The gravel crumpled as it shifted beneath our bikes. Turquoise water was directly across the paved road in front of us. We turned onto the pavement and headed towards the beach.
Palms swayed around us. The mountains to our left were bathed in the fading sunlight. The lagoon to our right appeared between houses and offered glimpses of the inviting water to which we were headed. The smiles we’d had since arrival weren’t going anywhere soon.
A crab was crossing the road sideways, as crabs do. We each swerved to miss it. Kathryn turned, “Did you see that?” The houses stopped and the beach began on our right. Palms broke up the sweeping view of the calm lagoon where sailboats bobbed at anchor. Mountains dropped nearly directly into the water and the setting sun cast everything golden. We stopped next to each other on the sand. “This is ridiculous,” we proclaimed.
We had arrived in Moorea an hour earlier after two weeks in Tahiti. The two islands are separated by a relatively small channel, when you think about islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We had seen Moorea frequently from Tahiti. Its peaks created a lovely show at sunset and enticed our imaginations.
The ferry only took 45 minutes. Arrival by boat invokes an age old feeling of exploration and travel. The slow approach builds the excitement that continues long after you step off the vessel.
Our Airbnb host met us on the dock. We found him after doubling back among the crowd since most people hugged their waiting friends or family members. He was one of the lone greeters with a smile but no current companions.
Moorea is part of the Society Island archipelago of French Polynesia. The larger Society Islands are all mountainous. Motus, or small islets, surround several of the individual main islands and create lagoons. Space between the foot of the mountains and the edge of the lagoon is often small and creates a lack of roads. Two paved roads existed, one that circled the island, and one that ventured further inland through pineapple fields and the lush valley around a mountain. Two bays on the north side make the island look like a “W” from above.
Our host pointed out the attractions of the main town as we passed through it in about 20 seconds. Soon after the town was the first of the two bays, Cook’s Bay. Jagged peaks all around came into view as we rounded the curve of the shore. Several yachts were anchored in the bay, understandably. We were both wowed by the scenery and imagined pulling into the bay after a long sailing journey. Who wouldn’t want to anchor here?!
The grocery store was at the top of the bay directly across from the second road of the island. Our host turned onto it as part of our tour, “This is the second road on the island. It is impossible to be lost here!” Soon the asphalt stopped. We discussed what this type of road is called in English because our host only knew it in French. Dirt or gravel would each apply at different points, and we also taught him “pothole.”
After a quick tour of our studio apartment we changed into our bathing suits and hopped on the loaned beach cruisers to check out the closest beach. We pedaled along, met the road crossing crab, then shared our awe and eased into the cool water.
Coral is frequently along the shores around the island so you must scope out where you want to go in the water. It forces you to relax to avoid injury and most people we saw were just sitting, submerged to their neck, occasionally in the same spot for hours. There are plenty of worse things to do with your time.
The end of what we assumed to be normal work hours meant the beach was full of people relaxing. Or I should say it was “full” in the Polynesian way, which is when the closest person is 20 meters away instead of 50. I tend to get antsy and prefer to start moving after being stationary for a while, so waves provide some entertainment. This was essentially the opposite of that, but it was nice, I must admit!
Several fish were curious. One seemed protective of its place near us and chased others away. We weren’t too sure if it was eating things in the sand we stirred up or just friendly, but we did debate how it would sound if it talked. The sun set while we discussed our day and the surrounding beauty. I tossed a coconut up into the air over and over while Kathryn took pictures of the sunset. We eased into island life and pedaled slowly back home.
The next four days were full of rain. Torrential rain. Downpours. The yard flooded. The pool nearly overflowed. We settled into a routine suitable for the conditions – coffee, check out some things on the internet, breakfast, workout, shower/swim to cool down, watch the rain, bike to a nearby restaurant when the rain slowed or stopped for a bit, listen to music, read, write. Island life.
One day’s rain-break food-run was at a beachside “snack” restaurant. Snack restaurants are essentially lunch spots, and this one (Snack Mahana) was highly recommended. When we walked across their deck to the sand the wind smacked us. Everything around was flying in the wind and we switched tables once to try to gain some protection. A couple guys at a nearby table left nearly half their wine bottle on the table. We have witnessed this several times throughout South America and now French Polynesia, and it makes no sense to us! We did debate snatching the rest of it since it was even still in the bottle but decided against it. The food was tasty but the fact we had to hold down anything on the table, including the food that flew off our plates otherwise, was the highlight.
Another meal was at a wood-oven pizza place. We unconsciously timed it perfectly. Our trip there was dry, it poured like mad while we ate our pizza, and not 30 seconds after we left the rain stopped for our ride home. Sometimes we are good like that!
Our apartment was less than a mile from a fancy hotel with overwater bungalows. We discovered (because we looked it up) its happy hour was two-for-one cocktails. We “dressed up” in clothes that weren’t bathing suits and headed over.
