It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a good tropical island. When your favourite things in life are sunshine, sand and salt water, it’s not difficult to find bliss in the South Pacific. I’ve never been quiet about my love for the stunning islands that span the almost 162 million square kilometres of the great ocean and in August 2017, I added a new favourite to the list – Mo’orea.
LAUGHTER IN PARADISE
Our trip to Mo’orea began with the infectious laughter of our Polynesian taxi driver, who picked us up from the airport on the mainland of Tahiti after we’d driven back from Teahupo’o earlier that morning. We were greeted by her happy face, grinning from ear to ear as we approached her taxi in hopes of getting a ride to the nearby ferry terminal. As we threw our luggage into the boot, she gestured towards the doors, encouraging us to take a seat in the air-conditioned car. Scott, still not quite used to everything being on the other side in French Polynesia, went to jump in the driver’s side, mistaking it for the front passenger seat.
“Oh!” she chortled. “You want to drive, eh?” Realising his mistake, Scott chuckled and walked to the other side, jumping into the passenger seat. “He’s had enough driving on the wrong side of the road,” I told her. Without skipping a beat, she replied “Oh no, you mean the RIGHT side!” before exploding in her infectious laugh. It was impossible not to giggle along with the friendly Polynesian woman; her giant smile quite clearly matched her giant heart.
During the short drive, she told us all about the island of Mo’orea, claiming it to be the ‘most beautiful island in French Polynesia’. We’d later discover that her words were nothing but the truth.
JOURNEY FROM THE MAINLAND
Although the drive to the ferry terminal was short, my face was aching from the massive smile I had stuck on my face from the moment we jumped in the taxi. I was truly sorry to say goodbye to our new friend, who in a matter of minutes had left quite an impression. We headed up to the ferry terminal in high spirits.
After checking in, we headed up to the café at the top of the terminal, which overlooked the harbour. In the distance, we could see the island of Mo’orea standing tall amongst a light cloud cover. We ordered sandwiches and beers, and relaxed while we waited for our departure. As we sipped our cold bottles of Hinano, a familiar song came on the speakers – Kim Churchill’s Window to the Sky – which just happens to be one of my favourite songs. What makes it even stranger is that Kim is also grew up on the Far South Coast of NSW (same as me), so it was incredible to hear one of his songs playing on the radio on a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific! We finished lunch, and before long it was time to get on board the ferry to Mo’orea.
After a thirty-minute journey, we arrived in Mo’orea – or was it Isla Nublar? I felt nothing but Jurassic Park vibes with the landscape; large mountain peaks sticking up high into the sky, surrounded by a thin layer of ominous cloud. As we disembarked from the ferry, I half expected a gang of pterodactyls to appear in the sky. Fun fact – Mo’orea actually means ‘yellow lizard’ in Tahitian, so my expectations weren’t entirely baseless!
We jumped in our transfer car and began the drive around the island to our accommodation – the gorgeous Hotel Hibiscus. Yet again, we had a friendly and very knowledgeable driver for the journey. Her list of things for us to do during our stay was endless, and she kept us entertained with her stories about the history of the island. As we drove around the bends and curves of the stunning island, she pointed out the volcanos and craters, and told us that no Tahitians ever go to the top of the craters of the volcanos. “It is a very spiritual place,” she said, “Many Tahitians are buried up there.” I love meeting friendly locals when I travel; their insights and points of view are always so unique, and you’ll never find anyone more trusting than someone who loves their own home.
ISLAND LIFE IN MO’OREA
We woke on our first morning in Mo’orea to the sound of roosters crowing – an island staple across the South Pacific. Although it was a little drizzly, the air was warm, and the sun was trying desperately to come out from behind a thick layer of cloud cover. We had a quick breakfast before heading out for our adventure for the day – a quad bike tour through the middle of the island.
After meeting our tour group and our guide, Fred, we jumped on our quad bikes and go on the road. We zoomed past the sparkling lagoon on our left, and the emerald green jungle on our right. The rains came down again, dampening our clothes but not our spirits! The rains didn’t last long, and eventually we turned off the main road to start heading towards the centre of the island.
