crack in the reef where media boats can bob.

Mimi LaMontagne

It’s the first thing you see when you enter the area: a surf board with the name of the beach on it, next to a curl. There are welcome signs cheerfully explaining to you the terrifying waves of Teahupo’o, waves so fast that surfers must be towed to them rather than paddle, so fast that once you’re in, you’re trapped in a vacuum of water. The signs also helpfully remind you of the sharp corals beneath.

For those who are partial to coastal oceanography (like myself), there is a diagram explaining why the waves at this surfing beach are so ferocious and so fast.

The Polynesian twins who dared to surf Teahupo’o

The Polynesians are widely considered to be the first people who surfed. In Polynesia’s pre-colonial period, surfing was a royal sport with ceremonial connotations. So I was delighted to find a Tahitian legend described at Teahupo’o.

The legend commemorated the twin princes who were the first to surf the dangerous wave of Teahupo’o, called Taravao-nui-i-te-vaha-‘oro-‘oro. The twins, Hinapu’u and Maraeone, organised a sporting competition with three events: the javelin, the slingshot, and surfing the Taravao-nui-i-te-vaha-‘oro-‘oro.

Interestingly, although the legend said that the winner would be seen as a hero, it doesn’t actually finish by saying which of the twins won. Perhaps the twins were equal in the events.

When is the surf season in Teahupo’o?

Despite the terrifying description of the surfing beach, the beach that I saw in November looked nothing whatsoever like that. Instead, Teahupo’o beach looked tame and innocent. Perfect for family picnics and rambling walks on the water’s edge. Was there a right time to see the monster waves?

Indeed, I was there at the wrong time. The southern hemisphere winter (~April-September) is when you would go to see these phenomenal waves at Teahupo’o. Still, it was remarkable how different it looks in its off season.

Calm volcanic sand beach at Teahupo'o
Monster waves? Me?

Things to do in Teahupo’o if you don’t surf

But what if you’re not a surfer, or came in the off season like me? Aside from surfing, what is there to do in Teahupo’o?

1. Have a picnic by the beach

The beach is pleasant enough, as volcanic beaches go. The sand isn’t very fine, and the water’s edge is trimmed with kelp wrack washed in from the reef. As a recreational beach for sunbathing and sand castles, it isn’t ideal.

However, on fine days, it is still a good picnic spot. Which is what many locals come here for.

But I had neither a picnic nor was I a local, so I decided to wander around.

2. Eat poisson cru (must-try Tahitian cuisine)

Tahiti was where I changed my mind about raw fish. As a Malay, fish isn’t something we typically eat raw. We cook it and pickle it and dry it and bread it and ferment it, but we don’t eat it raw. Japanese food took a while to take off with my people, and sashimi was the last to become mainstream in Malaysia.

But everyone said that poisson cru is a must-try in Tahiti. And I figured, since I could tolerate ceviche in Chile, perhaps Tahiti’s national dish would be all right.

In fact, it was better than ‘all right’. The freshness of the fish in French Polynesia was out of this world. There are few foods that I’ve tried on my travels that I still miss today. One is a particular chilli fish dish in Pokhara, and the other is poisson cru.

Poisson cru with rice
Traditional Tahitian-style poisson cru with rice

There are two kinds of poisson cru in Tahiti

There is a cafe at the end of the road in Teahupo’o where you can get a lunch meal of poisson cru. There were two varieties on the menu, the traditional poisson cru, and the poisson cru chinois. Curiously, they both tend to be served with rice, even though – quite obviously when you consider the terrain of French Polynesia – rice must be imported from Asia.

The first one I tried was the traditional style of poisson cru. It is heavy on vinegar, and has coconut milk mixed in. The flavour palate reminds me of Filipino cuisine, which also tends towards sour flavours.

On my second visit I tried the other style, poisson cru chinois. This one is sweeter, and has radishes mixed in. Between the two, I preferred the Chinese version. One of my hosts later on in Rangiroa taught me how to steep the ingredients in sweet vinegar, as taught by her Thai friend. But I couldn’t get it to taste right when I tried making it at home.

