Anybody travelling to French Polynesia would first be flying to Fa’a’a International Airport, on the capital island of Tahiti. The airport is next to the capital city of French Polynesia, Pape’ete (which explains why the airport code is PPT). From here, you transfer to other French Polynesian islands like Bora Bora, or perhaps you’re transiting in Pape’ete on the way to Easter Island or South America. However, should you intentionally have a long layover in Pape’ete?

Choosing between French Polynesian archipelagoes

Planning a trip to French Polynesia is either very easy, or very hard. If you are coming because of the glamour of Bora Bora and Tahiti, then it’s easy. You know where you’re going, and what for.

However, if you want to explore French Polynesia, it immediately gets a lot less straightforward. The reason is that French Polynesia doesn’t just have a few islands to choose from. It doesn’t even have just one archipelago to explore. It has several archipelagoes. And they’re not all the same either.

Bora Bora is famous for its paradise image, Rangiroa is a divers’ attraction for its channel dive. Raiatea is said to be the cultural heartland, and Moorea seems to be a universal favourite. Huahine is where you go for an ‘all of the above’ holiday, but if you want lots and lots of sharks, then it’s Fakarava. And that’s not even touching the Marquesas, which is all steep hills, mysterious, and far off the beaten track.

Tahiti island viewed from the lagoon with a half moon in the morning sky
Tahiti from its lagoon

I mention all of this, so that you would understand the temptation of skipping Tahiti itself, let alone Pape’ete. And if you’re coming for a vacation, then yes, skip both. It makes sense not to spend vacation days on a layover in Pape’ete.

However, if you’re only transiting in Pape’ete, or coming as a traveller, then I would tell you the opposite. Consider extending your layover in Pape’ete.

Tahiti itself is worth exploring on a layover

Even if you don’t explore Pape’ete itself, the rest of Tahiti is worth exploring. This is to make clear that, outside of Pape’ete, Tahiti has attractions. You might want to schedule a long layover for these, and Pape’ete itself.

This advice is most relevant if:

1. You are just passing through French Polynesia.

If your real destination is something like Easter Island, or perhaps Chile or Peru, take a couple of days’ layover just to drive around Tahiti. You’re not going for powdery sand beaches; Tahiti is a volcanic island and does not have good ones. Instead, check out the historical sites around the island, and explore the capital Pape’ete. Chances are, you’re not going to be coming often to Tahiti. It is, after all, one of the most remote places in the world. Take the opportunity to look around!

Tahiti hills in the distance with flame of the forest tree in foreground
The volcanic hills of Tahiti

2. Other destinations on your French Polynesia trip don’t have cultural sites.

If your French Polynesia trip is mostly centred around atolls and water sports (or on boats, i.e. not on land at all), then Tahiti is a really easy layover to get some Polynesian culture before you leave. Visit historical sites, or attend a cultural show. Or – since Tahiti is hilly – pick up a waterfall!

3. You, or someone you’re travelling with, are a surfer.

I’m not a surfer myself. I took one lesson in Sydney, managed to stand up one time and actually surf. That’s the extent of my surfing experience. However, I did learn that Teahupo’o at the far end of Tahiti, is a famous surfing beach. It didn’t seem very ‘surfy’ when I was there, though, so maybe there’s a right and wrong time of year.

What to do on a long layover on Pape’ete

When I went to French Polynesia, I decided to limit my ambitions. I would rather go to few islands and be satisfied, than hop across many but spend too little time in each. I chose to stay on a boat for the first part of my journey, and then I chose to explore Rangiroa.

Since the boat was anchored off of Tahiti, I decided to give myself a good few days in Pape’ete. That way, I would get over my jet lag by checking out the capital city. Here’s why I think it’s worth having a long-ish layover to look around Pape’ete.

