It is, without exaggeration, one of the most eye-poppingly gorgeous islands in the world. In fact, Moorea is such a stun- ning South Seas locale that it’s been featured in countless movies that aren’t even set here. When you actually see it for yourself, you may find it hard to believe that the scenery isn’t computer-generated: The jagged mountain contours of Moorea are so dramatically faceted as to seem man-made, and the dense vegetation blanketing every surface of the island has the lush look of green velvet. Writer James Michener called Moorea “a monument to the prodigal beauty of nature” and was so inspired by Moorea’s captivatingly good looks that he based the mythical island of Bali Ha’i (in Tales of the South Pacific) on this real-life French Polynesian gem.
Nearby Bora Bora and its irresistible lagoon tempt you with ways to get out on the water. Moorea, on the other hand, is more about experiencing nature on the island itself and moving at a slower pace. The island is shaped roughly like a heart, but with two clefts instead of one. Those clefts are Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay, both deep, fingerlike bodies of water that are surrounded by soaring, pointed peaks. The trademark mountain on Moorea is Moua Roa, the cathedral-like incisor of black stone that rises 880m (2,887 ft.) above sea level at the end of a series of smaller rock “teeth.” Equally photogenic is the 830m-tall (2,723-ft.) Moua Puta, which has a tiny hole at the top. At 1,207m (3,960 ft.), Mount Tohiea is the highest point on the island, but the best peak to climb is Mount Rotui (800m/2,625 ft.), which commands the South Pacific’s most magnificent vista, from its Belvedere lookout over the twin bays of Cook and Oponuhu.
The best way to get around Moorea is by rental car (or numerous outfits on Moorea can provide a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver/guide for you). The circle drive around the island is a must; you can do the quickie version in a few hours, but if you have the time, allow several days to see all the sights along the 62km (39-mile) circuit. Stop for the short hike to Atiraa waterfall (near Afareaitu), where the water cascades 32m (105 ft.) down a glistening black rock cliff to a small pool where you can swim. Experienced hikers can also take to Moorea’s many nature trails, but be sure to bring plenty of water and bug spray.
Though sea activities aren’t nearly as central to vacationers’ enjoyment of Moorea as they are on Bora Bora, Moorea still offers plenty of ways to dip into that crystal-clear Polynesian water. For a lazy day on the beach, Temae Plage Publique is Moorea’s best stretch of public sand. At the Moorea Dolphin Center, visitors can swim with docile cetaceans. Another unforgettable South Seas adventure, swimming with and petting rays, can be arranged at the Moorea Lagoonarium, at Haapiti near the Intercontinental Hotel.
As for accommodations, luxurious over-water bungalow resorts can be found all along the dramatic northern coast near Cook’s Bay and Oponuhu Bay, but the island is also full of casual fares (guest houses) for a more authentic Polynesian experience.