Roughly located across the road from the cruise ship dock along Rue Francois Cardella, the main Tahiti market is a roofed, semi-open air market. It is conveniently open daily, except for Sunday. I managed to stumble across it on my second day, as I tried to stave off intercontinental jet lag by keeping myself pedestrian and outdoors as much as possible. 

I found my visit to the market in Pape’ete interesting. In fact, I actually went back a few more times. Within, the market floor is spacious. Vendor tables skirted with Polynesian floral fabrics formed neat rows. Stairs on the sides of the structure lead to upper floor galleries with more shops, generally enclosed. 

Pape'ete market floor with gallery overhead
Pape’ete local market

Groceries in Pape’ete @ Tahiti market

The vast majority of food sold in the Pape’ete market are fresh vegetables and local fruits. Carbs are in the form of roots common to the islands – yams rather than potatoes. 

I had intentionally booked into a hotel for my time in Pape’ete, taking into consideration the jet lag that would not put me in the mood for cooking. So I did not need to shop for produce at the Tahiti market. However, had it not been a consideration, a self-catering hostel stay would also have been quite easy with the range available from this market. Indeed, I met up with a fellow traveller in the afternoon, who did exactly that!

Overhead view of vegetable sellers in Tahiti local market
Wide selection of fruits and vegetables

Surprisingly familiar handicrafts in Pape’ete

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the Polynesian handicrafts in the Tahiti market. Specifically, by how familiar they were to me, even though I was there for the first time. I did, after all, choose to return to Polynesia in the first place, to further explore the ancient relatedness between Polynesia and the seafaring Malays of Southeast Asia, from whom I descend. 

Woven palm-based handicrafts

Nonetheless, it was a curious feeling when, with unfamiliar Frenchness all around me, and the otherwise foreignness of the people – much bigger boned, and with wider faces than mine – a sudden feeling of home streaked through like a cool front as I looked upon the woven baskets and bags. Why, I even still remember our name for one of the weaves. I had chosen it in a school assignment long ago: the mata lalat or ‘fly’s eye’; I remember choosing it specifically for its ease!

Palm frond woven handicrafts in Tahiti market
These look just like our Southeast Asian crafts

Marine & island-based fashion accessories

Coconut shell buckles, mother-of-pearl crafts, and marine shells sold loose in the market reminded me of the Philippines. I recognised the blood-red saga seeds that I had also seen in Rapa Nui; it is almost no longer seen in Malaysia now. Here, they are made into fashion accessories. 

Biji saga red bangles in Pape'ete market
Bangles made from red biji saga

Not on sale, but purely decorative, were palm ‘origami’ creations, the fronds folded into flowers and stars. Decorating the market stalls, they reminded me strongly of the Mah Meri aboriginal craft back home. 

Tiare & tamanu oils

As with any indigenous market, the Tahitians too have rows of bottled oils for the skin and hair. Here, by far the signature scent is the tiare, the national flower of French Polynesia. (The oil is very light, and the perfume long-lasting. I wish I’d bought a bigger bottle.)

There was even an ‘all purpose’ medicinal oil, from the tamanu shrub; supposedly good for wounds and scar-free healing. 


Black pearls of the South Seas

Of course, the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl is a cool name for a ship, because of the unusual (at the time) black pearls of the newly-discovered (by Europeans) South Pacific. Unusual, because as far as most people knew, pearls are typically a lustrous white.

‘Black’ pearl is actually a somewhat limiting name. In reality, the pearls of the South Seas come in a kaleidoscope of colour. Black, deep blues, dark greens, pastel pinks, champagne, silver and gold. You can pop over to the Robert Wan Pearl Museum (west along the main coastal road) to learn more about why these pearls are so colourful.

Now here’s a very important tip:

  • Unless you have zero interest whatsoever in pearls or jewellery, it’s best that you budget some time (and money) to get a black pearl. Even if you’re only ambivalent, or ‘not super into pearls’, just do it. The most beautiful pearls you’ve ever seen are everywhere in Pape’ete, the lustre and colours are unmatched. You might realise you really want one after all. It’s almost always cheaper to get black pearls here than back home, for the same quality.
  • You can even get a ‘tattooed’ pearl, which is basically an engraved pearl. Which means, even if you’re the edgy type, and not the Jackie Kennedy type, you’re not immune.
  • At least, budget a last minute Pape’ete day prior to leaving French Polynesia, to get these rare creations in case you find yourself constantly thinking back to them while you tour the other islands. Although if you’re lucky, you can find good pearls in some of the other islands too.

