Tahiti & Bora Bora
The largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia, Tahiti is part of the Society Islands archipelago in the central Southern Pacific Ocean, with 118 islands and atolls, 67 of which are inhabited. The island has two parts: the bigger, northwestern Tahiti Nui and the smaller, southeastern Tahiti Iti. Formed by volcanic activity, the land is high and mountainous, surrounded by coral reefs. Tahiti is the most populous of the islands, with almost 70% of the total population. Polynesians are the largest ethnic group, the rest are Europeans, Chinese and those of mixed heritage. French is the official language, but the Tahitian language (Reo Maohi) is still widely spoken.
The British explorer James Cook visited Tahiti in 1769, and Spanish priests stayed just one year in 1774. HMS Bounty arrived in Tahiti in 1788 and spent five months preparing breadfruit plants intended to feed slaves in Jamaica. That the crew liked it here was no surprise to Captain Bligh, who wrote: "The women are handsome ... and have sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved... in the midst of plenty in the finest island in the world where they need not labour ... the allurements of dissipation are more than equal to anything that can be conceived." The famous mutiny took place just 23 days after their departure, and nine of the mutineers settled on Pitcairn Island to the east, to avoid being hanged by the Royal Navy. With them were six Tahitian men, a baby and eighteen women, reportedly treated as slaves by the Englishmen.
Protestants from the London Missionary Society settled permanently in 1797 and baptized King Pomare II in 1819. France took an interest after the expulsion of French Catholic missionaries in 1836, two years after they arrived on Tahiti. A gunboat was sent in 1838, and a French protectorate declared in 1842 to allow the missionaries to work undisturbed. A bloody French-Tahitian War followed between 1843 and 1847, and France made a colony of the islands in 1880 after persuading King Pōmare IV to abdicate. Today Tahiti remains part of the French Republic, the economic, cultural and political center of an overseas collectivity (collectivité d'outre-mer or COM), but it took until 1946 for indigenous Tahitians to have the vote and other rights of French citizens.
The French avant-garde painter Paul Gauguin moved to Tahiti between 1891 and 1893, tired of the European art establishment. He spent three months in Europeanized Pape'ete, then installed himself in a native-style bamboo country hut. The encounter with exotic Tahitian sensuality led him to produce some of his finest paintings during this period. Returning in 1895, after a difficult trip to Europe, he lived comfortably as a resident artist near Pape'ete. He had a child by a local girl, and produced ceramics and a series of sexually charged nude paintings until moving to the nearby island of Hiva-Oa in 1901. Troubles ensued with a local genadarme who had once fined him for public indecency (bathing naked in a stream). Later, after accusing the man of incompetence, Gaugin was convicted of libel, but died in 1903 while appealing his prison sentence.
On his arrival in Tahiti, with hair to his shoulders and dressed in flamboyant and provocative clothing, Gauguin had surprised locals who took him perhaps to be a mahu, the traditional third sex of Polynesia. The Aikāne sexual relationships of Hawaii are well documented. People such as these were demonized, and their practices banned by Christian missionaries as European empires carved up the Pacific. But Gauguin's paintings during his years in Tahiti and the Marquesas, are full of gender ambiguity and displays of natural and open nudity. A homosexually-tinged experience mentioned in his book Noa Noa was said to have inspired his painting Pape Moe (Mysterious Water). He wrote little else on the subject, but his paintings of women with strong thighs and broad shoulders, and his long-haired young men adorned with flowers, along with the company he was known to keep among the mahus of Pape'ete, do suggest a lot.
Fa'a'ā International Airport, situated 5km east of the capital Pape'ete town center, is the only international airport in the region. From here 47 other islands, such as Bora Bora, are served by Air Tahiti. For international flights Air Tahiti Nui is the flag carrier airline of French Polynesia. Taxis or a rental car can get you into town, or to your hotel elsewhere on the island. Some hotels will make arrangements for transfers to and from the airport.
