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See the awe-inspiring tropical beauty of the Tahitian Islands

10Best logo 10Best 9/15/2020 Lydia Schrandt, Special to USA TODAY 10Best
a little girl holding a flower: Tahitian welcome © Hélène Havard / Tahiti Tourisme Tahitian welcome

Welcome to Tahiti

Tahiti, a series of 118 islands in the South Pacific, is known for its white sand beaches, overwater bungalows and spectacular sunsets. But there’s more to this French Polynesian destination than the idyllic images conjured up in our travel daydreams. Come along as we take a closer look at the Islands of Tahiti through 20 stunning photos.

a motorcycle is parked on the side of a mountain: ATV © Stéphane Mailion Photography / Tahiti Tourisme ATV

The inner isles

While the islands of the South Pacific are rightfully known for their beaches and turquoise waters, there’s plenty of adventure inland as well. ATVs and quad bikes allow visitors to explore the mountainous inner isles. Eight summits tower above Moorea, an island popular with adventure travelers for its hiking, horseback riding and four-wheeling opportunities.

a sandy beach next to a body of water: Fakarava © Jim Winter / Tahiti Tourisme Fakarava

Fakarava Atoll

The Tuamotu Islands comprise 77 atolls spread across 930 miles, making them the largest chain of atolls on the planet. Islets form a ring around the lagoon of Fakarava, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This relaxed atoll, the second largest in French Polynesia, is a land of white and pink sand, coconut palms and legendary snorkeling.

a palm tree with Pitons in the background: Tohivea © Tahiti Tourisme Tohivea

Mount Tohivea

The Society Islands are home to the country’s three most famous islands: Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea. The emerald green spires of Moorea have been likened to a cathedral. And Mount Tohivea, the highest point on the island at 3,960 feet, can be seen from as far away as Papeete on Tahiti.

a group of people sitting at a fruit stand: Fruit vendor © Tahiti Tourisme Fruit vendor

A tropical garden

Tropical weather throughout the year allows farmers in French Polynesia to grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and spices throughout the year. Visit a fruit market on one of the islands to sample coconuts, dozens of varieties of bananas, breadfruit, watermelon, pineapples, mangoes, grapefruit and limes.

Look for Tahitian vanilla to feature in desserts across the island.

a large green field with trees in the background: Raiatea © Tahiti Tourisme Raiatea

Sacred Raiatea

Raiatea, also part of the Society Islands, was the point from which Polynesians set off on outriggers to explore the Pacific, settling as far away as Hawaii and New Zealand. The green-blanketed island is considered among the most sacred in the region, the spiritual center of Polynesia.

a very dark water: Fire dance © Tahiti Tourisme Fire dance

Fire knife dance

The tradition of fire knife dancing originates in Samoa, when it was part of a ritual celebration during wartime. Fire wasn’t added until 1946, when Samoan dancer Freddie Letuli took inspiration from a Hindu fire-eater and decided to incorporate fire into his own performance. These days, the fire knife dance is typically practiced during shows and competitions.

a large waterfall in a forest: Waterfalls on Tahiti © Tahiti Tourisme Waterfalls on Tahiti

Tahitian waterfalls

The island of Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia and the site of its capital, Papeete. Much of the island’s population lives near the coast; the pristine interior is dominated by green peaks and waterfall-filled valleys.

a sunset over a body of water: Fishing at sunset © Stéphane Mailion Photography / Tahiti Tourisme Fishing at sunset

Bounty of the sea

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The oceans and lagoons of French Polynesia serve up a bounty of seafood, with perch, parrot fish, grouper and mahi mahi often making an appearance on dinner plates. Poisson Cru, the national dish, features red tuna marinated in lime juice and coconut milk – a South Pacific take on ceviche.

a palm tree in front of a body of water: Black sand beach on Tahiti © Kim Lawson / Tahiti Tourisme Black sand beach on Tahiti

Black sand beaches

The island of Tahiti features some of the world’s most spectacular black sand beaches. The long Plage de Taharuu on the South Coast caters to families and novice surfers with its gentle breaks and good swimming conditions. Lafayette Beach, a narrower stretch of black sand, looks toward Moorea across Matavai Bay.

