Tahiti is shaped like a figure eight lying on its side. The "eyes" of the eight are two extinct, eroded volcanoes joined by the flat Isthmus of Taravao. The larger, western part of the island is known as Tahiti Nui ("Big Tahiti" in Tahitian), while the smaller eastern peninsula beyond the isthmus is named Tahiti Iti ("Little Tahiti"). Together they comprise about 670 sq. km (258 sq. miles), about two-thirds the size of the island of Oahu in Hawaii.

Tahiti Nui's volcano has been eroded over the eons so that now long ridges, separating deep valleys, march down from the crater's ancient rim to the coast far below. The rim itself is still intact, except on the north side, where the Papenoo River has cut its way to the sea. The highest peaks, Mount Orohena, 2,206m (7,353 ft.), and Mount Aora, 2,045m (6,817 ft.), tower above Papeete. Another peak, the toothlike Mount Te Tara O Maiao, or the Diadème, at 1,308m (4,360 ft.), can be seen from the eastern suburb of Pirae, but not from downtown.

With the exception of the east coast of Tahiti Iti, where great cliffs fall into the sea, and a few places where the ridges end abruptly at the water's edge, the island is skirted by a flat coastal plain. Tahiti's residents live on this plain, in the valleys, or on the hills adjacent to the plain.

Bone Up on History -- A knowledge of French Polynesia's background will prove very useful as you see the sights, many of which have historical significance. I strongly recommend reading "Looking at the Past of Tahiti & French Polynesia" before setting out and referring back to it as you go. Also consider buying a copy of the late Bengt Danielsson's Tahiti: Circle Island Tour Guide. French and English editions are available in the local bookstores. Danielsson arrived in French Polynesia on Thor Hyerdahl's Kon Tiki raft in the late 1940s. He lived here the rest of his life and understood Polynesian culture as well as any European.

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