You’re welcome.

What kind of pearls are in the Tahiti market?

Of course, there are pearls in the Pape’ete market itself. When I said ‘everywhere’, I meant it.

However, in this more commonplace setting, the pearls are imperfect. They are either sold loose on the market floor tables, or worked into ‘everyday’ casual jewellery. The lustre is not as wondrous as those in the boutiques outside, though the colour is still that signature blue-black and silver-grey of the South Seas. Some are marred by nacre that is not translucent. Most have odd shapes, with ringed grooves or nubs.

That said, I did find an imperfect pearl with incredible lustre in Rangiroa that looked like a little fruit or a spinning top, so you could stumble on an incredible bargain depending on your tastes.

What did surprise me, was that there were boutique-quality pearl jewellery in this market! Many of the shops upstairs are artisan jewellers. In fact, if your tastes are less ‘basic’ and more eclectic, you might like the designs in the market better.

Loose pearls sold on the market floor in Pape'ete
“Common” black pearls in the market

Vanilla

Last but not least, you can get real vanilla. I mean, fresh vanilla still in its seed pod. French Polynesia is apparently one of the vanilla producers of the world, and the market is a great place to stock up. I bought some as gifts and they were very well appreciated.

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.


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Legumes, Pearls, and Oils: Exploring the Tahiti Local Market | French Polynesia travel article

16 Responses

  1. Anja says:

    Beautiful! I would buy one of everything. I would love to visit the Pacific region, unfortunately it is a long and pricey flight from Europe, but with a bit more research, I will get there one day. Thank you for sharing so much information!

    • Teja says:

      You’re welcome! It is quite far indeed. I would love to return to explore the archipelagoes I haven’t been to, but of course travel in the Pacific requires considerable funds and flexible time.

  2. Sara Essop says:

    I love visiting local markets and I’d definitely be interested in the pearls here!

  3. Terri says:

    One of my favorite things to do on vacation is shop the local markets. You really get to experience the life of a local. Plus it is fun to cook with local spices.

    • Teja says:

      I didn’t, when I first started travelling. But I sort of grew to appreciate it over time. The market is indeed where you get a feel for local life – what foods ppl buy, what else they normally buy, who does the selling, who does the buying, when the shopping fits in their routine, just so many implicit things! I haven’t really attempted to cook with spices I’m not familiar with :D i’m afraid my culinary skills aren’t advanced enough to have an instinct for how I might experiment !

  4. Sonia says:

    I tend to avoid crowded and touristy markets. This one looks quite interesting, with some beautiful jewelry to boot. Tahiti is on my list of places to visit, so will have to give this a try.

    • Teja says:

      Check out my other Tahiti articles as well! You’re going to land in Pape’ete anyway, so spend a day or so to check out the capital. The street art alone is interesting.

  5. Jolayne says:

    My husband and I visited this market. We love to peruse markets wherever we travel if possible. If I was to go back to Papeete, I would look more seriously at getting a black pearl.

    • Teja says:

      I’m still thinking of the tattooed pearl :D after all this time. Even though it was not cheap, buying it online is still more expensive. The black pearls that I did buy are still my favourite gem-type of jewelry. The lustre is just another level.

  6. anukrati says:

    I remember a similar market in Mahe (Seychelles), and I bought vanilla essence, vanilla tea, etc., which turned out to be so damn nice. I understood one thing – we should source things from their origin states/ countries whenever possible.

  7. Julie says:

    I’m not normally someone who likes shopping, but I found your post fascinating and inspiring. I would love to visit French Polynesia and this market. Never ever thought I’d ever say that I’d actually consider buying pearls. They look so cool!

    • Teja says:

      Yes! Exactly right! South Sea pearls aren’t boring and stuffy. Tahiti (and Rangiroa, which was a pearl farming centre) is a place where pearls are so abundant that they’ve thought of many ways to work it into stuff. Usually we only see the perfect expensive ones, worked into ‘posh people jewelry’, but here it’s also an everyday jewelry in any style you like because you’ve got thousands of pearls that don’t make the cut for posh jewelry so they’re cheap!

      I still wish I had forked out for a tattoed pearl, those were so unique. Definitely should have scheduled a no-regrets shopping day in Pape’ete before flying out!

  8. Lisa says:

    wow, what a beautiful handimarket! I always love visiting markets in each city I visit! The black pearls are so pretty!

    • Teja says:

      I have a friend who always goes to markets and supermarkets and I never really got it before. But I am learning to appreciate how much you can learn about daily life at markets now!

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