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Although Tahiti is the largest island in French Polynesia, it is only about one-third the size of Rhode Island. However, its area of 402 square miles (1,041 square km) accounts for about one-quarter of the total land area of French Polynesia. It is also the highest island, at 7,337 feet (2,235 m).
The islands of French Polynesia are of two types: volcanic islands, also called high islands, and coral islands, also called atolls. Tahiti is a high island ringed by a coral reef. It is shaped like an hourglass lying more or less horizontal. The larger section of the hourglass, Tahiti Nui (Big Tahiti), takes up the western side of the island. Papeete ("pah-pay-AY-tay"), the capital, is located on the northwest coast of Tahiti Nui. Most activity is concentrated in the town and the area surrounding it. The airport of Faaa ("fah-AH-ah") is about 4 miles (6.4 km) from Papeete.
The smaller part of Tahiti is a peninsula called Tahiti Iti (Small Tahiti) or Taiarapu. It is mostly undeveloped, and there is no road going all the way around it. The narrow neck of the hourglass is called Taravao, and it acts as a refueling center for people traveling around Tahiti.
Like Hawaii's Maui, Tahiti was formed by two ancient volcanoes joined at the isthmus of Taravao. The centers of both parts of Tahiti are mountainous and craggy. Steep slopes crossed by deep ravines descend to the coastal plain. Waterfalls are a common sight; Vaimahuta, near Tiarei in the northeast, is one of the most beautiful. Rainbows form above the waterfalls as the sun's rays filter through the droplets of water. In fact, the slanders call their country Tahiti-nui-te-vai-uri-rau, which means "Great Tahiti of the many-colored waters."
The coastal plain varies in width from a few feet (around 1 m) to over mile (1.6 km) at its widest in the north at Pirae and the south at Papara. my the coastal plain is inhabited.
The northeastern coast is rugged and rocky because there is no barrier reef. Waves ride high, pounding the shore with intensity. Villages lie in a narrow strip between the mountains and the ocean. The Pari Coast, at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, has spectacular cliffs dropping nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) down to the ocean. The south coast, on the other hand, is protected by a reef, and the sandy beaches are gently lapped by the waves. The coastal plain is broad and supports large gardens and coconut groves. All around Tahiti, the depth of the lagoon between the reef and the island varies from 25 feet (7.6 m) to 100 feet (30.5 m).
The coastline is cut here and there by deep bays. Matavai Bay is where most of the early explorers landed. All ships moored in Matavai Bay until the 1820s, when the better protected harbor of Papeete became more popular.