Hawaii or Tahiti: Which is the True Polynesian Paradise?

Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which place is the best. This week, our challengers are Hawaii and Tahiti.


(Photo: Getty Images)

The Hawaiian Islands and French Polynesia are probably two of the most famous paradises on earth. White-sand beaches, swaying palm trees, rolling waves, clear waters teeming with easy-to-see sea life — it’s hard to say anything bad about the scene in either place. Except here in a Yahoo Smackdown, where there can only be one “best” paradise.

The Case for Hawaii


Pololu Valley in Big Island, Hawaii. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hawaii boasts such a dazzling array of natural beauty, active adventures, and spoil-yourself luxuries, that it could provide a lifetime of vacations — from the fish-filled depths of Hanauma Bay on Oahu to the rippled ridges of the Kauai’s Na Pali Coastline, from the lava fields of the Big Island to the heights of snow-peaked Mauna Kea.

Then there’s the range of places to stay, including the classic old-school hotels overlooking the gentle waves of Waikiki Beach and the newest all-inclusive resorts along huge surfing breaks.

And we haven’t even mentioned the freshly roasted local Kona coffee, mouth-watering fresh poke and grilled mahi mahi and roast pig you can feast on at a fire-twirling, hula-dancing, ukulele twanging evening luau. Top it off with some shave ice, and paradise is yours.

Unlike distant Tahiti, for Americans there’s no passport needed, no jetlag suffered, and NO FRENCH. Hawaii actually has nightlife to enjoy, from the local slack-key guitar concerts to the latest nightclubs in Honolulu. In Tahiti all you can do when the sun sets is sit in your bungalow and try to forget you’re spending $900 a night to stare at the thatched ceiling and gnaw on a stale baguette.

Vital Statistics: Eight main islands, with 6,400 square miles of land (of which 4,000 are on the Big Island)

Population: 1.4 million

Currency: Cans of Spam. Just kidding, it’s the Japanese Yen. Just kidding, it’s actually the U.S. dollar.

Related: Let’s Take An Adrenaline-Fueled Island Hop Through Hawaii


Jack Lord takes on martial arts baddie in Hawaii Five-0. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Famous Films and TV: “Blue Crush,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Jurassic Park,” “Lost,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” Elvis classics “Blue Hawaii” and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” Also a slew of WWII epics including “From Here to Eternity,” “Tora Tora Tora,” “Midway” and “Pearl Harbor.”


Larry Ellison. (Photo: Corbis)

Island owned by Crazy Guy: Multi-billionaire Larry Ellison recently purchased 98 percent of Lanai (and 100 percent of its hotel rooms). Why? Because he can.


Three Hawaiian sisters pose for the camera. (Photo: Getty Images)

Are the Natives Friendly? Local rivalry with visiting “haole” in Hawaii plays well in melodramatic surf movies, but the reality is a friendly, welcoming populace sharing the Aloha spirit. I read guidebook warnings to stay away from locals at night in Hawaii “especially if they’ve been drinking,” but when waved over to an impromptu pickup-truck/biker tailgate party in the backroads of Kauai one night, I hesitated only for a moment, then enjoyed great company, with homemade poke and plenty of beer.


Spam musubi. (Photo: Bandita/Flickr)

Food: In Hawaii, you can find reasonably priced lunches in friendly local shops (like Da Poke Shack, Yelp’s highest rated restaurant), or go for fine dining at the famed Alan Wong’s Restaurant in Honolulu, or local farm-to-table fare at Merriman’s (voted the best restaurant on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island!). And you know you secretly want to grab a popular local lunch item of Spam musubi. If you’re into obscenely overpriced, near-expiration-date imported French food, then Tahiti is the place for you. Nothing like a little rum cocktail in the tropics, right? A bottle of Bacardi you’d see for $8 in the U.S. sells for the equivalent of $85 in a Tahiti market.

Related: Hawaii: Where to Eat Like a Local


A brave guy surfs the Pipeline on the North Shore. (Photo: Mandolin/Flickr)

Fun: Hawaii essentially invented surfing and surf culture (led by native son Duke Kahanamoku), so there’s no surprise that this is the world’s go-to spot for fun in the waves — from the steady rollers off of Waikiki (perfect for learning on a longboard) to epic big waves in Waimea Bay and Banzai Pipeline off the north shore of Oahu (great for spectating). Whereas in Tahiti, you need a jet ski to get pulled to lethally extreme waves. In calm bays like Hanuma, the snorkeling is fantastic: no need for advanced SCUBA gear, just pick up a cheap snorkel at the local ABC store. Once out of the water, the fun is just beginning, with a wealth of hiking, biking, horseback riding opportunities, the chance to see an active (but usually mellow) volcano, and even some snow skiing! Top that, Tahiti! Going for a hike across most atolls in Tahiti lasts all of one minute, and instead of a volcano, you have the fun of watching mushroom clouds from all the French nuclear testing in nearby islands.


These walls made of volcanic rock date back to the 1600’s and now form part of the Wailua River State Park on Kauai. (Photo: Jasperdo/Flickr)

Culture: Hawaii may have a Disney resort with an artificial beach, but culture here goes far beyond a surfboard, lei, and fruity drinks. Ancient ruins from powerful chiefdoms and religious ceremonies dot the islands, while more modern Hawaiian culture flourishes in the art of hula dancing (not just a tourist attraction) the music of ukulele and slack key guitar, and the Paniolo Cowboy culture, experienced at the surprisingly large ranches and horse riding operations. Local cultural festivals fill the year with activities, and the famous Polynesian Cultural Center is an accessible introduction to island cultures. Whereas in Tahiti, “culture” consists of some corporate hotel chain constructing faux-native bungalows at a resort and bringing in off-duty Carrefour clerks for a weekly fire-dancing performance.

