Mo’orea and Tahiti: Mermaid Heaven!
SCUBA, snorkeling, sharks and overwater bungalows
In conjunction with our sailing trip to French Polynesia, we tacked on a week of adventure, exploration, and relaxation on the islands of Mo’orea and Tahiti. The sailing was a blast, and we love time with our sailing friends, but we always enjoy planning time for just the two of us to be on our own schedule.
Mo’orea and Tahiti
Prior to researching this trip, I thought Tahiti was the name of the group of islands in this region of the Pacific. In fact, Tahiti is one specific island, the largest and most populated of the dozens of islands of French Polynesia.
Mo’orea! What’s a lagoon?
The word lagoon conjures images of the lagoon on “Gilligan’s Island”. The lagoons around the French Polynesian islands are something else altogether. Picture a shallow coral reef encircling the island with a few gaps in the coral to allow boats to navigate through. Usually, the gaps coincide with large bays or river mouths. Between the coral and the shore of the island, the water is clear and calm and every shade of blue imaginable depending on the depth and whatever happens to be on the bottom (sand, coral, grass, sea cucumbers). Mo’orea has one of the most beautiful lagoons anywhere, with two long narrow bays (Cook’s and Opunohu) surrounded by dramatic jagged green mountain peaks.
Lodging on stilts (overwater bungalows!)
The luxury hotels take advantage of the uniqueness of the lagoons by building hotel rooms over the shallow sand flats. French Polynesia is where this concept originated. It has been copied in other locations worldwide, but the resorts of Mo’orea and Bora Bora have definitely perfected it. Most have excellent snorkeling right out the door of each room and a glass panel in the floor to watch the marine life. The privilege comes at a price upward of $500 per night, but many consider it well worth it, at least once. The overwater bungalows are very popular with honeymooners.
We found a nice mid-range option at Club Bali Hai in Cook’s Bay. Our room was overwater on the edge of a small beach. Each bungalow shares a wall with another unit and has a handy little kitchenette. Our bungalow neighbors have been returning each year for 12 years! We snorkeled right off the deck – lots of colorful fish, but our water was not as crystal clear as the resorts outside the bay – we were told that the fresh water runoff into the bay was the cause. Sheila the Mermaid spent hours snorkeling within 100 yards of our deck while Tom read novels and occasionally checked to make sure she was still blowing bubbles.
Sheila said: Our bungalow was only $275 a night – a huge bargain by French Polynesian standards. It’s an older timeshare property. The staff was friendly and helpful and the numerous cats were affectionate (and hungry). We learned not to leave anything drying outside overnight because one mesh bag got “marked” by the cats. The on-site restaurant was only for breakfast and lunch. We enjoyed it a few times, went out a few times and otherwise fixed snacks/meals in our romantic bungalow. The local pizza place specializes in various seafood toppings. For special occasions, a dinner buffet was offered – for instance Mother’s Day, which we now know is the last Sunday in May in French Polynesia. We got lucky and were treated to Polynesian music and dancers for the celebration. Sheila and other audience members were invited to join in.
How do I get to Mo’orea?
First, you have to get to Tahiti since that is where all international flights arrive and depart. The airport on Tahiti is just south of the capital of Pape’ete. The islands of Tahiti and Moorea are only 12 miles apart so it’s just a 10 minute flight or a 30-45 minute ferry ride. To get to the Pape’ete ferry dock from the airport, it’s just about a 20 minute taxi ride. The ferries are a huge bargain compared to the prices of most everything else and they’re efficient and clean, plus there is no charge for luggage. Both islands are worth seeing, but Mo’orea is where we recommend spending the bulk of your time. After all, it is often ranked in the lists of Top 10 most beautiful islands. Since you’ll have to travel through Tahiti to get to Mo’orea and to get back home, you can spend at least a day or two there as well.
There are lots of options for adventure
Mo’orea is a drop-dead gorgeous place and many people are quite happy lounging around all day in the sun and breeze, reading a book, sipping beverages, taking in the views, and being waited upon. However, if you want to get your heart pumping, there are plenty of options. Most of them involve getting wet in the warm waters of the lagoon or boat rides on the lagoon or both: Whale/dolphin watching, fishing trips, windsurfing, kite surfing, kayaks, paddle boards, jet skis, sailboats, and of course, excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. If you want a dry day, rent a bike, scooter, or an ATV, go on a guided hike to one of the craggy peaks, or rent a car and do a circle drive around the island making sure that the steep Le Belvedere viewpoint is part of the journey.
Did someone say SHARK??
