Cook's Bay, Moorea
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They don't call the heart-shaped Moorea "the magical island" for nothing. Dominated by spiky mountain peaks, turquoise lagoons and lush tropical foliage, Moorea is the favorite port of call in French Polynesia for many cruise passengers and crew.
It's said that the idyllic Bali Hai, the fictional island from the musical "South Pacific," was based on Moorea -- and the island looks the way you probably imagine a tropical paradise to look (even unsightly power cables are buried underground to further the paradisiacal effect). Even better is the wide, shallow lagoon that surrounds it. You can swim or snorkel right from shore, or take a short boat ride out to a secluded motu, a tiny islet.
Upscale Bora Bora may get more hype, but Moorea is a sleeper. Residents of Tahiti know all about it. They come for the weekend because it's so easy to get here, a mere 12 miles and 30 minutes on the fast ferry from Papeete. No matter when you visit, you won't find crowds or traffic jams. Only about 12,000 people call this home.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Isle of Pines (New Caledonia) • Madang • Moorea • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Port Denarau • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti (Papeete)
On a hot day, pineapple liqueur and ginger rum go down nice and easy. Try the various fruit liquors made by the Pineapple Factory at Jus De Fruits de Moorea located in Pihaena.
In the islands, a hand-dyed pareo (the local version of a sarong) serves as a beach cover-up or a tropical dinner dress. Guys can wear them too.
French and Tahitian are the official languages. Some locals speak English, but don't count on it. Carry an English/French dictionary or phrase book.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the French Pacific franc. A good rule of thumb is that 100 francs equal $1 -- but you'll want to check XE.com for the latest exchange rates; a Banque de Polynesie ATM is located in Le Petit Village, the island's main shopping area.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor off the town of Vaiare on the east coast -- or in Cook's Bay or Opunohu Bay on the northern coast -- and tender passengers to makeshift villages that spring to life only when ships are in.
Merchants set up tables of shell jewelry, key chains, pareos and other wallet-friendly souvenirs at each tender drop-off spot on the island. There are also a few cafes, pizza parlors and shops in Cook's Bay -- but that's about it. Remember, you're in Moorea to get away from it all.
Avis (689-56-32-68) and Europcar (689-56-28-64) both rent cars from about $85 for the day at Vaiare and other locations across the island; advance reservations are highly recommended. Local car rental agencies gather at the pier, as do renters of bicycles and scooters. There is virtually no public transportation on Moorea, and taxis are expensive. Even hitching a ride is chancy as there is so little traffic.
Watch Out For
Chickens crossing the road! Moorea is sleepy and safe, and besides sunburn and mosquito bites there's little to fear. Still, practice common sense.
Go shopping at Le Petit Village where the island's tourist shops and artsy boutiques are clustered. You'll find everything from Tahitian vanilla beans to black pearls to beach clothing, especially pareos.
For an on-land vista of Moorea, Belvedere Lookout, high up in the mountains, offers stunning views of Cook's Bay, Opunohu Bay and Mt. Rotui. Pair the breathtaking view with a short hike off Belvedere Road to view three ancient marae sites; the trail is well marked. Several different hikes as well as guided tours of vanilla and coffee plantations are offered by students at Opunohu Agricultural College at Belvedere. All the shore tours visit Belvedere Lookout, and it's well worth seeing. Try to go early in the day before the rain and mist set in.
If you've never seen Polynesian dances or attended a Hawaiian luau, Tiki Village Theatre (689-55-02-50) will satisfy your curiosity. You'll be immersed in island culture as craftspeople live and work here, carving wood, making flower garlands, and dyeing pareos. There's also a model pearl farm. Tiki Village is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
Take a motorboat trip to a secluded motu for a barbeque lunch (fresh fruit juices, salads, barbecued chicken, fish and sausages) and swimming with stingrays. It's one-on-one and a far more pleasant experience than the Caribbean's overcrowded Stingray City excursion. If your ship doesn't offer this excursion, try water-based tour operator Moorea Mahana Tours (689-56-20-44).
Been There, Done That
With its craggy peaks and two gorgeous bays, Moorea makes for a magical sight from above. Parasailing with Mahana Parasail (689-55-19-19) is a fantastic way to see the island. You're aloft for anywhere from 12 to 15 minutes.
Rent a bike and ride around the entire circumference of the island. It takes about six hours on mostly flat, well-paved roads. And there's not much traffic. Moorea Fun Bike (689-70-96-95) will deliver bikes anywhere on the island.
Go eco-touring. Tahiti Expeditions (689-28-37-22) offers outings on bird watching, archaeology, botany, history, coral reef ecology, geology and Tahitian culture, upon request. They also conduct culture-oriented tours (such as Ancient Moorea), island tours and hikes. Customized day trips can also be organized.
The beach at the Sofitel la Ora Resort has a great view across to Tahiti and is a good place to while away the afternoon.
As in most of French Polynesia, fresh fish is excellent on Moorea. If you are a seafood eater, don't miss out. A Tahitian specialty is poisson cru, fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk. End any meal on a sweet note; Polynesian desserts generally include fresh fruit.
Casual Joints: Check out Blue Pineapple (689-56-12-06), a beachside joint with great breakfast and burgers. It's opposite Club Bali Hai on Cook's Bay. Open for breakfast and lunch daily.
Lunch with a View: Le Sunset at the Hibiscus Hotel in Le Petit Village (689-56-26-00) offers salads, fish sandwiches and pasta served in a casual setting on the lagoon waterfront. Open for lunch seven days a week.
Luxe Lunch: La Plantation (689-56-45-10) in Haapiti pairs Tahitian hospitality with French and Louisiana cuisine. Specialties include blackened Opah, slipper lobster in a vanilla cream sauce, Cajun gazpacho, crab cakes and jambalaya. A decadent prix fixe Cajun menu is available. This Colonial-style restaurant offers free shuttle service from hotels in the area.
Staying in Touch
To make a long distance call you need to purchase a phone card, available at the post office in Maharepa. They come in a variety of increments. There's an Internet cafe in Le Petit Village and one at Maria Tapas Cafe, about 15 minutes on foot from Pearl Beach.
Best for Mammal Lovers: On the dolphin watching expedition, passengers see acrobatic spinner dolphins (as well as rough-toothed dolphins and pilot whales). From July to October, there's a chance of seeing humpback whales. These outstanding trips to see schools of 50 or more dolphins in the wild are not to be confused with the shows put on by the Moorea Dolphin Center at the InterContinental Resort and Spa Moorea using a few captive dolphins.
Best Overall Tour: Explore Moorea by 4WD, including the Paopao Valley's pineapple plantations and Belevedere Lookout. Vehicles climb to the top of Magic Mountain for a short hike with more panoramic views of the north shore.
Best for History Buffs: "Tours of the Ancient" is a three-hour excursion in which you hike (mostly downhill) through a rainforest. It's a great way to learn about ancient tribal lifestyles and rituals. A stop at Belvedere Lookout is included, naturally.
For More Information
On the Web: Tahiti Tourism Board and Moorea Visitor's Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South Pacific
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: South Pacific Islands
--by Ginger Dingus. Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Andrea M. Rotondo, Cruise Critic contributor