Cuisine influences in Tahiti

Frankly, I was surprised there even was a Chinese style of poisson cru. But I guess it speaks to the early Chinese migration to these islands.

The Asian cuisine influence is pretty solid in Tahiti. It is not hard to find Asian cooking sauces in the grocery stores, which suggests that Tahiti is very much a part of the Asia-Pacific region today. And it seems that Tahitian culture has a high openness, and readily absorb cultural influences from abroad.

As a Malay, I completely understand. As a general rule, the seafaring tribes of my region also readily absorbed ingredients from trading nations who came to our shores. Many ingredients we consider ‘local’, were in fact imported into the region a long, long time ago.

As if to remind me of the other strong cuisine influence in Tahiti, a local girl cycled past with groceries on the handlebar, one hand grasping a couple of French baguettes.

Girl in Tahiti cycling with baguettes
Simultaneously Polynesian and French

3. Tahiti Evangelical Church

Like much of the Pacific following discovery by Europeans, Tahiti is mostly Christian. However, unlike say, Tonga, which is predominantly Catholic, Tahiti has a lot of Christian denominations to choose from. Most of the churches and cathedrals are in Pape’ete, but the evangelical church is down south in Teahupo’o.

Within the compound were trees with signs on it, marking them as tabu, or forbidden. I guess it’s a great way to preserve the most valuable trees.

Evangelical church in Teahupo'o
Evangelical church in Teahupo’o

River walks in southern Tahiti

Another unexpected sight in Tahiti was the presence of freshwater streams*. A little bit inland, they ran roughly parallel to shore along the walk between Teahupo’o and Vaira’o.

As I crossed one of the streams, something caught my eye. There was something odd about the roots of the tree growing from the base of the bridge. But I didn’t know what; perhaps a glint on its surface, or a smoothness that shouldn’t be. So I crept closer, and got the shock of my life!

There, near where the stream met the sea, were the biggest eels I had ever seen. I mean, they’re massive. I would’ve tried to get something in frame for scale, if they didn’t freak me out so much! Easily a couple of feet long at least, they didn’t move much. After a few seconds, I calmed down enough to take some photos.

Now that I am writing this, it occurred to me to run the photos through the iNaturalist app. They were indeed river eels (genus Anguilla).

Carbon offsetting information to Tahiti

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Fa’a’a via Auckland produces carbon emissions of approximately 10,280 lbs CO2e. It costs about $51 to offset this.


* Writing this now, I’m struck by how readily I knew they were freshwater streams and not saltwater. After all, it’s not like I tasted the water! I suppose I knew from the vegetation that grew on its banks. A lot of cultural knowledge is like that – indirect, and inferred.

Thoughts from a bilingual traveller

One of the reasons why I like to read tourist explanation boards (also book introductions and footnotes), is because of the secondary knowledge. By this I mean, things you intuitively learn using other things you know, rather than just the actual information provided.

From the Teahupo’o legend, I learned that apparently there is a local insult, translated into English as ‘backyard poultry’. It doesn’t take a big leap to guess it is basically calling someone ‘chicken’. Perhaps it means the same as in English, i.e. a coward?

However, as a Malay, I could not help but wonder whether the ‘backyard’ part gives it a similar connotation to our ‘jaguh kampung’ diss, meaning someone who’s only a champion in his own village, but can’t make it when he has to compete outside. (We also used to have cock fights in the villages, so a ‘backyard chicken’ could be a fighting cock that only wins in its own village). It seemed plausible given the context of the insult in the legend.

The phrase in the original Tahitian seems to be Eiaha outou ia pi e moa tito pae fare – I’m not sure which part is the ‘backyard poultry’ diss, but if you know any Tahitian, let me know if we have the same insult!

What does the name Teahupo’o mean?

I found another interesting sign that gives the history of the name Teahupo’o. The name is actually Te-ahu-po’o. Reading it written that way, I instantly remembered that ahu is Polynesian for a ceremonial platform, like the ones on Rapa Nui where the famous Easter Island moai are erected.

It turns out that Teahupo’o has a history as fierce as its waves.

There was a border dispute that ended in battle between two districts, one to the north and the other to the south. The southern warriors won, and beheaded the defeated enemy, placing their heads along the border. It was an ‘Altar of Skulls’ – or, Te-ahu-po’o.