The scuba diving in Mo’orea is colorful and easy, with great visibility. There are several highly reviewed dive operators on the island. The coral is not the highlight, but colorful fish are abundant and we saw several sharks on every dive (lemon sharks, black tip and white tip reef sharks). They were used to divers hanging around – they just went about their business and were occasionally very photogenic. It is no longer the practice to feed them as in the past that led to aggressiveness in the sharks and even eels. The dive operators all charge about the same ($200) for a 2-tank boat dive. We chose Mo’orea Blue Diving based in the Pearl Resort and were quite happy with the experience and our guide.
You can access plenty of good snorkeling from shore. Guided boat trips to the best offshore spots are abundant and well-advertised. At many resorts, the snorkeling is just steps from your door. The fish at the resorts are often used to being fed so they can be very friendly, almost to the point of being annoying. Bring a good waterproof camera and you’ll get some very colorful and close-up shots.
The people we met during our stay were always friendly and helpful – happy to offer directions or make suggestions. We even had complete strangers offer to help us with our abundant luggage – and they weren’t trying to steal it. The use of English is variable – generally good at hotel reception, hit and miss at restaurants, and rare for those not in the tourist industry. The locals speak a combo of French and Tahitian. The locals just seem to have a good attitude and upbeat personalities. Based on the housing we saw, folks are not wealthy, but the neighborhoods are well tended and people seem to always be smiling.
We found the food to be good in general, but not great considering the price. If you like seafood, you will be quite happy. If not, your options are considerably fewer. Some of the best food and certainly the best value can be found at the food trucks – called roulettes. Different roulettes may specialize in hamburgers, fish burgers, pizza, Chinese, gyros, BBQ and more – expect paper plates, paper napkins, plastic ware, and picnic tables. Tom especially enjoyed the fish burgers and the pretty Polynesian gals.
Where are all the kids??
For those who like quiet vacations away from kids, Mo’orea is the place. We didn’t see any vacationing kids during our stay. Even the local kids were in school. Kids are welcome, just scarce, at least in May.
We weren’t impressed with the shopping opportunities on Mo’orea. Fine with him, not so fine for her – she didn’t even find a suitable Christmas ornament (a travel tradition for us). If you want a pareo or pearl jewelry, you’re in luck. Other than that, the pickings are slim. There were far more shopping options in Tahiti, especially in Pape’ete, but we were busy enjoying treehouses and sunsets. Would have enjoyed having a pearl or two. They truly are beautiful. Some of our friends found gorgeous pearl shopping on the island of Raiatea, which was our starting point for sailing.
The guidebooks refer to the lack of accessible beaches (the traditional kind, with sandy shores) and they are accurate. Mo’orea has very few natural beaches and most of them are privately owned by the resorts. There are only a couple of public beaches and they are popular with the locals and easy to find. Tahiti has quite a few more public beach parks and since they have a larger population, they can be quite busy. If beaches are important to you, make sure you book a resort that has one. Two beach resorts we recommend based on our visit and our friends’ stay are the Pearl and the Sofitel. Both are pricier than our sweet find in Cook’s Bay, but proved to be well worth it.
Tahiti – Rent a car and drive the figure 8 to see it all
For our last couple of days, and since our flight home was out of Tahiti, we chose to rent a car and do a full circle driving tour of the island. While not as gorgeous as Mo’orea, Tahiti is still quite beautiful once you get away from the urban areas. Tahiti is shaped like a giant figure eight with the upper loop a lot bigger than the lower one and tilted to the west. During our drive, we saw some pretty coastal panoramas, a couple black sand beaches, waterfalls with no water at that particular moment, some marae (ancient Tahitian ruins), and some interesting grottoes.
We had made a reservation at the Vanira Lodge in Teahupoo, near the southern tip of the island. It had great reviews online and we agree with all of them. It’s up the side of a hill a couple hundred feet above the water with amazing views. All the rooms are unique to say the least – built with all kinds of interesting natural materials and with plants and flowers growing on the roofs. Ours wasn’t truly a treehouse, but it felt like it! The mosquito nets were a welcome addition.
How do you visit French Polynesia on a budget?
The honest answer is: you don’t. Flights are expensive, lodging is expensive, food is expensive (with some exceptions), diving is expensive, local transportation is expensive (except the ferries) – you might notice a theme here. Once you decide to go, just accept that it will be pricey and relax because Mo’orea and Tahiti are definitely stunning places. The beauty of the islands and the lagoons surrounding them is unlike anywhere else we have experienced.
RTG Helpful Hints
- Local money is the French Pacific Franc. You’ll want to exchange for some as soon as you arrive.
- Wear a snorkel/dive skin. Just a thin one is helpful to prevent burning. The water is SO warm and the fish are fantastic so it’s easy to stay in for hours and forget your backside is broiling.
Trip Date: May 2014