Tahiti Iti is much less sparsely populated and developed than its bigger twin, Tahiti Nui. Paved roads dead-end about halfway down its north and south sides. A series of cliffs plunge into the sea on Tahiti Iti's rugged east end. While the north shore holds historical interest, the south coast has Tahiti's best beach and its top surfing spot.
If you have to choose one of three roads on Tahiti Iti, take the one by the school and stadium. It dead-ends high up into the rolling pastures of the Taravao Plateau. It begins at the traffic signal on the north-coast road to Tautira and runs up through cool pastures reminiscent of rural France, with huge trees lining the narrow paved road. At more than 360m (1,200 ft.) high, the plateau is blessed with a refreshing, perpetually springlike climate. Near the end of the road, you'll come to the Taravao Plateau Overlook, where you'll have a spectacular view of the entire isthmus and down both sides of Tahiti Nui.
The North Coast to Tautira
The road on the north coast of Tahiti Iti goes for 18km (11 miles) to the sizable village of Tautira, which sits on its own little peninsula. Captain Cook anchored in the bay off Tautira on his second visit to Tahiti in 1773. His ships ran aground on the reef while the crews were partying one night. He managed to get them off, but lost several anchors in the process. One of them was found in 1978 and is now on display at the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands, which you will come to on the west side of the island.
A year after Cook landed at Tautira, a Spanish ship from Peru named the Aguila landed here, and its captain claimed the island for Spain. It was the third time Tahiti had been claimed for a European power. He also put ashore two Franciscan priests. The Aguila returned a year later, but the priests had had enough of Tahiti and sailed back to Peru.
When you enter the village, bear left and drive along the scenic coast road as far as the general store, where you can buy a cold soft drink and snack. If you can hold out longer, I usually take my break at La Plage de Maui snack bar on Tahiti Iti's south coast.
R. L. S. Was Here -- Robert Louis Stevenson spent 2 months at Tautira in 1888, working on The Master of Ballantrae, a novel set not in Tahiti but in Scotland. Stevenson's mother was with him in Tautira. After she returned to London, she sent the local Protestant church a silver Communion service, which is still being used today.
The South Coast to Teahupoo
The picturesque road along the south coast of Tahiti Iti skirts the lagoon, passing through small settlements. Novelist Zane Grey had a deep-sea-fishing camp at PK 7.3, near the village of Toahotu, from 1928 to 1930. He caught a silver marlin that was about 4m (14 ft.) long and weighed more than 454 kilograms (1,000 lb.) -- even after the sharks had had a meal on it while Grey was trying to get it aboard his boat. He wrote about his adventures in Tales of Tahitian Waters.
According to Tahitian legends, the demigod Maui once made a rope from his sister Hina's hair and used it to slow down the sun long enough for Tahitians to finish cooking their food in their earth ovens (a lengthy process). He accomplished this feat while standing on the reef at a point 8.5km (5 miles) along the south-coast road. Beyond Maui's alleged footprints, now under the road, the Bay of Tapueraha provides the widest pass and deepest natural harbor on Tahiti. It was used as a base by a large contingent of the French navy during the aboveground nuclear tests at Moruroa atoll in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the old mooring pilings still stand just offshore.
Reminiscent of the great Matira Beach on Bora Bora, La Plage de Maui (Maui Beach) borders the bay and is the best strip of white sand on Tahiti. Get out of the car and take a break at the lagoonside snack bar here. A cave, known as the Caverne de Maui, is a short walk inland.
Near Vairao village, you'll pass the modern IFREMER: Le Centre Océanologique du Pacifique (Pacific Oceanographic Center), which conducts research into black-pearl oysters, shrimp farming, and other means of extracting money from seawater. The buildings were formerly used for France's nuclear testing program.
The south-coast road ends at Teahupoo, the famous village de surf (surfing village) whose beachside park overlooks the big waves curling around Havaa Pass. World-class boarders compete in the Billabong Pro tournament here every May. A footbridge crosses the Tirahi River, where a trail begins along Tahiti Iti's rugged eastern shoreline. It's a strenuous and sometimes dangerous hike done only with a guide.
Take a Circle Island Break -- Shoehorned between the road and the sands of Maui Beach, La Plage de Maui Restaurant (tel. 74.71.74) is my place to stop for refreshment while taking in the gorgeous scenery. Owners Rose Wilkinson and Alain Corre, both veterans of the Sofitel Moorea Beach Resort on Moorea, offer burgers, steaks, poisson cru (marinated fish), ice cream, and other temptations. Burgers cost about 800CFP (US$10/£5), while main courses range from 1,900CFP to 2,800CFP (US$24-US$35/£12-£18). No credit cards, however. Open daily 10am to 6pm.
The Musée Gauguin has its own restaurant, but most circle island tour buses deposit their passengers for lunch at the lagoonside Restaurant du Musée Gauguin, at PK 50.5 (tel. 57.13.80), which is worth a stop just for its phenomenal view of Tahiti Iti. The lunch buffet costs about 2,800CFP (US$35/£18) per person Monday through Saturday, 3,700CFP (US$46/£24) on Sunday; sandwiches are also available. Open daily from noon to 3pm.
A less expensive option is Beach Burger, at PK 39 (tel. 57.41.03), west of the golf course at Atimaono. In addition to burgers, it serves salads, steaks, Chinese fare, and pizzas. Open Sunday through Thursday from 6am to 8pm, Friday and Saturday from 6am to 9:30pm.