There's no shortage of things to buy on Tahiti, especially in Papeete. Black pearls and handicrafts are sure to tempt you. The selection is widest here, but prices on some items may be better on Moorea.
If you just can't live without visiting a modern shopping mall, head for the Centre Moana Nui, on the main road in Punaauia about .5km (1/4 mile) south of the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort. Here you'll find a huge Carrefour supermarket, several boutiques, a snack bar with excellent hamburgers, a hairdresser, a bar, banks with ATMs, and a post office (open Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 8am-noon). The local Centre Artisinant stands across the parking lot under a tepee-shaped roof.
Duty-free shopping is very limited, with French perfumes the best deal. Duty Free Tahiti (tel. 42.61.61), on the street-level waterside of the Centre Vaima, is the largest duty-free shop. Its specialties are Seiko, Lorus, and Cartier watches and Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, and Guerlain perfumes. The airport departure lounge has two duty-free shops.
Papeete has scores of bijouteries (jewelry shops) that carry black pearls in a variety of settings. Some stalls in Papeete's Municipal Market sell pearls, but give them a pass and buy yours from an experienced, reputable dealer. Most of these stores are in or around the Centre Vaima, along boulevard Pomare, and in the Quartier du Commerce, the narrow streets off boulevard Pomare between rue Paul Gauguin and rue d'Ecole des Frères north of the Municipal Market.
Your beginning point should be the Musée de la Perle Robert Wan (tel. 46.15.54), on boulevard Pomare at rue l'Arthémise, opposite Eglise Evangélique (Protestant Church). Named for Robert Wan, the man who pioneered the local industry back in the 1960s, this museum explains the history of pearls from antiquity, the method by which they are cultured, and the things to look for when making your selection. The museum is open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 5pm. Admission is free.
Adjoining the museum, Robert Wan Tahiti (tel. 46.15.54) carries only excellent-quality pearls and uses only 18-karat gold for its settings, so the prices tend to be high. Robert Wan has outlets on all the main islands.
On the second level of the Centre Vaima, Sibani Perles Joallier (tel. 41.36.34) carries the jewelry line of Didier Sibani, another pioneer of the local industry. European-style elegance is the theme here and at the other Sibani outlets throughout the islands.
One of French Polynesia's largest dealers, Tahia Collins, has a small outlet on boulevard Pomare at avenue du Prince Hinoi (tel. 54.06.00). Another large dealer is Tahiti Pearl Market, on rue Collette at rue Paul Gauguin (tel. 54.30.60).
Buying Your Black Pearl -- French Polynesia is the world's largest producer of black pearls. They are cultured by implanting a small nucleus into the shell of a live Pinctada margaritifera, the oyster used here, which then coats it with nacre, the same lustrous substance that lines the mother-of-pearl shell. The nacre produces dark pearls known as "black" but whose actual color ranges from slightly grayer than white to black with shades of rose or green. Most range in size from 10 to 17 millimeters (slightly less than 1/2 to slightly less than 3/4 in.).
Size, color, luster, lack of imperfections, and shape determine a pearl's value. No two are exactly alike, but the most valuable are the larger ones that are most symmetrical and have few dark blemishes, and whose color is dark with the shades of a peacock showing through a bright luster. A top-quality pearl 13 millimeters or larger will sell for 960,000CFP (US$12,000/£6,000) or more, but there are thousands to choose from in the 24,000CFP to 80,000CFP (US$300-US$1,000/£150-£500) range. Some small, imperfect-but-still-lovely pearls cost much less.
Of course, the perfect pearl comes down to the eye of the beholder. Just make sure you see your dream pearl in daylight before handing over your credit card.
So many pearls were being produced a few years ago that many small pearl farms closed. Competition is still fierce among the islands' shops (or their agents -- commissioned tour guides and bus and taxi drivers), some of which will bombard you with sales pitches almost from the moment you arrive. Pearls are sold at stands in the Tahiti Municipal Market, and even on the street. I would buy only at the stores I recommend in this guide, which sell pearls that have been inspected and X-rayed (to determine the thickness of their nacre) by the local marine resources department.
Even at the highest-end shops, discounting is de rigueur. Despite the general rule to avoid haggling in French Polynesia, you shouldn't pay the price marked on a pearl or a piece of jewelry until you have politely asked for a discount.
With most tourists now spending minimum time on Tahiti in favor of the other islands, you might find pearl prices in Papeete to be lower than on Moorea and Bora Bora. That's not always the case, so you should look in shops like Ron Hall's Island Fashion Black Pearls (on Moorea) and Matira Pearls (on Bora Bora) before making a purchase in Papeete. Your salespersons in these shops are more likely to speak English fluently.
You can get a refund of the 16% value added tax (TVA) included in the price of set pearls (but not on loose pearls). The TVA is not added after the purchase like an American sales tax, so you won't see it. Don't believe them if they say you can't get a refund because they've already taken the TVA off a reduced price. Truth is, they'll have to send the government 16% of whatever price you paid. Ask your dealer how to get your money back by sending them an official form after you have left the country (you can mail it after clearing Immigration at Faaa).
Although most of the inexpensive souvenir items sold here are made in Asia, many local residents, especially on the outer islands, produce a wide range of seashell jewelry, rag dolls, needlework, and straw hats, mats, baskets, and handbags. I love the tivaivai, colorful appliqué quilts stitched together by Tahitian women as their great-grandmothers were shown by the early missionaries. You can also buy exquisite shell chandeliers like those adorning many hotel lobbies.
The most popular item by far is the cotton pareu, or wraparound sarong, which everyone wears at one time or another. They are screened, blocked, or printed by hand in the colors of the rainbow. The same material is made into other tropical clothing and various items such as bedspreads and pillowcases. Pareus are sold virtually everywhere a visitor might wander.
The Papeete Municipal Market is the place to shop. It has stalls both upstairs and on the surrounding sidewalk, where local women's associations sell a wide selection of handicrafts at reasonable prices. The market is one of the few places where you can regularly find pareus for 1,000CFP (US$13/£6.50), bedspreads made of the colorful tie-dyed and silk-screened pareu material, and tivaivai quilts. By and large, cloth goods are sold at the sidewalk stalls; those upstairs have a broader range of shell jewelry and other items.
Several villages have centres artisinants, where local women display their wares. The one in Punaauia, in the Centre Moana Nui parking lot south of the Sofitel Tahiti Maeva Beach Resort, is the best place to look for tivaivai quilts, which sell for about 35,000CFP (US$438/£220).
For finer-quality handicrafts, such as woodcarvings from the Marquesas Islands, shell chandeliers, tapa lampshades, or mother-of-pearl shells, try Tamara Curios, on rue du Général-de-Gaulle in Fare Tony (tel. 42.54.42).
You've arrived in Tahiti and you notice that everyone under the sun is wearing print sundresses or flowered aloha shirts. Where do you go to get yours?
Each hotel has at least one boutique carrying tropical clothing, including pareus. The prices there reflect the heavy tourist traffic, but they aren't much worse than at the stores in Papeete. Clothing, to put it bluntly, is dear in French Polynesia.
On boulevard Pomare, stop in Marie Ah You (tel. 42.03.31) and Aloha Boutique (tel. 42.87.52), both in the block west of the Vaima Centre. Their selections for women are trendy and a bit expensive.
Maohi Art, in Fare Tony on boulevard Pomare just west of the Vaima Centre (tel. 42.97.43), specializes in block-printed traditional designs (as opposed to the swirls and swooshes with leaves and flowers popular on most pareus). Its designs are the most unique in town.