Most of the island's accommodations, along with activities and attractions, are found along Moorea's north coast, between the ferry wharf at Vaiare and the area known as Haapiti on the island's northwestern corner. A large Club Med dominated Haapiti until it closed in 2002, and locals still say "Club Med" when referring to this area.
The sights of Moorea may lack great historical significance, but the physical beauty of the island makes a tour -- at least of Cook's and Opunohu bays and up to the Belvédère lookout -- a highlight of any visit here. There are few places on earth this gorgeous.
As on Tahiti, Moorea's round-island road -- about 60km (36 miles) long -- is marked every kilometer with a PK post. Distances are measured between the intersection of the airport road with the main round-island coastal road and the village of Haapiti on Moorea's opposite side. In other words, the distances indicated on the PKs increase from the airport in each direction, reaching 30km near Haapiti. They then decrease as you head back to the airport.
The hotel activities desks offer tours around Moorea and up to the Belvédère lookout in the interior. Albert Tours (tel. 56.13.53) and Moorea Explorer (tel. 56.12.86) have half-day circle island tours, including the Belvédère, for about 3,500CFP (US$44/£22) per person. The tour buses all stop at one black-pearl shop or another (guess who gets a commission when you buy the orb of your dreams?).
Temae & Maharepa
Begin at the airstrip on Moorea's northeast corner. The airstrip is on the island's only sizable area of flat land. At one time it was a motu, or small island, sitting on the reef by itself. Humans and nature have since filled the lagoon except for Lake Temae, which you can see from the air if you fly to Moorea.
Head west from the junction of the round-island road and airport road. Temae, 1km ( 1/2 mile) from the junction, supplied the dancers for the Pomare dynasty's court in the 19th century and is still known for the quality of its performers. Herman Melville spent some time here in 1842 and saw the famous, erotic upaupa, which he called the "lory-lory," performed clandestinely, out of sight of the missionaries. Today, Moorea's golf course is here.
The relatively dry north shore between the airport and the entrance to Cook's Bay is Maharepa, the island's commercial center. The road skirts the lagoon and passes the Moorea Pearl Resort & Spa and soon reaches the island's main shopping center.
As the road curves to the left, you enter Cook's Bay, the fingerlike body of water virtually surrounded on three sides by the jagged peaks lining the semicircular "wall" of Moorea. The tall thumb with a small hole in its top is Mount Tohiea. Coming into view as you drive farther along the bay is Mount Mauaroa, Moorea's trademark cathedral-like "Shark's Tooth" mountain buttressed on its right by a serrated ridge.
Huddled along the curving beach at the head of the bay, the village of Pao Pao is the site of Moorea's public schools. The Cooperatif de Pêche Moorea (Moorea Fish Market) is open Monday through Saturday from 5am to 5pm and Sunday from 5 to 8am. The paved road that seems to run through the school next to the bridge cuts through the valley between Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay. It intersects with the main road between Opunohu Bay and the Belvédère lookout.
The small St. Joseph's Catholic Church sits on the shore on the west side of Cook's Bay, at PK 10 from the airport. Inside is a large mural that artist Peter Heyman painted in 1946 and an altar decorated with mother-of-pearl. From the church, the road climbs up the side of the hill, allowing for some fine views, and then descends back to the lagoon's edge.
Watch on the left for the road leading inland to Jus de Fruits de Moorea (Moorea Fruit Juices; tel. 56.22.33), a factory and distillery that turns the island's produce into the Rotui juices and the potently alcoholic Tahiti Drink you will see in every grocery store. I like to refresh here by tasting the yummy fruit liqueurs. Every souvenir imaginable is for sale, too. Hours are Monday through Thursday from 8:30am to 4:30pm, Friday and Saturday from 8:30am to 3:30pm.
Towering over you is jagged Mount Rotui, the huge green-and-black rock separating Moorea's two great bays. Unlike Cook's Bay, Opunohu is virtually devoid of development, a testament to efforts by local residents to maintain the natural beauty of their island (they have ardently resisted efforts to build a luxury resort and golf course here).
As soon as the road levels out, you can look through the trees to yachts anchored in Robinson's Cove, one of the world's most photographed yacht anchorages. Stop here and put your camera to work.
Near the cove, at PK 17.5, stands Jardin Kellum, the bayside home and botanical garden of the late Medford and Gladys Kellum, an American couple who once owned all of Opunohu Valley. The Kellums arrived here in 1925, aboard Medford's parents' converted lumber schooner, and they lived for 65 years in a clapboard colonial-style house. Their daughter, Marimari Kellum, resides here today and gives tours of the home and garden to groups that book in advance (tel. 56.18.52).
From the garden, the road soon curves right along a black-sand beach backed by shade trees and the Opunohu Valley at the head of the bay. The beach was turned into Matavai Bay on Tahiti for the 1983 production of The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins.
The major cruise ships now anchor in Opunohu Bay rather than in Cook's Bay, and you soon will pass the dock where they land their passengers. Although the location is gorgeous, it is also remote from shops, restaurants, and other facilities. Locals say the relocation was engineered by Moorea's most aggressive black-pearl merchant so that the ships' passengers would go ashore closer to his shop in Haapiti rather than competing dealers in Cook's Bay.