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If you look up Pape’ete on blogs, the general advice is to skip it. After all, French Polynesia’s many, many islands across several (yes, several!) archipelagos, are already difficult to choose from. ? But well, I’m stubborn. If you tell me there’s ‘nothing interesting’ about a capital city, I’m gonna go and see if that’s true. Because I’ve found that however ‘uninteresting’ capital cities are, the ways they’re ‘uninteresting’ are different, and that’s interesting. ? So it was that I discovered what a street art city Pape’ete actually is! #tejainpolynesia #tejaintahiti #inspiringinsightfultravel #travelnotvacation #travelforcuriosity #papeetestreetart #streetartworldwide #streetartwork #streetartdaily #streetartandgraffiti #streetartiseverywhere #streetartoftheday #streetartglobe #streetartcities #streetartlover #capitalcity #capitalcities #frenchpolynesia #papeete #polynésiefrançaise #lookforyourself #seeforyourself #explorecities #offthebeatenpath #exploretahiti #tahitiart #muralsofinstagram #wordoftravel #destinationunlocked #destinationchallenge

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1. Discover Pape’ete’s amazing street art

Did you know that Pape’ete is a frequent host of one of the largest annual international street art festivals in the Pacific? This is the #1 reason I was glad I put time for Pape’ete. Even though I’m not even, like, an artsy person.

I think I liked it because the art that I saw in 2018 generally used public-facing surfaces towards expression of public identity, rather than an artist’s individual identity. (It’s one of the reasons why I think Valparaiso’s street art, for example, is in a class of its own.)

Called Ono’u, the street art festivals have left a number of amazing, colourful murals all over the city. It’s worth going street by street, to try and find as many as you can. I suggest starting at the Ono’u street art museum along Rue Jeanne d’Arc, across the Catholic cathedral.

This activity would easily occupy half a day, or longer, if you’re really serious about photography.

Street art mural girl in a canoe following a rainbow dove
Mural of a Polynesian girl in a canoe following a dove

2. Shop for black pearls in Pape’ete

The black pearl is the signature jewellery of French Polynesia. You can buy them in a lot of places in French Polynesia. However, unless you’re on a quest specifically looking for the perfect black pearl, why not just do the shopping in Pape’ete? The capital city has amazing range and variety.

Black pearls are not actually only black, despite its popular name. Nor are they white, like a regular pearl. They come in many different shades, some of which seem metallic in its extreme lustre. Dark blues and greens, teals and silvery blue, bright silver and champagne and pinks.

Nor are the black pearls limited to perfect strings and expensive jewelry. Like I said, it’s the jewellery of French Polynesia – it’s everyday wear.

A lot of imperfect pearls don’t make the cut for luxury jewelry and export. We only see the perfect ones in our stores, but here is where the pearls are from, so this is where you can get everyday accessories made with surplus black pearls. You can get pearl pendants with leather cord, pearls in macrame bracelets – you get the idea.

I also discovered an amazing kind of pearl jewellery that I regret not buying: carved black pearls. Basically, these are black pearls carved with Polynesian motifs. I thought it was a genius idea to turn lesser quality pearls into unique art jewellery.

The boutique shops are, of course, the expensive ones. These are all over the shopping streets, and retail incredibly beautiful pearl jewellery. But if you’re looking for everyday pearl jewellery, go to Pape’ete market. Check out the market floor as well as the artisan’s shops.

If you’re doing this even casually, it’s at least a half day activity. If you’re into it, it could easily be days.

Multi-coloured Polynesian South Sea black pearl necklace
String of black pearls

2b. Robert Wan Pearl Museum

I have to make honorary mention of this museum, for several reasons. Pearl shopping isn’t one of them. Although you can buy Robert Wan pearl jewellery at the museum, the prices are steep and the designs are a really chunky style which I don’t favour.

The main reason is that it gives a great history of pearl farming in Polynesia. I won’t give too many spoilers, but I learned that Tahiti received many Chinese migrants at about the same time as my country did. (Back then, there was a lot of poverty in China due to the Opium Wars.) Some joined the pearl farming industry, and clearly became very successful.

The second reason is that the museum has a good display of cool pearl-related items. For example, humungous pearls, and intricate pearl clothing.

The third reason is that it’s air-conditioned and free, which makes it a great shelter when you’re hot from walking all day.

