The magical island of Moorea
Looking for a laid-back tropical locale far away from crowds and commercialism? You’ll find it across the equator. Moorea (pronounced MOE-oh-ray-ah) is a Windward Island in the South Pacific, part of the Society Islands archipelago. Count on crystal-clear turquoise water, bright azure skies, and warm tradewinds on the magical island, but not fast food or a fast pace. What Moorea lacks in museums, movies, and malls, it more than makes up for in breath-taking views and plenty of downtime to relax and unwind.
Inbound flights to French Polynesia land in the bustling port city of Papeete on the larger island of Tahiti-Nui. Reaching Moorea from Papeete is a quick 12-mile voyage aboard a ferry-like catamaran. Crossing the “Sea of the Moon” into sun-drenched scenery is postcard pretty- jagged volcanic peaks covered in green jungle jut up through wispy clouds into clear sky. The endless ocean alternates between patches of deep navy, bright turquoise, and all the hues in-between. You’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!
Since French is more widely spoken than Tahitian, you might expect to hear “bonjour.” But more likely you’ll be warmly greeted with “ia ora na” (sounds like “your honor” when spoken quickly). Story has it that in the days of Captain Cook (the explorer who landed here in 1769), native Polynesians misunderstood the sailors saluting their captain during roll call. Back then, “Your Honor” was the formal title used to address the man in charge of the ship. Thinking instead it was a friendly greeting, Polynesians have used “ia ora na” as a welcoming salutation ever since. Hotel staff speaks English, but most residents speak French, so brush up on the basics before you go.
Moorea’s 37-mile circumference is best explored in a rental car. Rentals are spendy, but since Moorea is small, you likely won’t need the car for more than a day or two. Even in a teeny, tiny Fiat Panda with no air conditioning (no kidding), it beats bicycling in the humid sunshine unless you’re really ambitious. There’s no traffic to speak of and every mile is flanked by views of ocean and wild jungle. Exotic flowers, banana trees, pineapples, and vanilla grow abundantly. Organized, narrated tours of the island are also an option, especially if you’d like to learn more about Polynesian culture from a local guide.
On the north side, a long twisty lane leads up to Belvedere Lookout and a spectacular panorama of Cook’s and Opunohu Bays back-dropped by neighboring Mount Rotui and Bali Hai. These pinnacles provided inspiration for James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific. On the same road, you’ll find an ancient marae (Polynesian temple). It’s been restored to appear as it did 1,000 years ago when first used for animal and human sacrifices.
A unique octagonal church is located in the village of Papetoai. Originally built by missionaries between 1822 and 1827 (and rebuilt since then), it’s the oldest European building in the South Pacific. Thirsty from sight-seeing? Stop at any small local magasine (market) found around the island. Just about every item- from long French bread baguettes and eggs to hardware and toothpaste- is shelved side-by-side.
Encircled by a shallow warm lagoon of translucent green, fringed by an azure blue sea, Moorea is perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving. Swimming alongside rainbow colored fish, octopus, sea turtles, and even sinister-looking eels, is a delight. You may encounter dolphins, too. The most desirable sandy beaches on the island are usually located at hotels. True “public” beaches are rare, but Temae Beach is the biggest and most accessible. A word of warning about Polynesian beach scenery: total nudity is not the norm, but it’s accepted and quite common to go topless.
Moorea is not an inexpensive destination, but with some planning, it is possible to stay within a budget- that is if you can resist the rare Tahitian black pearls that make temptingly beautiful souvenirs. But even with the best of intentions, several bars of luxurious coconut soap, a few bottles of pure vanilla, and a hand-carved tiki or two have been known to find their way into many a travelers suitcases!