Tahiti — Adventures on the Island of Moorea

The Tahitian islands are jaw-droppingly gorgeous and offer much more than your typical beach vacation. On Moorea we

  • Got up close and personal with spinner dolphins
  • Drove a two-person scooter around the island’s ring road
  • Hiked the steep jungle-covered peaks

If you close your eyes and think of the perfect island paradise, that would be Tahiti. The old volcanic mountains thrust up from the ocean depths, covered in lush jungle and palm trees, encircled by coral reefs and bright turquoise waters. The main island is only an 8-hour flight from LAX (Los Angeles airport), so it was surprisingly easy to get to, at least for us West Coasters.

Cook’s bay, on Moorea

My Zen Experience

My favorite moment was hiking up a mountainside in the middle of the jungle. The bride’s family had a lot of friends on the island and one of them offered to take a small group of us on a hike. This was truly off the beaten path — I would’ve become hopelessly lost if not for the expert guidance of these guys who grew up exploring these grounds. We jumped around rocks, swung from branches, and scrambled up steep slopes. Our guides spoke only French, but not many words were needed when you’re eating fresh fruit on a mountain top with a huge grin plastered across your face.

Scrambling up the mountainside
Our intrepid hiking group, led by our friend Michel

Arriving in Tahiti

All international flights land on the main island of Tahiti, in Pape’ete. Most visitors just stay for an hour or a night, while moving between islands. There’s a shopping area that’s nice to wander around, with a large local market and plenty of shops hawking Tahitian black pearls. Everyone we encountered was super nice and the shop keepers weren’t predatory. The waterfront is a really nice place to wander, keeping company with local teens and families in the newly-renovated parks. The coolest thing we found was a night-time food truck gathering along the waterfront, near the ferry terminal at Vai’ete Square. Hundreds of locals were camped out at picnic tables, enjoying everything from sushi to Korean bbq to pizza. It reminded me of Off the Grid in San Francisco.

Food trucks in Vai’ete Square

Getting Around

Two islands close to the main Tahiti island have direct ferry service. To get to the other island, most visitors fly. If you’re particularly adventurous, I hear you can charter a sailboat to take you around.

Located only a quick 30-minute ferry ride from the main island, Moorea is where a lot of city dwellers have their weekend homes. Some workers also live on Moorea and commute to their jobs every day by ferry.

Ferry from Tahiti to Moorea

Scooters

I highly recommend renting a scooter and taking the ring road around the island. It felt thrilling to have the warm air tugging at our clothes while stunning scenery passed by. Two highlights were heading to Belvedere Lookout, which is the main vista point in the middle of the island, and swimming at Temae Beach, a pristine white beach.

Just be careful when driving the scooter, as a couple of people in our group managed to tip over and get scraped knees and hands. I crashed our scooter in the driveway of our rental house and gave my wife a bruise to remember!

Taking the scooter around Cook’s Bay
Temae Beach

Dolphins

Spinner dolphins live in the lagoon and I highly recommend you go see them. Dr Michael Poole is a local researcher and dolphin expert. A few times a month he leads boat tours to earn a little extra income. He was very knowledgeable and kind and a good man all around. We were disappointed to learn you can’t swim with dolphins (wild ones will swim away), but we got very up close and personal regardless. The dolphins play a lot and we were delighted to watch them leap out of the water and ride the waves right underneath the prow of our boat. The views back to the island was also really beautiful.

Watching the spinner dolphins swim

Sharks and manta rays

For one of the afternoons, our hosts arranged for us to take a boat to a nearby ring island (called a “motu”). We enjoyed a lunchtime bbq and snorkeling with the sharks and manta rays. There are a lot of peaceful sharks in the waters, such as the 4 foot long reef sharks, and it’s a thrilling experience to get down and personal with them. There are lots of tour operators who can offer you such a swimming experience.

Playing with stingrays in shallow water

Kayaking

The lagoons surrounding the mainland are amazing both for their blueness and their stillness. The island is old and sinking back into the sea, which has left behind an outer coral reef. The reef breaks the ocean’s waves, leaving the water between the reef and the mainland eerily still and peaceful. Many of the hotels and houses on the islands come equipped with sea kayaks. You should definitely take them out at least once a day!

Out on the water

Hiking

The peaks of Moorea are magestic. It’s well worth taking half a day to leave the water and explore the jungles. While we had our special guides, you can have a similar experience hiking up Magic Mountain.

Black Pearls

These natural gems are the area’s most famous export and souvenir, if you’re looking to bring something special home with you. Tahitian pearls differ from others in that they are very dark, usually dark grey with colorations that range from green to purple. We found all shops are regulated, so you’ll find similar prices for similar levels of quality. I recommend you stop in a couple stores to get a sense of what’s available. Tahia has great quality pearls, but they’re very expensive. We particularly enjoyed Eva Perles.

Many vendors will be more than happy to educate you on what makes a good pearl. Generally the absence of occlusions (marks), a good shape (evenly round or tear drop), and a high lustre (shine) make for a high-quality pearl.

Tahitian black pearls
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