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Port Review: Papeete, French Polynesia

Joanna Hall

Located on the northwest coast of the island of Tahiti, Papeete is the main trading centre and capital of French Polynesia, as well as the primary jumping off point for cruises to the popular Society Islands and the more remote Marquesas Islands.

The Facts

Language: French, Tahitian, although English is spoken in tourist areas.

Currency: Pacific French franc. 

Docking/anchoring: Ships dock in the centre of Papeete along the waterfront.

Transport: There are usually plenty of taxis when a ship is in port, but always agree on the fare before getting in as many don’t have metres. There are also buses but they are not air conditioned and cramped, and car rental is an option if you fancy sel-driving. If you don’t feel like venturing far there are shops and restaurants within walking distance of the ship.


Papeete is one of the South Pacific’s largest metropolitan areas, a tropical city blessed with lovely beaches, and plenty of tall palm trees and flowers. Its history of European settlement dates back to 1818 when it was first settled by British missionary William Crook, however, France took over in the 1830s, making the island a protectorate in 1842. Papeete is often overlooked as a destination thanks to Tahiti’s lineup of exact islands including Moorea and Bora Bora. But the capital of French Polynesia has plenty to offer cruise visitors who fancy a few days before boarding a cruise ship, or heading off to one of the other islands, from good food and culture, to the legacy of the great Paul Gauguin.

Don’t Miss

If your ship is in port late, or overnight, be sure to take a stroll along the waterfront promenade in the evening. On offer is great people watching, as locals enjoy traditional Tahitian food from nightly food tucks, called Les Roulottes, along with Polynesian performers doing their thing.

Le Marche is Papeete’s Municipal Market, and if you are a fan of markets it’s alive with colour and friendly locals, as well as being a great place to pick up souvenirs (see shopping below).

Papeete has museums, with the top two being the Museum of Tahiti, which tells the story of Polynesian history, and the Gauguin Museum, an hour or so away from the city, and dedicated to the life and works of the great artist. Be warned, though, there are few original works here, they are mostly loving duplicates.

The Lagoonarium is great for anyone who doesn’t snorkel but is interested in exploring Tahiti’s colourful and fascinating underwater world. 

The Wreck is a must for divers, complete with tropical fish and a sunken cargo ship.

Papeete has surprisingly nice beaches, and two to consider include the Sofitel Maeva Beach, where you can rent water sports equipment, and Mahana Park, which is a destination in itself.

Best Photo Op

There are many, including your sail out and sail in, and Le Marche for colour and friendly faces. If you are on a tour, or you rent a car, Le Belvedere offers a jaw-dropping view across the island and archipelago from 600-metres.


If you are looking for arts and crafts, head for the Municipal Market, which sells everything from flowers and fruits, to crafts, carvings, and jewellery at reasonable prices. There is also a modern mall, Vaima Center, which has a Pearl Museum.

Food and Drink

Good food abounds in Papeete thanks to a combination of its Polynesian and French heritage. There are plenty of bakeries where you can try French inspired pastries and  delicacies, simple sandwiches made with real French bread, crepes, and if your ship is in port overnight, Les Roulottes offer a wide variety of food types at cheap prices.

Pick of the Excursions

An island tour is a great way to take it all in, including the beaches, the coast, and the Gauguin Museum.

If you’ve visited Papeete before, Moorea is only 30 minutes away by ferry and much quieter than the Tahitian capital. It’s also great for secluded beaches and snorkelling.


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