Turquoise seas. Infinity pools. Gourmet buffets. Silk shirts with floral prints. Air-conditioned thatched-roofed huts hovering on stilts above palm-fringed lagoons. Glass floors that allow you to see colorful fish without leaving your room. Fresh fruit baskets delivered to your fare by a well-muscled hot tāne in a sarong.
That’s Tahiti, right? Right… but it’s also Hawaii, Thailand, the Maldives, many islands in the Caribbean and even some parts of Mexico. Idyllic resort travel can be the ultimate tropical experience, but it tends to be exactly the same where ever you go. Not to mention expensive. Very expensive.
Tahiti is laid out like a figure eight. The capital city of Papeete sits at the fat, north-west end, of that figure eight. Taravao a much smaller, but still important town is at the pinched center, and then there’s the furthest end of the island – an area known as Tahiti Iti, or more commonly the Presqu’ile. It’s Tahiti Iti where I find myself on this, my first visit to these islands.
Tahiti Iti is far less traveled but thanks to a world-class swell at Teahupo’o (pronounced ‘cho-po’ by some and ‘tear-hoo-poh-oh’ by others) this part of the island is well-known to surfers. In fact, everywhere I look I see the joy (and facial scars) on the weather-beaten brows of those who travel great distances to conquer demon waves. Many of them say that the break at Teahupo’o is more consistent, more beautiful and more powerful than anything even Hawaii can muster. That exciting combination makes the surfing even more dangerous here because the waves crash over sharp coral lying just below the surface. People die surfing here.
Let me just say this: I’m not here to surf. So why am I here?
This is what’s running through my mind as I try to sleep on the first night of our stay at the Vanira Lodge near the waves at Teahupo’o. I’m dead tired from the long flight followed by a road trip across the island, but the thundering sound on the reef has made it impossible to sleep. Well, that and the hundreds of roosters. I swear it’s nowhere near dawn but the crowing has been going on since midnight. So I get out of bed, groping my jet-lagged way towards the terrace and the absolutely perfect moonlit view over the booming ocean to peck out these words on an iPhone.
Damn roosters aside, I’m here to see the Tahiti that Gauguin saw. I’m sure that fantasy doesn’t really exist anymore, but the further I get from the sights that draw most tourists the closer I’ll get to that idyll, or so I surmise. In Teahupo’o there are no stop lights, or any sort of fashion scene. People hitchhike and live in flip-flops. You don’t know who is rich or who is poor (unless you look at their flip-flops). It’s the kind of place where you sit, butt in the sand, watching the blue-green shallows of a remote reef and eat Poisson Cru (French for “raw fish”) with your hands. The next few days will be filled with traditional Polynesian villages, beaches, archeological sights, caves, and an outstanding tour of the remote mystical green-mountain wonders of Fenua Aihere and Te Pari.
Teahupo’o is a land where locals sell pineapple and raw tuna Poisson Cru from bicycles along the beach. There are incredible waterfalls that end at deserted swimming holes. However, there’s also no air conditioning in most places, and thankfully no Starbucks or Costco. In fact, there’s no real infrastructure to deal with mass tourism at all. Still, for a lot of people, that’s the charm. You see, even in Teahupo’o there are plenty of reasons besides surfing to visit. Vibrant and unpolished Tahiti Iti has just enough of everything I seek in a tropical vacation. It’s a place where cold beer and good food mix with a barefoot vibe and a chance for a more authentic glimpse of Polynesia. The surfers and out-of-the-way travelers like me slot into the mellow vibe of Tahiti Iti with ease. At sunrise, people wander down to the waves to see what the day promises. At sunset, the bars dotted around the bay come alive. What happens in between is totally up to each traveler.
Teahupo’o: Where to Stay and What to Eat.
Officially, as far as I can tell, there are two “hotels” on this part of the Tahiti Iti: Vanira Lodge, and Pension Chayan. Unless you count Tauhanihani Village Lodge or Reva, which are so isolated they’re only available by boat. However, I did notice that several of the bars had bulletin boards advertising plenty of other accommodations ranging from single room crash pads to large houses. Many of these same places are probably listed on Airbnb.
- We chose Vanira Lodge and stayed in the Vai Iti bungalow. The bungalows are inspired by Polynesian building traditions with features like exposed beams of varnished tree trunks and open-air floor plans. Two of the bungalows are actual tree houses with balconies above the forest canopy. Others have interesting stone and coral walls with flowering, vegetation-covered roofs. They’re built by local craftsmen to blend in with the landscape, and let the guests enjoy the natural world around them. Most especially the wide open views of the ocean. While it’s not camping you need a certain love of nature to fully enjoy your stay. Along with tropical flowers and colorful birds come bugs and geckos with whom you have to learn to cohabit. Again, for some, that’s part of the charm. But as I said, this is not camping. Yoga and massage are available. There’s a beautiful bed in our bungalow with an ocean view. We have a hot tub on our terrace (with an ocean view). And most importantly everything is done with artistic attention to detail (and the ocean view).
- The restaurant at Vanira Lodge is listed in the guidebooks as the area’s only upscale dining choice. Still, there are only a few tables under a thatched roof gazebo or scattered around a palm-fringed garden and the service seems to be on island time. However, much is forgiven by the intimate and romantic setting and you won’t want to miss the meal either. It’s a lovely fusion of French and Polynesian defined as “modern Tahitian cuisine” on the website. Highlights include Paraha, a whole reef fish for two.
- While not exactly a full service “restaurant” there’s something mildly elegant about the rustic little eaterie at La Plage de Maui. It’s a casually sophisticated place where you dine at picnic tables with your toes in the sand and your eyes on the setting sun. It’s not technically in Teahupo’o, but it’s conveniently located on the beach in nearby Vairao. If the view doesn’t put you in a Tahitian state of mind the food certainly will. The steamed fish, or shrimps in a banana leaf with whatever produce is available locally will turn you into a taro and breadfruit fan.
- There are a couple casual divey beach bars filled with surfers and locals dotted around the bay and surf break at Teahupo’o where you can get fish burgers and of course Poisson Cru. I won’t say one is better than the other, but some are indeed worse than the others. But they’re beach bars, food aside, you’ll love any one of them.