It was weird to walk into that world after some time away from it. We had been in South America for three and a half months before being in Tahiti for two weeks and had been surrounded by backpackers for the most part. Even in Tahiti our apartment was away from the cruise crowds and provided a more local and subdued vibe. At the beachside hotel we were back with honeymooners, other American couples, and families on vacation. It made us realize how comfortable we had become being the outsiders. We imagined how odd it will be when we return to the USA, or even just an English-speaking country, and can understand all that is being said around us. It will probably be like if we could suddenly hear everyone’s thoughts. It will seem so loud and overwhelming!
The tropical drinks were tasty and a treat. The appetizers were overpriced frozen food served with a dollop of saccharine dip. After eating it we were even happier we hadn’t paid several hundred USD per night to stay there. We enjoyed the water views, conversation, and change in routine.
On the way home we stopped for pizza and a local beer to counter the bad food and sweet cocktails. The place was a small guesthouse and restaurant right on the water. On the way to the corner table we could see through open doors to half naked people lounging in bed watching TV. The lights were low and there were only two other people in the place. What a difference from the hotel!
The beer hit the spot. The food was bad. We walked home in the dark.
A car slowed to a stop next to us on our walk and warned, “Do you sleep nearby? You shouldn’t be out walking right now. There are bad people around, you know.” We were only 50 meters from home so they accepted our safety.
What is the deal here?! Our host had told us to lock everything before we left the apartment, to include windows. When we asked if we needed to lock up the rusty loaned bikes each time we went somewhere his immediate, “Yes,” surprised me. Closing your lodging when there is no air conditioning is a bummer for when you return to its hot interior, and worrying about locking your bike no matter where you go or for how short a period wasn’t the carefree island experience we’d imagined. The island is one of the more populated ones in French Polynesia with nearly 20,000 people, but we did not expect similar worries as some areas of big cities. Nevertheless, we took the recommended precautions to avoid any trouble.
Sunshine greeted us on our fifth morning and we welcomed it with smiles and open arms. Several activities had been on our minds that we’d just been waiting to do when the rain stopped. Since Moorea is famous for its unique and beautiful peaks, a mountain lookout was the winner. After the normal morning routine, we set off on our bikes towards it.
We turned onto the non-ocean road at the base of Opunohu Bay, the western of the two bays. It was less busy than the main circle road and several new drivers were practicing. The choices for student drivers on the island were limited – a busy but flat road next to the ocean or a nearly empty but often hilly road through lush valleys. Although each had challenges, neither option was too bad!
A smaller asphalt drive led up to the lookout. At the intersection of this and the non-ocean road was a gathering point where several teenage boys were hanging out. Two kept going back and forth doing wheelies, both on the front and back tires, while their friends watched. Wheelies are a valued skill in most countries we have visited, and the most adept at them will go for miles without using two wheels.
The road quickly grew steep. We began to push our bikes between the increasingly rare relatively flat spots. Cars full of eager tourists passed us, laughing and waving. Cars full of joyriding locals passed us, laughing and waving. Cars with student drivers passed us, gears grinding up the hill, laughing and waving. Several of the cars saw us on their way down as well. They laughed, and waved, and shook their heads. We kept pushing, sweat dripping down our bodies, imagining the easy ride down.
When we rounded the last turn at the top the view opened up to a sweeping vista. The mountains rose immediately 180 degrees around the lookout parking lot. Their jagged peaks and sheer sides were even more impressive being so near. Clouds covered some of the summits while the late afternoon sun burst through their cracks and shot beams of light to the verdant countryside. Both bays were visible, so far away. The impressive yachts anchored in them looked like toys. We retraced our route up the mountain with the new perspective, laughed and shook our heads.
It was quiet on the lookout. You could hear the wind through the trees and over the mountains. Birds were calling, chickens were pecking, some families were talking. An occasional car would round the turn and park. Several of the groups there had passed us on the way up, and we all smiled and waved.
When we started our way down Kathryn’s rear tire was completely flat. We had seen some kids playing around the bikes and wondered if they had let out the air. They had been looking at us and laughing at times. The previous warnings from the locals in the car kept coming back into our minds. Was the flat tire due to their mischief?
The bike pump went everywhere with us so we weren’t completely out of luck. We inflated the tire, checked our brakes, and began our descent. Going was pretty smooth and easy. We were in the sweet spot of steepness and brake effectiveness – any steeper and we would be out of control, but with them fully engaged we coasted at a comfortable speed.
Several archeological sites were near the road and we had noted them on our ascent. We stopped at what appeared to be the main area with a large marae. Maraes are an area of cleared usually flat land, with a rectangular border of raised stones. They can be found throughout French Polynesia and were used for religious and cultural purposes in Polynesian society. The site now had mature trees coming through the stone floor and roosters roamed about, but we imagined what it was like at its prime. A stream was audible nearby, the setting sun made it all golden, and the verdant forest lent a mystical aura.
