Learning to surf in the land of giants
Papenoo picks up waves from the north and is the favourite spot for people learning to surf. (Jean-Bernard Carillet/LPI)
The name Teahupoo is synonymous with fear in the surfing world. Rivaling Hawaii's Pipeline as the most photographed wave in the world, Teahupoo's mountainous tube breaks near-perfectly over a shallow cheese grater of coral. Every year in May or August Billabong throws a surf contest here, pitting the best surfers in the world against each other.
It might not cross many spectators' minds to rent a board and learn how to surf in the area. But they can. While Tahiti's reef-braking giants are better left to the experienced, the island is also dotted with beach brakes, perfect for learning to surf.
Best surfing beaches
Papara's black-sand beach picks up the south swell, and waves range from small and gentle to overhead, big and fast (check local conditions). This beach is also Tahiti's widest stretch of sand and if you tire of surfing, settle in for some sun worship and meet friendly picnicking Tahitian families or groups of young people drinking beer. There are two small, inexpensive restaurants, a fruit stand selling ice cold coconuts and a surf shop a five-minute stroll from the beach.
Papenoo, which stretches along miles of reef-less coastline, picks up waves from the north and is the favourite spot for learners. The black sand beach here is slim and runs directly next to the main road so it is not a great place to bring young kids - the beach can disappear entirely at certain points during high tide. On weekends and school holidays the waves fill with locals honing their skills, but the scene is lighthearted, friendly and is spread out over such a big space that it feels fun and social rather than crowded. There are spring-water showers across the road from the largest part of the beach so you can rinse off.
During big south swells the beach area in view of the Teahupoo reef monster produces some fine waves, also great for beginners who can simultaneously watch the pros surf the big waves on the reef in the distance. This wave is almost exclusively popular with kids, so if you visit during school hours you will probably have it to yourself. You are also in one of Tahiti's most ambient areas, where the paved road ends and local houses are built right along the beach. The wave breaks at the river mouth so you can rinse off in a fresh water pool with a view of light green pyramid-shaped mountains in the valley.
Two surf schools rent equipment and offer lessons:
Tura'I Mataare Surf School (689-41-9137; firstname.lastname@example.org; PK 18.3; open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday) on the mountain side of the road in Pae'a is the biggest school on the island. Half-day lessons including transfers and equipment are 4,800 CFP. Courses are run by a qualified instructor and include equipment, transport to the different surfing spots and insurance.
Ecole Surf Iti Nui (689-73-1421; half-day lessons 3,500 CFP) in Tahiti Iti near Teahupoo is run by super friendly and low-key Doume. Classes frequent spots around Tahiti Nui, as well as Tahiti Iti. Transport, equipment and insurance are included.
Celeste Brash is a Lonely Planet author and writer who recently moved to Oregon after 15 years in French Polynesia. She is the co-author of Lonely Planet's Tahiti & French Polynesia travel guide.