Clarke Gayford discovers if there's another side to Tahiti, different to what you see in the glossy brochures
I recently discovered that telling people you are Tahiti bound invokes a generic response; "It looks so beautiful, I'd love to go, but I've heard it's expensive." It was an assumption I also held and was keen to test, a Fish of the Day shoot becoming the perfect excuse to get on an Air NZ flight for the five-hour journey.
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Of the one hundred islands that make up French Polynesia, Tahiti is the better known of the group. Pre French interruption in the 1800s it already had a name for itself as a welcoming refuge to visiting sailing boats. A tropical paradise bountiful in produce, combined with a liberal attitude to sex, it was little wonder that it became the scene of multiple ship mutinies. One ship even reportedly started falling apart after the nails that held it together became a valuable commodity in the trade for favours with local women. No surprises then that the French wanted it for themselves.
The main Island of Tahiti is two conjoined Islands known as Tahiti-Nui and Tahiti-iti Meaning big (Nui) and small (Iti). These names are a good example of the strong ties that New Zealand has to this place being the same as Te Reo Maori. Captain Cook's success in communicating with NZ tribes was attributed to his Tahitian navigator Tupaia, who thanks to the similarities in language could converse freely. It's also a clear demonstration of the Tahitians' superior ocean navigation, as travel was made back and forth to NZ, many hundreds of years before Cook's arrival.
Being curious to discover if there was another side to the glossy brochures, the first thing I did on arrival was head out of downtown Tahiti-nui and across to the Tahiti-iti side of the island, arriving at a homestay next to a village called Teahupo'o. Pronounced Chi-ow-po, it's home to one of the most famous surf breaks in the world. As luck would have it the World Surfing League was on during our visit with a huge swell running. Even for non-surfers the wave is a spectacle, raw ocean swells come straight in and dump over a steep angled reef. Although the break is offshore local boats are keen to take surfers and sightseers alike out to witness the action. It's possible to get so close that barrelling waves will spit a mist that hits you while sitting in the channel watching nature unload all that energy.
When it comes to accommodation outside of the fancy resorts it was a pleasant surprise to discover Tahiti has long been running a type of homestay Airbnb system. Typically the family home will have one or two adjoining properties that are completely self-sufficient. These are usually set in prime position on the water's edge. My welcoming homestay owner Poe's guesthouses felt Balinese in origin, with large mosquito nets draped above four-poster beds. The warm climate meant it could accommodate a private open plan outdoor communal area, which looked over a small pool out to the expansive lagoon beyond. Poe even invited us to their main house one evening where she showed me a local Tahitian raw fish dish speciality using a Yellowfin Tuna I had caught that day with locals.
The price range on these accommodation options are considerably cheaper than any of the resorts. The food outside of the resorts was considerably better also. It's here that the French influence shines through. The worst meal we had during our entire trip was at a resort - it's the first time I've ever seen my producer not finish a plate of food, he was grumpy about it for days. What made it worse was that right under our noses were fantastic dining options hidden in plain site.
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They call them roulettes, which roughly translates as 'food truck'. Dotted along the sides of roads everywhere often as parked up trucks or caravans set permanently with seating and cover out front. Nearly all are family run with a great deal of pride put into menus making them a fun place to eat with locals and visitors alike. Costing considerably less than a resort meal, where plates do get finished, I highly recommend trying them out.
Now don't get me wrong, it's certainly easy to get carried away and spend money in Tahiti, but I have to say it was a pleasant surprise to discover that there is another side, one that felt a bit more earthy and real and was far easier on the wallet than expected.
Clarke Gayford hosts Fish of the Day, Sundays at 5.30pm on Three