To find steep, jagged mountains in French Polynesia, one doesn’t have to visit Bora Bora. Especially if you are looking for a quick side-trip from Tahiti, Moorea is the place.
A fast and regular ferry connection takes visitors from the bustling main French Polynesian arrival port of Papeete (which is not exactly the French Polynesia one dreams of) to Moorea. While only 17 km/11 mi northwest of Tahiti and 45 minutes away, Moorea feels like you traveled back in time.
Sixteen thousand people live on this small 134 km²/52 mi² big island, which attracts both local vacationers as well as foreigners who know where to go in French Polynesia.
Like all the other Society Islands, Moorea was formed by volcanic action millions of years ago, the result of being located on a so-called geologic hotspot in the mantle under the oceanic plate. And though it’s all quiet now, the island’s impressive mountain ridges (up to 1,207 m/3,960 ft high) and accessible interior make this destination more than just a beach bum’s retreat.
Leaving the creature comforts of the resort coast and exploring Moorea
With only one major road going around the island, you can’t really get lost here. My advice: take a car or a bike and do the circle at your own pace.
All the hotels and resorts are concentrated on the northern and northwestern shore, which leaves the rest of the island wild and real with lots of small villages and settlements, vanilla plantations, fish and fruit stalls and local flavor.
We could have driven around the whole island in probably one hour. But with so much to see and do, it took us a whole day, providing us with more than our money’s worth from our car rental.
I was honestly surprised how many fares (pensions) one can find along the road. If you’re not looking for the big-resort-overwater-bungalow experience, you might want to check these out. Many likely can be booked online and only cost a fraction of staying at a high-end resort.
We also saw a lot of Tahitian black pearl shops, especially around Hauru on the island’s northwest corner. Locals told us that most of them have great pearl quality and the prices are better than on Tahiti.
Tiki Village — there are better alternatives
We did a quick stop at Tiki Village on the west coast, which is a replica of a traditional Tahitian village.
Visitors here can learn about the local Polynesian’s way of live, but the main draw is a buffet dinner followed by a show of dancers, singers and musicians.
And while the people we met there were very nice, the arena was just too big for my taste and seemed a bit commercial.
After the show I had seen at Tahaa’s Le Ficus restaurant (the ratio of audience to performers was less than one to one), I sensed that Tiki Village would be much less impressive and personal.
Also, many resorts have their own nightly Polynesian dance and music shows. Some of which are really good, although they do not always include a traditional feast. So inform yourself before you book the show at the Tiki Village, as it is not cheap.
However, if it’s your only chance to see French Polynesian traditions in action, I wouldn’t miss it.
Waterfall quest — make sure it rains before you go
As I’m a total waterfall fanatic, I was eager to check out the wonderful waterfalls on Moorea.
As this is a pretty wild island, these falls are not “tourist attractions”. In fact they are quite hard to find.
We’d heard about some on the eastern side of the island near Afareaitu, so we drove there and tried one of the little side roads that went inland in search of falling water.
As soon as we left the main street, the road became gravel and dust, and soon just rock and stone. Eventually, I could see one or two waterfalls peeking out from the dense jungle foliage, but it was high noon and too hot for an unplanned adventures into unknown territory, especially without a good map or enough drinking water.
I also got discouraged when I realized that the waterfall didn’t even make it all the way to the bottom because there was so little flow. I saw my plans of swimming in a cool rock pool at the bottom of a crystal cascade rapidly vanishing. So, I decided to skip the disappointment of hiking to a barely visible puddle of mud.
As we had plenty of unwanted rainy days on our trip (though never a day without any sunshine), it was a bit frustrating that the rainy season didn’t deliver when we needed it. But that’s nature …
Belvedere Lookout over Opunohu and Cook Bay
Belvedere Lookout is at the end of a dead-end tarred road that starts at Opunohu Bay on Moorea’s north coast.
Driving up the road to the lookout provides stunning views of the lush, green jungle that covers the mountain range.
If you look closely, you’ll see one mountain that has a hole in the top; legend has it that it was formed by a god throwing a spear through it.
From Belvedere Lookout you have a great view towards the North of the island where you can see sacred Mount Rotui and the two large bays on either side named Opunohu Bay and Cook Bay.
Moorea’s Opunohu Agricultural School
One of the more popular spots to visit on Moorea is the Opunohu Agricultural School where we stopped on our way back from the Belvedere Lookout.
The school sells a wide range of incredible jams, homemade from Moorea’s abundant variety of fruits.
We tried them all, but couldn’t decide which one was better. We were thinking of buying a sample of each, but we knew we had only limited space in our luggage. So, after our mouths and appetites were saturated with gooey sugar, we decided to go for the island’s pineapple and passion fruit mix — a delight that reminded us of sunny Moorea weeks later in snowy Germany.
Find the sweetest pineapple on Earth along the “Route d’Ananas”
Pineapple is the iconic fruit of Moorea, and if you take Route d’Ananas, a dirt road between the settlement of Paopao at Cook Bay and the Belvedere Road, you’ll discover many fields of them.
If you’ve never seen pineapple plants, here a quick hint what to look out for: prickly, knee-high bushes with one fruit in the center. Depending on the season, you might see little pineapples growing out from the side of the main fruit.
Pineapple viewing is only awarded to those who are ready to do a little bit of hiking or bike riding, as the dirt road here is pretty rough. Prepare to get wet, as there are a few creek crossings, and you’ll most likely get wet.
