I knew nothing about the island of Mo’orea when I decided to go there. When I say nothing, I mean nothing. This is not my usual travel style. I may play fast and loose with my itinerary or lodging, but I generally have done at least a bit of research on a place before I show up there. Not so this time.
My fall was exceptionally busy, as my summer and spring had been, thanks to my current status as a full-time student, part-time teacher, part-time editor, and when-I-have-the-time writer. I was at risk of blowing off one of my sacrosanct commandments: Thou shalt go to a new country every year, no exceptions and no excuses.
I had only left the country once last year, to go to the monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. It was an amazing trip, and one that I had been thinking about for a long time; but Mexico was certainly not “new” for me. The end of the year was fast approaching, and I had a winter break window of about a week during which I could fulfill my commitment to myself.
To save me from getting skewered by last-minute airfare, my father swooped in with a generous donation of frequent flyer miles, so all I had to do was figure out how to use them to get to a new place. As the years go by, new places for me are located further and further from the US, so orchestrating a week-long trip wasn’t entirely straightforward.
In the course of surfing the United website, I somehow discovered that the airline had recently instituted a direct flight from San Francisco to Tahiti. Eight hours, no stops. Two-hour time change. Hmm.
I’d never been to French Polynesia, so this would definitely count as a new place, and during the trips I’d made to other Polynesian Islands (Easter Island, Hawaii, New Zealand), I’d been blown away by the culture – to say nothing of the weather and scenery. Because I was looking to travel before the Christmas rush, I managed to get myself a free seat on a flight to Papeete, the gritty Tahitian capital city. As soon as I pressed “purchase,” I stopped thinking about my trip and went back to surviving my semester.
By the time I was headed to California to catch my flight, I had corresponded with exactly two people about my trip, and I’d looked at maybe three travel websites, tops. One thing they all agreed on: get the heck out of Tahiti and go to Mo’orea, the tiny island eleven miles from the port at Papeete. That seemed like enough information to go on, so I booked an Airbnb and a ferry ride and decided that was enough planning for me. I’d find out where I was going once I got there.
It turns out that where I was going was one of the most beautiful places I have ever experienced. The forty-five-minute ferry ride alone was breathtaking, as the jagged volcanic peaks of Mo’orea grew steadily larger on approach. By the time we were pulling up to the small terminal and its landing pier, I was marveling at the reef that encircles almost all of the island. The water inside this ring was a glowing turquoise, the water outside a deep, resplendent blue. The sand was a light beige color, which not only increased the intensity of the turquoise, it also provided a striking contrast along the waterline, where the two colors met amidst gentle wavelets.
I drove my Renault rental car off the ferry, expecting some kind of town to greet me. Wrong. The largest grocery store on the island sits just south of the terminal, along with a gas station and a pizza place, and a couple of pineapple stands and food trucks line the road to the north – but that’s it.
The next day, when I circled the island, stopping every ten minutes to take yet another photo of yet another gorgeous stretch of beach or another dramatic mountain-meets-water vista, I realized that Mo’orea was, in fact, really small, and really sparsely populated as well (information I would have had if I’d done any research at all). There are really only three roads on the island: the thirty-five kilometer one that circumnavigates it, and the two interior roads that head up towards the island’s highest point, the almost-4000-foot Mount Tohi’e’a.
There are a few villages, but even these consist only of a market or two, a few restaurants and food trucks, and maybe a plumbing supply shop or a black pearl gallery. No traffic lights, no passing lanes. Lots of scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians. Plenty of access to gloriously blue water.
I spent my time on Mo’orea doing some combination of exploring, reading on the beach, and swimming. I couldn’t stop myself from taking long swims multiple times per day; the color of the water drew me in like a tractor beam, and no matter where I pulled over to jump in, I found myself gliding over thousands of fish – triggerfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, barracuda. Coral somehow still seems to be in abundance there, as are sea cucumbers and urchins. Swimming there was a lot like watching marine wilderness TV, so I just kept cruising over chunks of reef and stretches of pale, undulating sand. I swam so much that my shoulders were sore when I got back to Masters’ practice in Santa Cruz.
I also experienced a lot of things that made me smile – huge Polynesian men on scooters with two foot-long baguettes poking out of their backpacks, giant rays whose soft, slimy wings I could run my hands along, lemon sharks I could almost grab by the tail, and orderly pineapple plantations nestled under disorderly jungle-covered cliffs.
I visited a sea turtle clinic, swam with dolphins, learned about black pearl farming from a conspiracy theorist, and ate a hell of a lot of poisson cru, the Mo’orean version of ceviche that incorporates coconut milk into its marinade.
Really, the only thing I didn’t do was sleep in an overwater bungalow. These structures, which have infested tropical tourist destinations across the world, were apparently invented in Mo’orea in 1967, by a group of expats who called themselves the Bali Hai Boys. They present the quintessential image of paradise – a paradise the pocketbook bleeds for.
Since I couldn’t stay in one, I swam under a few, checking out their plumbing and trying to peek into their windows. They looked pretty cool, I’ll admit, and if I return to Mo’orea with a companion someday, I might splurge for one. But I was pretty happy with my Airbnb – the one I reserved after having done not one shred of research, the one that looked down on the was Sofitel Resort’s overwater bungalows from its perch 500 feet above, the one with a direct view of the Tahiti right across the channel.
Once in a while, flying by the seat of your pants actually works.