I first heard of Papeete, the Tahitian city and capital of French Polynesia, somewhere around 1982. It’s mentioned (along with the nearby Marquesas Islands) in the Crosby, Stills and Nash song “Southern Cross” – a wonderful tune about love and sailing and running away that became one of my favorites back in middle school and has stayed in my top ten ever since. Because this composition is so plaintive and haunting, and the sites mentioned in it so exotic, I always assumed Papeete would be some kind of heaven on earth.
It’s not. In fact, it’s not even close. Papeete is one of the most urban island cities I’ve ever been to. With about 140,000 residents, it is the major port-of-call for the South Pacific, and, in my case, it’s where my direct flight from SFO landed. If you want to go to any of the other French Polynesian islands, you must fly into Papeete first. If you’re going on a Polynesian cruise, you leave from Papeete. If you’re a sailor, you inevitably log time in the Papeete harbor, stocking up on supplies, getting parts, or finding crew. It’s a commercial hub – but it’s not much of a tourist destination.
“Yeah, Papeete is a bit gritty,” a man said to me when I was headed back there on a ferry. “I come down to these islands a lot, but I try to minimize my time in this place.” In addition to the generally urban feel of the city, the traffic is out of this world. Even Wikipedia’s entry about the Papeete mentions it.
I drove my rental car around the confusing, semi-gridded streets for about twenty minutes before I gave in and parked in a commercial garage. A couple hours later, when I attempted to leave Papeete, I was funneled around the back end of the city and spent almost an hour returning to my lodging just ten miles away.
However, as is the case with so many places, Papeete does have some redeeming qualities. The most obvious one for me is its street art. Huge, vibrant murals abound in what would otherwise be a bleak concrete jungle. Thanks to the ONO’U Festival, a street art celebration that has occurred annually since 2014, there are over thirty full-sized murals in the city today. The contests associated with the festival require artists to compose murals on various themes within strict time limits (like forty-eight hours), and the results still stand throughout on the city streets.
One of the most recent compositions is by an artist names Okuda, who based his creation on a Gauguin painting. Frenchman Paul Gauguin is one of the people who made Tahiti famous, after spending time on the island between 1890 and 1893 and executing a series of paintings depicting French Polynesian life. Okuda’s mural draws on Gauguin’s subject matter while using modern and surrealist techniques to transform it.
In a number of places, murals literally tower above the city. At one point, I sat in a traffic jams feeling like I was being watched over by the eyes of a ten-story tall Tahitian woman. That did actually make standing still in a rental car a little bit more pleasant.
I won’t be running back to Papeete anytime soon. However, since all ferry and plane schedules require at least one night’s stay in the city in order to access other French Polynesian destinations, I bet I’ll check in there again in the not-so distant future. The next ONO’U Festival is scheduled for June of 2019; that means that by late next summer, there should be a few more murals to hunt down before running away. That will be the perfect activity for a one-night stay.