With huge mosquitos feasting on us and the pending darkness and previous warnings on our minds, we continued. As we coasted down further, glimpses of the tropical peaks flashed through the bright purple and pink flowering bushes along the road. At the intersection where we had previously spotted wheelie-performing kids there was now the makings of a dance party. Three cars were parked in the grass and one had a sound system booming with large speakers rigged in its flatbed. In the country, landmarks become meeting points, and this was clearly the most sought after spot.
Further into the valley, cows grazed on one side of the road, horses on the other; both pastures ended at the foot of mountains. The sounds of evening surrounded us as bugs and birds called out, a stream babbled along, and the intersection music pumped. We soaked in the scene, took pictures, and swatted mosquitos. When we arrived at our apartment we felt pleased with our adventure and hopeful for the next day, our last full day on Moorea.
Luckily another morning of sunshine awakened us. Since our host had mentioned it was 36 miles around the entire island we had thought of biking it all. We didn’t have a car but we did want to see the rest of the island, and the sunshine meant it would be more enjoyable.
Two of our good friends had been to Moorea previously and recommended snorkeling at the Lagoonarium where you can swim with rays, sharks, and other tropical fishes. We had been waiting for the right conditions and were happy to get them on our last day. Based on their published boat schedule and its location we decided to go the long way and snorkel there in the afternoon after about 20 miles. That would be a great way to cool off!
I went outside to pump up the tires. The tire on Kathryn’s bike that had been completely flat on the lookout the previous day was completely flat again. A small piece of plastic had pierced through. It wasn’t the kids after all! That brightened our spirits a bit, but we still had a bike with two defective tires. We always had the pump with us anyway, so we decided to continue, knowing we’d have to pump them up frequently.
We excitedly set off westward. Forty minutes later we had entered new territory when we passed the snack restaurant with the wild wind. Several miles further was a small gathering of shops and we stopped for a rest and breakfast. We each chose a cold drink and an ice cream. At the checkout I did snag two granola bars as a last ditch attempt at good fuel. One of the bars fell through the holes in my bike basket before we could eat it.
Soon we were away from the main tourist area of the north side, where our apartment was. A man with three boys crossed the street in front of us. No cars were coming and it was otherwise empty, but the boys ran right in front of us when we were ten feet away. We slammed on the brakes and swerved to miss them as they laughed and the man said something to them. We weren’t in the mood for the games at that point and they were lucky we made such effort to avoid them.
Several miles farther down the road two teenage girls passed us on their bikes. A few miles later we saw them while they were pulled off the road. As soon as we passed they started pedaling again and followed us, one staying a foot away from my back tire. I smiled and waved to them but got only a blank stare. Several minutes went by like this before they met up with a group of people; I began to imagine our plan should they return with their friends in cars. Luckily that never happened.
I’m sure the previous warnings from our host and random people alike fueled our feelings. Though we never felt in danger or threatened, we agreed we had never felt so out of place or unwelcome before in all our travels. We knew we were in more of a “locals only” area, and kids can be jerks no matter where they are. It may have been fueled by our imaginations, but the bike ride wasn’t pleasant so far. There was little shade and sweat poured off us. Since we were past the half way point we continued.
With any bike travel around an island you imagine multiple beaches and swim breaks. Like Tahiti, there aren’t many beaches on Moorea so we only had one swim break before reaching the Lagoonarium. They closed at four, we arrived shortly after two and were ready for the respite. “Sorry, you have to come back tomorrow,” they told us. What?!
Though they were open until four, the last boat to the dive spot left at two. We lamented how that would be great info to put on their website and pedaled off with no hurry at all.
Now that our main activity wasn’t going to happen we were just going home. We still had 16 miles to go and were going through the busy part of the island. Cars zoomed past, some coming seemingly within inches, and we had been over our grand idea for quite some time. The stops to pump up the tires became more and more frequent. At one point, we were pushing our bikes up a steep hill. A lady on a motor scooter joined us because her motor wasn’t strong enough. We ended up passing her on the way up, and she later overtook us on the descent. That was certainly something we hadn’t seen before!
At mile 30 we stopped for lunch. The waterside restaurant was empty except for us. After ice cream and a shared granola bar we were ready for a proper meal, and it was delicious and nourishing. Most vacations don’t include a circumnavigation by rusty beach cruiser. We remembered the times when ours included lots of time lounging at waterside restaurants or the pool and little else.
Another beach was less than a mile from our apartment. Our celebratory evening swim was relaxing. The journey wasn’t as enjoyable as we imagined, but it was done and we had a new record distance covered by bike in one day. This record will probably stand for quite a while, or at least until we are on an island that is slightly bigger.
The first and last days on Moorea were possibly the best. Our last morning was gorgeous. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and we enjoyed a food truck lunch at the small airport. The chef owner was a nice lady and excellent salesperson. We ordered much more than we had planned on getting, but it was all tasty and we were happy to support her small business.
Sometimes bad experiences can overshadow the good ones. Not all our interactions were pleasant on Moorea, but a few less than stellar people don’t represent an entire island. Our fresh, warm banana bread further brightened our moods and we boarded the plane to Bora Bora happy to have visited, but excited to be going to the next island.
For even more photos and action, check out our video!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017