Luxury cruise ships ply the waters between various destinations among the Society Islands, offering 7-10 day packages from Pape'ete, and there are charters by companies such as Dream Yacht Charter. For young, hardy and intrepid travelers there are cargo ships that take passengers between islands, but travel can be rough, sometimes with your own bedding on deck and your own food provisions.
The main island has good roads and local bus service, but the smaller more remote Tahiti Iti has mostly dirt tracks requiring four-wheel drive and a local guide. The island bus, Le Truck, is a cheap way to travel used by locals, reliable and safe, operating from morning hours until about 10pm. Buses may be either one of the famous old open-air trucks, or a modern air-conditioned vehicle. Route numbers and final destinations are marked on the bus on each of three basic routes: greater Pape'ete; the east coast including Tahiti Iti; and the west coast where many resorts and hotels are located. Bus stops can be hard to find, but the driver will usual stop wherever you hail, whenever reasonable. Pay after your trip, usually a set fare no matter what the distance. Late nights and Sundays, when bus service is infrequent, will require either a taxi ride or hitch-hiking, (auto-stop en français), with thumb extended. Bora Bora also has Le Truck public transit.
Taxis are expensive if used on the meter around the island of Tahiti, but they charge a flat rate from the airport to town and to most hotels. There are also tour bus options for sight-seers, as well as motorboat and yacht charters, plus Matavai Bay outrigger canoe tours, and helicopter sightseeing tours.
Car rental rates aren't bad, unless you compare them to elsewhere in the world, but driving allows for seeing more of the island at your own pace. Your home drivers license is good for tourist stays, and rental agencies such as Avis, Budget, Europcar and Hertz are located at the airport, and at some hotels.
Media & Resources
Tahiti is not inexpensive, so this blog could be helpful to save money when eating (avoid $40 breakfasts, and go to the marketplace), and getting around the island on Le Truck. Alternatives to the $20/hour WiFi access charges aren't offered, so plan accordingly.
Going Out - Pape'ete
The Mahu District has a strip of bars, and on weekend nights drag queens are on review along rue des Écoles. The island's few gay bars are in this section.
Bora Bora Lounge (rue des Écoles), gay/ straight-friendly restaurant, cyber-cafe and nightclub, karaoke, dancing, mixed men/women, gay straight, all ages, SWAG (secretly we are gay) parties.
Tendance Lounge Club and Delirium Discoteque (rue des Écoles), bar and dance club, gayest late nights and weekends after midnight. Mix of men, women, local rae rae, international tourists and flight attendents. Formerly the Piano Bar until late in 2014 when it was extensively renovated.
Le Paradise (Blvd de la Reine Pomare IV at Av du Chef Vaira'atoa), French restaurant lunch and dinner, plus Bar le Chaplin's and La Discothèque nightclub dancing; karaoke, men/women mix, theme nights including Sexy Pink Party.
Paradise Found in French Polynesia
by Andrew John Virtue Dobson
On my final evening in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia and the main municipality on the island of Tahiti, I find myself sitting in a small fine-dining room. Restaurant Soufflé sits across from city hall and is perhaps the best spot to chitchat about everything that’s gay in French Polynesia.
My guest for the evening is the flamboyant and always smiling Mr Johns, a local gay man who has a flair for hair. The menu is scribbled on a chalkboard and reads like a righteous French feast: foie gras, duck magret, black truffle and an impressive savoury-meets-sweet soufflé offering.
Mr Johns spends the evening chatting about what life is like for the LGBT community in French Polynesia. “Tahiti is absolutely gay-friendly; we legalized same-sex marriages here not long ago. There is a small local community that hangs out in the city, mostly at house parties on weekends, but my friends and I also love to go dancing at bars downtown. We finish our night at Les Roulottes, chowing down on chow mein. The food trucks owned by Chinese immigrants offer the ultimate drunk food at 2am.” The talk turns to laughter as I describe Canada’s own late-night pride and joy: the ubiquitous poutine.
