Mention Tahiti and visions of turquoise lagoons and regal palm trees probably come to mind. But Tahiti is in fact just one of 118 islands and atolls that together make up the area known as French Polynesia or The Islands of Tahiti. Bora Bora, famed for its luxury overwater bungalows, is the most photographed isle of the bunch, but a far lesser-visited island may be an even better place to spend your time in French Polynesia: Moorea. Moorea offers up its own beautifully hued waters and impossibly white sand, all backed by stunning mountain peaks. Although one day is never enough, but you can get a good taste. Here’s how to spend it.
Getting to Moorea
Moorea is possibly the easiest island to get to from Fa’a’ā International Airport, which is located on the main island of Tahiti and where all international flights arrive. You could add Moorea onto your Tahiti itinerary at either end of your trip. Five airlines fly to Tahiti from the United States, with low-cost carrier French Bee offering fares starting at $330 for its non-stop service from San Francisco.
Once at the international airport, you could fly to Moorea on Air Tahiti, which has a 14-plane fleet that provides inter-island transportation. But you can save a bundle — and enjoy the fresh sea air — by getting out of the airport and hopping on a ferry to Moorea. The ferry dock is only 15 minutes from the airport.
Two lines, Aremiti and Terevau, offer multiple daily departures from both Tahiti and Moorea. A round-trip ticket on Aremiti runs about $28 (3,000 XPF) and, depending on the boat, takes 35 to 40 minutes. Terevau is a bit less expensive at $22 (2320 XPF) and takes a half-hour to make the trip. Regardless of which you choose, the scenery makes time go fast.
Morning in Moorea
One main road circles Moorea. If you want to go it on your own, you can rent a car. If you’ve only got one day, then tours that include pick-up and drop-off options, such as the one offered by the Moorea Activities Center, are a good way to go to get the biggest bang for your buck and your time. Public transportation isn’t an option.
Some of the island’s best views come from being on or in the water — and taking in the island from the comfort of mild, aquamarine water is an excellent way to start your day. Moorea is a scuba divers’ paradise, but the snorkeling is also magical. Instead of loading large groups onto boats, Moorea Activities Center uses jet skis for its snorkeling trips. Lather on the reef-safe sunscreen, because you’ll spend about three hours zig-zagging around the island, stopping to admire dolphins, turtles, and other marine life.
There are multiple chances to spot and admire the underwater life along the way. The coral garden between Motu Tiahura and Motu Fareone offers colorful snorkeling, but it’s really just a warm up for the sting rays and blacktip sharks waiting near Les Tipaniers hotel. The popular spot doesn’t really have a name, but it’s hard to miss; there will be an assortment of kayaks gathered, as well as folks in snorkel masks glued to the water watching sharks and rays gliding through the seas below.
A defining feature of Moorea is its lush mountain landscape. Mount Tohivea reaches nearly 4,000 feet and is surrounded by other peaks that are not quite as high. Hiking in the wild, mountainous interior takes you through jungles and past pineapple plantations — leading to excellent views of the lagoons of the main island of Tahiti.
Hikers make the steep, two-hour trek to Magic Mountain every day. You’ll pay a $1.90 (200XPF) per person fee for trail maintenance, which seems a partly sum for the priceless panorama you’ll get from the top: green hillsides and water every shade of blue, with some boats and overwater bungalows thrown in for good measure.
If you do stay more than one day, you’ll have more opportunities to trek through Moorea’s wild interior — full of caves, lava tubes, and waterfalls. A guided, four-hour Three Coconuts trek to an ancient volcano can often be organized through your hotel.
Exploring on ATVs
Many travelers head up to Magic Mountain on all-terrain vehicles. Slabs of concrete, remnants of an old, narrow road, form the trail. As you climb, expect moments when the view forces you to hit the brakes. The ATVs will take you far, but the final push to the top has to be done on foot.
If you’ve stayed on with the Moorea Activities Center, and booked the Medium Combo tour, they’ll keep you for the afternoon — after giving you a ride to pick up post-snorkeling lunch. Then you’ll start exploring on ATVs. You can ride the ATVs solo or as a pair.
The Moorea Activities Center tour allows you a few miles on the road to get used to how the ATVs move before heading into the Opunohu Valley. That’s when the real fun begins, rolling alongside and across rivers and winding through pineapple plantations.
Bumping along is a fun, wild ride, but when the rest breaks come, you’ll be ready. Especially when you reach the Belvedere lookout. Looking over the lush Opunohu Valley, you also get vistas of Moorea’s Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay.
Ending your day with island flavors
Still on your tour, you’ll come to the nearby Agricultural School, or Lycee Agricole, where you can taste a selection of locally made jams or cool off with a scoop of ice cream. You might say guides save the best for last, dropping by the Manutea Juice Factory toward the end of the day. Along with juices and jams, you can sample an assortment of tropical liquors and fruit wines. If you’re hunting for gifts or souvenirs to take home, be sure to bring some cash along on the ride.
If your idea of the perfect day involves surf and sand, you can call it a day on Moorea’s Tahiamanu Beach. When you need a break from the sun, head to nearby Lilikoi Garden Café. Chef Laurence Anzai runs this tiny eatery in her home garden. The menu includes tuna poke, shrimp curry, chicken teriyaki, and local ice cream.
If you decide to stay another day
The ferry schedule makes a day trip doable, especially if you book tours to help you make the most out of your time on the islands. But staying a while isn’t a bad idea either — and Moorea is generally a less expensive holiday option than pricey Bora Bora.
If you’re lucky enough to get more time, the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa features those classic overwater bungalows, as well as less expensive garden accommodations. Its onsite Toatea Crêperie & Bar is located on a boardwalk over the water, so you can eat savory and sweet French crepes while watching black-tip sharks swim below your feet.
You can stretch your dollar a little farther, without giving up location or comfort, at the Moorea Beach Lodge. The Tahitian guesthouse offers a dozen bungalows (and one larger family bungalow) steps from the beach. A large kitchen with surf and sand views is available for guest use every day from 11:00 AM to 11:00 PM. The Lodge also provides a handful of kayaks for guests to use.