After seven wonderful days on our Windstar Cruise in French Polynesia, we sailed back into port at Papeete, Tahiti. Fortunately, we had decided beforehand to extend our stay in French Polynesia by booking rooms at the Hilton Moorea property on the north shore. Having seen many dreamy pictures of overwater bungalows in exotic locales, we decided to give the bungalows on Moorea a try and we were not disappointed. Our budget would only afford two nights, but that was better than nothing (rooms can run about $1,000/night or more, depending on location, meal plans, season, etc.).
We chose Moorea because its proximity to Papeete (only a short ferry ride away), rather than an expensive flight back out to Bora Bora.
From the ferry dock in Moorea, we found a taxi to take us to the Hilton, about a 20 minute ride to the northwest around the coast. The luggage claim was a bit of a zoo, I wish I would have gotten a photo of the chaotic scenes of several ferries and luggage stacked up at the terminal–almost comical. No problem finding our bags however.
There is no lack of things to do in this setting – hit the beach, hit the pool, have a casual lunch, paddle board, jet ski (a blast in the nearby stunningly scenic bays), snorkel, take an island tour, etc. (See our post on our cruise stop in Moorea). Our hotel package included a wonderful buffet breakfast. We ate dinner one day at the hotel in a beachside cafe and the second evening we got a taxi to a restaurant on the beach a few miles down the coast.
There’s nothing like waking up in the morning, stepping down to your own private swim platform and jumping into the calm water for a quick swim and watching rays and other fish swim by.
After Moorea, our next stop was Raiatea. Although it is the second largest island (of the Society Islands) and home to the “second largest city” in French Polynesia, the island is blissfully undeveloped. Waking up early and walking out onto the deck as we sailed along the coast of the island and into the port of Uturoa was the way I’d love to start every day! (More information below about Raiatea’s significance to the history and exploration of Polynesia).
Geographically, Raiatea shares the same lagoon with Taha’a (our next stop) and both islands are close to Bora Bora.
Raiatea was one stop where we decide to “wing it” from a tour standpoint. We got off the ship, found a small tour desk and eventually we were able to secure a guide who gave us a fabulous tour of the island.
Raiatea has significant cultural and spiritual importance to the native population because it is the geographical center of eastern Polynesisa (a triangle can be formed between New Zealand, Raiatea and Hawaii), and it is considered the ancestral homeland of the Maori people, most closely associated with New Zealand. A traditional name for the island is Havai’i, which sounds very similar to Hawai’i, which also has a close link anciently to Raiatea. It is believed that ancient Polynesians set out to explore the Pacific from this island. Learn more here.
We visited the sacred temple site of Taputapuatea, where our guide gave a great history and navigation lesson in the sand (taking a stick and drawing out symbols, maps, and terms in the packed sand). This sacred spot was the launch site for exploration and a worship center for Polynesians across the Pacific.
We also visited the home of a friend of our guide (I’m sure everyone on the island knows each other). This gentleman was from San Francisco originally and has lived on Raiatea for many years, in a very simple fashion. His home was essentially a small wood framed structure with metal siding and swing out “windows”. He lives largely off the land with what he can produce. He offered us some lovely fruit dishes and we enjoyed visiting with him. Not a bad way to retire!
Before heading back to our cruise ship, our guide took us to a pretty spot with a nice view of the southern part of the island, where he shared a little more about this wonderful slice of paradise.
Our next stop was just a few kilometers across the strait which separates Raiatea from Taha’a. Our next day was going to be all about playing in and enjoying the water – stay tuned!
There is often a debate of “should we go to Moorea or Bora Bora?” Let’s just say you can’t go wrong with either island – both are stunningly beautiful. Moorea has the advantage of being closer and easier to get to from Papeete, Tahiti. We left Papeete in the evening (see our first French Polynesia post for more information about our cruise) and sailed over to Moorea, just a short distance away (10 nautical miles or ~18 km). I could hardly wait for daylight the next morning to check out what is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I wasn’t disappointed. Our ship anchored in Cook’s Bay, one of two main bays on the northern shore of Moorea.
We signed up for a 1/2 day photography tour with the cruise line, the idea being to make us great photographers – ha. The tour guide was from “mainland” France and living the dream in Moorea. We made 4 stops on this tour.
First Stop: North Shore Lookout
We drove up a very steep, narrow little ‘road’ to get to this lookout, and it was worth it.
2nd Stop: Belvedere Lookout
This is probably the most photographed spot on Moorea, with the stunning Mount Rotui in the background, and picturesque bays on either side of the mountain. This lookout is in the volcanic crater known as Opunohu Valley (the heart of the volcano that became island of Moorea).
3rd Stop: Opunohu Valley
From Belvedere Lookout, we drove down into the Opunohu Valley, which has a very remote feel, with a few dirt roads and overgrown pineapple fields.
4th Stop: Vanilla Bean Plantation
One of the main cash crops in French Polynesia (more specifically the Society Islands) is vanilla. French vanilla is the world’s best, and learning how they grow these beans gives one an appreciation for why it is so expensive (and flavorful!). Most plantations are small and family-owned. The effort to grow vanilla beans is intense, and mountainous nature of these islands makes it hard to find suitable areas for growing this crop.
After our photography tour, we were able to spend the afternoon at leisure. One of the advantages of Windstar cruises is their swim platform and free water sports activities. We took out a couple kayaks and then I did some wakeboarding in Cook’s Bay! What a blast. Wakeboarding in Moorea – an experience I’ll always remember. Unfortunately I did not get pictures!
It wasn’t too sad for us leaving Moorea that evening, because we knew we were coming back after our cruise for a stay at the Hilton Moorea Resort, also located on the north shore. I’ll do a separate post on that part of the trip.