a group of people sitting in a tree: Traditional dancing © Hélène Havard / Tahiti Tourisme Traditional dancing

Tahitian dance

Music and dance hold a prominent position in Tahitian culture. While similar to Hawaiian hula at first glance, Tahitian dance is typically very athletic, with fast, energetic hip movements and little upper body movement. Both men and women participate, sometimes separately and sometimes together, depending on the dance.

a box filled with different types of food: Shells before becoming art © Tahiti Tourisme Shells before becoming art

Abundance of seashells

Much of the culture of Tahiti centers around the sea, and that includes the jewelry. The residents of the Tuamotu Islands are particularly gifted at making items from shells and mother-of-pearl. They have plenty of materials to work with as the islands produce some 9.7 tons of pearls each year.

a body of water: Ahe Island © Stéphane Mailion Photography / Tahiti Tourisme Ahe Island


Ahe, one of the lesser known atolls in the Tuamotu Islands, is a favorite spot for vacationing Tahitians. Activity on the atoll centers around the lagoon, a popular spot for scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking and swimming.

a person sitting on a table: Weaving is a complex art © Tahiti Tourisme Weaving is a complex art

Basket weaving

Artists from the Austral Islands, typically women, are known for their plaiting. These artists take fibers from screw pine, reed or coconut, and weave them into baskets, bags, hats and mats. Many islanders here make a living from their artwork.

a group of people in a forest: Cave on Rurutu © Tahiti Tourisme Cave on Rurutu

Rurutu caves

Rurutu, one of the southernmost islands in French Polynesia, enjoys a cooler climate than other islands. It also has a rather unique geological characteristic: a series of about 30 limestone caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

a woman talking on a cell phone: Island of Hiva Oa © Tahiti Tourisme Island of Hiva Oa

Hiva Oa

Six of the 12 Marquesas Islands are inhabited, but the population is under 10,000 total residents. The island of Hiva Oa, often called the Garden of Marquesas, served as the inspiration for many of Paul Gauguin’s best works. 

a person standing next to a tree in a forest: Hiking into a Tahitian forest © Tahiti Tourisme Hiking into a Tahitian forest

Tahitian chestnut hiking

Hiking trails lead into the interiors of many Tahitian islands, often passing beneath the shade of the majestic mape (Tahitian chestnut) tree.

a person standing in front of a large rock: Tiki © Tahiti Tourisme Tiki

Birthplace of the Tiki

Hiva Oa and the other Marquesas Islands are home to numerous archaeological sites, including the largest Tiki statue in French Polynesia. The Tiki, a form of sculpture believed to be endowed with spiritual force, originated in the Marquesas Islands, with the first known examples dating back to the 13th century.

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the ocean: Surfer in Tahiti © Tahiti Tourisme Surfer in Tahiti

Catching a wave

Surfers looking to catch a wave have more than 30 surfing spots to choose from in French Polynesia, including three world-famous breaks (Teahupo’o, Taapuna and Maraa). While the exact history of surfing is unknown, it was first recorded by Europeans who sailed to Tahiti in 1767.

Diving in the Society Islands © Mark Fitz / Tahiti Tourisme Diving in the Society Islands

Tahiti underwater

The warm waters of Tahiti teem with life, attracting divers and snorkelers from around the globe. Visibility often reaches 100 feet, and the waters provide a habitat to more than 1,000 species of fish (over 20 species of sharks). Humpback whales migrate to Tahiti from July to November, but it’s also possible to spot sea turtles, rays, dolphins and colorful fish.

a man standing in front of a body of water: Sunset on Bora Bora © Lei Tao / Tahiti Tourisme Sunset on Bora Bora

Bora Bora sunset

White sand beaches, overwater bungalows and stellar sunsets make Bora Bora the stuff of honeymoon legends. This quiet island in the Society Islands, only 15 square miles, is where you’ll find some of the most luxurious resorts and exclusive retreats.

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