Legumes, Pearls, and Oils: Exploring the Tahiti Local Market

With French Polynesia being one of the countries that most successfully weathered the COVID19 storm, it is now open to visitors once more. Surely it is perfectly timely to write on experiences in its capital city Pape’ete, on the island of Tahiti? More specifically the Tahiti local market, an important resource for any solo independent traveller!

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 conveniently open daily, except for Sunday. I managed to stumble across it on my second day, while I tried to stave off intercontinental jet lag by keeping myself pedestrian and outdoors as much as possible. 

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

Groceries in Pape’ete @ Tahiti market

The vast majority of food sold in the 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. However, had it not been a consideration, a self-catering hostel stay in the vicinity 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

Surprisingly familiar handicrafts

Now, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the Polynesian handicrafts in the market. 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 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 the name of 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

Marine & island-based fashion accessories

Coconut shell buckles, mother-of-pearl crafts, and marine shells sold loose remind me of the Philippines. I recognise 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

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

Tiare & tamanu oils

And 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 gotten myself a bigger bottle.) There was even an ‘all purpose’ medicinal oil, from the tamanu shrub; it is supposed to be 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 South Pacific (by Europeans). Unusual, because pearls are, of course, 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. 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 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 or so prior to leaving French Polynesia, to get these rare creations once you find yourself constantly thinking back to them while you tour the other islands.

You're welcome.

What kind of pearls are in the Tahiti market?

Of course there are pearls in Pape'ete market. When I said 'everywhere', I meant it.

Predictably, in this more commonplace setting, the pearls are imperfect. They are either displayed loose on the market floor tables, or sometimes worked into 'everyday' casual jewellery.

Loose pearls sold on the market floor in Pape'ete

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 are oddly shaped, 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! Upstairs, many of the shops are artisan jewellers. In fact, if your tastes are less 'basic' and more eclectic, you might like the designs in the market better.

Pape'ete market: An echo of home

I liked Pape'ete market. Perhaps because it was also the first time I encountered South Sea pearls, which are leagues apart in quality from pearls I have commonly encountered in my own region, but just window shopping the pearls alone could occupy me for hours.

My overall feeling of the market was ‘agreement’. As though if my people had settled this island, this would probably be what our market would’ve looked like too. 

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

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4 Responses

  1. 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!

  2. 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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