By Robert F. Kay
Special to The Advertiser
Moorea is French Polynesia's second-most-popular destination (behind its much larger neighbor, Tahiti), but most visitors barely scratch the surface when it comes to discovering its hidden charms.
To learn about how to get the best out of this island, I sought the advice of Nani Dutertre (nee Nekoba), a 1995 graduate of St. Andrew's Priory high school who met her husband, Heifara, a handsome Tahitian hapa or demi, as they say here, when she came to Moorea in 1998 as a University of Hawai'i student interested in studying marine life. They married; she stayed.
Now they operate Moorea Boat Tours, which specializes in private tours to encounter whales, dolphins, stingrays and reef sharks. She's lived on Moorea for seven years and has learned a thing or two about the island.
So how does a visitor find Moorea's hidden secrets?
For starters, she says, most tourists arrive, squeezed like sardines, on a tiny prop plane and miss out on the very local experience of taking the catamaran or ferry from Tahiti. Sure, it's slower than the 7-minute plane ride but it's less expensive (about $10) and at 20-45 minutes, the 12-mile ride is not a long journey. You share the deck with Tahitians commuting home from their jobs in Papeete and you transition from the bustle and adrenalin of the capital to a slower, more civilized modus vivendi.
Though tourism has evolved along Moorea's 35-mile perimeter over the last decade, hotel developments are still few compared to O'ahu or the neighbor islands. Nani says that, as in Hawai'i, locals struggle with desiring to conserve what they have with pressure to crank up mass tourism. Usually, the development forces win, but not always. Several years ago, locals quashed the proposed construction of a golf course in Moorea's pristine interior, which many felt would have been inappropriate.
"Rule No. 1", says Nani, "you're going to need a rental car if you really want to see the island." The bus schedule is keyed to ferry arrivals and departures and buses don't run at night. Scooters are available but can be dangerous. And taxis are pricey. A rental car will cost about $80 per day, but most tour packages offer cars for less.
Moorea is a place made for lounging, swimming and eating — there's not much to do beyond this except hiking and a few tours.
A must activity is one of the boat tours run by the Dutertres. They will pick you up at your hotel and take you beyond the reef to find wild dolphins and humpback whales in season. Other activities include swimming with a school of black-tip and grey reef sharks (surprisingly uneventful!), snorkeling near the motu and petting stingrays. Heifara Dutertre, along with some colleagues, started feeding rays several years ago and found the often-feared creatures actually enjoy the human touch. Strange at first, but they grow on you. The tour lasts about 4 hours and includes fresh local fruits and beverages on board. Snorkeling gear included, but bring your camera.
A drive around the island is another must. You can get historical data and circle island tours out of the guidebooks but here are some of the off-the-beaten track attractions that most visitors don't see. You'll note that this tour is very heavy on food stops; like Islanders, Mooreans love to eat! But because of the French culinary influence, they are sophisticated diners and the standard of fare is high indeed.
Let's say you've just arrived on the island ferry. Starting from the ferry terminal at Vaiare, heading counterclockwise, the road climbs the only significant grade along the perimeter of the island. At the top is Toatea Lookout, with superb views down along the coastline and across to Tahiti. Below, you can see over the water bungalows of the Sofitel, one of four deluxe resorts on Moorea. (The Intercontinental, Sheraton and Pearl Resort are the three other major properties).
Leaving the lookout point, at the bottom of the hill is the public access to Temae Beach — a long stretch of white sand, which has great snorkeling and swimming. Look for the beach access road just past a bridge. The sign is clearly marked and it's about a kilometer (six tenths of a mile) to the beach. In former days, the area was often littered with beer bottles but, to the credit of the locals, who now regularly sponsor litter pickups, it's much improved. If you continue along the beach access, you will eventually end up alongside the airport runway — the future site of Moorea's first golf course (along with a hotel and villas), slated for completion by June.
Just over a mile past the lookout, at the Kikipa Shopping Center in Maharepa Village, is Maria's Tapas, a lively Mexican restaurant run by a Tahitian named Here (pronounced "hair-ray") and his wife, Julie. They do a good job of knocking out south-of-the-border favorites such as tacos, chimichangas and enchiladas. The eatery has an outdoor cafe beneath a canopy and offers a great international selection of European beers. Maria's also has musicians on the weekends, which locals say is the best nightlife on the island.
A few hundred yards past Maria's is Hotel Kaveka, which has just acquired a new chef who serves up wonderful Tahitian-style Chinese food. Be sure and try the lemon chicken or either the chicken or fish curries.
Continuing on another 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), you'll reach Paopao Village, which is the central community in the Cook's Bay area and an important junction for the road leading to Moorea's interior. In the evenings, it's worth a walk or drive to see whether the lunch-dinner wagons, known as roulettes, are parked on the wharf. If so, be sure and stop since the food is reasonably priced and usually very good.
A short way past the village is Moorea Distillery and Fruit Juice Cannery, which specializes in the island's agricultural products — pineapple, pomelo (called here pamplemousse) and papaya. On the grounds is a small kiosk where visitors are served shots of an excellent fruit liqueur, Eau de Vie (which translates as "water of life"), derived from local produce. This is a great place to stop for cocktails, as the kiosk offers free tastings. The aroma drifting out of the cannery smells exactly like someone is cooking a ham with a few slices of pineapple thrown on top. The cannery is open weekday mornings.
