Tahiti’s local markets are a shopper’s delight

Huts and palm trees on Tahiti beachTAHITI – When I think of French Polynesia, I hear it.

Bird songs at dawn sounding like catcall whistles (reminiscent of construction workers admiring attractive passers-by). The rush of a waterfall named “Noisy Water” because of its thundering roar. And sounds of drums at day’s end, signaling sunset.

These remote islands have lush jagged mountains and are ringed by coral reef and a turquoise and aquamarine sea. They’re magical . . . mystical. And begged to be explored.

I did it all: dolphin encounter, deep-sea fishing and a wake-me-up lagoon swim from my over-water bungalow.

Understandably, I was serene and content.

But the ride on Le Truck, the local bus, from my posh Intercontinental Beachcomber home into downtown Papeete jump-started my shopping instincts.

Thus, my retail exploration began.

Le Marche, the bustling public market, opened early morning, attracting locals and tourists like me.

On its lower level I purchased vanilla beans (more than $40 U.S. for a handful of pods), a basket of exotic shells ($29) and specialty soaps ($1.50) like tiare (Tahitian gardenia-like flower) and coconut (all prices U.S.).

Handicrafts crowded the second level: colorful pareus (sarongs), teak woodcarvings and woven hats and baskets. Prices and quality varied so I shifted from buying to browsing mode.

Strolling the perimeter of the building I spotted my pareu choice – finer quality and Paul Gauguin inspired ($20). And for the creative shopper, a fabric store across from Le Marche would make a hand-sewn wrap even more reasonable.

Tahiti shore with mountain backdropPapeete’s shopping district is compact. Along Rue Jeanne d’Arc I discovered Galerie Windler, a Polynesian art gallery. Chic, a store featuring crystal and leather specialties like a leather bangle purse ($280), was doors away. And Vaima Center was around the corner with boutiques like Reva Creations (children’s clothing).

During a jeep tour I happened onto an unnamed thatched-roof shop at Venice Point operated by a friendly islander. Her prices were unbeatable: oyster shell earrings ($5) and handmade tivaivai quilts ($65).

But while I was charmed by the islands’ souvenir selections, it was Tahitian pearls – more commonly known as black pearls – that enchanted me.

I discovered them at Robert Wan boutiques (located in Intercontinental Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora and in town). He’s the innovative industry pioneer noted for his high quality and exclusive designs. A single pearl threaded through an iridescent ribbon bracelet initially caught my eye. Necklaces range from $1,500 to $200,000.

A 20-minute ferry ride brought me to Moorea and to another world. Said to be the inspiration for James Michener’s mythical island Bali Hai, it’s a visit to Polynesia’s past.

There’s no Le Marche and little shopping on the island. Initially, I was disappointed, but soon became charmed.

La Boutique was off Intercontinental Moorea’s lobby and at first glance appeared a simple gift shop, but it was much more. Its merchandise was distinctive and high style (at good value). My purchase: a mother-of-pearl/silk cord belt ($35).

Upon landing at Bora Bora’s islet airport, necessitating a 30-minute boat ride to the hotel, I knew it would be a one-of-a-kind experience. I was not disappointed – in the island or its shopping.

“Shopping? Oui,” said the Intercontinental Bora Bora’s concierge. “Turn right from the drive. It’s a short walk.”

Last stop: I Te Fanau Tahi, the local craft market. Final purchase: inexpensive black pearl ($10). Explanation: souvenir, not investment.

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