The fourth reason is for those of us with a juvenile sense of humour. In the museum, go to the place where they show a video about Tahiti and pearl farming. I went with Jon, a traveller I met up with in Pape’ete, and it was a bonding moment. The video managed to render pearl farming with stereotypically French, risque overtones. Seeding the pearl oyster was enthusiastically likened to ravishment.

We tried to suppress our giggles. It was tough, as the narrator grew inappropriately excited over the idea of intimacy with a bivalve. You don’t have to be a vegan to be disturbed by this. But you probably have to be a non-vegan to find it hilarious!

Naughty Polynesian totem pendant with a silver black pearl

3. Get souvenirs at the Pape’ete market

You wouldn’t necessarily need to shop at a market if you’re on a layover. That said, the Pape’ete local market is really cute, and has a great selection of locally-made souvenirs. Aside from black pearls, you can get red seed handicrafts, mother-of-pearl accessories, woven pandanus clutches, flower infused oils, medicinal tamanu oil, and real vanilla, all at affordable prices.

I’d give the market half a day, whether you’re really shopping or just window shopping.

Biji saga red bangles in Pape'ete market
Seed jewellery in Pape’ete market

Pro Tip: If you are specifically looking for vanilla, then here’s a tip that one of my Airbnb hosts gave me. Go to a Carrefour; you can get the same quality vanilla, but it’s cheaper than the market. The catch is, you have to buy slightly larger quantities.

4. Go to a show at the Pape’ete cultural centre

Catching a show at the local theatre was one of the things I had meant to do in Pape’ete, but didn’t manage to do in the end. Unfortunately for me, there weren’t any interesting cultural shows at the Maison de la Culture when I was in town. I was simultaneously too late, and too early, for the good stuff. However, if your timing is better, definitely check it out for a good evening activity during your layover in Pape’ete.

Pape’ete also holds occasional local fairs and bazaars. As I left the city, people were setting up for an exposition by the pier. If I had been a few days later, I would have definitely gone to check it out.

Bonus Tip: The best budget food in Pape’ete

This one was a tip that was shared by Jon. After a day of exploring the city, he suggested we go for dinner at the food trucks. “It’s cheap and good,” he said. Unusually for an American, he knows about Muslims, and roughly knows about our dietary rules. Sure enough, there were plenty of seafood options there.

However, what really surprised me was the dominance of Asian food. This isn’t the case in restaurants or delis around Pape’ete. And I’m not talking just Chinese food either. There was Vietnamese and Thai cuisine as well. So if you’re Asian and want comfort food on your layover in Tahiti, go out to the food trucks in Pape’ete. They arrive and start selling in the evening at Place Vai’ete, near the ferry terminal.

Food trucks setting up at Place Vai'ete
Food trucks in Pape’ete

Special note for Asian travellers in Tahiti

By now you would have noticed that there is a significant Asian presence in Tahiti. Does that mean it wouldn’t be weird to travel while Asian here?

I was surprised by the cosmopolitan nature of Tahiti. I had expected it to be comprised of Caucasians and Polynesians. But actually, there were also Chinese Tahitians and Filipino Tahitians. Not only that, but I saw Tahitians who are clearly of mixed Asian ethnicity.

So, no, it didn’t feel strange being an Asian traveller in Tahiti.

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.

Thinking of planning a long layover in Tahiti? Pin these tips!

4 Reasons to Have a Long Layover in Pape'ete | travel guide

6 Responses

  1. I don’t think I would have been able to contain my laughter at the ‘intimacy with a bivalve’. I would have been rolling on the floor. Thanks for putting a smile on my face.

  2. Love reading about Pape’ete. French Polynesia is on my bucket list.

    • Teja says:

      And it deserves to be! It’s so much more than just Bora Bora. (apologies to the tourism office; perhaps nobody has ever combined ‘Bora Bora’ and ‘just’ together before…)

  3. Sinjana says:

    Wow! Papeete looks like a fun place to be! I didn’t even know about it till i read your article!

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