Not counting a few hours at the Los Angeles airport, sunny Tahiti was my first stop after leaving the blizard in Montreal. What a difference! Romantic Tahiti... the dream island of Gauguin, of Pierre Loti, of Somerset Maugham, of Herman Melville, of Robert Louis Stevenson, of Jack London,... the land of wahines... the archetype for sensuous South Pacific hedonism. That Tahiti is no more. Today's Papeete is now the busy capital and administrative center of the 130 islands that make up French Polynesia.
|Lonely Planet CIA|
Romantic Tahiti is no more, the "noble savage" has put on trousers and shirt, he has learned to read and write, has joined one of the island's several political parties and has gotten unionised. There are still wahines of course but you will have to pay to get close... and accept as high a risk as you would in Bangkok!
The romance has gone from here but it has also disappeared from all the other great dream spots and the island is truly beautiful. Drawing on its past reputation and on the beauty of the islands, luxury tourism has become an important industry here as evidenced by this Club Med cruise ship in Papeete Harbour
Modern Papeete has little third world flavour. It is as clean and efficiently run as any European city of the same size and faces similar traffic jams but it retains quaint aspects such as its central market and this local public transport vehicle called "Le Truck".
A fine example of French colonial architecture, Papeete's City Hall. French Polynesia's status has evolved from that of a colony to that of an "Overseas Territory". I don't know exactly what the difference is but one obvious advantage is that the 40% of Papeete's population who are overpaid government employees would probably be out of a job otherwise (they get much higher salaries than their counterparts in France and enjoy a number of extravagant perks). Another 40% of the people provide services to luxury tourism and to these highly subsidised civil servants. This makes Papeete a very expensive place to visit.
Moorea, a scant 20 km west of Tahiti is as developed as its sister island but the pace is somewhat slower and the people are friendlier. Its spectacular landscape, a heritage from it's volcanic past, and its white beaches make it a great place to get away from Papeete's hustle and bustle.
Although prices are also generally high on Moorea some budget accommodations can be found such as this backpacker's haven called "Moorea Beach" on the west coast. I stayed here a couple of days for 10US$ per night which is definitely cheap for French Polynesia. I have been told that some of the more distant islands are still pristine and must be seen but I didn't go because they were beyond the range of my backpacker budget.