Mr Johns then offers an education on the mahu. The term originally referred to transvestites in pre-colonial Polynesia who were not only accepted in their communities, but were regarded as gifted and divine, possessing both male and female qualities. Today, locals prefer to use the term rae rae, and the definition has broadened to include crossdressers, drag queens, female impersonators and transgender people.
I can’t help but compare my experience in Tahiti with that of the trans-positive lady-boy culture in Thailand. The prevalence of rae raes in everyday culture here is attributed to the local practice where families without any girls raise one of their boys as female. I had the opportunity to chat with plenty of campy rae rae who work as bartenders and servers at the dreamy luxury resorts that tourists flock to across the archipelago.
French Polynesia’s remote island of Bora Bora is perhaps the most romanticized isle on Earth and offers a postcard-perfect backdrop for your gay wedding or honeymoon. After strolling onto Bora Bora Airport’s dock, I am greeted with a tiare-flower lei, a cold bottle of water and a chilled oshiburi towel. Moments later, I find myself splashing across a blue lagoon in a luxurious custom-crafted Andreyale water taxi. An endless twinkle of lights beckons the boat to shore, like a choir of softly singing sirens. We putter past endless rows of thatched-roof bungalows perched over the water on sturdy stilts. The captain docks gently at our destination, and I skip into a breezy lobby, where I am greeted with a smile and a wee glass of mango nectar served on a silver platter. I have arrived at one of the world’s dreamiest luxury retreats: the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora is a one-way ticket to paradise. It’s a heavenly holiday that feels surreal from start to finish.
The resort sits upon 54 sprawling acres, capped by the towering monolithic peak of Mount Otemanu and the domed summit of Mount Pahia. Its architecture is the fruit of a unique collaboration that brings together the cosmopolitan flair of Parisian architect Didier Lefort, the modern elegance of San Francisco design firm BAMO and the Polynesian authenticity of renowned South Pacific architect Pierre-Jean Picart.
Traditional thatched-leaf roofs adorn every building, made from the leaves of the indigenous pandanus tree, grown on nearby plantations and woven by local craftsmen. The resort’s 100 overwater bungalows all measure more than 100 square metres and are located on branching piers that extend into Bora Bora’s inner lagoon. Inside, hardwood floors and walls are stained in a light palette that suggests driftwood or coral, while small lagoon windows fill the space with magical, turquoise-tinted sunlight as it reflects off the water. Rooms are appointed with framed indigenous artifacts, from fishing lures fashioned from mother-of-pearl to fans made of coconut palms. Each bungalow features a sundeck with chaises longues, a covered dining area and a ladder to the water that leads inevitably to sunset whispers of “Honey, we should really take a quick dip before dinner.”
Arii Moana is the resort’s dreamy fine-dining restaurant, and each night the room fills with diners eager to indulge in chef Frederic Angevin’s menu, which he describes as “a base of traditional and nouvelle French cuisine, with American-style fusion, featuring the ingredients and flavours of Polynesia and beyond.” I take a sip from a flute of Taittinger Brut Rosé while smiling at a dichotomous crowd: well-seasoned lovey-dovey couples and fresh-off-the-boat honeymooners. Highlights include a refreshing chilled cucumber and coconut soup, glistening carpaccio of mahi-mahi adorned with citrus and pink pepper and a sweet finish by way of a cocoa sphere filled with caramelized banana and ice cream that melts before your eyes as a tiny pot of molten chocolate drizzles from above.
It is raining cats and dogs when I arrive at the spa, and I am happy to have the opportunity to rest indoors as Mother Nature performs her tropical symphony. After a short lounge in the relaxation room, I am whisked through the damp forest and into a pretty room with a view. My therapist walks me through a selection of local oils; I sniff through the group and select the banana-coconut duo.
The South Pacific has a rich history, called taurumi, of passing down the art of healing massage and therapeutic treatments from generation to generation. I tap into this tradition over the next hour as my therapist uses her arms, elbows and wrists to release tension from head to toe, a soothing, dancelike style that seems inspired by the rhythm of ocean waves. I wake up in ecstasy and pinch myself to be sure this isn’t all just a dream.