Except for the Route 5 expressway between Papeete and Punaauia, and the north-south cross-island road, the island's highway system consists primarily of Route 1, a paved road running for 114km (72 miles) around Tahiti Nui, plus roads halfway down each side of Tahiti Iti. From the isthmus, a road partially lined with trees wanders up to the high, cool Plateau of Taravao, with pastures and pines more like provincial France than the South Pacific.
Although it might appear from the number of vehicles scurrying around Papeete that everyone owns a car or scooter, the average Tahitian gets around by local bus. Modern buses have replaced all but a few of Tahiti's famous le trucks, those colorful vehicles called "trucks" because the passenger compartments are gaily painted wooden cabins mounted on the rear of flatbed trucks. The last of them operate between downtown Papeete and Centre Moana Nui, a shopping complex south of the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort. Elsewhere, look for modern buses.
Once upon a time, le trucks would stop for you almost anywhere, but today you must catch them and the buses at official stops (called arrêt le bus in French).
The villages or districts served by each bus are written on the sides and front of the bus. Fares within Papeete are 130CFP (US$1.60/85p) until 6pm and 200CFP (US$2.50/£1.25) thereafter. A trip to the end of the line in either direction costs about 750CFP (US$9.40/£4.75).
Buses Going West -- The few remaining le trucks and all short-distance buses going west are painted red and white. They line up on rue du Maréchal-Foch behind the Municipal Market and travel along rue du Général-de-Gaulle, which becomes rue du Commandant-Destremeau and later route de-l'Ouest, the road that circles the island. Buses run along this route as far as the Centre Moana Nui (south of the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort) Monday through Friday at least every 30 minutes from 6am to 6pm, then once an hour between 6pm and midnight. Except for le trucks serving tourists at the hotels on the west coast, there is irregular service on Saturday, none on Sunday. Trucks and buses labeled Faaa, Maeva Beach, and Outuamaru will pass the airport and the Sheraton Hotel Tahiti Resort & Spa and InterContinental Resort Tahiti.
Buses Going East -- Short-distance buses going east are painted green and white. They line up in the block west of the Banque de Polynésie on boulevard Pomare, opposite the cruise-ship terminal and near the Municipal Market and rue Paul Gauguin. They proceed out of town via avenue du Prince-Hinoi, passing the cutoff for Hotel Le Royal Tahitien and the Radisson Plaza Resort Tahiti on their way to Pirae, Arue, and Mahina. They run frequently from 6am to 5pm as far as the Mahina. No buses run at night, so you must rent a car or take a taxi to and from the Radisson and Le Royal Tahitien after dark and on weekends.
Long-Distance Buses -- Buses going in either direction to Tahiti's south coast and Tahiti Iti are painted orange and white. They line up next to the Tahiti Manava visitor bureau on boulevard Pomare at rue Paul Gauguin. They run on the hour from 6am to noon Monday through Friday, but there is only one afternoon trip at 4:30pm back to the villages. They do not run at night or on weekends.
Around Tahiti by Bus -- Although you had to walk across the Taravao isthmus, it was once possible to circumnavigate Tahiti by le truck in a single day. Today, the long-distance buses run only from 6am to noon on weekdays, so it is virtually impossible to go all the way around the island in any reasonable amount of time. I recommend renting a vehicle or taking a guided circle island tour instead.
Papeete has a large number of taxis, although they can be hard to find during the morning and evening rush hours, especially if it's raining. You can flag one down on the street or find them gathered at one of several stations. The largest gathering points are on boulevard Pomare near the market (tel. 42.02.92) and at the Centre Vaima (tel. 42.60.77). Most taxi drivers understand some English.
Taxi fares are set by the government and are posted on a board at the Centre Vaima taxi stand on boulevard Pomare. Few cabs have meters, so be sure that you and the driver have agreed on a fare before you get in. Note that all fares are increased by at least 20% from 8pm to 6am. A trip anywhere within downtown Papeete during the day starts at 1,000CFP (US$13/£7) and goes up 120CFP (US$1.50/75p) for every kilometer after the first one during the day, 240CFP (US$3/£1.50) at night. As a rule of thumb, the fare from the Papeete hotels to the airport or vice versa is about 1,700CFP (US$21/£11) during the day; from the west coast hotels to the airport, about 1,000CFP (US$13/£7). A trip to the Gauguin Museum on the south coast costs 10,000CFP (US$125/£63) one-way. The fare for a 4-hour journey all the way around Tahiti is about 16,000CFP (US$200/£101). Drivers may charge an extra 50CFP to 100CFP (US65¢-US$1.25/35p-65p) per bag of luggage.
By Rental Car
Avis (tel. 800/331-1212 or 41.93.93; www.avis.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131 or 42.04.72; www.hertz.com), and Europcar (tel. 800/227-7368 or 45.24.24; www.europcar-tahiti.com) all have agencies on Tahiti. The best local rental company is Daniel Location de Voitures, in the Faaa airport terminal (tel. 81.96.32; fax 85.62.64; firstname.lastname@example.org). All charge about 9,600CFP (US$120/£61) per day with unlimited kilometers.
Driving Hints -- In Papeete, priority is given to vehicles entering an intersection from the right side. This rule does not apply on the four-lane boulevard Pomare along the waterfront, but be careful everywhere else, as drivers on your right will expect you to yield the right of way at intersections where there are no stop signs or traffic signals. Be prepared to deal with numerous traffic circles in and near town. You must give way to traffic already in the circles.
Outside of Papeete, priority is given to vehicles that are already on the round-island road. The main round-island road is a divided highway east and west of Papeete, which means that to make a left turn, you will have to turn around at the next traffic circle and drive back to your destination.
Parking -- Parking spaces can be as scarce as chicken teeth in downtown Papeete during the day. You must pay to park in most on-street spaces from 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday, which costs 100CFP (US$1.25/65p) per hour, payable by tickets sold at numerous shops and newsstands displaying signs saying Parc Chec. Put the parc chec ticket on the dashboard inside the vehicle, not outside under the windshield wiper, where it will be stolen. There are several municipal parking garages, including one under the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall); enter off rue Collette between rue Paul Gauguin and rue d'Ecole des Frères. Some large buildings, such as the Centre Vaima, have garages in their basements. Frankly, if I'm not staying downtown, I usually leave my car at the hotel and take a bus into the city during workdays.
Get Unlimited Kilometers if Driving Around Tahiti -- If you rent a car, consider the unlimited kilometer rate if you intend to drive around Tahiti, since the round-island road is 114km (72 miles) long, not counting Tahiti Iti.