We ended up in the middle of a volcanic crater, which happened to be the home of a massive pineapple plantation. With the soil being super rich, it is the perfect place for the fruit to grow and flourish. As we admired the impressive view, Fred asked us how long we thought it took for the fruit to grow. “Six months!” shouted a member of the group, and Fred laughed. “Higher, higher!” he replied, gesturing up with his fingers. We all kept guessing until we got it right – it takes each plant two whole years to grow the pineapple, and only produces two at a time (although the second pineapple takes only ten months to grow). He explained that the pineapples grown on the island are for the locals and the surrounding islands only, as the cost to export the sweet fruit to other countries is too high. We were disappointed to hear this, as we later got the opportunity to taste the juice itself and it was bloody delicious!
We finished the afternoon at Belvedere Lookout – one of the best views on offer in Mo’orea. As we stood on the edge of the road admiring the incredible view of the mountain flanked on either side by both the bays of the island, we noticed a French family getting their picture taken. I glanced over just in time to hear the photographer shout, “Un, deux, trois, fromage!” before I exploded in a fit of giggles. For those who don’t know, ‘fromage’ is the French word for ‘cheese’ – hah!
A DAY IN THE OCEAN
The next day was also packed full of adventure – we’d organised a trip with Moorea Ocean Adventures to swim with humpback whales. That’s right, humpback whales.
Oh, how I envisioned this day. I was absolutely beside myself with fear at the thought of entering the water with a creature so large, in the open ocean, but I pushed my fear aside with the thought that it would be such an incredible experience that I would have no time to be scared.
After months of daydreaming about how amazing it would feel to swim with such a beautiful creature of the deep, I finally woke up on the morning our private tour was scheduled. Still incredibly nervous, I got ready and told myself that it was going to be a day to remember forever.
Over two hours later, we’d been battling extremely strong winds as we traversed up and down the northern coastline of Mo’orea, in search of the giant mammals. We were soaking wet from the spray of the water, but as I shivered and wrapped my saturated towel around me, I kept my eyes peeled on the water. I figured it would take a while to find them, I mean, they’re wild animals living in an ocean. Of course, it would take time, right?
It sure would, but it would take time we didn’t have, as our private tour was only supposed to be four hours long. Not once in my daydreams about swimming with humpbacks did it ever occur to me that we wouldn’t actually find them! I wasn’t deluded; I knew there was a chance we wouldn’t, but after stalking the Facebook page of Mo’orea Ocean Adventures, it looked like we had some pretty good chances considering they’d seen dozens and dozens of whales in the two weeks prior to our trip.
Not that day – we didn’t find any whales. I was disappointed of course, but hey, that’s life. The guys who took us out, Trevor and Ryan, were also devastated and did everything in their power to make it up to us. We did eventually find some black-tip reef sharks swimming in the open ocean beyond the lagoon, so we jumped in the water with them.
It was incredible and terrifying at the same time. I’ve had a long-standing fear of sharks ever since I first watched jaws as a ten-year-old and was afterwards too terrified to walk on the carpet in our house because it was blue, so believe me when I say it was a big deal to get in the water with these creatures! The feeling of sharing the water with these beautiful sharks was truly magical; the water was about twenty metres deep, yet so clear the bottom looked like it was mere metres away. I’d be watching one shark as it swam gracefully in the open ocean in front of me, then I’d float around and see another swimming directly at me, darting off as I turned to face it. They were so curious!
We also saw a lone lemon shark resting on the reef below; he must have been about two or three metres long. By this stage, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was just so happy to be able to experience such a beautiful moment in nature.
Afterwards, we took the boat back into the lagoon and spent an hour or so swimming in the shallows with more black-tip reef sharks, and also stingrays, who certainly do not understand the concept of personal space. I squealed in what only can be described as half joy and half fear as the rays would make their way up the side of my body, trying to get a morsel of fish from my fingertips. All were so cool, calm and collected around people, and while obviously they were used to us being there and also used to getting fed, the sharks and rays could definitely have done some damage if they wanted to. It was yet another ‘pinch me’ moment where I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
BYE, BYE MO’OREA
We spent the next couple of days enjoying the island; from hiring kayaks and paddling back to the lagoon where we’d met the sharks and stingrays, to drinking pina coladas as we watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Mo’orea had stolen our hearts, and we knew that we’d have to come back soon…