“[This place] is the whole thing; the real thing; the thing one has dreamt about all one’s life; the thing which made Stevenson leave Europe for ever. All tellers of fairy tales, and all poets from Homer downwards have always imagined the existence of certain Fortunate islands which were so full of magic and charm that they turned man from his duty and from all tasks… and held him a willing captive.” --Maurice Baring
Well, no one is going to actually hold you captive. However, you might secretly wish they would. For who among us would willingly retreat from a land where the sun shines without fail, where seas are as clear as a precious aquamarine, where locals smile easily, and where days roll by at a pace only a bit quicker than a palm growing on a black sand beach.
Drama All Around
As the sun rises from the horizon and tradewinds whip the waterfront, golden rays wash across Moorea’s three towering peaks. Clouds drape the mountaintops in a billowy swirl like an actress’ cape on her way to a premier. This “high” island boasts a dramatic terrain with deep, verdant gorges weathered by time as well as howling wind and lashing rain. Pineapple and coffee plantations now enhance this landscape where vanilla and cotton were once cultivated.
A wizened storyteller speaks of the time when Hiro, the unpopular god of thieves, planned to steal the Rotui, a nearby mountain and enjoy the toa trees that grew on Rotui’s slopes. But his plans were dashed when Pai, a powerful mythological hero, learned of the plot. Pai created a cackling racket when, just as Hiro was about to make his get-away, he awakened the islands’ roosters. Hiro did manage to pinch a bit off the mountaintop and retreat to his island where the prized toa trees now grow -- the only such place in the islands.
The spot from where Hiro stole a piece of mountain is now visible as a hole in Mouaputa, one of the island’s three massive peaks. It’s a natural wonder for all to behold.
In 1774, Captain James Cook dropped anchor in the waters off Moorea. What he found there was an ongoing war, among the islanders and with those from Tahiti a mere ten miles away. Within 50 years, the two islands were united into one kingdom by Pomare I. The French formalized things further by declaring the islands French protectorates in 1847. With the flourish of a pen in 1880, they became a French colony.
Today jets, ships and yachts bring visitors to Moorea from around the world. They come with visions of Bali Hai from the movie South Pacific or the 1984 Mel Gibson hit movie The Bounty. Or they come with the promise of a magical honeymoon just like the ones pictured in the bridal magazines. Moorea was, after all, known as the Polynesian’s pleasure island. Each arrives with an eagerness to sample these pleasures and a desire to take away with them some of its lessons.
You might start with a drive around the 37-mile circumference of the island. Pause at one of the maraes, stone temples that dot the island as the few remaining monuments to the original civilization. The contrast with the Papetoai Protestant Church, one of the oldest European buildings in French Polynesia, is significant. Built by the missionaries in the 1800s, its footprint is in the shape of an octagon. From the famed Belvedere Lookout you might be duplicating the experience of one of the original Mooreans as he watched Cook sail into what is now Cook’s Bay with its companion Opunohu Bay right next door. Tohiea is the highest peak at 3,959 feet. A stop at the local fruit and distillery factory introduces you to the true bounty of Moorea. Le Truck, the colorful local transport, might be loading up a load of pineapples for the morning market.
Before your day ends, though, you must get in the water. The sea is French Polynesia’s truest temptation. Home to a rainbow of marine life, it’s yours to behold with nothing more than a snorkel and mask. Then savor all this in a waterfront eatery with an island-infused French specialty and a freshly-plucked hibiscus blossom over one ear.