As you leave Taravao, heading back to Papeete along Tahiti's south coast, note that the PK markers begin to decrease the nearer you get to Papeete. The road rims casuarina-ringed Port Phaeton, which cuts nearly halfway across the isthmus. Port Phaeton and the Bay of Tapueraha to the south are Tahiti's finest harbors, yet European settlement and most development have taken place on the opposite side of the island, around Papeete. The shrimps you'll order for dinner come from the aqua farms in the bay's shallow waters.
At PK 52 stands Tahiti's oldest village. Apparently the island's initial residents recognized the advantages of the south coast and its deep lagoons and harbors, for word-of-mouth history says they came through the Hotumatuu Pass in the reef and settled at Papeari sometime between A.D. 400 and 500. Robert Keable, author of Simon Called Peter, a bestselling novel about a disillusioned clergyman, lived here from 1924 until he died in 1928 at the age of 40. His home, now a private residence, stands at PK 55. Today, Papeari is a thriving village whose residents often sell fruits and vegetables at stands along the road.
Musée Gauguin (Gauguin Museum)
At PK 51.2 is the entrance to the museum/memorial to Paul Gauguin, who lived near here from 1891 until 1893. The museum sits in the lush Harrison W. Smith Botanical Gardens, started in 1919 by American Harrison Smith. The museum and gardens are open daily from 9am to 5pm. There's a snack bar here, but your best bet is to continue west.
The Moon & 21 Million Pounds -- In 1891, a marginally successful Parisian painter named Paul Gauguin left behind his wife and six children and sailed to Tahiti. He wanted to devote himself to his art, free of the chains of civilization.
Instead of paradise, Gauguin found a world that suffered from some of the same maladies as the one from which he fled. Poverty, sickness, and frequent disputes with church and colonial officials marked his decade in the islands. He had syphilis, a bad heart, and an addiction to opium.
Gauguin disliked Papeete and spent his first 2 years in the rural Mataiea district, on Tahiti's south coast, where a village woman asked what he was doing there. Looking for a girl, he replied. The woman immediately offered her 13-year-old daughter, Tehaamana, the first of Gauguin's early teenage Tahitian mistresses. One of them bore him a son in 1899.
Tehaamana and the others figured prominently in Gauguin's Impressionist masterpieces, which brought fame to Tahiti but did little for his own pocketbook. After 649 paintings and a colorful career, immortalized by W. Somerset Maugham in The Moon and Sixpence, Gauguin died penniless in 1903.
At the time of his death, on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, a painting by Gauguin sold for 150 French francs. In 2007, his L'Homme à la Hache (Man at the Axe) sold for US$40.3 million (£21 million).
Vaihiria River & Vaipahi Gardens
At PK 48, in the village of Mataiea, the main road crosses the Vaihiria River. The new cross-island road from Papenoo on the north coast terminates here. An 11km (7.3-mile) track leads to Lake Vaihiria, at 465m (1,550 ft.) above sea level. It is Tahiti's only lake and is noted for its freshwater eels. Cliffs up to 900m (3,000 ft.) tall drop to the lake on its north side. Also in Mataiea is the lush Jardin Vaipehi (Vaipehi Gardens), a cool and refreshing spot with a bubbling natural spring and an oft-photographed waterfall (it's closer to the road than any other Tahitian waterfall). The garden is lush with elephant ears, tree ferns, ground orchids, jade vines, and other tropical vegetation. Signs (in French) explain its historical importance, since ancient Tahitian nobles followed the path to the springs in order to be spiritually purified.
At PK 41 begins the largest parcel of flat land on Tahiti, site of Atimaono Golf Course, French Polynesia's only links. Irishman William Stewart started a cotton plantation here during the American Civil War. Nothing remains of the plantation, but it was Stewart who brought the first Chinese indentured servants to Tahiti.
The knobby noni fruit's reputed medicinal properties have created a new industry in the islands, where folks are growing it by the boatload. You can see how it's turned into noni juice and other products at Tahitian Noni International, at PK 42.2 (tel. 80.37.50). Tours are given on Friday by reservation only. Like castor oil, it must be good for you if it tastes this bad!
Dorence Atwater's Grave
At PK 36, on the lagoon side of the road in Papara village, stands a Protestant church, under whose paved yard is buried Dorence Atwater, American consul to Tahiti after the Civil War. Captured while serving in the Union army, Atwater was assigned to the hospital at the infamous Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where he surreptitiously recorded the names of Union soldiers who died in captivity. He later escaped and brought his lists to the federal government, thus proving that the Confederacy was keeping inaccurate records. His action made him a hero in the eyes of the Union army. He eventually moved to the south coast of Tahiti, married a daughter of a chief of the Papara district, and at one time invested in William Stewart's cotton venture.
At PK 28.5, on Tahiti's southwest corner, the road turns sharply around the base of a series of headlands, which drop precipitously to the lagoon. Deep into one of these cliffs goes the Maraa Grotto, also called the Paroa Cave. It's actually two caves, both with water inside, and they go much deeper into the hill than appears at first glance. Park in the lot, not along the road, and enter at the gazebo to reach the larger of the two caves. A short trail leads from there to the smaller cave and a mini-waterfall.