Proceeding clockwise from Papeete, you'll leave town by turning inland off boulevard Pomare and following the broad avenue du Prince-Hinoi, the start of the round-island road.
Fautaua Valley, Loti's Pool & the Diademe
It's not worth the side trip, but at PK 2.5, a road goes right into the steep-walled Fautaua Valley and the Bain Loti, or Loti's Pool. Julien Viaud, the French merchant mariner who wrote under the pen name Pierre Loti, used this pool as a setting for his novel The Marriage of Loti, which recounted the love of a Frenchman for a Tahitian woman. Now part of Papeete's water-supply system, the pool is covered in concrete. The road goes into the lower part of the valley and terminates at the beginning of a hiking trail up to the Fautaua Waterfall, which plunges over a cliff into a large pool 300m (985 ft.) below. The all-day hike to the head of the valley is best done with a guide.
Pull off the main road into the side street opposite the big seaside park at Pirae for a look inland at the Diadème, a rocky outcrop protruding like a crown from the interior ridge. (I think it looks like a single worn molar sticking up from a gum.)
Tomb of Pomare V
At PK 4.7, turn left at the sign and drive a short distance to a Protestant churchyard commanding an excellent view of Matavai Bay to the right. The tomb with a Grecian urn on top was built in 1879 for Queen Pomare. Her remains were removed a few years later by her son, King Pomare V, who abdicated in return for a French pension and later died of too much drink. Now he is buried here, and tour guides like to say the urn is not an urn at all but a liquor bottle, which makes it a monument not to Pomare V, but to the cause of his death.
La Maison de James Norman Hall (James Norman Hall's Home)
At PK 5.4, on the mountain side of the road just east of the small bridge, stands the home of James Norman Hall, coauthor with Charles Nordhoff of Mutiny on the Bounty.
One Tree Hill
At PK 8, past the new Radisson Plaza resort, you'll come to the top of One Tree Hill, so named by Capt. James Cook because a single tree stood on this steep headland in the late 1700s. For many years, it was the site of a luxury hotel, now closed. Pull into the roundabout at the entrance and stop for one of Tahiti's most magnificent vistas. You'll look down on the north coast all the way from Matavai Bay to Papeete, with Moorea looming on the far horizon.
At PK 10, turn left at Super Marché Venus Star and drive to Point Venus, Tahiti's northernmost point, where Capt. James Cook observed the transit of the planet Venus in 1769.
At PK 17.1, Tahiti's longest bridge crosses its longest river at the end of its largest valley at one of its largest rural villages -- all named Papenoo. The river flows down to the sea through the only wall in Tahiti Nui's old volcanic crater. A cross-island road goes up the valley, literally through the mountains (via a tunnel), and down to Tahiti's south shore. Four-wheel-drive vehicles go into the valley on exciting excursions. You can drive yourself as far as Relais de la Maroto (tel. 57.90.29), a small hotel and restaurant up in the valley.
At PK 22, the surf pounding against the headland at Arahoho has formed overhanging shelves with holes in them. As waves crash under the shelves, water and air are forced through the holes, resulting in a geyserlike phenomenon. One shoots up at the base of a cliff on the mountain side of the road, but be careful because oncoming traffic cannot see you standing there. Pull into the overlook (with free parking and toilets) west of the sharp curve. There's a local snack bar across the road, and a black-sand beach is within sight.
Cascades de Tefaarumai (Faarumai Waterfalls)
At PK 22.1, a sign on the right just past the blowhole marks a somewhat paved road that leads 1.5km (1 mile) up a small valley to the Cascades de Faarumai, Tahiti's most accessible waterfalls. The drive itself gives a glimpse of how ordinary rural Tahitians live in simple wood houses surrounded by bananas and breadfruit. Park near the stand of bamboo trees and take a few minutes to read the signs, which explain a romantic legend. Vaimahuta falls are an easy walk; Haamaremare Iti and Haamaremarerahi falls are a 45-minute climb up a more difficult trail. Vaimahuta falls plunge straight down several hundred feet from a hanging valley into a large pool. Bring insect repellent.
At PK 32.5, the Tahitian rebellion came to a head on April 17, 1844, when 441 French troops charged several times and many poorly armed Tahitians dug in near the village of Mahaena. The Tahitians lost 102 men and the French, 15. It was the last set battle of the rebellion.
At PK 37.6, a plaque mounted on a rock on the northern end of the bridge at Hitiaa commemorates the landing of the French explorer Bougainville, who anchored just offshore when he arrived in Tahiti in 1768. The two small islands on the reef, Oputotara and Variararu, provided slim protection against the prevailing trade winds, and Bougainville lost six anchors in 10 days trying to keep his ships off the reef. Tahitians recovered one and gave it to the high chief of Bora Bora, who in turn gave it to Captain Cook in 1777.
At PK 41.8 begins a view of Faatautia Valley, which looks so much like those in the Marquesas that in 1957 director John Huston chose it as a location for a movie version of Typee, Herman Melville's novelized account of his ship-jumping adventures among the Marquesans on Nuku Hiva in the 1840s. The project was scrapped after another of Huston's Melville movies, Moby-Dick, bombed at the box office. The uninhabited valley surely looks much today as it did 1,000 years ago.
At PK 53, after passing the small-boat marina, the road climbs up onto the Isthmus of Taravao, separating Tahiti Nui from Tahiti Iti. At the top are the stone walls of Fort Taravao, which the French built in 1844 to bottle up what was left of the rebellious islanders on the Tahiti Iti peninsula during the French-Tahitian War of 1844 to 1848. Germans stuck on Tahiti during World War II were interned here. It is now used as a French army training center. The village of Taravao, with its shops, suburban streets, and churches, has grown up around the military post. Its snack bars are good places for refueling stops.