Beyond the cliché of white-sand beaches and coconut trees lies a side of Tahiti rarely seen by visitors: the Papenoo Valley. The spiritual and geographic heart of the main island, Tahiti Nui, this velvet-green gorge, strewn with wild orchids, is like something out of Jurassic Park. Waterfalls trickle down colossal cliffs, collecting in gin-clear basins brimming with fish. Tour operators like Tahiti Safari Expedition, tahiti-safari.com, depart most mornings for Papenoo from Tahiti's capital, Papeete, in 4WDs.
Papenoo was once home to a mountain people. The only remnants of their civilization are marae stone platforms that were the center of spiritual and political power in this and other parts of precolonial Polynesia. A number of marae can be found within hiking distance of Le Relais de la Maroto, tel: (689) 579 029. Tour groups stop there to lunch on local staples like mahimahi in ginger sauce and poisson cru raw fish in lemon juice and coconut milk.
Accommodation consists of modest bungalows and dorms in need of repair. But it's the surroundings, not the amenities, that are the attractions, with views of cloud-shrouded mountains encircling the property. And if an overnight stay leaves you feeling pleasantly centered, well, there's a good geographic reason for that. "Tahiti is a little rock in the center of the biggest ocean on earth," says guide Teremoana Chavel. "And this is the very center of Tahiti."