Some of the island’s 4×4 safari tours include a drive along this rugged road, so this might be your best option if you have less time or feel a little lazy.
Whether you visit the ”Route d’Ananas” or not, be sure to purchase and eat a ripe pineapple somewhere on Moorea. I promise you a sweet taste explosion that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Moorea’s ancient sacred sites
On our way down from Belvedere Lookout we suddenly saw some ruins in the jungle.
At a closer look we discovered some ancient Polynesian temples called maraes scattered between some massive banyan trees. These aren’t the only maraes on the island, nor the oldest, but for sure the most impressive.
Knowing that ancient Polynesians used these temples for human and animal sacrifices always gives me a chill; but as that was long ago, it’s pretty safe to visit these spots now.
Beach time on Moorea
All major resorts have their own (mostly artificial) sand beaches, but there are also two public ones you can visit.
Every time we saw these spots they were packed full of locals picnicking and enjoying times with the families, especially on the weekends and on holidays.
I personally loved the beach at Temae. Although it’s next to the airport (on the island’s northwest corner), there are not too many planes flying overhead.
It’s a remarkably long beach and while it’s always busy, there’s plenty of room to find your own private spot. They also have some basic amenities, as well as a restaurant. And as Tahiti is just across the water, you have a very pretty view of the main island of French Polynesia.
The other option to go local is Taahiamanu beach on Opunohu Bay. We never actually hung out there, but it was always lively, and we saw some local kids starting their sailboat races from there.
Moorea is not surrounded by a lagoon, like some of the other islands in French Polynesia, and also does not have a lot of motus (islets). So, it’s a little less beach-intensive than some other islands, but with so much more to offer, it hardly matters.
Snorkeling on Moorea
I have two favorite snorkeling spots in Moorea.
One is between Motu Fareone and Motu Tahura off the northwest point of Moorea. It’s best to get a boat ride here as it’s a long swim with strong currents.
But once you’ve made it, it’s very rewarding, as marine life is abundant here. Just make sure to avoid it when there is a cruise ship in port, as this is where a lot of their snorkel tours go.
If you want to see little black-tip reef sharks, a great place to encounter them is between the main island and Motu Irioa, just north of the channel. They appear in groups together with the stingrays that (unfortunately) get fed here by some tour operators, but this also makes the rays so tame they’ll let you touch their very soft skin.
There are also often some rays in the first snorkel spot between the two motus. These guys are so tame and friendly, they were all over Eric. In fact, he got a little freaked out when they almost drowned him with attention.
Diving with the sharks on Moorea
Diving can be very dangerous if you have poorly maintained equipment or a careless crew, that’s why we dived with TOPDIVE in Moorea. We had used them on a couple of other islands in French Polynesia and they had earned our trust.
These are the dive sites one can officially visit with TOPDIVE in Moorea:
- Tiki Point: Divers will encounter so many gray and black-tip reef sharks, it can be creepy, especially when they start circling you during your safety stop. But that’s the attraction of this site, and in season you might even see whales and dolphins passing by.
- Aito: Incredible marine flora and fauna can be seen on this dive, including several turtles and many Emperor Angelfish.
- Taotoi Pass: This is one of the few passes that you can dive from inside the lagoon to the outside and view eagle rays, humphead wrasses and nurse and white-tip reef shark.
- Taotoi: A dive with plenty of fish, big moray eels, and a local friendly turtle.
- The Ray’s corridor: This lagoon dive is ideal for beginners and features white-tip reef sharks and a magical group of dancing eagle rays.
- The Ray’s corridor drift: This long drift dive (up to 3 km/2 mi) over a sandy slope and along a coral wall takes divers past white-tip reef sharks and eagle rays, sometimes accompanied by a giant barracuda.
- Opunohu coral wall: Coral walls and canyons dominate this dive site which offers three different versions and can include small (coral) rose garden, sea turtles, sharks and moray eel
- The Anemones: Perfect for beginners, this shallow dive has lots of clown fish, small black-tip reef sharks, a turtle, some octopi and many tropical fish.
- The Garden of Roses: This world-renowned deep dive is only for certified rescue divers and features big sharks and unique coral that resembles scattered roses.
- The Opunohu Canyons: Mainly along the bottom of a small canyon, divers can get up close with huge lemon sharks and tiny clownfish.
- Shark’s Dining Room: A spectacular spot to see big lemon sharks.
Get a taste of diving in Moorea by watching this video from TOPDIVE:
When we were there in February, most of our excursions went to Taotoi and Shark’s Dining Room, but we also explored Tiki and the coral wall.
Though I have to admit there are better dive locations in French Polynesia (for example Rangiroa, Fakarava and Tikehau in the remote Tuamotus) in terms of coral health and marine life, Moorea offers some pretty cool encounters. And if you don’t have time to visit any of the other amazing islands as showcased in our ultimate guide to diving in French Polynesia, it’s a must to plunge into the clear, warm waters here. Especially if you like sharks …
There’s never enough time when we travel and especially in French Polynesia, we spent a lot of time underwater. One thing we missed in Moorea was the extensive network of hiking trails through the lush interior (e.g., The 3 Coconut Hike starting at Belvedere Lookout). So, when we return, we plan to leave our fins in the closet, put on our hiking boots and head for the hills to do some of the awesome ridge and valley walks.
If you would like to learn more about the other nine islands of French Polynesia that we visited during our trip, have a look at our list of Top Spots in French Polynesia which shows you more great pictures, and links to more of our posts about places to see in this beautiful island nation.