To visit Moorea's interior, from either Paopao or Opunohu (the next village down) follow the clearly marked paved road into the Opunohu Valley, where the landscape varies between dense rainforests and grassy meadows. Follow the steep winding road all the way to the Belvedere, the vista point for a fantastic view of Cook and Opunohu bays. Along the way are marae (the Tahitian equivalent of heiau) and archery platforms. More than 500 archaeological sites have been recorded in the area. Many of the major sites were painstakingly reconstructed by the Bishop Museum's Yoshi Sinoto.
Rounding the peninsula that separates Cook's Bay from Opunohu Bay and a bit down the road, you come to the Intercontinental Beachcomber, one of the better hotels on the island. It operates the only dolphin center on the island, where you can step into a pool and interact with these intelligent beings. The property also has one of two sea-turtle rehabilitation centers in French Polynesia. Here, turtles have been injured are cared for before being released back into the wild.
As you turn the corner in Papetoai Village look for Chez Vina on the ocean side of the road. Simple and unpretentious, they serve a variety of Tahitian dishes, such as mahimahi or poisson cru, fresh fish "cooked" in lime juice and marinated in coconut milk. Check out their Polynesian side dishes such as taro, breadfruit and sweet potato.
Les Tipaniers, a short way down the road from Vina, is a Moorea institution. A budget hotel popular with both local and foreign tourists is on a great beach and has some of the best food on the island. There are actually two restaurants — a beachside affair that is great for breakfasts and a fancier eatery known for its seafood dishes.
Another winner that we sampled was La Plage, on Motu Moea, a tiny islet directly offshore from Les Tipaniers, where you can eat (and snorkel) very well. You'll need a water taxi from Les Tipaniers or the Intercontinental Beachcomber to get there. We sampled the spicy fish salad and the almond and lemon salad, both made with slightly braised tuna, raw on the inside. The dish was seasoned similar to the Fiji Indian curries I've always loved. The lemon dish, also very tasty, was sprinkled with sliced roasted almonds — a great touch. The dining area, a large wooden deck shaded by huge ironwood trees, faced the turquoise channel overlooking Moorea. Swimsuits were the dominant attire and patrons lounged, leisurely sipping wine or beer. Bring your mask and fins — it's equal to Hanauma Bay, but without the crowds.
Continuing counterclockwise, another 1 1/2 miles from Tipaniers is the Mayflower. If you're going to splurge, consider this understated and cozy restaurant. We happened to show up the evening of an islandwide power outage but it didn't faze the staff, which has a reputation for turning out consistently great French cuisine using local produce and seafood. Without skipping a beat, out came the small lanterns. (Candles were already on the tables, so we weren't left in the dark.) The four dishes we tried — lobster ravioli, sashimi, mahimahi in lobster sauce and Coquilles St. Jacques, were superb. The desserts were also excellent. Don't let the white plastic chairs put you off — there is nothing cheap about Mayflower.
Ronald Sage, the gregarious owner of Painapo Beach, a funky beachside eatery down the road, is one of Moorea's most colorful personalities. If you stroll into his restaurant (open for lunch on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays) you'll find him holding court in English, French and Tahitian. Sage, always the impresario, runs from table to table, greeting visitors, and serves copious portions of local seafood such as tuna carpaccio, which is best garnished with a good squeeze of lime. The side dish was fried taro and local sweet potatoes served with homemade chutney. I also recommend the painapo froid, or cold special for two — poisson cru, carpaccio, sashimi, tartar and salad.
Nani insisted that we visit Pizza Daniel (another 2 1/2 klicks down the road) and she was right on target. It's a simple tin-roofed structure in the middle of nowhere. You eat at a bar on stools fashioned from coconut logs. Hawai'i visitors may not be used to the European-style pizza, which has a thin crust and tends to be a bit heavy on the olive oil but I've never had better pizza anywhere. We had the seafood, generously piled with mussels, calamari, large shrimp and cheese that we chased down with a nice bottle of bordeaux. The fresh tuna and the paysanne pizzas also come recommended.
SLOW DOWN, SOAK IT UP
At this point in our island tour, we've reached Haapiti, the sauvage or wild side of Moorea, where gustatory and other attractions are fewer and far between. We've completed two thirds of the island tour and another 15- or 20-minute drive will bring us back to the ferry dock.
Nani's final advice for any visitor — and I fully concur — is to slow down, soak up the ambiance and make an effort to meet the locals who are by nature on the shy side. Mooreans will take the time to get to know you if you show some desire to get to know them. Practice a little French or Tahitian on your hosts and you'll be surprised what a difference it makes. Be patient, too. Although Hawai'i people are more laid back than U.S. Mainlanders, you'll find on Moorea things are slower yet.
Rob Kay of Honolulu, is the author of "Hidden Tahiti" and the original author of the "Lonely Planet Guide to Tahiti." He has covered French Polynesia and Fiji as a journalist for more than 25 years.