After the bridge by the beach, a paved road runs up Moorea's central valley through pastureland, across which Warren Beatty and Annette Bening strolled in their flop movie Love Affair (the scenes with Katharine Hepburn were filmed in the white house on the hill to your right). You can stop at Lycée Agricole d'Opunohu (Opunohu Agricultural School), on the main road (tel. 56.11.34), to see plantations for vanilla and other crops. It's open Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm, Saturday from 9am to 12:30pm.
At the head of the valley, the road climbs steeply up the old crater wall to the restored Titiroa Marae, which was part of a concentration of maraes and other structures. Higher up, you'll pass an archery platform used for competition (archery was a sport reserved for high-ranking chiefs and was never used in warfare in Polynesia). A display in the main marae parking lot explains the history of this area. You can walk among the remains of the temples, now shaded by towering Tahitian chestnut trees that have grown up through the cobblestone-like courtyards.
The narrow road then ascends to Belvédère Lookout, whose awesome panorama of the valley and the bays on either side of Mount Rotui is unmatched in the South Pacific. You won't want to be without film or camera batteries here. There's a snack bar in the parking lot, so grab a cold drink or ice cream while you take in this remarkable vista.
Back on the coastal road, the sizable village of Papetoai was the retreat of the Pomare dynasty in the 1800s and the base from which Pomare I launched his successful drive to take over all of Tahiti and Moorea. It was also headquarters for the London Missionary Society's work throughout the South Pacific. The road to the right, past the new post office, leads to the octagonal Papetoai Temple Protestant, built on the site of a marae dedicated to Oro, son of the supreme Taaroa and the god of war. The original church was constructed in the 1820s, and although advertised as the oldest European building still in use in the South Pacific, the present structure dates from the late 1880s.
From Papetoai, the road runs through the Haapiti hotel district at Pointe Hauru, Moorea's northwestern corner. A long stretch of white-sand beach wraps around the point and conspires with two islets out on the reef's edge and great sunset views to make the Haapiti area popular with tourists. Beginning in the 1970s, a 300-bungalow Club Med generated much business here, including Le Petit Village shopping center across the road. Although it closed in 2002, many locals still refer to the Club Med when giving directions. The area has been a bit depressed since the club closed. Still, this is your last chance to stop for refreshment before the sparsely populated southern half of Moorea. There are several choices here.
About 4km (2 1/2 miles) beyond Le Petit Village, look for the Tiki Theatre Village, a cultural center consisting of thatched huts on the coastal side of the road. It's the only place to see what a Tahitian village looked like when Captain Cook arrived, so pull in.
When the first Europeans arrived, the lovely, mountain-backed village of Haapiti was home to the powerful Marama family, which was allied with the Pomares. It became a center of Catholic missionary work after the French took over the territory, and it is one of the few villages with a Catholic church as large as its Protestant counterpart. Stop here and look up behind the village for a view of Mount Mouaroa from a unique perspective.
The Southeast Coast
South of Haapiti, just as the road curves sharply around a headland, is a nice view of a small bay with the mountains towering overhead (there's no place to park on the headland, so stop and walk up for the view). In contrast to the more touristy north shore, the southeast and southwest coasts have retained an atmosphere of old Polynesia.
The village of Afareaitu, on the southeast coast, is the administrative center of Moorea, and the building that looks like a charming hotel across from the village church actually is the island's mairie, or town hall.
About half a kilometer ( 1/4 mile) beyond the town hall, opposite an A-frame house on the shore, an unpaved road runs straight between several houses and then continues uphill to the Atiraa Waterfall. Often called Afareaitu Waterfall, it plunges more than 32m (100 ft.) down a cliff, into a small pool. You can drive partway to the falls and then walk 20 minutes up a steep, slippery, and muddy trail. Wear shoes or sandals that have good traction if you make this trek, for in places the slippery trail is hacked into a steep hill; if you slip, it's a long way down to the rocks below. Villagers will be waiting at the beginning of the footpath to extract a small fee.
Beyond Afareaitu, the small bay of Vaiare is a beehive of activity when the ferries pull in from Papeete. On workdays, commuters park their vehicles at least 1km ( 1/2 mile) in either direction from the wharf.
Toatea Overlook & Temae Plage Publique
Atop the hill north of the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort is the Toatea Overlook. Here you'll have a magnificent view of the hotel, the green lagoon flecked with brown coral heads, the white line of the surf breaking on the reef, the deep blue of the Sea of the Moon, and all of Tahiti rising magnificently from the horizon. There's a parking area at the overlook.
The unpaved road to the right at the bottom of the hill leads to the Temae Plage Publique (Temae Public Beach), Moorea's finest stretch of public beach. Follow the left fork through the coconut grove to the lagoon. This is a continuation of the Sofitel Moorea Ia Ora Beach Resort's beach, except that here you don't have a staff to rake the leaves and coral gravel from the sand. Locals often sell snacks and souvenirs, especially on weekends. Bring insect repellent if you go on the beach here.