Would you pop down to Teahupo’o while visiting Tahiti?

Tahiti Lagoon Getaway 2: Teahupo'o On A Shore Trip

14 Responses

  1. I’m still dreaming of visiting Tahiti – and after I’ve read your post, I’m longing for going there even more. However, it’s really, really far from Europe. Anyway, you describe it as beautiful as I imagine it.
    Although raw fish can be really delicious, since you are Malay, you already have some of the world’s best cuisines, anyway ;-)

    • Teja says:

      Haha yes, and that’s in part because we have the attitude of ‘I can haz all your foods’!! We do love food, and over time have embraced many kinds of cuisines, so that’s why Malaysia is great for foodie travellers. But I must say, we haven’t got poisson cru, and I don’t know if we could manage it outside of islands where you really can get fresh and healthy enough fish to make it right. I think it’s the fish that’s the key.

      Tahiti is indeed really, really far from all the continents, actually. If it weren’t for literal migrants, perhaps the only outsiders they’d ever see are wealthy travellers. I didn’t feel it as much in FP, but I discovered in Tonga that this can be quite an unhealthy lens to see the world through. It’s probably a good thing if there were more diversity in travellers to the Pacific.

  2. Julie says:

    I’ve always wanted to visit Tahiti! I’m so jealous. And that poison cru looks so delicious. I love raw fish.

    You mention that you knew the stream was freshwater because of the vegetation. Interesting. What exactly is different about vegetation that grows along a freshwater stream versus a saltwater stream?

    • Teja says:

      I’m not entirely sure how I know it by sight. I suppose if I were to draw from my ecology training, it might be the broadness of the leaves, the texture which you could tell from the way the light comes off it. Saltwater vegetation tends to have adaptations to reduce water loss due to the osmotic pressure between water inside the plant cells vs salt water.

  3. Jan says:

    Tahiti looks like a great travel destination whether you surf or not! It would be fun to take long walks on the beach and watch the surfers. More importantly, ‘Poisson cru chinois’ served with rice is very tempting. :-)

  4. Sue says:

    I would love to visit Tahiti & having read this, now even more. The surfing beach is fascinating. I remember visiting a legendary one in Hawaii with my family who all surf. Like you, I was there out of season & it was really hard to envision such an innocuous beach having the kind of waves that you see in the photos. The fish looks & sounds amazing & I think I would also having been freaked out by the eels.

    • Teja says:

      Oh, then definitely check out my other Tahiti articles, especially the ‘Long Layover in Pape’ete’ one. I don’t know how I would realistically have planned it differently, but I was bummed that I didn’t get to explore Tahiti more. They say it should be skipped in favour of Moorea and other vacation islands, but even though modern Tahiti is pretty urbanised, it’s still interesting for a traveller.

  5. Linda (LD Holland) says:

    I must start by saying that Tahiti is definitely on my travel wish list. There are so many places I want to see that we want to go for a long visit. I can now add Teahupo’o to the list of places to see. While I am not a surfer, I do love to watch others battle the waves. And fresh fish is always a draw!

    • Teja says:

      If you have the time, French Polynesia in general deserves a hefty allocation. There isn’t just Tahiti, you see. Besides not skipping the capital island, you have several archipelagos to choose from, and they’re not all the same. There’s something for everybody.

  6. Jenn | By Land and Sea says:

    I’m so jealous you were able to travel to Tahiti. It has been on my list for about 3 years, but we just haven’t made it yet! I would love to check out this beach and watch the surfers when we do make it there!

    • Teja says:

      Make sure you time it right! I wouldn’t have gone at the right time for it, so I’m not too regretful. But on the other hand, that’s one phenomenon that I really would’ve liked to witness.

  7. Nicole says:

    Wow Tahiti has always been on my bucket list and I’d love to surf there. Think I need to get better though.
    Btw I’m also not a fan of raw fish but might just give it a go there… after some arm Twisting.

    • Teja says:

      I still rarely go for raw fish even now, but I’d definitely order poisson cru chinois if I can have it. Wish I knew how to make it myself properly.

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