WATCH: Could You Live in Hawaii? Each Island is Different


The Case for Tahiti


The clear blue waters of Tahiti. (Photo: Getty Images)

Just hearing “Polynesia” or “Bora Bora” inspires thoughts of sailing for the exotic South Seas, with visions of bright blue, crystal clear waters, white sands beaches, and colorfully-dressed natives with flowers in their hair straight out of a Paul Gauguin painting. From the main island of Tahiti to the outlying atolls of French Polynesia, you can relax on the beach, lounge at pristine resorts in picturesque overwater bunglaows (where are yours, Hawaii?), or set sail and island hop, discovering pearl farms (versus Hawaii’s military-industrial complex of Pearl Harbor), undeveloped beaches without a soul in sight, and some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises in the world. In Hawaii, you’ll battle rush-hour traffic to get to some soulless timeshare condo, walk past a McDonald’s and Walmart on your way to the beach, and fight for space with vacationing American families. Advantage, Tahiti.

Vital Statistics: 118 islands, with about a dozen “main islands” consisting of about 1,500 square miles of land

Population: About 275,000

Currency: Comptoirs Francais du Pacific (CFP) also known as a “WTF?”

Famous Films and TV: ”Mutiny on the Bounty” (1936, ‘62, ‘84), “Point Break 2” (in production), “Couples Retreat” (actually, we’re sorry about that one, check out a surf movie instead).

Related: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Other People’s Honeymoons


Marlon Brando and Tarita star in the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.” (Photo: Everett Collection)

Island owned by Crazy Guy: Marlon Brando enjoyed his time in the islands filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” so much that he decided to marry his Tahitian co-star and buy Tetiaroa Atoll for his home. He spent his later years on the island, perhaps mumbling lines from Apocalypse Now and gorging on sugared mangoes. Now the island is home to luxury resort The Brando.

Are the Natives Friendly? Hawaiians have been wary of visitors ever since Captain Cook was killed by natives during his cruise to Hawaii in 1779. In Tahiti, the only problem has been too much love: British and other foreign sailors regularly jumped ship to set up house with friendly natives in Polynesia, and the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty” was at least partially due to local love. During my Tahitian visit, I asked a cabbie about cautions I heard about hostile locals in bars. The 300-plus pound local woman volunteered herself and her kickboxing skills to be my bodyguard for the length of my visit, which I thought was quite hospitable.


This Tahitian seems friendly. (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Flickr)

Food: Tahiti combines the bounty of local fruits of the land and sea with fabulous French cooking. Le Lotus Restaurant is not only associated with a three-Michelin-starred French chef, but it serves its meals under a thatched roof over a lagoon with views of Moorea island. For a great (and large) local seafood feast, hit Bloody Mary’s in Bora Bora. Or go to any local supermarket, and you can pick up a fresh baguette for a couple bucks, supplemented with local fruit, French cheese, perhaps a fish snack, and wine, and you’re set for a beachside picnic. As for Hawaii? One word for you: Spam. Really, a canned “meat product,” is your local delicacy? I don’t care how fancy you fry it, you’re still subsisting on the extra animal parts that get swept up from the factory floor. And there are 60 (!) McDonalds “restaurants” across Hawaii. So much for island cuisine.


A Tahitian breakfast including hot cocoa and a baguette. (Photo: Sheep”R”Us/Flickr)

Fun: Most people come to Tahiti to relax, so there’s no need for the kind of theme-park like mass tourist attractions Hawaii has. There’s a reason so many honeymooners come to Bora Bora to share quiet time together on a beach, floating in the water, or back in a luxurious bungalow. For those who like excitement, how about diving into the water for a shark-feeding — no matter how many times the dive instructor says they’re “nice sharks,” it still gets the blood pumping. Or go for a hike into the rugged interior of Bora Bora to discover hidden ruins and edible plants. For adventurers, Tahiti has a wealth of sailing opportunities, island-to-island outrigger races, and some of the most powerful surf breaks in the world. For the rest of us, paddling a kayak, floating with a snorkel, or scooting around on a moped is all the Tahiti adventure you’ll need.

Related: Where Would You Go if You Could Only Take One Last Trip — Ever?


An aerial view over the island of Bora Bora. (Photo: Getty Images)

Culture: If you want genuine Polynesian culture, come to Polynesia. Tahitian dance and music isn’t just something seen at hotels, it’s an integral part of local culture, with festivals taking place throughout the year. The century-old Heiva I Tahiti festival alone is an extravaganza worth paddling all the way to the islands to see. Tattooing is a Polynesian cultural tradition worth at least taking a look at while you’re there, even if you’re not really into getting a permanent souvenir from your trip. And for the literal, “cultured” pearl farms are a long-time part of local culture, and offer a less painful souvenir than tattooing. Island towns offer visits to art galleries and cultural centers, and for a really unique combination of French and Polynesian culture, visit one of the local vineyards and sip on a glass of rosé while you watch the tide come in.


Performers on stage during Heiva i Tahiti festival. (Photo: Mana Moo/Flickr)

WATCH: Ever Wanted to Stay in an Overwater Villa in Bora Bora?

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